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Shedding blood for liberty

By John Quiggin - posted Tuesday, 29 January 2008

A brawl has erupted over a statement in the stump speech of Republican candidate Fred Thompson, who asserts that the US has “shed more blood for other people’s liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world”. As the Washington Post points out, our Russian allies lost millions in World War II alone, as did Britain and France in World War I which (at least nominally) they entered “that small nations might be free”. In fact, US casualties in World War I (about 120,000 killed and 200,000 wounded) were comparable to those of Australia and New Zealand, which between them had about 5 per cent of the US population.

Unsurprisingly, various people have tried to quibble by saying that the other losses weren’t in defence of freedom, so that Thompson’s claim is true by default. But in that case, Thompson ought to have said something like “the US, alone among nations, fights for the freedom of others” which at least sounds like standard meaningless stump-speech rhetoric rather than a false factual claim.

Leaving motivations aside, the striking fact is that Thompson’s claim is pretty much the opposite of the truth. The US is notable among major nations in how little it has suffered in foreign wars, and this helps to explain why the war party is so strong there.


Until Vietnam, by the official count, the US had never lost a foreign war. In fact, US forces had hardly ever even been in retreat - in both the World Wars, the entry of substantial US forces marked the turning point for the Allied side. In the World Wars, the US lost far fewer soldiers, in relation to its population, than most other countries. And, with the exception of some modest rationing in World War II, the civilian population of the US has been essentially unaffected by war.

I’m not saying this in criticism. One reason for this relatively benign experience has been that for most of its history, the US was more reluctant to go to war than other countries, and, by comparison with the European empires of the 19th century, unwilling to engage in wars of imperial expansion*. That hasn’t stopped Americans accepting some fairly hypocritical pretexts for war, but then hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.

The problem now is that most people in Europe and elsewhere have learned from experience that war is always bad, and usually worse than even bad alternatives, but many Americans have not. For the Republican core, war is a positive good, and victory the manifest destiny of the United States. The myth of American invincibility is modified only by the possibility of domestic treason, which accounts for the defeat in Vietnam and is already being used as a pre-emptive explanation for defeat in Iraq.

The Republican core can’t be ignored. They make up 30 per cent of the population, and an even larger proportion of the opinion elite, and the Foreign Policy Community. Worse still, the rest of the Foreign Policy Community, and most of the opinion elite more generally, differ only in degree from this position. You can’t be taken seriously by the Foreign Policy Community unless you accept the premise that “America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened”, and the practical implication that such threats are common enough to require regular resort to war.

Perhaps this will change when Bush is gone and the scale of the disaster in Iraq sinks in. It seems that the lessons of the futility of war can be learned only through repeated bloody catastrophe. The best that can be said is that, if the US can learn from Vietnam and Iraq the lessons that it took two world wars to teach Europe, perhaps some progress is being made.

* This restraint didn’t extend to Native Americans.

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First published at John Quiggin on September 23, 2007

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About the Author

Professor John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow based at the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.

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