Essay:Fighting for Freedom

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Butler Shaffer writes:

Why fight for a flag when you can buy one for a nickel. —Ezra Pound

I grow weary of national holidays that have been converted into public relations opportunities for the celebration of the war system. In my childhood, Decoration Day was an opportunity to honor the dead by decorating graves, and I recall numerous trips to the cemetery to lay flowers at the headstones of my grandparents and aunts and uncles, including an uncle who died in World War II. While this holiday began as a way of remembering Civil War dead, its purpose, in my youth, was not so confined. It was eventually renamed Memorial Day, and its focus was narrowed to what it is today: the state-serving remembrance of military veterans. That this Memorial Day weekend was seized upon as an opportunity to open the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., illustrates the point. For those who still don’t get the message, television stations give us a steady diet of pro-war movies.

Memorial Day weekend will soon be followed by the Fourth of July. This day—honoring the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a writing of a decidedly anti-statist nature—has likewise been co-opted by the war-lovers. Additional rounds of movies celebrating warfare will be made available to television viewers. The 1942 Bing Crosby musical, Holiday Inn, includes a July Fourth segment with a montage of bombers, naval ships, tanks, and other weaponry—with lyrics straight out of FDR’s “New Deal”—to remind audiences that what began as a day to celebrate freedom from the state was now to be understood as a day to glorify statism in its most repressive and destructive form.

November 11th was referred to as Armistice Day in my youth, a day set aside to celebrate the end of World War I; a day, in other words, to honor a return to peace in the world. By 1954, this day, too, had been hijacked by the war system, renamed Veterans Day, and once again used by the statists to remind Americans of the virtues of going off to foreign lands to kill others and to get killed or wounded themselves. And, of course, another round of pro-war films will saturate television screens. The heirs of John Wayne and Randolph Scott must receive handsome residual payments from the showing of such movies during the holiday seasons.

I have wondered how far the war establishment might go in taking over other holidays. Will Thanksgiving Day become a time to be “thankful” for all the military hardware—including some ten thousand hydrogen bombs—bestowed upon America? When, two Christmases ago, I saw a Christmas card with Santa Claus decked out in a red-white-and-blue suit, I knew the complete militarization of the culture was upon us.

These holiday celebrations of warfare are rendered even more distasteful by the nearly endless parade of speakers who praise war veterans who “fought for freedom.” I have long been disinclined to criticize soldiers themselves, not because they are free from personal responsibility for their participation in institutionalized butchery, but because I prefer to focus my energies on the systemic thinking that produces such insane practices. Soldiers—most of whom were teenagers when they entered the military—are more victims of statist indoctrination in the “glory” and “heroism” of warfare than they are culprits. But just as the state found it useful to exploit their lives in wartime, it capitalizes on their deaths and sufferings in peacetime as a way of getting us to recommit ourselves to the perpetuation of the war system. To be for peace is to denigrate the memories of those who “sacrificed” for our “freedom.”

The idea of soldiers “fighting for freedom” is an Orwellian-like concept riddled with self-contradictions. To begin with, wars have always reduced individual liberty, not only during but after the wars. The American Civil War was conducted not to free slaves, but to aggrandize state power, thus restricting liberties. Lincoln has earned the disrespect of those who value liberty for having laid the foundations of the present Leviathan state.[1] The Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnamese Wars, escalated the powers of the nation-state over the lives of Americans. In case these earlier episodes of organized barbarity are too distant for you, recall how quickly and easily the Bush administration was able to greatly expand the American police-state with such measures as the Patriot Act, the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, and the arbitrary holding—without trial or contact with family or attorneys—of virtually anyone the state wishes held.

How can it be seriously entertained that soldiers “fight for freedom?” They were unable to secure even their own freedom from the state. To allow one’s life to be taken over, regimented, directed, and even destroyed by the state, hardly qualifies as a working definition of “freedom.” Slavery is a word more befitting such a subjugated condition.

Furthermore, how can a person be said to be “free” when his or her life is embroiled in conflict? How can one be free when fighting others? Is a life fired by anger and hatred of others, along with a willingness to torture, maim, or kill anyone designated by state officials as your “enemy,” consistent with a life of freedom?

Memorial Day speeches are filled with the prayer that “these dead shall not have died in vain.” But the truth is that the victims of warfare have always died in vain, and will continue to die pointlessly, for war is its own reason for being. “War is the health of the state,”[2] Randolph Bourne reminded us decades ago, a health that, like the human body, is dependent upon regular exercise.

I was ten years old when World War II ended, and I recall the sense of relief in the anticipation that peace was to return to the world. This was not unlike the attitude that surfaced, briefly, with the end of the Cold War. But the state cannot endure peace. We should have picked up the warning when, shortly after World War II, the government changed the name of the “War Department” to the “Defense Department,” and renamed our erstwhile “friends,” China and the Soviet Union, as our new “enemies,” while our previous “enemies”—Germany and Japan—were our new “friends.” Such was the signal, had we paid attention, that war had become a permanent system for advancing corporate-state interests by the subjugation of the American people.

If the state is to maintain power over us, it must have an endless supply of enemies with which to excite our fears. The Soviet Union served this purpose well for nearly half a century, but with its collapse, the American state went in search of a new foe. Islamicterrorism” became the new adversary. With an expansive military presence throughout the world, the American state had assured itself of an enemy that is not likely to vanish. When the George W. Bush administration announced that the war on terror would be an endless one, it was confirming the truth of Bourne’s observation.

As dangerous as terrorism is, we must acknowledge its origins and the energies that sustain it. Humanity continues to be held hostage to the deeper terrorist threat of which polite company refuses to speak, namely, the political organization of society. As we continue to recycle the destructive energies of the war system that is the state, the time may soon be upon us when even the most patriotic flag-waver will have to stand and say “enough!” As politicians and other participants in the war racket continue to preach of our “responsibilities” to keep this slaughterhouse stocked with sacrificial victims, we may find ourselves called to a higher responsibility.

Learning how to renounce and walk away from this obscene system may be the act of responsibility each of us must take as our share of being human. As decent and compassionate human beings, let us remember the dead and wounded of war—as well as their families—as the victims of a kind of thinking that must be transcended if humanity is to survive. But let us stop glorifying butchery with parades, medals, gaseous speeches, and the erection of war memorials. Let us have no more Tom Brokaw patronizing drivel that equates the “greatness” of people with their willingness to join in lemming-like suicidal marches. Let us stop investing the lives and souls of our sons and daughters as our commitment to this vicious enterprise. Let us learn to love our children more than we do the state that sees them as nothing more than fungible resources for the mass production of casualties.

I recall, years ago, news stories about the last Civil War or Spanish-American War veteran to die. Perhaps we shall one day have occasion to celebrate Memorial Day by remembering the final victim of the war system itself.


  1. See, e.g., Thomas J. DiLorenzo (2002). The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. Roseville, Calif.: Prima Publishing. 
  2. Randolph Bourne (1964). War and the Intellectuals. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 71.