Sunday, June 5, 2011

Fighting for Freedom?

Are American troops fighting for our freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan? Let me phrase the question another way.  Is it fair to say that the United States military is not always fighting specifically for American freedom and democracy in a given conflict?  A friend of mine, Andreas, who describes himself as an independent with a liberal bent, sought my opinion on this political issue.

He wanted to know if questioning aloud this idea of fighting for freedom abroad is going too far. As he spoke, slogans like Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan instantly came to my mind. President Bush claimed that the invasion of Iraq could bring peace and democracy to a volatile Middle East. Everything the military does, it seems, is intrinsically related to liberty and democracy.

Andreas expressed to me his exasperation in the face of “right wingers” who “hijack his patriotism.”  I know that liberals and Democrats generally feel this way, and it’s a shame. Some on the right portray any criticism of war, or at least war conducted by a Republican administration, as un-American.  In fact, Andreas alleges that these people even accuse him of loving America’s enemies.  (I suspect there’s a bit of caricature here or that he’s using the views of backwoods bumpkins as his metric for conservatism).  I of course agree with him that one can criticize an administration’s involvement in a conflict and at the same time support the troops.  Andreas readily acknowledges that individual soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen are merely performing their duty and he’s appreciative of their devotion and service.

Let me offer a few caveats to what I just wrote, however.  While people on the political left can certainly distinguish the policy from the troops on the ground, there are not a few among them who sometimes confuse the two. For example, notoriously depicted General David Petraeus as “General Betray Us” after the commander gave a report to congress on the situation in Iraq.  I don’t believe a lone web postmaster posted this image, nor do I think that even moderate leftists objected vociferously to the hateful smear.  Needless to say, General Petraeus is merely a soldier, albeit a top-ranking one, doing his country’s bidding. He doesn’t decide when and where to go to war, but merely strategizes and plans for a successful campaign. Oftentimes those who are able to make an intellectual distinction between the conflict they disagree with and the soldier who has his or her duty to perform don’t always make the distinction on a polemical or emotional level.

Moreover, we must keep in mind that opposition to a war is often a partisan pastime. Generally speaking, Republicans, apart from your few and far between mavericks like John McCain, condemned President Clinton’s “wag the dog” bombing campaign in Serbia and President Obama’s “reckless” intervention in Libya. Contrariwise, Democrats, because of the Iraq War, referred to the Bush administration as the “imperial presidency,” an epithet incommensurate with the actual policies, whatever one thinks about the war.

So, after reminding Andreas that the appropriateness of his view hinges not merely on the viewpoint itself but upon the way he expresses it, the audience he’s addressing, and the context for the discussion, I agree that we bandy this word “freedom” about too readily, so much so that it can lose its potency and effect. Buzzwords like freedom, democracy, and liberty that we should be selecting from our sacred national lexicon only with great caution and judiciousness have been wielded like weapons.  Spin doctors employ these emotionally charged words to justify an argument or win over a hesitant populace.  Who other than the far-left peaceniks are going to condemn a war for freedom?  And let us not forget that the French revolutionaries led their countrymen into a horrific Reign of Terror in the name of “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

We don’t always fight for freedom, certainly not in a direct way. One could argue that the American Civil War was indeed a fight for freedom, the freedom of a particular group of Americans, regardless of whether General Sherman and a number of Northerners really cared about slavery. Moreover, World War II was an attempt to stop oppressive imperial regimes in Central Europe and East Asia from running roughshod over our allies and leaving overseas democracies in ruins. The Vietnam War, on the other hand, was about stemming the tide of communism during the Cold War.  The Spanish-American War was ostensibly about aiding Cuban patriots in their struggle against Spain; really, Uncle Sam intervened in order to spread his influence in the southern hemisphere.

True enough, one could make the case that wars that don’t seem like a struggle for freedom at first glance are ultimately about the preservation of our American values at home and in the world.  A case in point is Afghanistan. Does the freedom we enjoy as Americans depend on toppling the Taliban and killing off members of Al-Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan?  In a direct way, the answer is no.  However, from a broader perspective, you could answer yes.  911 wasn’t merely a disaster in terms of civilian casualties and destruction to property.  Ultimately, this act, and the continual threat from Al-Qaeda, has led our culture and government into legal avenues that are questionable and divisive.  The ousting of the Taliban and the decimation of Al-Qaeda, then, are worthy objectives that can insure our way of life.  Civilization, even a garrulous one such as our own, is fragile and a pinprick attack can cause a major upheaval.

We’re not alone in lofty language that evokes our republican virtues and democratic values. Here’s a list of dictatorial or otherwise oppressive countries that have the word “Republic” in their official name: Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Myanmar (Burma), Belarus, Libya, Sudan, Somalia (!), and Cuba. Most of these countries seriously violate human rights and in some cases implement policies of ethnic cleansing aimed at minorities or political opponents.  The United States, despite its blemishes here and there, is more justified in portraying its actions abroad as a fight for freedom, I should think.  We have a peaceful transition of government every election season.  Yes, we've had our dark moments as a nation, but that period is receding into the distant past.  Only a far-left whack job would claim we are as bad or worse than the aforementioned countries.  Fortunately, Andreas falls into the mainstream of near-left liberals.

We must be able to distinguish between conflicts that are necessary to protect the freedoms we hold so dear and conflicts that, say, protect our “vital interests” or provide for our overall security.  To use the cliché, sometimes the best defense is good offense.  If we don’t make such distinctions, if we simply portray all of our military commitments as a struggle for democracy, then we are no different and no better than rogue states and genocidal regimes that likewise depict their conflicts with lofty rhetoric. German soldiers were fighting for the Fatherland on the Russian front during World War II. Even if we forget that the regular army, the Wehrmacht, aided the SS in the atrocities, average soldiers believed they were fighting for a great cause. We know that the mass murder of twelve million people can’t possibly be a great cause.

For what it's worth, I like baptizing our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of freedom.  “Operation Killing Taliban” wouldn't have the same moral, inspirational or motivational effect on the troops, and it certainly wouldn't make an appropriate diplomatic statement.  What we're doing in these countries is important, and the consequences for failure or success could be monumental in this volatile world.  At the same time, we must acknowledge that not every conflict has such a highfalutin purpose.   In addition to making the world “safe for democracy,” protecting our economy or aiding our allies or punishing enemies are valid reasons to go to war.  I'm of course speaking in generalities here, for each situation has a specific set of problems and issues that can shape any resolve to deploy troops.  Even so, there are those who would disagree with any reason to declare war, with the possible exception of protecting hearth and home from invading hordes.  I disagree with this viewpoint, for I believe those who profess it cannot sustain their view without a degree of hypocrisy.  Yet I take this point of view to heart and celebrate the diversity of opinions we enjoy in this country.  Yes, a diversity and freedom that was bought and paid for in part by our armed forces.