A Veteran’s/ Armistice/ Remembrance Day observed on November 11 in particular shouldn’t just mean a gauzy and somber honoring of live veterans and fallen soldiers. It should be in part a day of anger and horror about the particular war that ended on this day, the stupid brutality of it, and the evil that followed in its wake. Of course, no continuously-existing government (US, UK, Canada) is likely to create a day officially dedicated to pointing out that its predecessor contributed to the deaths of millions for no good cause. But we have the capacity to remember lessons other than the official ones.
Taking a step back, Randolph Bourne:
In a republic the Government is obeyed grumblingly, because it has no bedazzlements or sanctities to gild it. If you are a good old-fashioned democrat, you rejoice at this fact, you glory in the plainness of a system where every citizen has become a king. If you are more sophisticated you bemoan the passing of dignity and honor from affairs of State. But in practice, the democrat does not in the least treat his elected citizen with the respect due to a king, nor does the sophisticated citizen pay tribute to the dignity even when he finds it. The republican State has almost no trappings to appeal to the common man’s emotions. What it has are of military origin, and in an unmilitary era such as we have passed through since the Civil War, even military trappings have been scarcely seen. In such an era the sense of the State almost fades out of the consciousness of men.
With the shock of war, however, the State comes into its own again. The Government, with no mandate from the people, without consultation of the people, conducts all the negotiations, the backing and filling, the menaces and explanations, which slowly bring it into collision with some other Government, and gently and irresistibly slides the country into war. For the benefit of proud and haughty citizens, it is fortified with a list of the intolerable insults which have been hurled toward us by the other nations; for the benefit of the liberal and beneficent, it has a convincing set of moral purposes which our going to war will achieve; for the ambitious and aggressive classes, it can gently whisper of a bigger role in the destiny of the world. The result is that, even in those countries where the business of declaring war is theoretically in the hands of representatives of the people, no legislature has ever been known to decline the request of an Executive, which has conducted all foreign affairs in utter privacy and irresponsibility, that it order the nation into battle. Good democrats are wont to feel the crucial difference between a State in which the popular Parliament or Congress declares war, and the State in which an absolute monarch or ruling class declares war. But, put to the stern pragmatic test, the difference is not striking. In the freest of republics as well as in the most tyrannical of empires, all foreign policy, the diplomatic negotiations which produce or forestall war, are equally the private property of the Executive part of the Government, and are equally exposed to no check whatever from popular bodies, or the people voting as a mass themselves.
The moment war is declared, however, the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves. They then, with the exception of a few malcontents, proceed to allow themselves to be regimented, coerced, deranged in all the environments of their lives, and turned into a solid manufactory of destruction toward whatever other people may have, in the appointed scheme of things, come within the range of the Government’s disapprobation. The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.
The patriot loses all sense of the distinction between State, nation, and government.
As Bourne wrote these words in the Winter 1917-1918, he was facing severe poverty due to the loss his primary source of income, writing for journals of opinion. Pro-War members of editorial boards, including his former teacher and mentor John Dewey at (of course!) The New Republic, had him blacklisted. At The Seven Arts, the editor continued to publish him and other anti-war voices, which lead to left-Wilsonian backers to withdraw financial support, making it impossible to continue publication. This is trivial compared to the statist attack on rights and liberties that came with WWI, all of which must be understood as costs of war in addition to blood and fortune. Bourne’s unforgivable sin was not merely to oppose the war but to point out the staggering stupidity that was Left-Wilsonianism. Whatever one thinks about the American decision to enter WWI, his critique was surely correct. Robert Westbrook*:
Moved by Wilson’s rhetoric, these progressives defended American intervention in the war on the grounds that it would provide a unique opportunity to reorganize the world into a radically democratic social order. “Industrial democracy is on the way,” Dewey told a New York World reporter in July 1917. “The rule of the Workmen and the Soldiers will not be confined to Russia; it will spread through Europe; and this means that the domination of all upper classes, even of what we have been knowing as ‘respectable society,’ is at an end.” This was, to say the least, poor prophecy—the result not of the informed judgment that Dewey’s ethics required but of what he himself called “footless desires.”
Bourne’s posthumously published essay “The State” is the source of famous ‘War is the health of the State’ line, and has long been a favorite of libertarians, paleo-conservatives, anarchists, socialists, and other disreputable characters. The rest of us should give it a second look.
*Westbrook, “Bourne over Baghdad,” Raritan 27:1 (Summer 2007), pp. 106-107.