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Civil Wars and Independence

Civil Wars and Independence

by William H. Benson

July 4, 2013

     In George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty Four, his major character Winston Smith stood in a bar to buy a beer for an old man. The old man appreciated Smith’s gesture but said that the beer was better before the war, and Smith asked him,  “Which war was that?” The old man replied, “It’s all wars.”

     Although Orwell’s book is fiction, it is true that much of humanity’s history revolves around fights, revolutions, and civil wars. Some historians devote their full working careers to a single war, a single battle, or a single general involved in a single battle. They trace the reasons behind the war, how it progressed, and how it ended, but no historian prevents a war from beginning, or ends a war once it has begun. They are not in a position of power to do either.

     The only exception was the historian and Princeton professor Woodrow Wilson, our 28th President, but he asked Congress for a declaration of war on the Axis powers in the Great War, World War I. 

    This week Americans celebrate Continental Congress’s vote to declare the thirteen colonies free and independent of King George III’s control and also their acceptance of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Also, on July 1, 2, and 3 we mark the 150th anniversary at Gettsyburg.

     The American Revolution was a civil war. Englishmen were fighting Englishmen, with the French siding with the American Englishmen. The Civil War in the United States was Americans from the North or the Union, fighting Americans from the Southern States or the Confederacy, but no British, French, German, or Spanish government or troops intervened. Then, there was the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, Mexico’s Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War—each a civil war.

     Twenty years ago, the former Yugoslavia deteriorated into a bloody civil war that included “ethnic cleansing” directed mainly against the Muslims. The horrific killing ceased four years later in 1995 once the United Nations forced all participants to agree on peace terms. Two years ago in the Arab Spring, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya revolted against their respective dictators and won independence.

     Syria tried the same against Bashar al-Assad, but he fought back. He begged for and received help from Iran and now is close to crushing the rebels. After two years of indecision, our President has decided now to give weapons and arms to the rebels. A civil war has broken out among the journalists. Some say it is a mistake, that the United States has no vital interest in the fight, and that it will end in war with the Iranians and Russians, but others, including John McCain, argue for more assistance.

     Syria’s civil war will end, as all wars do end, but how and when remains hidden.

     A fundamental feature of Western thought is that stubborn faith in human progress, in human beings’ ability to create a world of justice and peace. Those noble ideals are swept away once people pick up a gun and shoot at their neighbor. No justice exists when innocent people are caught in the crossfire. The Syrian civil war has killed between 75,000 and 100,000 lives. “Its all wars.”

     Why is there a civil war? On some occasions, an individual grabs for power. He wishes to crush and remove the existing holder of that power. But more often the people rebel. They are tired of the tyranny, the lack of freedoms to say and do as they please. They are tired of the lack of good jobs, of economic opportunities. They are tired of being bullied, intimidated, and repressed. They hope for a better future.

     Thomas Paine told the Americans in 1776 in Common Sense that it was smart to rebel against King George III, to establish their own government, and to rule themselves without a monarch. Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, and Adams read Paine’s work, agreed with his words, and declared their independence. In his book The Rights of Man, Paine spoke of the “natural dignity of man,” and that he was “irritated at the attempt to govern mankind by force and fraud.”

     Paine was expanding upon John Locke’s ideas decades before Paine lived. Locke said that government is there to serve the wishes of the people by protecting life, liberty, and property. People can rule themselves by a representative government and by obedience to the law. They can denounce tyranny, and they have the right to rebel. Locke’s ideas are lofty, life-fulfilling, but dangerous to peace.

     To move from repression, tyranny, and “force and fraud,” to independence and self-government, one has to pass first through a civil war. Few people in powerful positions want to yield their power to another, and yet some do. Pope Benedict XVI resigned. Too bad that Bashar al-Assad will not resign. His current term as president will expire in May 2014, but do we dare hope he will not run again?

     Big Brother told Winston Smith and all of Oceania that “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength.” No, no, and no. War is not peace, but peace is more than the absence of war. Peace includes strength, knowledge, and freedom; the rule of law; independence without bloodshed; and self-government, without “force and fraud.”