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Thoreau, Unjust Wars, Voting, and Impeachment

Thoreau, Unjust Wars, Voting, and Impeachment

By Sherwood Ross

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld’s warning the War on Terror promises to be a long, drawn-out struggle akin to the Cold War comes from an eminent authority on war-making and must be taken with the utmost seriousness.

The Pentagon may say it doesn’t relish protracted wars, but if Joe Taxpayer gave me half a trillion bucks a year to make wars I might be persuaded to breathe a few tongues of fire myself.

Apart from the CIA spooks that blew $130,000 of your tax dollars in just one week in Italian hotels while arranging the kidnapping and rendition of a suspect for advanced torture elsewhere, nobody likes the High Life better than Yours Truly. I could have had one hell of a good time in Milan for half of what the CIA spent, and without ticking off the Italian government, embarrassing only myself, at which I am, happily, an expert.

Thomas Jefferson opposed the creation of a standing navy for America of the sort Great Britain then floated claiming it would soon dictate public policy. He anticipated the oracle who prophesied, “If you build it they will come.” Jefferson didn’t start any wars during his term in office. But Mr. Rumsfeld and his employers have not been so sensible.

Such office holders, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his essay on “Civil Disobedience,” rarely make any moral distinctions and “are as likely to serve the Devil, without intending it, as God.” Of course, Thoreau never heard of Donald Rumsfeld, so it is only conjecture on my part that he might have concluded the Secretary is serving the Devil.

But Thoreau did take up the question of how a man should behave toward a government that made an unjust war (on Mexico) with, “he cannot without disgrace be associated with it.” The Defense Secretary, of course, is in no way disgraced; he’s proud of his role in obliterating Iraq and he sees it as necessary. Unfortunately, there are a few others to be blamed for the Iraq aggression as well, meaning us.

Thoreau observed, “There are thousands who are in opinion opposed to slavery and to the war, who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them; who, esteeming themselves children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets, and say that they know not what to do, and do nothing…”

Thoreau went on to complain such people “will wait, well disposed, for others to remedy the evil” and on election day will satisfy their consciences by voting for the right, which he pointed out is but a “feeble” palliative.

Thoreau famously spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his poll tax, but millions of our citizens who oppose the aggression against Iraq are paying their taxes. What’s more, they are sitting on their hands, waiting until the next election in the hope of voting for a candidate who will not spill the blood of their children in a dishonest war.

Impeachment is messy. It’s destabilizing, perhaps even dangerous. But it is about the only tool left to a public that now largely opposes the President’s aggressive war. To delay this step costs human life. Each day, ever larger portions of Iraq and the Middle East go up in flames as the Bush Administration’s incendiary policies stoke the fires of anti-Americanism. People are dying by the thousands; a nation is being destroyed. The Iraq War has claimed more civilian lives(650,000) than Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, (70,000) and the end is not in sight.

At issue here, as during President Polk’s war of aggression against Mexico, is whether Americans will continue to sit on their hands. “The people must…cease to make war on Mexico, though it cost them their existence as a people,” Thoreau wrote. That is also true of the war against Iraq. If you’re sitting on your hands, don’t blame Rumsfeld.

The least every American can do is to work to get out the vote in the upcoming election, hoping for the seating of a Democratic Congress whose members will investigate the crimes of the Bush White House and begin the impeachment proceedings for war crimes its occupants so richly deserve. Children of Washington! Children of Franklin! When will you stand up?


(Sherwood Ross is a Virginia-based reporter and columnist. Reach him at sherwoodr1 @

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