As war is one of the heaviest of national evils, a calamity in which every species of misery is involved; as it sets the general safety to hazard, suspends commerce, and desolates the country; as it exposes great numbers to hardships, dangers, captivity and death; no man who desires the public prosperity will inflame general resentment by aggravating minute injuries or enforcing disputable rights of little importance.
He that wishes to see his country robbed of its rights cannot be a Patriot.
That man therefore is no Patriot who justifies the ridiculous claims of American usurpation; who endeavours to deprive the nation of its natural and lawful authority over its own colonies: those colonies which were settled under English protection; were constituted by an English charter; and have been defended by English arms.~ Samuel Johnson, The Patriot
These selections address a particular situation in British and American history in 1774, but each of these three statements makes broader claims that touch on our contemporary affairs and American self-understanding. Dr. Johnson was, of course, a dedicated Tory in principle, who, unlike some of his contemporary Whigs, possessed little sympathy for the American rebels or their arguments. Two important themes emerge from these statements (which I have, it should be noted, taken out of their original context for the sake of brevity and clarity): patriots tend to abhor war, and patriots oppose usurpation.
Americans are in no danger of large-scale desolation of our own country by force of alien arms, in spite of what some of the fearmongers may say, and our country is perhaps more secure from likely foreign threats than at any time in the last sixty years. It is difficult for us to imagine arguing over the decision for war or peace with any real consequences to our own land in mind, because the overwhelming arsenal the government has developed makes such dangers very small. But Dr. Johnson’s remark is invaluable precisely because it reminds us that we should weigh support for war as if these dangers might come upon our country through the prosecution of a war, and it should remind us of the devastating effect war will inevitably have on some of our countrymen.
As of this writing, approximately 950 Americans have died in a war that need not have happened, and hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in similarly unnecessary wars down through the decades. Tepid, saccharine salutes to “our troops” by the very leaders who sent them unnecessarily into combat are perhaps more insulting and more repugnant than a leadership that simply ignores the soldiers all together: as in so many things, the false pretense of decency is somehow more offensive than overt baseness. If nothing else, this quote may help keep in mind the sinister destruction and dislocation that war brings to any people who must endure its terrors, so that the public will be less inclined to listen to the agitators who seek to inflame opinion against some smaller, outmatched, outgunned country. Should we ever be, God forbid, on the brink of conflict with a powerful, well-armed adversary, then it should remind us of the potentially disastrous consequences for a country that war can entail.
Just war theory stipulates that the response must be proportional to the injury, and where only slight injury or no injury at all exists it should be very hard to justify a military response. The Declaration claims that no people should break its political bonds with another for light or transient causes, yet it is inescapable that the authors of that document declared independence for what really were light and transient causes. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the rebellion was unjustified, born of usurpation and therefore, as Dr. Johnson would have it, unpatriotic.
Obviously, if one party has done literally nothing to the other, military action is no longer a “response” but a provocation. This reminds me that one of the constant complaints of the advocates for the Iraq war was the fact that Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries would fire on or lock onto American jets patrolling the so-called “no-fly zones” in nothern and southern Iraq. Besides the fact that these zones were illegal under international law, which makes the American position completely unreasonable, these incidents, in which fortunately no Americans were injured, are examples of minor conflicts that could not possibly justify a war. Likewise, the absurdity of citing U.N. resolutions or violations of an inhuman sanctions regime becomes clear when one considers the human cost of enforcing these meaningless political statements. Any number of other Iraqi “crimes” were as equally as light and transient where our country was concerned.
The other general theme of usurpation, especially that related to American independence, is even less comfortable for Americans of all stripes, among both opponents and defenders of the current war. We are not accustomed of thinking, or do not want to think, of the Founders as what they legally and, in some sense, objectively were: usurpers of lawful authority. When they ran into the legal barriers that impeded their goals, they invoked higher authorities of natural law and myths of past Whig revolutions to escape the unpleasant truth that they were only rebels and not patriots in Dr. Johnson’s sense.
American history has been characterised at many points, in a sense, by a series of important usurpations: the Constitutional Convention usurped power from the then-recognised lawful authorities in the states as defined by the Articles of Confederation; the Supreme Court usurped the power of ultimate arbitration of the constitutionality of federal laws (later to be expanded to state laws by even more obnoxious courts in modern times); one President usurps the right to purchase vast territories, and another usurps the right to levy armies, squelch dissent, disband elected legislatures and attack sovereign American states at his discretion, while another arrogates to himself the right to violate official neutrality and aid belligerent nations in secret, ultimately at great cost to the nation through entanglement in foreign war. Standard American histories tend to look very favourably upon the usurpers as great men, “leaders” who blazed trails for the nation to follow, even though in all other nations and in all other histories Americans tend to see such figures as arbitrary and despotic men exploiting their subjects for their own benefit.
It is substantially correct to describe the current war in Iraq as imperialist in conventional parlance, insofar as it aims to direct and dominate the political, economic and foreign policy future of another people according to the interests of the home country at the expense of the former’s effective independence, self-rule and sovereignty. Many antiwar commentators take great satisfaction in noting the erstwhile anti-imperialism in the American War for Independence, while pro-war advocates are just as enthused in using revolutionary language to justify their “liberation” of a subject people. I submit that opponents of the present wrongful hegemonism are wrong to rely on revolutionary precedents, as the political sicknesses of domination, usurpation and revolution are intertwined and mutually supportive. The real strength of the present antiwar position, and the conservative position generally, is that it defends legitimate and constituted authorities, such as the Constitution, international law or sovereign states, against the usurpation of revolutionaries.
In so much of the discussion of empire current in foreign policy circles and political commentary, the real meaning of empire is quite forgotten. Empire is, at one level, simply supreme political authority above which there is no greater authority–this was the meaning when Thomas Cromwell arged through an act of Parliament that England was an empire, as a means of claiming a kind of independence from papal authority. Empire is, in this sense, what most people imagine modern national sovereignty to be. But John Adams argued against his rival pamphleteer, Massachutensis, that one could not even refer to a “British empire” because the British monarchy was constitutional and a fundamental law theoretically prevailed, which he held was not the case in an empire. Therefore, a state ruled by such a fundamental law could never be an empire, and it seems to be the case that states that seek to become empires (using Adams’ definition of empire) have to ignore or dismantle their fundamental laws.
It is perhaps more accurate to refer to what has occurred in Iraq as a dominatio, which was a term often used when referring to the violent seizures of power that sometimes occurred in Roman republican history, because empire means command (imperium), with the implication of lawful command and authority, principally related to military and judicial matters, but which might also have the implication of overall political sovereignty of a state. It is in this last sense that one refers to the Roman state as an empire, which is to say a sovereignty, including in it all those territories subject to the sovereignty of Rome.
It might therefore be more accurate to say that an American empire, if we could refer to American sovereignty in this way, has no rights in Iraq, because American government has no claim to lawful authority over other peoples. What the American government has done in Iraq is not an example of empire, but of usurpation and domination, just as what the British were doing in America was an example of empire, which is why its authority was legitimate and rebellions against that empery were simply usurpations. Contrary to Adams’ definition and argument, it was because the British possessed empire in the colonies that the fundamental laws of Britain obtained at all in the colonies. In this way, if there were no British empire in America in the 1770s there could be no appeal to the laws of that authority.