[you’re free but in your mind / your freedom’s in a bind]

Tonight, I wrote a short midterm essay for the course I am taking on National Security Policy (taught by the same professor with whom I took Small Wars and Low-Intensity Conflict, which I have blogged about before). The question dealt with changes in the management of national security policy, taking as comparison the country’s first-ever comprehensive national security strategy (NSC-68, adopted 1951), and one of its most recent (NSS 2006). The question specified that we should not look at substance, but at approach; not at what each strategy did, but what it set out to do. I am having trouble answering it, because one of those documents was written at the beginning of the Cold War, and the other was written at the beginning of the War on Terror, and it is difficult to talk about their differences when I am having trouble seeing around their glaring similarities.

I mean, of course there are differences. NSC-68 was the document that established the U.S.’s policy of military containment of the Soviet Union. While its roots were highly ideological (the Soviet Union is just different, they think differently, they plan differently, their need to expand to cover every corner of the earth is ingrained in them by history), its execution was more practical. The Terrorists are not the Communists; they are less concretely defined, and they are probably not going to destroy civilization as we know it, or, at least, NSS 2006 makes no claim that they will. Those are the big differences.


“In essence, the fundamental purpose [of the United States] is to assure the integrity and vitality of our free society, which is founded upon the dignity and worth of the individual. Three realities emerge as a consequence of this purpose: Our determination to maintain the essential elements of individual freedom, as set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights; our determination to create conditions under which our free and democratic system can live and prosper; and our determination to fight if necessary to defend our way of life.”

“In a shrinking world, which now faces the threat of atomic warfare, it is not an adequate objective merely to seek to check the Kremlin design, for the absence of order among nations is becoming less and less tolerable. This fact imposes on us, in our own interests, the responsibility of world leadership. It demands that we make the attempt, and accept the risks inherent in it, to bring about order and justice by means consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy.”

“The antipathy of slavery to freedom explains the iron curtain, the isolation, the the autarchy of the society whose end is absolute power. The existence and persistence of the idea of freedom is a permanent and continuous threat to the foundation of the slave society.”

NSS 2006 (more fun if you hear G. W. Bush’s voice in your head as you read!):

“America has an unprecedented opportunity to lay the foundations for future peace. The ideals that have inspired our history – freedom, democracy, and human dignity – are increasingly inspiring individuals and nations throughout the world. And because free nations tend toward peace, the advance of liberty will make America more secure.”

“The United States is in the early years of a long struggle, similar to what our country faced in the early years of the Cold War.  The 20th century witnessed the triumph of freedom over the threats of fascism and communism.  Yet a new totalitarian ideology now threatens….  Its content may be different from the ideologies of the last century, but its means are similar:  intolerance, murder, terror, enslavement, and repression.”

“Democracy is the opposite of terrorist tyranny, which is why the terrorists denounce it and are willing to kill the innocent to stop it. Democracy is based on empowerment, while the terrorists’ ideology is based on enslavement.”

…I’m doing badly at deciding what quotes to include. I started with parallel quotes and ended up going with the ones that made me feel most sick. I want to quote all of each document. I want someone else to feel as vaguely nauseous as I do. I am half sick of the word freedom. What the fuck is freedom? It is so often defined, in this sphere, by what it is not. In NSS 2006 it is simply the opposite of tyranny and despair. In NSC-68 it represents tolerance and marvelous diversity and an ideology that does not seek to force others to conform to it. (I squint at 1950s America and mouth tolerance? marvelous diversity? at it, and it coughs and looks away self-consciously.) Freedom values the individual. The assault of free institutions is world-wide. The growth of freedom is not inevitable. The desire for freedom lives in every human heart. Compulsion is the negation of freedom, except when it is used to enforce the rights common to all. Freedom is the most contagious idea in history. (These are all direct quotes, from both documents.)

In academia, as in life, everything is built on assumptions. The art of being an academic is the art of choosing what to assume, and being able to build civilizations on top of the assumptions made. The assumptions run deep, but they must be established before the discourse exists; the definition of “discourse” is “a body of work by different people but based on the same assumptions.” This is important, because without assumptions, discussion would not function. You have to agree on something before you can disagree. Everyone has to know, more or less, what something is supposed to mean before they start to debate the definition. We do not seem to know the definition of freedom. We all desire it, but it’s contagious. It is not compulsive, unless you are compelling people to be free. This would never stand before a peer-review board!

Reading these documents frightens me because of the assumptions on which they rest. They are so arbitrary. They were assumptions made by the United States sixty years ago, and they still underpin all we do. Only the name of the enemy has changed. Our assumptions have not. We’re always fighting the last war, a warrior-academic told me once; I read NSS 2006 and wondered if all that means is that we have always fought the same war. If we have no desire to seek out a new war. If we will keep on fighting this war until someone comes along powerful enough to rewrite the assumptions that the U.S. wrote, one of which is We lead.

I am not sure if we have ever truly decided what freedom is. What that symbol means to us. (Startling, considering that any one page of NSS 2006 contains the word upwards of twenty times.) This week I finished reading a book my father lent me, called We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (by Peter van Buren, who led a Provincial Reconstruction Team on a military base in Iraq, and whose every work I will be reading as he writes them). It is a powerful book, not least because it is about our idea of what freedom is, and what it looks like when we attempt to enforce it in other places; what we actually think the rights common to all look like. Van Buren describes the attempts to teach Iraqi women to be pastry chefs; the attempts to revitalize a Baghdad arts district with local art shows to which no locals are invited, in a part of town where trash collection has not functioned in months; the factories built in places where electricity flows two hours a day; the great books of the Western literary canon, translated into Arabic and left in crates outside of girls’ schools. I could write an entire post just about that book, because it is excellent, but this evening it functions as a backdrop to this essay, this midterm, and the assumptions in whose face I cannot put together 600 coherent words about a war that, in fundamental ways, has not changed in 60 years.

I have now written almost as many words about this as there are words in the midterm itself (though I will be writing more; still one question to go, hooray). I could write a book on this– or, not on this, but on my feelings about this. About my confusion. About my disgust. Reading these documents makes me feel tired. It makes me feel heavy. It makes me feel angry.  I do not want to participate in this discourse. I do not want to believe these things. Sometimes I do not want to participate in a course based on these assumptions; where everyone else will go on to enforce the freedom hazily defined in these assumptions, to make policy built on these assumptions, and to interact with the rest of the world wearing armor made of these assumptions.

(LENT UPDATE: I did not make it to church today. It is a 2.5-mile, 50-minute walk; I got home from the craziest day of work I’ve ever experienced 1.5 hours before Mass started; my bike had a flat; my feet hurt so badly I was walking on my toes; it simply was destined not to be. I will be going to daily Mass on Thursday (the first day that class and work don’t interfere), which won’t make up for it, but will help get me back on track.)

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