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Letters from an Ohio Farmer

War and the American Character

August 16, 2011

To the Members of the 112th Congress:

Can a free, democratic people possess the martial virtues needed to defend their interests in the hard world?  Early observers of the American republic doubted it. Some believed that a commercial people like the Americans were not cut out for war. Some thought that the American Constitution and federalism further disabled the country from waging war successfully.

That great student of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, thought that “The most important of all the actions that can mark the life of a people is war.” (We are inclined to think that the most important of a people’s actions necessarily take place in the peace achieved by war, but let’s set that aside for another letter.) Tocqueville’s famous study of America had led him in the 1830s to the conclusion that “in the midst of a great war,” confusions in America’s Federal and state constitutions would cause either liberty or the American Union to crumble. American republicanism, he thought, would be saved only by geography: far from the rest of the dangerous world, it was the “great good fortune of the United States…not to have hit upon a federal constitution that enables it to endure a great war, but rather to be so situated that it need not fear such a war.”

The many failures of American arms during the War of 1812 seemed to have validated Tocqueville’s view, but only a decade after he wrote, American success during the war against Mexico suggested that there may be more to be said on the question. Americans are, indeed, a people who prefer peace and the prosperity that comes with it, but if our history so far is any indication, we seem to be a people who are not necessarily spoiled by those conditions. When aroused to action, Americans have traditionally responded with alacrity and courage, as they did after Pearl Harbor and again after 9/11. And contrary to Tocqueville’s expectations, the Federal Constitution has enabled the United States to wage war successfully without destroying liberty at home.

We approach the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.  America has been waging war for a decade. Our experience in this war confirms a long-standing conviction of the American people.  From the time of the American Revolution, Americans have acted on the fundamental belief that the virtues needed for war are not the exclusive property of a professional military establishment—a “standing army”—but can be found in the citizens of the republic at large. Today’s American military is clearly “professional” in the sense that service members are long-term volunteers, but those who serve understand themselves to be every bit the citizen soldiers their forebears were during World War II. This is a force of republican citizens motivated by a deep sense of duty and loyalty to their fellow citizens.

After 9/11, many Americans who could have avoided military service chose to enlist in the military and to fight the wars on which the United States has embarked over the past ten years. It is a tribute to the character of Americans—citizens of all backgrounds—that many chose to forego comfort, safety, and livelihood to engage America’s enemies.

The cost has been high. Nearly 4500 Americans have died in Iraq and another nearly 1200 have given the last full measure of devotion in Afghanistan. In the most recent war news, details continue to emerge of the loss of 30 Americans, including 17 Navy SEALs, in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan.  Many thousands more have been wounded. Yet even as casualties were rising during the darkest days in Iraq before the “surge” took effect, the services—including those whose members routinely face the greatest danger in the kind of war we are now fighting, the Army and Marines—were meeting their recruiting requirements while retaining large numbers of those eligible to leave the service. These numbers speak eloquently to the martial character of the American people.

The United States is fortunate to be defended by such men as the SEALs who gave their lives in Afghanistan. The quality of today’s American military as a whole is extraordinary, and these SEALs and the other “special operators” like them are by consensus the very “best of the best.” We mourn their deaths—and the deaths of all who serve the good cause of our country. In honor to this cause, let us mourn them as the heroes they are, and not treat them as some in the country once treated those who served in Vietnam: as “victims.”

Our warriors, brought to manhood in the bosom of the American Republic, understand—as we their fellow citizens sometimes forget—that war will always be with us. Civilized peoples will need to be prepared for war so long as savagery and barbarism exist in the world. We can defeat the barbarians and savages when they threaten, but, human nature being what it is, they will always arise among us again in one form or another.

So long as there are people who will kill for gain and power, America will need soldiers who will kill to stop them. But this requires honesty about war and its costs. When we send our fellow citizens into war we must have a clear idea of what we are asking them to do, and must do all in our power to equip them to succeed. Above all, we must do our part to keep the country they serve worthy of their sacrifices.

Ohio Farmer