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“Honoring Virtue”

“Honoring Virtue: On Memorial Day We Honor Those Who Gave Their Lives for Freedom and Rights”  by Andrew Bernstein.

Memorial Day is a U.S. federal holiday celebrating U.S. servicemen who died in war. The Ayn Rand Institute first published the above article (a “media op-ed”) on Memorial Day, May 22, 2002 – about ten months before the start of the Iraq invasion. [*]

In this article Mr. Bernstein says: “American soldiers have fought and died for freedom around the globe.” And as is evident from the rest of his article Mr. Bernstein intends this as high praise. Dying for “freedom around the globe” is a virtue to be honored.

What does it mean to die for freedom? Well, you can die trying to defend your own freedom, that is, freedom from an oppressive government or from someone who would impose an oppressive government on you. You can die defending someone else’s freedom – a friend’s or a stranger’s. You can die for the freedom of future generations. But can you just “die for freedom,” in the abstract?

You might reply: “Let’s not quibble, it’s just an expression that means dying for somebody’s freedom.” But it doesn’t quite mean that, and the distinction is important. The “you died for freedom” formulation hides who benefits from your death.

Politicians love this abstract formulation when they would turn you into canon-fodder. Before you go off to war they say: You risk your life for freedom. It sounds grand and noble. And during the war: He died for freedom, as they drape a flag over your coffin.

It’s true that to die defending your own freedom, or those you supremely value, is laudable – “benevolently selfish” as Ayn Rand would say. But, contrary to Mr. Bernstein, to die defending the freedom of random unknown Iraqis is, per se, a disgusting act of self-sacrifice.

In the course of Mr. Bernstein’s essay he praises America’s entry into past wars. Among the ones he mentions explicitly are the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Though he doesn’t explicitly mention World War I, the first Gulf War, the Panama War, or the Grenada War, he makes no exceptions to his praise.

Mr. Bernstein praises the Vietnam War this way:

“... as long as American soldiers fought in Vietnam, the communists were held at bay, unable to achieve their goal of conquest. Only after American politicians pulled all U.S. military personnel out of Vietnam in 1975 did the country fall, and the Communists, then unrestrained, enslaved the Vietnamese.”
A raft of half-truths. Vietnam had been a dictatorship long before the communists took over, and the U.S. was complicit in that dictatorship. Before and during the Vietnam War the U.S. supported South Vietnam’s dictator Nguyen Van Thieu, just because he was nominally anti-Communist.

Thieu, by the way, fled Vietnam when the U.S. pulled out, and moved to a mansion in Surrey, England, living in luxury until his death in 2001. The main source of his multi-millions in wealth was undoubtedly U.S. foreign aid. His heirs now possess that money.

The Vietnam War was not in America’s self-defense, the U.S. administration only made it appear so. President Johnson claimed that American ships had business being in Vietnam’s Gulf of Tonkin and that the North Vietnamese had fired on them without provocation. The Senate’s resulting “Tonkin Resolution” greatly expanded the war based on this claim, which was a fraud.

The government drafted many tens of thousands of young men, to be killed, maimed, and brutalized in the jungles of Vietnam. Mr. Bernstein pins a medal on them all, they suffered and died for freedom – the freedom of the South Vietnamese on the other side of the earth.

To put the American Revolutionary war, as Mr. Bernstein does, in the same category as the Vietnam war is obscene.

(Where, by the way, was Mr. Bernstein during the Vietnam war? Not in Vietnam risking his life “for freedom.” Nor did he – or any other ARI associate – enlist in the Iraq war.)

The nature of the Vietnam war being clear, only an idiot would have volunteered to fight in it. In her essay “The Wreckage of the Consensus” (The Objectivist, April 1967) Ayn Rand wrote:

“Wars are the second greatest evil that human societies can perpetrate. (The first is dictatorship, the enslavement of their own citizens, which is the cause of wars.) When a nation resorts to war, it has some purpose, rightly or wrongly, something to fight for – and the only justifiable purpose is self-defense. If you want to see the ultimate, suicidal extreme of altruism, on an international scale, observe the war in Vietnam – a war in which American soldiers are dying for no purpose whatever.”

Years later, when asked about the Vietnam war at a Ford Hall Forum lecture, she replied “I was against that war.” America, she said, was guilty of “stupid, colossal, self-sacrifice.”

Defending those you love, on the other hand, is not self-sacrifice. This is a true virtue, which Mr. Bernstein dishonors. When Americans consciously realize that selfishness – in the sense of valuing your own life, neither sacrificing yourself to others nor others to yourself – is good, then an article about Americans “dying for freedom around the globe” will be seen as the crass propaganda it is.

Why does Mr. Bernstein glorify America’s role in Cuba, the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, etc. with his jaundiced history of American soldiers “dying for freedom around the globe”? Consider the date Mr. Bernstein wrote his article: May 2002. This was when the neocons were trying to sell the American public on invading Iraq. Though Mr. Bernstein doesn’t mention Iraq specifically, he doesn’t have to. Besides being a frequent topic of current events, many companion ARI essays called for invading Iraq.

Mr. Bernstein must have known how his remarks would be construed: Those soldiers who get sent off to die in Iraq will have “died for freedom.”

Mr. Bernstein takes the mute dead whom Memorial Day commemorates and uses them to justify invading Iraq. He wants us to believe that carpet-bombing Iraqis will bring the Iraqis’ freedom. And – doubtless seeing that that won’t fly with students of Ayn Rand – wants us to believe that Iraq is a threat to us.

He argues the way the intellectuals of yesteryear did, conning Americans into the latest war. He praises the soldiers of past wars, who “died for freedom” and then claims the Iraq war is for our freedom. Mr. Bernstein’s ends his mendacious essay with bromides and hackneyed phrases. Here’s the payoff:

“They [“countries that support terrorists”] feel threatened by our most cherished principles and institutions, and so they seek to destroy us.

“What protects us is our moral courage and our military might. If President Bush has the moral conviction to permit our soldiers to fully wage war against our enemies, they will prevail, as they have so many times in the past. Once again, their blood and their lives, spilled and lost in defense of freedom, will not have been given in vain. On Memorial Day we solemnly and properly honor those heroes who have fought and died in defense of America’s freedom.”
One wonders what principles and institutions Mr. Bernstein cherishes. Though the U.S. had been creeping towards a police state long before 9-11, afterwards it took several giant strides and continues apace. Consider the Senate’s unconstitutional open-ended war resolution, most aspects of the “Patriot Act,” the “Homeland Security Act,” the “Total Information Awareness” program, executive orders.  If those who attacked on 9-11 really did want to destroy America’s freedom and turn her into a police state, the neocons are on their side.

Mr. Bernstein’s “American soldiers have fought and died for freedom around the globe” is even more fulsome when you consider – as Mr. Bernstein does not – that unwilling Americans were conscripted into each of the wars he praises, with one exception: the American Revolutionary War.

I intentionally left out that war in listing those which Mr. Bernstein mentions explicitly. The American Revolutionary War was the only war where American soldiers really did fight for freedom, their own freedom – and an ungrateful and uncomprehending posterity’s.

It is true we ought to honor those Colonial Americans who fought and died for their freedom and ours. And we ought to avenge those Americans who were conned into dying for the schemes of politicians like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, avenge by writing truthful historical commentary instead of the humbug churned out by ARI.

Mr. Bernstein’s essay is a paean to self-sacrifice dished up as patriotism. He presents the wasted bravery of the victims of past politicians as reason to embroil us 6,000 miles away in Mesopotamia – a modern day Crusades. He would use the soldiers that politicians had sacrificed in the past to sacrifice yet more soldiers today, not to mention the wealth of all of us.

Sacrifice to what?  is a question we will consider on other pages.

*  ARI republished “Honoring Virtue” on each succeeding Memorial Day until 2006 when they replaced it with “What We Owe Our Soldiers” – the link is to our review. The introduction to the review describes Yaron Brook’s praise for the earlier essay “Honoring Virtue.”