Iraq and the Roots of War



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by L.K. Samuels, April 3, 2007


March 19 marked the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces.  Across California and the United States, thousands of demonstrators mourned this event with peace rallies, funeral marches, and speeches.  Like many concerned citizens, I organized and participated in several peace rallies in the Monterey area.  These rallies represented a wide coalition of groups and ideas, ranging from labor activists, Democrats, Quakers, and United Nations associations to libertarians.  But when I delved deeper into why my fellow peace activists were protesting, I discovered that they know little about the causes of war.

The war in Iraq is no different from most wars, except that it has striking similarities to the Napoleonic wars.  Fought across continental Europe in the early 1800s, these series of wars were allegedly fought to liberate the people from their oppressors.  Napoleon repeatedly cited his intentions to replace kings and the nobility with liberty, equality, and fraternity.  There was only one problem.  The people in adjacent foreign lands did not want to be liberated and referred to the invading Napoleon as the bogeyman.  The only revolutionary idea that Napoleon gave to Europe was adding propaganda to the arsenal of war.

The Bush administration is chanting the same mantra in Iraq, arguing that American troops are there to secure a stable democracy.  Like Napoleon's forces, American troops are involved in nation-building to "liberate" the Iraqis and provide them with the tools of democracy, even though Iraq has never had a democratic government in its 7,000-year history, or possessed any grassroot movements advancing the concept of liberty.

So what is the root cause of war?  Some sociologists point to the authoritarian attitudes of those who believe they are right, everyone else is wrong, and everyone must do as they command.  This rigid mindset of one's own moral superiority permits ruling systems to engage in armed conflicts around the world and to commit all sorts of atrocities.  Of course, any resulting collateral damage is considered acceptable because the war is being waged for a good cause.

Most wars are an affront to individual rights.  When the few can command the many to do their murderous bidding, small conflicts tend to magnify into large ones.  The concentration of power provides authorities with the collective means to execute their do-good pet policies.  That is because most world leaders have succumbed to the Machiavellian notion that "the ends justify the means," contending that any violent act -- murder, robbery, and so forth -- is permissible providing that the end goal is a "greater good."  And under this greater-good nostrum, the public often accepts the government's argument that war is peace, that freedom is slavery, and that invading a foreign nation with a preemptive strike is a defense maneuver.

As Randolph Bourne wrote in 1918, "War is the health of the state."  Government thrives off war and the hysteria it spawns.  Without such conflicts, the authorities could not justify increased spying on citizens and suspension of citizens' rights.  Government needs war the way a heroin addict needs drugs.  They need it to justify increasing taxes and expanding debt and to inflame nationalistic fervor.  Governments need foreign devils and unstable conditions to prop up sagging popularity and economic policies.  Even Thomas Paine recognized this truism in The Rights of Man, writing that "taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes."

But the true culprit for war is a staunch belief in the infallibility of governmental power.  To accept the legitimacy of the state is to embrace the necessity for war.  For thousands of years, governments have been the quintessential war machine.  If given the means, they tirelessly prepare for armed conflict with foreign and domestic opponents.  They seek to protect their status, their authority, and their right to rule over others, creating an US versus THEM environment.

Conflict and war are the greatest threat to human liberty, life, and property.  And a policy of perpetual war and nation-building eventually turns peaceful republics into violent empires.

The best road to peace is to allow citizens to structure their own lives as they see fit.  When citizens are denied freedom, conflict flares and war is not far behind.  Only a small, unobtrusive government can reduce intrasocietal and foreign conflict.  Only an open society, in which citizens freely choose their own personal and economic lifestyles, can ensure a peaceful way of life.


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