On war and personal integrity

By Cryil Baumgartner

Island Forum

It's been a long time since we heard ``Hell, no, I won't go.'' During the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, television talk show host Chris Matthews visited college campuses focusing on the imminent war. At one stop, he asked students if they were prepared to fight a 30-year effort against terrorism. There was a resounding ``Yes!''

Matthews had a guest with him from the Bush administration who responded to a question from a student, ``No, we have absolutely no intention of reviving the draft.'' The applause from the audience was stunning and sustained.

University of Oregon professor Cheyney Ryan asks, ``What does it mean to support or call for a war and its attendant sacrifices if one is not oneself willing to make those sacrifices?''

Or put it this way: ``I am in favor of policy X, which will impose an enormous cost on a certain number of people, but I am not willing to bear that cost myself. I support it, rather, in the full knowledge that I will not be asked to bear that cost.''

Is it legitimate to say in response to that, ``You should only endorse those military actions of your country in which you yourself would be willing to give your life (tomorrow)?''

If I ask a fellow citizen to do something, should I not be willing to do it myself? This is a serious issue of integrity. It is the foundation of what might be called ``liberal thinking.''

Professor Ryan calls it the Principle of Personal Integrity (PPI). Our Founders clearly possessed the PPI. They committed their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the American Revolution. They persuasively and successfully argued that in a republic, the costs of state actions be borne by average citizens. That taxation pays the cost of wars, not government borrowing (deficit spending). That the personal - that is the bodily costs of war - should be borne by average persons via a citizen's army.

Plato, Aristotle and Kant had already penned these values. The first sentence of Kant's essay on ``Perpetual Peace'' bemoans those ``heads of state who can never get enough of war.'' He then attacks the use of debt to finance wars and insists that the defense be carried out by ``the voluntary periodic military training of citizens.''

The Founders agreed. They reasoned that if average citizens knew that the costs of a war would be extracted from their purses and their bodies, they would exercise greater caution in endorsing war. Citizens, said Kant, ``will weigh the calamities of war seriously, because they can count on doing the fighting themselves and paying the costs from their own resources.''

This reasoning led to the draft. Everything changed when it ended. Oddly, liberal Edward Kennedy opposed ending the draft because he said it would institutionalize a professional military inordinately composed of minorities. Today minorities are over-represented in the military, particularly in the fighting units.

We learned in Afghanistan that technology is the way to fight a war. It is not the result of the logic of war, so much as a conscious effort to lessen war's impact on the average citizen. Now we can fight a war and promise the mothers of soldiers that there will be very few casualties.

That renders military adventurism more attractive. Heads of state can have their wars and it won't have much impact on citizens. The steep downside is that war has rendered the Principle of Personal Integrity no longer a matter of moral consequence to either heads of state or students on U.S. college campuses.

Cy Baumgartner is a Mercer Island resident and frequent contributor to the the Island Forum.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 19
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates