We the People, We the Warriors
By Talbot Brewer
Monday, August 26, 2002; Page A15
One common philosophical argument for democracy is that democratic regimes are particularly unlikely to start wars. When the power to declare war is closely tethered to the preferences of those who would bear the costs of fighting, it stands to reason that this power will be used sparingly. Thus, many political philosophers have followed Kant in supposing that the universal embrace of democracy offers the best hope of world peace.
Our nation now finds itself on the verge of initiating war against another sovereign nation. We have not been attacked by Iraq, and we have thus far failed to produce convincing evidence that Iraq has aided, or plans to aid, those who have attacked us. If we go to war, we will be the initiators of aggression.
It would be a mistake, however, to take this as fresh cause for doubt about the link between democracy and peace. We ought instead to view this imminent possibility as an occasion for raising hard questions about whether, in the critical matter of waging war, we still function as a genuine democracy.
It was widely viewed as a victory for the peace movement when the draft was abolished and military service became voluntary. Unfortunately this arrangement does not really serve the cause of peace but rather lowers the threshold of war by creating a decisive cleavage between the social classes that wield political power and those that supply the country its soldiers. Too many of our political leaders are now in a position to choose war with little fear that it will endanger their friends or loved ones. This is dangerous for the same reason it would be dangerous to entrust the power to determine tax policies to a class of citizens who have been granted blanket immunity from taxes. It breeds political irresponsibility.
No doubt many of our political leaders do feel a certain generalized concern for the lives of their fellow Americans, including those in the military. Still, even this potential call to moral seriousness is dampened by the otherwise happy fact that our technological and military mastery permits us to fight and win wars with remarkably few casualties.
Nor are we prone to give sufficient thought to the foreigners whose futures we put at risk when we make use of our impressive capacities for destroying nations and our very modest capacities for rebuilding them. Today we wage war at an anesthetizing distance, with precise munitions that make killing an abstract activity, registered largely in terms of hit and miss rates. We rarely are recalled to moral reality by the last look in the eyes of those our errant bombs maim or shred, or by the anguish and indelible anger of the sons and daughters they leave behind, or by the political chaos that we ourselves all too often leave behind when our troops and journalists decamp.
These are familiar and deeply troubling sources of moral levity in the public war deliberations of the world's dominant military power. There is, however, another, less familiar yet possibly more troubling source of such levity. It is the relative passivity with which most Americans now experience the mobilization for war. This process has become highly undemocratic. Large groups of ''we the people" now are insulated not only from the physical risks of injury or death in war but also from the moral risks that attend any active role in the initiation of war.
What are the moral risks of war? Consider, to begin with, that one cannot responsibly choose to start a war without supposing oneself to have the capacity to discern those rare historical moments when war has a realistic chance of doing more good than harm. Overestimating one's capacity to shape the course of history raises the risk of becoming responsible for the creation of a damnable mess.
Consider, too, that one cannot responsibly choose the path of war without being certain that one's enthusiasm for fighting is not rooted at least partly in such dark psychological sources as an overgeneralized thirst for revenge or intoxication with the capacity to humble one's enemies. To overestimate the purity of one's war motives is to risk becoming responsible for evil, entered into -- as evil ordinarily is -- with every belief in one's good intentions.
Today both sorts of moral risks are in play. We are contemplating a fresh military adventure at a time when our attempts at statecraft in Afghanistan show signs of crumbling into anarchic violence. If we depose Saddam Hussein and his tyrannical regime, it is by no means clear that we can establish a stable successor. Meanwhile, we run the danger of provoking Hussein to use weapons he might otherwise not dare to use.
There is also good reason for scrutiny of our desire for combat. We are hurt, angry and still grieving over the meaningless loss of thousands of American lives in the attacks of Sept. 11. Desire for revenge is general in our land and often overgeneralized in its target. We hear this in George Bush's loose talk of an ''axis" of evil formed somehow by countries that have almost no dealings with one another. We see it in our readiness to tar Iraq with the same brush used to discredit the Taliban.
The cause of peace is threatened as much by specialization in the distribution of the moral risks of war as by specialization in its risks to life and limb. Both sorts of specializations can lull citizens into passive fascination with impressive shows of power staged by a military that is, in theory, supposed to do the public's will. In a properly constituted democracy, decisions of war and peace must emerge from the conscientious deliberation of the public's true representatives, and their deliberations must shape and be shaped by the equally conscientious if less organized deliberations of an engaged citizenry.
While today's Congress hardly answers to this ideal account, it remains the center of the nation's public political deliberation.
It is, then, a blessing that Article I, Section 8, of our Constitution clearly vests the power to declare war in Congress. Yet we have fallen from this democratic element of our own Constitution to the point at which the public expresses little or no outrage when the president speaks and acts as though he has the unilateral prerogative to initiate a war in nonemergency conditions.
The first fateful bomb might fall on Baghdad before Congress even begins its formal discussion of the wisdom of the war. Even if debate does take place, it likely will be a mere fifth wheel to the seemingly self-sufficient decision-making already underway behind closed doors in the White House. Under these circumstances, both Congress and the public it represents are reduced to the role of spectators.
It may be objected that presidential decisions about war and peace are in good democratic order, because presidents generally are concerned about maintaining their popularity and can do so only if their decisions reflect public preferences. One superficial problem with this objection is that it applies only to those reasonably popular first-term presidents who have a realistic hope of reelection. But the more fundamental problem is that it overlooks the vast difference between what a person is capable of applauding and what a person is capable of making the deliberate and considered decision to do.
If war policy is chosen behind closed doors and then conveyed to the people in conjunction with a skillful caricature of the predetermined enemy (supported, perhaps, by intelligence whose precise nature cannot be revealed), the public can be made to prefer an array of unsavory wars that it would never choose in the light of open deliberation. To think that democracy boils down to making sure one's decisions can be made popular in retrospect is to reduce the ideal of democracy to competency in marketing.
It is true that we cannot make decisions about war and peace more democratically without also making them more slowly and openly. It is also true that openness and deliberateness can be costly. Yet these costs are part of the price of self-rule, the essence of the political freedom we Americans have historically cherished.
We must assume these costs, along with the burdens of the citizen-soldier, not only to realize our own aspiration to self-rule but also to give the world the best available guarantee that we will use our vast military power as responsibly as is humanly possible.
The writer is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Virginia.