Saturday, September 22, 2012

Re-reading "On the Beach": why I am a Libertarian

For whatever reason my literary interests run in spurts, and I have been re-reading a lot of classic (1950s-1970s) nuclear holocaust/cold war fiction, including Nevil Shute's classic On the Beach.

For those who don't know it, Shute postulates a massive thermonuclear war in the northern hemisphere that sterilizes the whole place.  Slowly, the wind exchange at the equator begins to bring the radioactive dust southward, extinguishing all human life as it goes.

The novel is set in Melbourne, that last major city in the world that will die, and covers roughly the last nine months of human life on planet Earth.

(To note:  the actual scenario was far more plausible at the time than it appears today.  Just forget about that part and think of it as a useful literary device for killing off humanity and watching how the last specimens of the race choose to die.)

Aside from the fact that I think Shute is quite gentle with the last victims as a whole, and that they manifest a great deal more grace and personal nobility than I'd expect in real life, the novel succeeds on multiple levels--as a work of literature, as an anti-nuclear war piece, and as a condemnation of the people who stood by and let the great powers decide the destiny of all humanity without a peep.

Shute went to a great deal of effort to create and relate a plausible nuclear war scenario than runs, step by step, from an initial (probably terrorist) strike in Albania to an attack on Washington DC (by the Egyptian Air Force flying long-range Soviet bombers!) into a gigantic exchange between the US-USSR-China that eventually devastates the planet.

I was struck by the fact that what Shute had done is use the "Iron Dice" formula from World War One to get his fictional world into the war.


In WW1 Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia (after the Arch Duke's assassination), which causes Russia to declare war on AH (thanks to a treaty obligation), which causes Germany to declare war on Russia (another treaty obligation), which requires Germany to attack France (because the Germans only had one war plan that calling for knocking France out of the way quickly), which required Germany to violate Belgian neutrality (because that was the only way to flank the French defenses), which caused Great Britain to declare war on Germany (another treaty obligation).

Simple?  I thought so.

The point here is that on the heavily militarized European continent, once the first shots had been fired, the bureaucratic nature of diplomacy and treaties and military complexes and mobilization systematically led almost all the leaders of Europe to two erroneous conclusions over five summer weeks:  (1) they could win quickly; and (2) if they did not attack when they mobilized, they would lose.

So ten million people died.  It is only by the later more gruesome standards of the 20th Century that this now seems like an almost inconsequential total to a lot of people.

Which got me thinking:  the old saying is that we infer the possibility of peace because there have been a few years in history in which there were no wars.

It also occurs to me that the ability to make war with more frequency, more violence, more highly technical weapons (of either individual or mass destruction) is a 99.9% monopoly of governments.

Governments do not wage peace, they wage war.  And they generally do not do a very good job of it from most accounts (and I say this as a military historian).

OK, so what?

Now let's tie this to a second major work of the 20th Century, this time non-fiction:  Raoul Hilberg's three-volume historical opus about the Holocaust, The Destruction of the European Jews.  Among the many and cogent points that Hilberg makes is that Germany's genocide of the Jews moved mass killing toward an industrial process.  He prefers "death factories" to "death camps."  The Germans actually had to build significant logistical infrastructure (to the disadvantage of both their civilian and wartime economies) to conduct this operation on a multi-year basis.

(Interesting side note:  if you compare Hilberg's work to various works on Soviet and Chinese genocides, you realize that neither of those countries had quite reached the level of readiness to conduct industrial mass killing.  The Germans are still number one at that.)

Now look at the United States.  What used to be distinctive about the US and its wars had to do with two things:

1.  We looked at war as the failure rather than the extension of diplomacy.  This is a very Madisonian idea, shared by most American statesmen as a norm until Woodrow Wilson.  It is very much at odds with the Clausewitzian idea of war as the natural extension of politics.  But this changed after 1945.  It changed because . . . .

2.  We stopped looking at war as an event, and started accepting it as a condition.  The American Revolution was an event:  it had a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and when it ended the country literally demobilized and went home.  The war was the aberration: peace was supposed to be the norm. So too for the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, even World War One.  We made great sacrifices for a specific period--even gave up civil liberties for the duration--and then things went back to normal.  (They never really go back to normal, but as close as possible.)

This changed with nuclear weapons and the Cold War.  War became a condition, it became multi-generational, it became the excuse to re-order American society.  The government and the defense industry actively lied to us to keep the paranoia going.  When the Cold War fizzled out, it required less than a decade for it to be replaced by another condition--the so-called War on Terror.

If war, and the weapons of war, constitutes a cancer, it has metastasized within our body politic.  The defense industry has been so effectively dispersed than many people do not feel like--our enemies aside--that you could cut the defense budget without risking nationwide economic collapse.  Our political metaphors center on war (War on Drugs, War on Poverty, War on Illiteracy, War on Crime).  Our healthiest export sector is, you guessed it:  weapons and the other appurtenances of fighting wars.

I have slowly come to the conclusion that it is not the primary purpose of government to protect us from our enemies, but to organize us for war.  Governments--especially governments without strict constitutional limits--need war and the preparation for war as their primary reason to exist.  The ultimate expression of this tendency emerged in the 1960s and 1970s with the development of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) that constructed a perilously fragile nuclear detente at the cost of dozens of brushfire wars (often by proxy) and continued outrageous military spending and erosion of civil liberties by both the US and USSR.

It is time to face up to the fact that the creep of powers from our originally limited constitutional government to today's all-pervasive war state was inevitable.  It is only surprising that Americans held this development at bay for so long.

It is also, in the long term, illogical to expect a government that primarily exists to arm for, and to provoke, and to fight wars to be either an effective or honest protector of civil liberties, public health, civil rights, or the other various issues that we spew about in politics on a daily basis.

We have forgotten what needs to be done to keep war from becoming "the health of the state."

First, we must "starve the beast."  Military appropriations should always be met--as they have been throughout most of American history prior to 1945, with suspicion and a willingness to cut rather than this current bovine acceptance of their inevitable rise.  I would frankly support any war or military action being funded by a direct "war tax" piled obviously on top of everything else we have to pay, so that we could not pretend those costs were not there.

Second, we must return war--real war--to an event rather than a condition.  There is no war on terror.  There are a series of disjointed, loosely connected wars and military actions of choice, and we need to make each on of these that are not purely in response to a direct attack on us as difficult procedurally as we possibly can.  Damn it, it should not be easy to send our brothers and sisters and children to die in Afghanistan or Uganda or Syria or Yemen or anywhere else.  It should take a f--king Congressional declaration, on the damn record, to do this stuff.  In other words, we must disaggregate war.

Third, we must realize that the military-industrial complex was not a creation of the free market, but of the ultimate kind of crony capitalism and corporate welfare, and that to reduce it will require State action.  I hate to say this, but the only organization with the power to undo what the State has wrought here is . . . the State.  So we must become the State, and the State must begin to offer both dis-incentives to investing in war, and incentives for going into any other form of business.  I hate to say this, I'll say it again.  But since the State has exempted defense contractors from the forces of market capitalism that would have otherwise kept them in check, it's going to take a long time and some difficult decisions to pare them back to a reasonable size.

Fourth, we must be willing to be free people.  Free people cannot be defeated militarily.  We can be hurt, but there is no foreign country in the world with the capability of invading and occupying America.  We could be killed--even wiped out--by a massive nuclear strike, but even an atomic weapon in the hands of a terrorist cell can only kill many of us, not destroy our society.

Unless we allow it.  Unless we take counsel of our fears.  As long as we follow Patrick Henry ("Liberty or Death!") the worst an enemy could do to us is kill us.  As long as we follow the government-sponsored military-industrial complex the best we can do is beg our masters for a little more breathing room and to shred the US Constitution more slowly.

I am by no means a pacifist.  I am a 20-year military veteran and military historian.  I study war closely.

And that's in large measure why I became a Libertarian.  Because the more you study, the more you realize that governments do not fight wars reluctantly, they do so as an integral part of their reason for existing.

1 comment:

Duffy said...

Free people cannot be defeated militarily. We can be hurt, but there is no foreign country in the world with the capability of invading and occupying America. We could be killed--even wiped out--by a massive nuclear strike, but even an atomic weapon in the hands of a terrorist cell can only kill many of us, not destroy our society.

I would argue that a full scale strike from the Russians would very much end our society as there wouldn't be a square yard of this country that would be inhabitable. I agree this is not likely but nor is it impossible.