War has been an engine of freedom in U.S. history. The nation’s biggest wars transformed the meaning of citizenship, creating new rights. The Civil War abolished slavery and made all American-born men citizens for the first time. World War II promoted welfare rights — a social safety net, decent employment and higher education, among others — what Franklin D. Roosevelt famously called “freedom from want.”
But over the past 16 years, war has imperiled rather than advanced American ideals by becoming about dominance rather than freedom. Our military actions, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya and Syria, have reflected increased investments in firepower, accompanied by diminished attention to political change, economic development and institution-building — the essential prerequisites for democratic freedoms. Fear of terrorism has justified excessive and habitual suspension of good governance, ultimately creating a more fertile seedbed for terrorists.
Abandoning freedom abroad has consequences at home. Dominance has emerged as the driver of domestic politics, as well. Demands for “border security” are used by the president and his core supporters to justify racism and domestic violence aimed at protecting white male dominance. Our leaders have nurtured what the Justice Department calls a crisis of “domestic terrorism” within U.S. borders, perpetrated by U.S. citizens, not foreigners.
Osama bin Laden famously promised to expose America’s decadent culture and destroy the United States. Despite his death at the hands of U.S. Special Operations forces in 2011, he accomplished many of his goals.
The war on terrorism has made the U.S. presidency itself a threat to, not a defender of, democracy. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama drastically expanded executive powers by combining secrecy with new technologies to incarcerate and kill hundreds of people, including numerous Americans, with little public oversight. They interrogated thousands of alleged terrorists without due process in military prisons, including Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca in Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Presidential powers increased considerably at home, as well. Bush created a gargantuan new Department of Homeland Security, expanded domestic surveillance (especially through electronic technologies) and funded the militarization of municipal police forces. Obama continued many of these programs, and he pursued new efforts to limit media freedom by aggressively prosecuting alleged government “leakers” and the reporters who wrote about them. Anti-terrorism measures necessitated fewer freedoms at home under both of these presidents.
These recent wartime actions drew on strong historical precedents, but they were not accompanied, as they were in the past, by enlargements of freedom in other areas. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln consolidated presidential control over the military, and he repeatedly violated due process protections for secessionists.
But at the same time, he expanded federal land grants for citizens through the Homestead Act and public higher education through the Morrill Act. Lincoln also emancipated the slaves in Confederate territories and pushed for the final elimination of slavery in the United States.
During World War II, Roosevelt incarcerated innocent citizens — especially Japanese Americans — and limited media freedoms, but he also ended employment discrimination in defense industries and funded homeownership and higher education for millions of Americans through the GI Bill. Building on the New Deal, Roosevelt made the federal government a protector of citizen welfare. Despite serious setbacks and limitations, the Civil War and World War II left hopeful legacies for freedom in the United States.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the opposite has been the case. The federal government has enabled increased surveillance of citizens, including phone and email usage, without a new body of law to ensure privacy. Aggressive interrogation and deportation of individuals residing within the United States have escalated during this period without necessary protections against intimidation, racial profiling and cruelty. As a whole, the federal government has pulled back from enforcing rights, allowing unequal treatment of citizens to deepen in law enforcement, housing, employment and education.
The wars after the Sept. 11 attacks are also the first extended conflicts in U.S. history in which presidents have failed to call for collective sacrifice from the American people. At the start of the Civil War, Lincoln asked the governors of Union states to raise volunteers. By 1863, he turned to direct conscription by the federal government, creating a new obligation of federal military service for all male citizens between ages 20 and 45.
During World War II, Roosevelt went a step further. In addition to a military draft, he used federally enforced rations and wage and price controls to mobilize resources at home for the battlefields. The U.S. Treasury relied on war bond sales to help fund the conflict, giving individuals a financial stake in it.
After the war, during the early Cold War, the military draft remained in place while citizens paid the highest discretionary income taxes in U.S. history to fund foreign and domestic programs — including the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill and the Interstate Highway System.
A badge of honor for prior generations, the phrase “collective sacrifice” has become almost taboo in the early 21st century. Why should the most powerful and righteous country in the world have to sacrifice? We would beat the terrorists, Bush promised, by continuing to shop. We would defend our democracy, Obama thought, by replacing large armies with drones, private contractors and elite Special Operations forces.
This aversion to collective sacrifice reverberates beyond the battlefield. The historical record clearly shows that the expansion of freedom demands shared work across social and cultural divisions, rather than license to do as one pleases. A world of individual assertion allows the rich and powerful to dominate the poor and weak, as happened on the early 19th-century frontier, in Gilded Age cities and in the recent American economy.
The shared sacrifice of wartime once shaped domestic opportunity in profound ways. Redistributive tax policies and increased funding for public education — legislated during the other great wars — rebalanced differences and created more choices for more people. As Lincoln and Roosevelt recognized, freedom for Americans has always meant opportunity (to live, work and learn), not license (to control and dominate).
To raise one’s station in life has always been at the core of the American Dream. The Civil War, World War II and the Cold War created new opportunities for millions of Americans. The wars since September 11, 2001, have not. Each of the earlier conflicts opened the gates of American citizenship to formerly excluded groups. This was particularly true of the Cold War, and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 in particular, which allowed tens of thousands of formerly restricted non-European immigrants to become American. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has reversed course.
In short, how we engaged our enemies mattered enormously for how our society evolved. And now our society has grown more fragmented and unequal because that is how we have chosen to fight.
From the first days after Sept. 11, 2001, we have missed a historical opportunity to turn our gravest challenges into sources of unity, creativity and self-improvement. Rather than encouraging a collective mentality with high income taxes and war bond campaigns, our tax policies now exacerbate differences between rich and poor. Our criminal policies have stigmatized groups in the name of safety, rather than offering opportunities for rehabilitation, hope and a new beginning.
Most egregiously, our systematic underinvestment in public institutions and infrastructure has denied ambitious risers the resources they need to get started. Instead, so many Americans are stuck. And that is a policy choice we have made, again and again, since Sept. 11, 2001.
Freedom has become as empty as the concept of sacrifice in our current political rhetoric. President Trump, explaining yet another escalation of war in Afghanistan, barely mentioned freedom or democracy. Both words appeared only once in his Aug. 21 address. He used the word “attack” eight times, “win” six times and “victory” four times.
Victory for whom? Winning what? Like his predecessors, Trump did not offer much content for the purpose of American wars, other than protecting what we have. Our wars are no longer engines of freedom because our leaders fight for victory, not for a deeper purpose. Without purpose, we should not fight. Without purpose, we cannot win. Anybody notice that it has been a long time since we won a war? We are fighting wars against our own democracy — and these wars have come home, from Kabul to Charlottesville.