Monday, September 3, 2012

The principle we fought for

I am a former U. S. Marine, old enough to have been in the Korean War, currently interested in the American Civil War. I just popped into another forum because of a title deploring “American aggression” and all the “deaths” caused thereby.

One thing I especially noticed was the rather illogical belief (on the part of at least one posting there) that deaths equal evil. If deaths are caused in a war then the causer of those deaths is evil. And last but not least the underlying assumption that deaths trump principle.

The American Civil War caused -- resulted in -- an enormous number of deaths. There were as many special interests as there are in any modern war but few would today say that the American Civil War was some form of "aggression" or "Imperialism." Oh yes, at the time the North was declared an aggressor for wanting to preserve the Union and impose its will on the secessionist-minded south, but few would argue in that fashion today. When American interests are at stake (in the mind of a sufficient number of Americans) then war is not "off the table," and it makes no difference whether this matter is being discussed in the North or in the South.

But returning to those "deaths." Percentage-wise if not in raw numbers, The American Civil War racked up higher numbers than any other war. Why aren't modern anti-Americans saying things to support their thesis "death trumps principle"? Perhaps because our Civil War "became" a war to free the slaves. Apparently that principle isn't trumped by deaths.

But what about other principles. As many of the great modern theorists of Foreign Affairs recognize, it is hard to get America into a war (despite what the anti-Americans assume). Walter Russel Mead in his Special Providence, American Foreign Policy and How it changed the World argues that there have been four major thrusts or movements or interests in American history as it pertains to foreign policy. The Hamiltonians emphasize economic interests. The Wilsonians want to spread Liberal Democracy to the rest of the world. The Jeffersonians are interested in Civil Rights and the legality of various matters. The Jacksonians, while not ones to advance causes are the ones who make up the majority of those who fight our wars.

Meade would have counted me a Jacksonian back when I was 17 and anxious to enlist in the Marine Corps and be sent to Korea. I have tried fruitlessly to reconstruct my frame of mind back then. But I was only 17. What could I know? Others such as Mead tell us that the Jacksonians in each case need to be convinced by one or more of the others American segments.

The Wilsonians, for example can be seen at their finest in the First World War and its aftermath. Jacksonians would have had a clear idea why they were fighting in that war. They were advancing the cause of "freedom," and of "Liberal Democracy."

In my war, the Korean, we understood (albeit vaguely) that we were fighting Communism. Anti-Americans of that time turned that on its head and believed Communism good and Liberal-Democracy evil, but they were in the extreme minority. Liberal Democracy (known at the time in America as 'the American way") was definitely "good" and Communism was definitely "evil."

While I, hopefully, know quite a bit more now than I did when I was 17, my views (while they might have bounced around quite a lot over the years) are not too far from where they were when I boarded the General Gordon to sail to Japan and from there to be flown on a DC-3 to Korea. Marx had some creditable ideas but he was extremely naive about human nature. The Russians, ostensibly creating a state that was destined (in Marx's view and supposedly Stalin's) to wither away and be replaced by a paradise where people contributed to society in accordance with their abilities and took from the common larder that which they needed.

A lot of American intellectuals compared the Marxist ideal with the Liberal-Democratic reality and preferred the former. The fact that the former never existed and never could exist didn't deter them. They would get caught up in something they didn't like in the American Liberal democratic system and want to see it overthrown and replaced by something promising a paradise; which most of us believe would be as impossible of achievement as the one believed in by Marx.

I am arguing here, in case I have become too foggy, that principle is important. And if people die during a war, well that is what always happens during a war, but let's not lose sight of the principle involved. Certainly the anti-Americans didn't think much of our going to war in Korea and elsewhere to oppose Communism, but a very clear principle was at stake there. We fought in our American Revolution and later in our Civil War for what has been called variously "freedom," "Liberty," "Capitalism," "Democracy," and most recently and more accurately "Liberal Democracy." Was (is) Liberal Democracy a principle, a way of life, worth fighting for?

Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man. He drew the logical conclusion that Marx's turning Hegel on his head was wrong. Hegel had said that "capitalism" would be the "end of history" meaning that it would supplant all other systems and represent a finality no one could improve upon. Marx said that Hegel was wrong and that Communism would comprise the "end of history." In 1992 when Fukuyama published his book he said that everyone could then see that Marx had been wrong and suggested that we look more favorably at that which was before our eyes namely, Liberal Democracy, for it had become the end of history.

But what of other movements, movements antagonistic to Liberal Democracy? Fukuyama considered them but predicted that in the long run they would not be able to compete with Liberal Democracy.

If Fukuyama is right then as unpleasant as all those deaths were, there was a golden-thread of a principle at stake and at work and if the 17-year old Lawrence Helm didn't understand it very well it didn't make any difference. He was an American and caught up in it and thrust along like Americans before him.

I have been especially interested in the views of Southerners both before and after the Civil War. Was the principle they fought for "universal" to the extent that it would survive their defeat and sustain their antagonism against the forces of the North indefinitely? No; that never happened. Southerners (as Jacksonians) fight in all the American Wars. The Union was preserved by the Civil War and the South accepts that fact as readily as the North. Perhaps they don't always have the "principle" clearly in mind but they know it is there and they know it is worth fighting for.

Another thing to keep in mind is that after the Second World War, the British literally handed off to America (during the Eisenhower administration) a job that has variously been called "the policeman of the world," the protector of Liberal Democracy," and the "protector of Western Civilization." I'm not sure that Eisenhower took theory all that seriously, but he did recognized that Britain had been doing something in the past it didn't have the means to do in the future. The British were thinking primarily of the USSR and Communism at the time but if Liberal Democracy is being threatened in some way by other systems then the same considerations would apply. Most in the West think some nation needs to lead and that needs to be emphasized. Perhaps France thinks the leader of the West should be France and not the U.S. but France more than most nations in the E.U. believes that some nation or combination of nations (such as Germany and France) needs to lead in the West -- or at least in Europe.

So not all to the U.S., Liberal Democracies, and especially not all of Western Civilization goes along with and approve of America being in this hegemonic position that it found itself in once the baton had been handed by the British to Dwight David Eisenhower? Definitely not, but the same sort of thing can be said about almost everything political that goes on in every Liberal Democracy.

The downside of "Freedom," and "Liberal Democracy" is that individuals are going to disagree with each other. That's ugly, unpleasant and we can be ashamed of it, but two great alternatives to this ugliness were tried in the 20th century, Fascism and Communism, and most people in the West accept Liberal Democracy, with all its warts, as being far preferable. Also other nations in the world such as Japan and South Korea have taken to Liberal Democracy. China while not embracing it whole-heartedly is becoming more and more attracted to it. Russia is not ruling it out, etc.

No comments: