The war in Ukraine has trundled on for nearly a year now, and it is hard to see an end in sight—barring nuclear conflagration. Stunningly, an increasing number of political leaders seem to believe that the outcome of the conflict will be “worth it,” to invoke the phrase used by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in assessing the hundreds of thousands of dead children caused directly by U.S. foreign policy in Iraq in the 1990s. The difference in this case is that the victims of the mistakes made by “my missile is bigger than yours” politicians will affect not only the pocket books but the existential future of the very people who pay their salaries. How have we arrived at a place where ordinary citizens permit the siphoning off of billions upon billions of their tax revenue to fuel and expand a conflict which could, given the nuclear capacity of Russia, lead to the end of their very own lives? (And why, pray tell, did Henry Kissinger change his mind?)
Charitably, I would say that most of the people who display Ukrainian flags in front of their homes or on their social media platforms, like those who tied yellow ribbons around trees all over the United States in 1991 in a maudlin show of solidarity with the soldiers sent to “liberate” Kuwait (note: still a monarchic state), have not fully processed the range of plausible endgames in the present case. It is one thing when the world’s sole superpower sets out to take down the tinpot tyrants of third world outposts—Saddam Hussein, Moammar Qaddafi, the Taliban (note: who rule Afghanistan again today, millions of lives and trillions of dollars since the 2001 U.S. invasion)—and quite another when the targeted regime possesses a nuclear arsenal which, with the push of a button, could initiate World War III and the instantaneous annihilation of human beings on a scale not seen since 1945.
Russia possesses all means necessary to retaliate to the Nord Stream sabotage, though to date it has displayed restraint. But President Vladimir Putin’s patience continues to be tested by taunting U.S. statesmen who recklessly endanger the lives of their constituents, most of whom have no way to protect themselves should they be unlucky enough to live somewhere to come under nuclear attack. New York City put out a public service announcement about what to do in the event of a nuclear war, but the truth is that elites themselves are the only persons with access to effective fallout shelters. Yet the populace continues, along with their oligarchic leaders, to cheer on this senseless conflict to the point where it could very well trigger a ricochet of nuclear missile launches set in motion by whichever fallible individual with the power to do so becomes exasperated first.
Under the circumstances, provoking Russia, through repeatedly informing Putin that his end is near, makes about as much sense as it would for—well, to be perfectly frank: nothing is more senseless. It is not only dangerous and irresponsible to do such a thing, it is in fact incompetent as a basic policy position. The fact that so many people continue to support this madness—with Germany having recently agreed to send tanks to Ukraine, bringing the European Union into the chaotic fray—does not bode well for our collective future.
With the ongoing provision of more weapons and money to Ukraine, soldiers and civilians alike are being effectively sacrificed to the military-industrial complex (MIC). The for-profit companies directly involved in arming governments abroad—crony capitalist corporate giants such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, et al.—have enjoyed significant increases in stock values over the past year, even as the rest of the market founders. The populace paying for the policy-generated death industry windfalls is either blithely unaware or else has been propagandized to believe that somehow the profit motive is irrelevant.
Ignoring economic reality, and the role played by figures such as former Raytheon board member turned current Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, the useful idiots who continue to agitate for war appear to believe that, despite the well-documented corruption of the Ukrainian government, they are somehow defending “democracy.” This tried-and-true trope also worked wonders to galvanize and maintain support for the “liberation” of Afghanistan, which continued on for a full decade after Osama bin Laden had been eliminated. Given the corruption, destruction and death sown throughout that land, and the fact that the Taliban is once again in charge, it would be difficult to deny that two decades of the application of military force left Afghanistan worse, not better off.
Do the persons whose lives are now being curtailed in Ukraine know that they have become cannon fodder for the very same voracious military machine as they march toward their all-too-imminent demise? Given the mercenary forces clearly driving an otherwise insane policy, it is time to pause to consider how it came to be that so many people holding no stocks in Raytheon could willfully support an initiative which flagrantly undermines their very own interests.
A clue can be found in a recent text by David Swanson, the great antiwar activist who has opposed every war waged by the U.S. government in recent history with unparalleled vigor and intellectual clarity. Swanson recently issued an apologia for his decision to consort with libertarians at the upcoming antiwar rally “Rage Against the War Machine,” to be held in Washington, DC, on February 19, 2023. Apparently to placate his largely progressive (or at least self-styled progressive) readership, he penned an essay, “How Dare I Oppose War Together With Libertarians?” Swanson was understandably perturbed by the barrage of criticism he had received for agreeing to close ranks with, of all people, a coalition of libertarians, many of whom—adding insult to progressive injury—are social conservatives. He paraphrased the concern of his critics as follows: why would I team up with or even be seen with people who oppose war because it costs money?
That characterization of libertarians needless to say caught my eye and frankly surprised me, given how evidently astute Swanson is. For those unfamiliar with his work, it will suffice to read any of his inimitable books to recognize immediately that David Swanson is nothing like the useful idiots who parrot regime talking points. But that libertarians oppose war “because it costs money” is indeed a regime talking point, and that’s only the opening salvo of the establishment’s wide-ranging campaign to discredit libertarians. We have seen former CIA director John Brennan and other supposed “experts” trotted out on mainstream media go much further, by “informing” viewers that libertarians are among the gravest dangers to the United States today, forming a part of an evil alliance of “domestic extremists” and “potential terrorists.”
Anyone who falls for such a line obviously has no idea what libertarianism is. True, libertarians may disagree about the specific policy implications of their political allegiance, but they share a commitment to the principle of non-aggression (NAP). The reason why war is wrong, according to libertarians, is not because it costs money, but because it exacts violence upon innocent persons, maiming and terrorizing some of them, while wiping others completely from the face of the earth.
I am not convinced that Swanson himself actually believes that libertarians oppose war only because “it costs money.” But I would be surprised if many of his MSNBC-saturated readers did not believe such a thing, and so he may simply have opted to take them on their own terms in explaining why he is linking arms with libertarians for the protest in D.C. The problem with such an approach is that it plays right into the regime’s hands. For the government propaganda machine wants nothing more than to convince the populace that the most consistent and persistent, the most articulate and outspoken opponents to war are in fact a group of “nutcase” extremists who need to be prevented from wreaking havoc in the homeland à la other radical factions, which should and will likely call to mind Al Qaeda, ISIS, et al.
In other words, by playing along with the propaganda line according to which libertarians are a menace to democracy and freedom (irony of ironies…), Swanson helps to perpetuate the very sorts of falsehoods which in fact explain why today the Republican and Democratic parties form an impenetrable War Party duopoly. If the only opponents to the endless wars are “nutcases”—take your pick: either hopelessly quixotic hippies and pacifists, or alt-right white supremacists—then self-styled normal people will be even more inclined to go along with the dominant party line (bombs away!), for fear that they themselves may otherwise be lumped together with the enemies of society.
The antidote to pro-military regime propaganda cannot be to accept their talking points: that war opponents are either cowardly and unrealistic, or else lunatic fringe domestic terrorists. By commencing from the line of attack being used against principled war opponents who self-identify as libertarians, by pretending that the only reason they oppose war is because they are selfish and niggardly, Swanson can only reinforce the very war-mongering which he himself works so tirelessly to expose and oppose. But how, his readers want to know, can he claim to be a fine upstanding progressive while simultaneously giving speeches on a stage shared by people who believe such “inanity” as that “taxation is theft?”
The solution, I believe, inheres in recognizing that in the current circumstances, where the very real chance of a nuclear war increases with each new infusion of arms and cash into the Ukraine-Russia border dispute, we must set to one side all of our disagreements on everything else. Libertarians and progressives needless to say disagree about many issues. But libertarians, too, disagree among themselves about all sorts of topics—to give one salient example: abortion.
I myself believe that abortion is a genuine moral dilemma, given the various interests at stake and the reality of consequences likely to ensue should women not be permitted to make decisions about their future life and that of their potential offspring. Yes, we should all be grateful that our own parents did not choose to eliminate us, but that alone does not, in my view, resolve the deeply vexing moral dilemma of abortion.
Nor is the case settled by the fact that well-meaning antiwar progressives, who obviously are not murderers, have often rallied for a woman’s right to choose. Some of us are right about abortion, and others are wrong, if in fact morality is absolute. My own position is that it may be the case that abortion is wrong, but it is a case where, given the complexity and infinitely debatable issues involved, morality neither should nor can be effectively legislated. To say that abortion cannot be effectively legislated is to observe that women will continue to seek and obtain abortions, whatever the current law of the land happens to be. But making it dangerous, and even deadly, for poor women to do so, while wealthy women will simply travel to a place where the procedure is legal, is not a satisfactory solution to the dilemma.
I may of course be wrong about all of this, and libertarians do not, as a group, hold a univocal view on abortion, above all, because the moral personhood status of the fetus is itself open to quasi-infinite debate. While I therefore agree with progressives on the policy position of allowing women to possibly commit what could be viewed by some as murder (although I reject the evil intention ascribed by some pro-life activists to women who seek abortions, particularly in cases of rape, incest, or endangerment of the mother’s life), I disagree that this is an easy or obvious choice. Having an abortion is not, for most women, just another form of birth control, nor is it similar to getting a hair cut.
War, in contrast, indisputably involves ending the lives of already existent, fully developed, and conscious moral persons. For those who oppose acts of aggression against nonthreatening persons, there is no real place for debate in this case. This is why libertarians, while often disagreeing about other matters, agree as a group that wars of aggression cannot be condoned, and indeed must be opposed. The U.S. government should never have invaded Iraq, and the Russian government should never have invaded Ukraine. To say that the leaders of either government had “good intentions,” wishing only to defend their people’s own interests is beside the point. War is never a case of retributive justice because most of the victims have absolutely nothing to do with the acts which precipitate retaliation. The fact that 3,000 people were killed on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, in no way justified the slaughter or degradation of the lives of millions more innocent people throughout the Middle East.
Similarly, the fact that Russia made the mistake of invading Ukraine—whether provoked or not by legitimate security concerns—in no way justifies subsequent policies which ensure that even more death and destruction will ensue. But from the libertarian’s principled non-aggression stance, the wrongness of the U.S. and Russian invasions has nothing whatsoever to do with money. Progressives believe that the trillions of dollars spent on the feckless “Global War on Terror” might have been used to fix the nation’s infrastructure, to cut student debt, to solve the homeless and opioid crises, among a long list of other wishlist items. Libertarians are far more likely to support a reduction in taxation, allowing individuals to do with their money as they see fit, including, should they wish, to use it for charitable endeavors. But what makes the wars wrong, for libertarians, is not that they were a waste of money which might have been better spent.
War is wrong because it involves the destruction of innocent persons and along with them the annihilation of their rights and values. Through waging war, select groups of politicians, acting as oligarchs, pay for their geopolitical projects in human coin, and this is always and everywhere wrong. Disagreements between different human beings, including political leaders, inevitably arise. Negotiation is always and everywhere available, and it will in fact eventually be used at the end of every military conflict. The only question for warmakers is this: how many people should we allow to be killed before agreeing to roll up our sleeves and sit down at the negotiation table to iron out our differences?
The powerful pro-intervention forces controlling the mainstream media today, and censoring social media as well, have remarkably succeeded in persuading much of the populace to believe that somehow diplomatic measures are weak. In reality, war is the most tyrannical and intellectually impotent of means. The marketplace of ideas is essential to democracy because none of us is right about everything. War terminates the very possibility of dialogue among those who are killed, thus refuting claims by the propagandists to be defending democracy.
Whether we oppose war because it is anti-democratic, because it is a lie, because it is a delusion, or because it is a moral abomination and a crime against humanity, we should seek to recognize the light of truth shining in our fellow antiwar allies’ eyes and charitably ascribe to them the best, not the most ignoble, of intentions. What matters more than anything else at this perilous and decisive moment of history is that all of us who oppose the practice of state-inflicted mass homicide, which invariably kills entirely innocent people, set our other differences aside for a time and come together to stop what is starting to look like the inexorable march to nuclear war. If we do not succeed in this quest, then there will be nothing left for us to debate. We will no longer be able to bicker over Social Security, healthcare, retributive entitlements, abortion, or anything else. We will have allowed amoral, mercenary forces to destroy our world and ourselves along with it.