A 1777 Conservative critique of the Iraq War
Posted by Dave Bath on 2006-11-02
Edmund Burke, a representative of Bristol in the late 1770s, is claimed by conservatives as one of their leading lights, yet his famous 1777 letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol on the Affairs of America (available for free download from Project Gutenberg) provides an excellent critique of the methods used by the Coalition of the Willing in domestic and international matters.
First, Burke’s credentials among conservatives: Margaret Thatcher (a hero of Howard’s) made many references to Burke’s wisdom in her speeches, and even John Howard himself makes specific references to him in speeches found on the PM’s own website.
- 2006-09-08, Launch of “The Conservative” : And that of course where our conservative tradition comes in. We carry the Burkean tradition of conservatism within our ranks. We believe that if institutions have demonstrably failed they ought to be changed or reformed.
- 2006-04-18, Menzies Research Centre : A country, as Edmund Burke observed, “is not a thing of mere physical locality”. Nor is it just individuals in a market place. A country is also connected by a hidden chain of social obligations.
- 1999-07-04, Federal Liberal Party Council : And in doing that we should always remember the character of the Liberal Party of Australia. Unique almost amongst centre-right parties in the democratic world, the Liberal Party of Australia is the trustee of two great traditions within Australian politics and Australian public life and debate. It is the trustee of both the conservative tradition and the Liberal tradition. It is not exclusively a conservative party nor is it exclusively a liberal party in the classical sense of the word. It is the party of Edmund Burke as much as it is the party of John Stuart Mill.
- 1997-06-23, Menzies Memorial Lecture : The Australian liberal tradition embraces the philosophies of both Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill. It draws on both the classical liberal and the conservative political traditions. It emphasises the importance of individual freedoms and responsibilities, and the relevance of values and obligations in securing outcomes that are in the national interest.
- 1997-08-23, Tasmania : I’ve often been accused of having a form of Burkian liberalism in my veins. Burke extolled the view that you didn’t remove a practice or an institution unless its worth was demonstrated as no more. In other words he was what you might call a selective conservative or a discerning radical. You can take your pick.
Burke’s relevance to the Iraq adventure: Now, having established Burke’s conservative credentials, it is time for quotes from Burke’s letter explaining his position, considered unpatriotic at a time of war (with the rebellious American colonies), to his electors. Burke was firm in his belief in the rightness of British sovereignty over the Americas, but just as firm in his condemnation of the means by which Britain prosecuted the war. I will not paraphrase, nor take snippets that leave me open to the accusation that I take them out of context. I merely remind you to substitute “Pirate” with “Terrorist”, “War in America by the British” with “War in Iraq by the US”, and for the traditional enemy “France”, read “radical islam”.
How might Burke have viewed the profligate labelling of anti-US fighters as terrorists?
It seems to have in view two capital objects: the first, to enable administration to confine, as long as it shall think proper, those whom that act is pleased to qualify by the name of pirates. Those so qualified I understand to be the commanders and mariners of such privateers and ships of war belonging to the colonies as in the course of this unhappy contest may fall into the hands of the crown. They are therefore to be detained in prison, under the criminal description of piracy, to a future trial and ignominious punishment, whenever circumstances shall make it convenient to execute vengeance on them, under the color of that odious and infamous offence. To this first purpose of the law I have no small dislike, because the act does not (as all laws and all equitable transactions ought to do) fairly describe its object. The persons who make a naval war upon us, in consequence of the present troubles, may be rebels; but to call and treat them as pirates is confounding not only the natural distinction of things, but the order of crimes,—which, whether by putting them from a higher part of the scale to the lower or from the lower to the higher, is never done without dangerously disordering the whole frame of jurisprudence.
And a few lines later, he might be talking about Guantanamo Bay:
…This is, however, saying too little; for to try a man under that act is, in effect, to condemn him unheard. A person is brought hither in the dungeon of a ship’s hold; thence he is vomited into a dungeon on land, loaded with irons, unfurnished with money, unsupported by friends, three thousand miles from all means of calling upon or confronting evidence, where no one local circumstance that tends to detect perjury can possibly be judged of;—such a person may be executed according to form, but he can never be tried according to justice.
On winning hearts and minds
If your peace be nothing more than a sullen pause from arms, if their quiet be nothing but the meditation of revenge, where smitten pride smarting from its wounds festers into new rancor, neither the act of Henry the Eighth nor its handmaid of this reign will answer any wise end of policy or justice. For, if the bloody fields which they saw and felt are not sufficient to subdue the reason of America, (to use the expressive phrase of a great lord in office,) it is not the judicial slaughter which is made in another hemisphere against their universal sense of justice that will ever reconcile them to the British government.
On changes to habeas corpus:
The main operative regulation of the act is to suspend the Common Law and the statute Habeas Corpus (the sole securities either for liberty or justice) with regard to all those who have been out of the realm, or on the high seas, within a given time. The rest of the people, as I understand, are to continue as they stood before…
He continues on the dangers of the gradual diminution of freedom:
…I confess, Gentlemen, that this appears to me as bad in the principle, and far worse in its consequence, than an universal suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act; and the limiting qualification, instead of taking out the sting, does in my humble opinion sharpen and envenom it to a greater degree. Liberty, if I understand it at all, is a general principle, and the clear right of all the subjects within the realm, or of none. Partial freedom seems to me a most invidious mode of slavery. But, unfortunately, it is the kind of slavery the most easily admitted in times of civil discord: for parties are but too apt to forget their own future safety in their desire of sacrificing their enemies. People without much difficulty admit the entrance of that injustice of which they are not to be the immediate victims. In times of high proceeding it is never the faction of the predominant power that is in danger: for no tyranny chastises its own instruments. It is the obnoxious and the suspected who want the protection of law; and there is nothing to bridle the partial violence of state factions but this,—”that, whenever an act is made for a cessation of law and justice, the whole people should be universally subjected to the same suspension of their franchises.” The alarm of such a proceeding would then be universal. It would operate as a sort of call of the nation. It would become every man’s immediate and instant concern to be made very sensible of the absolute necessity of this total eclipse of liberty. They would more carefully advert to every renewal, and more powerfully resist it. These great determined measures are not commonly so dangerous to freedom. They are marked with too strong lines to slide into use. No plea, nor pretence, of inconvenience or evil example (which must in their nature be daily and ordinary incidents) can be admitted as a reason for such mighty operations. But the true danger is when liberty is nibbled away, for expedients, and by parts.
What might Buke have thought about the Military Commissions and the changes to the reliability of evidence required for conviction?
The Habeas Corpus Act supposes, contrary to the genius of most other laws, that the lawful magistrate may see particular men with a malignant eye, and it provides for that identical case. But when men, in particular descriptions, marked out by the magistrate himself, are delivered over by Parliament to this possible malignity, it is not the Habeas Corpus that is occasionally suspended, but its spirit that is mistaken, and its principle that is subverted. Indeed, nothing is security to any individual but the common interest of all… Other laws may injure the community; this dissolves it. As things now stand, every man in the West Indies, every one inhabitant of three unoffending provinces on the continent, every person coming from the East Indies, every gentleman who has travelled for his health or education, every mariner who has navigated the seas, is, for no other offence, under a temporary proscription. Let any of these facts (now become presumptions of guilt) be proved against him, and the bare suspicion of the crown puts him out of the law. It is even by no means clear to me whether the negative proof does not lie upon the person apprehended on suspicion, to the subversion of all justice.
On the Green Zone in Baghdad:
Not one unattacked village which was originally adverse throughout that vast continent has yet submitted from love or terror. You have the ground you encamp on, and you have no more. The cantonments of your troops and your dominions are exactly of the same extent. You spread devastation, but you do not enlarge the sphere of authority.
On pacifists as aiders and abetters of terrorists, and the refusal to negotiate:
I know many have been taught to think that moderation in a case like this is a sort of treason,—and that all arguments for it are sufficiently answered by railing at rebels and rebellion, and by charging all the present or future miseries which we may suffer on the resistance of our brethren. But I would wish them, in this grave matter, and if peace is not wholly removed from their hearts, to consider seriously, first, that to criminate and recriminate never yet was the road to reconciliation, in any difference amongst men… Declaiming on rebellion never added a bayonet or a charge of powder to your military force; but I am afraid that it has been the means of taking up many muskets against you.
On the warmongers sitting in safety and the monies allocated to war:
I should have been in some degree astonished at the continued rage of several gentlemen, who, not satisfied with carrying fire and sword, …are animated nearly with the same fury against those neighbors of theirs, …All this rage against unresisting dissent convinces me, that, at bottom, they are far from satisfied they are in the right. For what is it they would have? A war? They certainly have at this moment the blessing of something that is very like one; and if the war they enjoy at present be not sufficiently hot and extensive, they may shortly have it as warm and as spreading as their hearts can desire. Is it the force of the kingdom they call for? They have it already; and if they choose to fight their battles in their own person, nobody prevents their setting sail to America in the next transports. Do they think that the service is stinted for want of liberal supplies? Indeed they complain without reason. The table of the House of Commons will glut them, let their appetite for expense be never so keen. And I assure them further, that those who think with them in the House of Commons are full as easy in the control as they are liberal in the vote of these expenses. If this be not supply or confidence sufficient, let them open their own private purse-strings, and give, from what is left to them, as largely and with as little care as they think proper.
On the need for pacifists among the coalition of the willing:
They are continually boasting of unanimity, or calling for it. But before this unanimity can be matter either of wish or congratulation, we ought to be pretty sure that we are engaged in a rational pursuit. Frenzy does not become a slighter distemper on account of the number of those who may be infected with it… I conceive it would be happy for us, if they were taught to believe that there was even a formed American party in England, to whom they could always look for support.
I believe there is not a man (except those who prefer the interest of some paltry faction to the very being of their country) who would not wish that the Americans should from time to time carry many points, and even some of them not quite reasonable, by the aid of any denomination of men here, rather than they should be driven to seek for protection against the fury of foreign mercenaries and the waste of savages in the arms of France.
On “staying the course”, regardless of blatant errors:
In order to produce this favorite unanimity in delusion, and to prevent all possibility of a return to our ancient happy concord, arguments for our continuance in this course are drawn from the wretched situation itself into which we have been betrayed. It is said, that, being at war with the colonies, whatever our sentiments might have been before, all ties between us are now dissolved, and all the policy we have left is to strengthen the hands of government to reduce them. On the principle of this argument, the more mischiefs we suffer from any administration, the more our trust in it is to be confirmed. Let them but once get us into a war, and then their power is safe, and an act of oblivion passed for all their misconduct.
On the duty of a democratic citenzenry to pull a belligerent executive to peace, even after terrorist attacks and the inflammation of passions by the mass media:
But is it really true that government is always to be strengthened with the instruments of war, but never furnished with the means of peace? In former times, ministers, I allow, have been sometimes driven by the popular voice to assert by arms the national honor against foreign powers. But the wisdom of the nation has been far more clear, when those ministers have been compelled to consult its interests by treaty. We all know that the sense of the nation obliged the court of Charles the Second to abandon the Dutch war: a war, next to the present, the most impolitic which we ever carried on. The good people of England considered Holland as a sort of dependency on this kingdom; they dreaded to drive it to the protection or subject it to the power of France by their own inconsiderate hostility. They paid but little respect to the court jargon of that day; nor were they inflamed by the pretended rivalship of the Dutch in trade,—by the massacre at Amboyna, acted on the stage to provoke the public vengeance,—nor by declamations against the ingratitude of the United Provinces for the benefits England had conferred upon them in their infant state. They were not moved from their evident interest by all these arts; nor was it enough to tell them, they were at war, that they must go through with it, and that the cause of the dispute was lost in the consequences. The people of England were then, as they are now, called upon to make government strong. They thought it a great deal better to make it wise and honest.
Here Burke chastises not only the modern conservative politicians who claim to revere him, but the 21st Century electorates that lack the sense and ability to check the executive so amply demonstrated by the average Englishman of the 1670s when the Dutch conflict occurred. And that conflict was over spices, the economic equivalent of today’s oil!
Concluding ThoughtsThe politicians of the “Coalition of the Willing” must either confess their hypocrisy, or correct their actions. The electorates must admit their lack of wisdom and force a change of course, either by effective lobbying or with the vote.
The final word, on the moral dangers of hegemony, I leave to Burke:
There never, Gentlemen, was a period in which the steadfastness of some men has been put to so sore a trial. It is not very difficult for well-formed minds to abandon their interest; but the separation of fame and virtue is an harsh divorce. Liberty is in danger of being made unpopular to Englishmen. Contending for an imaginary power, we begin to acquire the spirit of domination, and to lose the relish of honest equality.
- 2007-06-29: Liberal Party traditions hijacked: 2
- Edward Gibbon, of "Decline and Fall" fame, another favorite of mine, called Burke "the most eloquent and rational madman that I ever knew".