Ronald Reagan used to be called the Teflon president, on the grounds that no matter what gaffe or scandal engulfed him, it never stuck: he didn’t suffer in the polls. If Reagan was the Teflon president, the military is America’s Teflon institution. Even people who oppose whatever the current war happens to be can be counted on to “support the troops” and to live by the comforting delusion that whatever aberrations may be evident today, the system itself is basically sound.
To add insult to injury, whenever the US government gears up for yet another military intervention, it’s people who pretend to favor “limited government,” and who pride themselves on not falling for government propaganda, who can be counted on to stand up and salute.
I had the rare honor of serving as Ron Paul’s congressional chief of staff, and observed him in many proud moments in those days, and in his presidential campaigns. But Ron’s new book Swords into Plowshares: A Life in Wartime and a Future of Peace and Prosperity, a plainspoken and relentless case against war that ranks alongside Smedley Butler’s classic War Is a Racket, is possibly the proudest Ron Paul moment of all.
It’s been calculated that over the past 5,000 years there have been 14,000 wars fought, resulting in three and a half billion deaths. In the United States, between 1798 and 2015 there have been 369 uses of military force abroad. We have been conditioned to accept this as normal, or at the very least unavoidable. We are told to stifle any moral qualms we may have about mass killing on the question-begging grounds that, after all, “it’s war.”
Ron, on this as on a wide array of other topics, isn’t prepared to accept the conventional platitudes, and a recurring theme in his book involves speculating on whether, in the same way the human race has advanced so extraordinarily from a technological point of view, we might be capable of a comparable moral advance as well.
There is much in this book for libertarians and indeed all opponents of war to enjoy – for starters, a refutation of the claim that war is “good for the economy,” a discussion of the dangers of “blowback” posed by foreign interventionism, and an overview of the War on Terror from a noninterventionist perspective. But there is a profoundly personal dimension to this book as well, as we follow Ron’s life from his childhood to the present and the evolution of his thought on war. I’ll leave readers to discover these gems for themselves.
Likewise, Ron relates some little-known stories of war. In one, it’s two weeks after D-Day, and Captain Jack Tueller decided to play his trumpet that evening. He was instructed not to do so: his commander explained that a German sniper had still not been captured from the day’s battle. Figuring the sniper was a frightened young man not unlike himself, he played the German song “Lili Marleen.” The sniper surrendered to the Americans the next day.
Before being sent off to prison, the sniper asked to meet the trumpet player. He said, through tears, “When I heard that number that you played I thought about my fiancée in Germany. I thought about my mother and dad and about my brothers and sisters, and I could not fire.”
“He stuck out his hand and I shook the hand of the enemy,” Tueller recalls. “He was no enemy. He was scared and lonely like me.”
Another story takes place just before Christmas 1943. Charlie Brown, a 21-year-old farm boy from West Virginia was on his first combat mission as a pilot when his B-17 was seriously damaged over Germany. With half his crew dead or wounded, he was struggling to get his plane back to England when a German fighter came within three feet of his right wingtip. But Franz Stigler, the German pilot, did not fire. Instead, he simply nodded, pointed, and flew off, allowing Brown to make his way back to England.
Some 46 years later, the two men met again. Brown finally got to ask Stigler why he had been pointing. Stigler replied that he was trying to tell Brown to fly to Sweden, which was closer. But since Brown knew only how to get back to England, that’s where he went.
The two men became close friends, even fishing buddies. Stigler said that saving Brown’s life was the only good thing that came out of the whole war for him.
You won’t be surprised to learn that in addition to human-interest anecdotes like these, Ron spends time in Swords into Plowshares linking central banking and war, one of his perennial themes over the years. It isn’t for nothing that again and again, countries abandoned the gold standard when they went to war.
We rarely pause to consider what that tells us. If they needed to abandon the gold standard to go to war, that means the gold standard was a barrier against war. Of course, the ease with which governments could abandon the gold standard serves to remind us of the need to separate money and state altogether, and that the state cannot be trusted to maintain a sound money standard.
As always, Ron is at his fiery best when he unleashes on the neoconservatives, whose every overseas fiasco becomes a justification for still another fiasco six months later. He invites us to consider a typical remark by neoconservative Michael Ledeen: “Paradoxically, peace increases our peril, by making discipline less urgent, encouraging some of our worst instincts, and depriving us of some of our best leaders.”
Note that it is peace, according to Ledeen, and not war, that encourages our worst instincts. This was the view of Theodore Roosevelt, loved and admired by progressives and neoconservatives alike, who considered prolonged peace a deplorable state that made a people flabby and otiose.
Neocons complain when libertarians describe them as “pro-war” – why, they favor war only as a last resort, they assure us, and only because there are bad people in the world – but how else can we describe the views of Ledeen, who to my knowledge has never been publicly taken to task by any other neocon?
(Perhaps my favorite of Ron’s collection of ghoulish neocon quotations, though, if only for its obliviously Orwellian quality, is George W. Bush’s remark from June 2002: “I just want you to know that, when we talk about war, we’re really talking about peace.”)
Meanwhile, the American people have been indoctrinated into a cult of the veteran, whom evangelicals blasphemously compare to Jesus Christ, and whereby everyone is expected to salute, applaud, and offer ostentatious thanks for the veteran’s “service.”
Here, by contrast, is Ron:
“Service” in our military to invade, occupy, and oppress countries in order to extend [the] US Empire must not be glorified as a “heroic” and sacred effort. My five years in the Air Force during the 1960s did not qualify me as any sort of hero. My primary thoughts now about that period of time are: “Why was I so complacent, and why did I so rarely seriously question the wisdom of the Vietnam War?”
Ron calls upon the peoples of the world to resist their governments’ calls to war and to refuse to take part in violent conflict. “If the authoritarians continue to abuse power in spite of constitutional and moral limits,” he writes, “the only recourse left is for the people to go on strike and refuse to sanction the wars and thefts. Deny the dictators your money and your bodies…. The more this is a worldwide movement, the better.”
This is why Ron is such a fan of the song “Universal Soldier,” which he asked singer Aimee Allen to perform at his dramatic Rally for the Republic in 2008. The man who enlists in the military and simply goes along with the prevailing current of opinion is the universal soldier. If he refused to “serve” and to fight, there could be no wars. Even Ron, a flight surgeon who never fired a shot, looks back on his time in the military and asks himself: why did I not resist? Why did I go along?
Needless to say, few among our political class – people who, generally speaking, have rather more to repent of than mild Ron Paul – reflect seriously on their moral choices, or rebuke themselves publicly.
When people read Swords into Plowshares generations from now – and they will – they will marvel that such a man actually served in the US Congress, and defied every campaign of war propaganda right on the House floor. But what’s great about Ron is not just his honesty, but also his constant intellectual growth – with the passage of time he has become an ever-more radical champion of freedom. His evolution is especially plain in this book, as you’ll discover for yourself.
One of the most important things Ron accomplished in public life was to show that it’s possible to oppose war without being a leftist. He likewise explained that a foreign policy of peace and nonintervention was a central, indispensable feature of the message of freedom, and not just an odd personality quirk of Ron Paul – as the many people who said “I like Ron Paul except his foreign policy” seem to have believed.
Bernie Sanders pretends to be antiwar, but as usual with socialists, a closer look shows he doesn’t really mean it. But even if he did, as a socialist he simply wants to point the guns at different targets – the undifferentiated aggregates like “the rich” to whom he urges his followers to direct their uncomprehending hate. Ron, on the other hand, is calling on us to put the guns down, and for peaceful interaction both between nations and among individuals.
It is a position most people had never heard of before 2008, since election campaigns are all about grabbing the machinery of state and pointing its guns at whatever group the eventual victor despises. But Ron captured the imaginations of millions of intelligent young people, whose brains hadn’t yet been deformed by an American political culture designed to deprive them of humane possibilities.
Ron turns 80 this month, and continues his life’s work of truth-telling. Wish Ron a happy birthday by joining us for a celebration in Lake Jackson on August 15, and by reading this extraordinary book.