How the Wars-for-our-Freedoms Narrative Stifles Debate and Undermines Democracy


While the political climate in Washington is extremely polarized, on one issue there is near universal agreement: When a soldier dies in a U.S. war they died for our freedoms. Despite the constant claims that progressives are anti-American, a significant number of mainstream progressive pundits and politicians support this nationalistic viewpoint. For example, when President Donald Trump tried to prevent transgender Americans from serving in the military, progressives chastised him because these soldiers are willing to die for our country. These statements are admirable in a way, and I have no doubt that most of them are genuine. But what is troubling about the all-wars-are-for-our-freedom narrative is that it’s near universal acceptance severely limits the spectrum of debate in this country, thus undermining our democracy. Questioning the morality of U.S. wars should never be confused with dishonoring the bravery and sacrifice of American soldiers. However, it’s extremely difficult to have a serious discussion about the pros and cons of war when the supporters of said war can use the freedom narrative like a cudgel to verbally bludgeon critics.
“Commentary on the Vietnam War ranges from ‘noble cause’ to ‘blundering efforts to do good’ that became too costly to us – Anthony Lewis, at the dissident extreme,” famous dissident writer Noam Chomsky said in an interview I conducted with him.”And it generalizes far beyond the US. Why? It’s close to tautology. If one doesn’t accept that framework, one is pretty much excluded from the category of ‘respectability.'”
It’s hard to think of anything more unpopular than questioning if soldiers are really dying for our freedoms. The only worse offense in politics is perhaps questioning if every soldier who has participated in physical combat should be considered a hero. The latter question will cause such a firestorm of controversy that the journalist, pundit or politician will either have to offer a heartfelt apology or will be forever excluded from serious discussions about our nation. Interestingly, some famous Americans like Mark Twain and Henry Thoreau did manage to survive their criticism of the war in Philippines (Twain) and the Mexican-American war (Thoreau) without being banished from mainstream opinion. However, these two famous figures are generally beloved by the public for reasons other than their anti-war bona fides.
In a perfect world, American politics would be an exercise in rationality, and rationality demands we acknowledge the complexity of the world and the duality of U.S. history. If someone makes the claims that all wars are fought for our freedom, then every war and/or foreign conflict the U.S. has been involved in should be scrutinized to see if this claim has any basis in fact. A cursory glance at U.S. history makes clear this claim collapses under close examination. Even the most militaristic historian would be hard pressed to make a reasonable argument that past U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Mexico, The Philippines and several Latin American countries were fought to preserve American’s personal freedoms. In other words, none of these invasions were undertaken because these countries posed any sort of threat to the inner workings of American democracy. More recent wars and foreign conflicts in Libya, Afghanistan, Panama and Iraq yield similar conclusions.
This isn’t to say that supporters of the war in Afghanistan couldn’t make the case the country needed to be invaded to root out al Qaeda after the barbaric terrorist attacks of September 11th. That is a plausible claim, but it differs from the claim that the U.S. had to go to war with Afghanistan to defend the freedoms of ordinary Americans. Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization that operates in many countries, but it’s presence was especially abundant in Afghanistan where it was protected by the Taliban, so a war to find the planners of September 11th and weaken al Qaeda has merit because a damaged al Qaeda could plausibly make future terrorist attacks on American soil less likely. But it’s much harder to make the case that al Qaeda posed a threat to the inner workings of American democracy. Despite having nowhere near the same military strength as the United States, neither al Qaeda or the Islamic State has been able to take over a country in the Middle East other than in Afghanistan. To make the case that any terrorist organization has the capacity to overthrow a country with the strongest military in the history of the world is absurd. Of course, the Bush administration didn’t say this directly, but this is what saying the war in Afghanistan was fought to preserve our freedoms implies. If the Bush administration would have made the case that we had invade Afghanistan to make it less likely that we would be attacked on our own soil again, that would have been more honest and reasonable argument.
So, the question remains: why does the U.S. public continue to support the government when it declares wars for questionable reasons? Is it because working people generally don’t have enough time to digest the news because they are too busy trying to pay their bills? Is it a misperceived sense of loyalty to the government because Americans feel if they oppose the war, they are disrespecting the soldiers fighting in that war? Stephen Zunes, senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project of the Institute for Policy Studies, provided me with a plausible explanation.
“Because people identify so much with the United States, they consider criticism of the United States as criticism against themselves. This is why Fox News ratings go up during wartime because they want to hear ‘USA, USA’, they don’t want to hear criticism. I remember way back during the [first] Gulf War when CNN reported a U.S. missile had gone through the door of an air-raid shelter and incinerated 600 civilians in Baghdad there were protests against CNN outside of its headquarters not because the protesters denied it had happened, but because they thought it was unpatriotic during wartime to report it,” Zunes said.
The visceral support for war among some sections of the population does seem to have its roots in the idea that criticism against the United States should be internalized as a personal affront to one’s self. We see this same pattern during presidential campaigns when any minor criticism of a candidate is met with a backlash of criticism by his or her supporters because they can no longer discern the difference between criticism against their candidate and criticism directed solely towards them. It will take rebuilding communities, civic institutions and neighborliness to allow for constructive conversations about foreign policy between Americans.
It also will take Americans having more free time in their day to study the pros and cons of going to war. The single-mom who works two jobs before going home to take care of her three children doesn’t have much time to marinate about U.S. politics. Her apolitical nature is the fault of a U.S. economic system that makes it near impossible for families and/or communities to come together and discuss issues like the necessity of U.S. wars. Although it is an uphill battle because of the polarization and atomization among the American public, Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, offered me some good advice about how to persuade more working-class Americans to think critically about the subject of war.
“You have to try to devise a strategy that evokes their patriotism against American crimes and I think that can be done. I think we could have done a much better job in the 60s. The country has drifted so far to the right that I’m not sure what we can do right now. But there is a way of doing things better,” he said.
My questioning of the all-wars-are-for-are freedom narrative is not meant to be an ode to isolationism. Every war should be judged individually, and if government officials lay out a cohesive plan to stop genocide in a place like Rwanda, or to intervene to prevent genocide in Bosnia, then those efforts should be supported. Of course, The American media has and should be skewered for selective amnesia when they pontificate about American ideals after say the intervention in Kosovo, while the U.S. government is simultaneously supporting similar repression against the Kurds in Turkey, or supporting polices that are causing massive internal displacement in Colombia. Also, any coverage of the U.S. intervening to stop genocide in the world should not practice intentional or unintentional ignorance about some of the darker aspects of U.S. foreign policy history. Instead of making the case for U.S. intervention because America is a noble leader that should live up to its lofty ideals, pundits and journalists should be honest about past direct or indirect U.S. support for the perpetrators of genocide in places like Cambodia, Iraq, East Pakistan (Bangladesh today), East Timor and Guatemala. However, just because the United States was complicit in supporting past genocidal regimes doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have any role in preventing future genocides. After all, Rwandan Tutsis shouldn’t have been left to their fate because of horrific examples of U.S. realpolitik in Cambodia, East Timor and Guatemala.
“But there is still another problem here, and that’s making it all about US motives,” veteran journalist Bill Weinberg said. “This isn’t the only question we should be grappling with. When the Kosovar Albanians say ‘look, we’re under attack from the Serbs, our villages are being burnt down, we’re being forced to flee up to the mountains, somebody help us,’ I don’t think they have to be immediately concerned about the motives of those who are coming to help them. They can be forgiven for having bigger concerns than that.”
While I opposed the Kosovo war, the basic point Bill was highlighting for me was the correct one. In addition, just because one might oppose the war in Kosovo or Iraq, it should never mean that person loses his or her sense of humanity as has been the case with some leftists in their coverage of Syria or in their past revisionism in Bosnia and Kosovo. While I opposed the war in Kosovo and Iraq, I was certainly happy civilians no longer had to live under Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. In the same vein, just because you may not agree American foreign policy towards Russia, Syria or Iran doesn’t mean progressives shouldn’t recognize the human rights abuses in these countries and declare solidarity with the democrat dissidents protesting or fighting against these brutal regimes.
However, war is a very serious topic because it involves sending soldiers into life or death situations where civilian lives will inevitably be lost. Our society and political culture needs to evolve beyond the bumper sticker worthy all-wars-are-fought-for-are freedom catchphrase and start carefully analyzing and discussing the morality and coherence of every war in which the U.S. is involved, or may eventually be involved in, on a case-by-case basis. We will have to deal with this problem even when the crude nationalistic, xenophobic, authoritarian-leaning figure that now occupies the White House is no longer president.
Andy Heintzis a freelance writer who writes about gender equality, the environment, globalization and culture. His work has been published in Common Dreams, The Wire, Muftah, The New Arab, New Internationalist and Foreign Policy in Focus.

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