Whenever there’s a war on, the vast complexities of the whole wide world become suddenly simple. There’s Our Side over here, and Their Side over there, and Their soldiers are trying to kill Our soldiers; and so, They are The Enemy. If Our soldiers didn’t fight back, they’d get killed, and worse they’d get other people killed; and so it would be cowardice, or even rank treachery. There’s a time for questions like Who’s Right and Who’s Wrong, and that time is not now, because right now there’s someone with a gun and he’s trying to shoot you, and the best you can do is react; thinking will distract you, and that sort of thing will get you killed.
So even posing the question, “Which side is the right side, really, when you come right down to it?” when you’re at war is a form of treason; it’s Letting Your Side Down.
On the other hand, I for one cannot recall a time when we were not at war with someone or other. If there wasn’t actual fighting going on somewhere, whether in a ‘police action’ or ‘special operation’, tens of thousands die every year in our War On Drugs (and that’s just the combatants — the civilian casualties number in the millions). then too, there’s the War On Terror. Both of these latter two aren’t just against foreigners; our own citizens are suspect.
If you think this doesn’t apply to you, think again: The present Terrorist Watch List is projected to have more than a million names on it, each of whom is there due to suspicion rather than proof. (If there were proof, they’d arrest them — or, more likely, use a drone strike. There’s no proof; it’s only suspicion.) Many are there only because an algorithm that analyzes travel patterns produced them (perhaps they were near Washington D.C. on January 6th), or because they’re related to or acquainted with a suspected activist. Do you know every Facebook friend or Twitter follower personally?
Which makes one, quite naturally, wonder: When, in this period of never-ending modern war, is it actually right and proper to ask who The Enemy truly is? Because, when our neighbors or even ourselves can be The Enemy, knowing the answer is not merely important; it’s vital.
Wars have long provided the opportunity for great social change. Some, it’s true, occurs in those countries where fighting is actually taking place; when cities are razed, new ones will some day be built on their ruins, and the opportunity to install modern sewage, sufficient parking, and wide sidewalks is rarely ignored. But it’s in those places where war is distant that some of the greatest societal advancements actually occur.
The American Revolution began in the 1770s, but it wasn’t until France entered the war that the conflict became too expensive for the English to carry on. Much of Great Britain’s wealth was overseas; as an island nation, it naturally relied on foreign trade as its life’s blood. Several thousand American privateers were more than a minor nuisance, but adding in the depredations of the French (and, later, the Spanish and Dutch) along with continual losses in naval battles, where even a victory can be enormously costly, created an unbearable strain on the nation’s purse. After the destruction of the Gordon Riots and the strategic loss at Yorktown, the British were compelled to make peace with their former colonies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was this very struggle that led to the elevated taxes which caused so much distress in France, eventually leading King Louis to call for a national assembly in order to reform taxation. This proved impossible to control, and eventually it led to revolution, the dissolution of church properties, and the overthrow of the monarchy.
Passing ahead to the First World War, the examples become even more widespread. Rather than examine them in depth, let us instead merely make a list, which the reader can later explore in detail at leisure:
– Nine hundred thousand women worked in munitions plants in the UK. This was quietly leveraged into the Universal Suffrage Act of 1918, because nobody wanted a strike.
– The Easter Rising in Ireland took place in 1916, and though it failed, public opinion across both Ireland and the rest of the UK swung in favor of Irish home rule in response to the harsh reaction of the British suppression of the revolt. The eventual success of the Revolution was due in large part to this sentiment.
– In the United States, resistance to African American labor relaxed significantly, and factories ramped up production across the country. This led to what was later called the Great Migration, as large black communities were established throughout the industrial north for the first time.
– In Puerto Rico, residents were granted American citizenship — and, notably, eligibility for conscription into the army. In order to overcome expected widespread resistance, a local representative government was established, one which many hoped would lead to statehood for the island.
– Ireland was mentioned above; it’s worth a second note to say that large numbers of Irish soldiers fought for the U.K. during the War. Many of those that returned home chose to participate in the Revolution.
– An estimated two million Persians died during the First World War, many executed during anti-Christian genocides by the Ottoman Empire, and most of the rest from famine stemming from the fighting in the west between British, Russian, and Ottoman armies. This led to the collapse of the government and the rise of the Pahlavi Dynasty.
– The rise of organized labor’s power in Austria-Hungary led eventually to the collapse of the Empire, as strikes and influenza combined to destroy the economy. Regional ethnic groups began to agitate for independence, and eventually more than a dozen nations and proto-nations emerged from its dissolution.
– War losses in Russia led to two successive revolutions and then a prolonged civil war, which eventually brought about the Soviet Union.
Each of these events is an example of citizens working against their wartime governments, which wanted obedient soldiers to march to war and workers to feed the factories. Across Europe an entire generation died and across the world citizens learned to wear masks against the transmission of a deadly influenza, but that was short-lived. The biggest lasting impacts of the First World War on the involved the rise of organized labor, universal suffrage, multiple populist revolutions, and a global improvement in civil rights.
The Enemy isn’t always some foreign government. In many cases, The Enemy is that man in the suit and tall hat who’s calling for war, endorsing conscription, and refusing to pay a living wage. Sometimes it could be the angry demagogue denouncing science and urging popular revolution; others, it could be the internet troll urging you to stop voting and instead “Just burn it all down!” Choosing sides is not enough; some days, every side is in the wrong except that which calls for patience, and there’s no way to know except by thinking it through for ourselves.
Patriotism often either means “My country, right or wrong”, which is tantamount to a brainless devotion to evil, or “My country, but only when it’s right”, which is meaningless. Carl Schurz, formerly a Union general and at that time a senator, later amended the oft-quoted sentiment to, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.” And this, I think, is a true expression of patriotism.
As a result, our roles as citizens in difficult times is not simple. We are required to pick our own enemy rather than have him chosen for us; and when the time is right, we fight. Sometimes this means that the barricades go up and we fight our own government while the army is overseas; others, that we steadfastly resist all calls for violent change and demonstrate peaceably. The times demand discernment and free thought, not mindless reaction — either against the government or for it.
In the end, The Enemy is whoever opposes rational thought.
Remember: Heroism, valor, and courage are virtues, but they’re only worthwhile in a good cause.
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