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Defending Freedom Through Brute Force (Some Thoughts for Memorial Day)

Updated on May 30, 2013

At what point can a nation no longer claim to be promoting freedom?

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

- Abraham Lincoln (Closing words of the Gettysburg Address)

The Gettysburg Address, delivered to commemorate the Union soldiers who died at the battle of Gettysburg, is one of the most famous speeches in American History. And in the couple of minutes that it took him to deliver the speech, President Lincoln managed to sum up his primary goal in the Civil War. This great conflict was not just about saving the Union. It was about saving the whole concept of representative government.

Representative government, after all, was hardly the norm in the mid-nineteenth century. Instead, as in much of the world today, monarchs and dictators were the typical rulers. The United States, however, was a noble experiment to see if people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs could function together in a society in which they would have the opportunity to elect their leaders. In theory, leaders would then be more accountable to the people, and government would serve the people rather than the other way around. Contemporary advocates for more traditional systems of government such as monarchies would argue that this idealistic fantasy could never work. A government’s primary function was to maintain order, and in a world filled with immoral, self-centered ignoramuses, a government reflecting the will of the people would be incompetent, and a form of anarchy would be the inevitable result. Too much emphasis on individual rights and personal freedom could only lead to chaos, and a nation without a strong security apparatus would be vulnerable to foreign invasion.

So in Lincoln’s mind, if the South succeeded in breaking up the Union, it would confirm the arguments of those who were skeptical of representative government. The noble experiment would have failed, with the predicted violence and disunion finally materializing. And if the South managed to successfully break away, more secession movements were bound to follow. But if the Union could be saved, then the United States could continue to serve as a role model for people around the world aspiring to free themselves from the chains of dictators.

The irony of Lincoln’s argument, however, was that he did not hold the Union together by appealing to its noble principles. Instead, it was held together by brute force. Southerners, in fact, would argue that they were the ones standing up for the principle of self-government. Since the states that joined the Confederacy had no wish to remain in the United States, they should have been allowed to peacefully walk away. So in the minds of Southerners, Lincoln essentially became a tyrant in ordering an invasion of the South and forcing them to obey a government and a leader who they no longer recognized.

This would not be the first or the last time that the United States defended “freedom” through brute force. Throughout the nineteenth century, as the United States expanded westward, nearly continuous wars took place between people of the United States and Native Americans, conflicts partially justified by Americans’ desire to push back “savagery” in the name of spreading our “noble” civilization. Before the Civil War finally led to the end of slavery, Americans in both the North and the South profited from the labor of people denied any of the civil rights that our country, supposedly, so uniquely upheld. Over the course of the twentieth and now twenty-first century, in order to combat the threats of fascism, communism, and terrorism, the United States government engaged in a host of activities that some would argue contradict our noble principles: carpet bombing cities, CIA covert actions, communist “witch hunts,” spying on American citizens, targeted assassinations, undeclared wars, “enhanced” interrogation techniques, use of chemical agents, and the list could go on. At some point, does a nation that resorts to these sorts of activities in order to promote and defend its way of life forfeit any claim to be a beacon of individual rights and representative government? Or have these been necessary actions to defend ourselves against individuals and governments who have demonstrated the capacity to do things that are far worse?

Maybe those 19th century advocates for monarchy were right. Strict adherence to the noble principles of representative government and individual rights may not be practical. The government needs to do certain things in secret. Potentially dangerous people need to be monitored, interrogated, and sometimes locked up. Brute force needs to be used against people of other nations so that it is not eventually used on us. Many people, whether Americans or foreigners, are held back from joining rebellions, committing crimes, or carrying out terrorist attacks by fear of our nation’s security forces, not by their respect for noble American principles. This does not mean, of course, that we need to completely throw out elections, due process of law, and free expression. But there has to be certain limitations to the public’s right to know, express, believe, and do what they wish. And in a world filled with bad guys, aren’t there times when you might have to ally yourselves with other bad guys or become a little harsh yourself?

There are no simple answers to these questions. Any political leaders or philosophers concerned with doing what is best recognize that there is a continual juggling act occurring between balancing public safety with personal freedom. Abraham Lincoln may have been the most brilliant man to ever sit in the White House. (Although you could make the case that this isn’t saying much.) And in maybe his most brilliant of speeches, he laid down side by side the notions of justified, brutal force and government “by the people, for the people.” And every time we honor a fallen soldier on Memorial Day, we do the same thing. But when have the various causes that they have fought and died for been truly carried out in the cause of “freedom”? This is the kind of question that all Americans should ponder every Memorial Day, not just which three-day sale to attend, vacation spot to visit, or type of meat to slap on the barbeque.


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    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      It's a dilemma that has faced every government and society since the dawn of democracy. It seems to be an impossibility to stand up for the freedoms of our own countries, without denying some to those who are our enemies. World War II was won because the allies destroyed Germany and Japan. There just doesn't seem to be any other way of managing affairs in extreme circumstances.