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Iraq Through a Rebel's Eyes

October 16, 2006

Tags U.S. HistoryWar and Foreign PolicyPolitical Theory

The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in Government.

Thomas Jefferson was a rebel, as so many of his comments demonstrated. He also was a gun enthusiast, and not the bird-shooting kind. His gang of insurgents fought the British with the eighteenth century equivalents of assault rifles, RPGs, and roadside bombs — and that is why they are worth recalling when our conversation turns to Iraq.

Before going further, I should declare that I am a patriot, but a qualified one. My loyalty is to the kinds of ideas Jefferson put in the Declaration: the sanctity of property, suspicion of power, and extra suspicion of the state. I am saying so now because some of what follows might sound deeply unpatriotic to the modern ear, but I think it would have sounded just fine to Jefferson's classical one.

The shock of September 11th did some damage to my political resolve. The murder of three thousand innocents was an act so outrageous that it demanded a quick and violent response. So, like many Americans, I wanted to see someone punished, and the federal government appeared ideally placed to do the punishing. I silently agreed with the plan to go after the bombers and their friends.

The way I saw it, the army could pummel some bad guys (not necessarily the 9-11 culprits) and that would be one way to get our revenge. Self-declared allies of the killers would find themselves being treated as such.

It was a classical liberal's rationale: a stand for the subjective individual and his property; finally, the government doing its job. Of course the logic was twisted by emotion, and I knew the whole enterprise might end badly, but I felt like punching anyway, at least until my arm was completely exhausted and the anger was gone.

But the Jeffersonian in me had other ideas about Iraq, and they do not make happy reading — not for neocons who like the war or apologists who don't. If we woke Jefferson's gang up today, what would they make of it all? Well, the first thing they would see is the US government punching away on our behalf, and that they would probably endorse. Knowing about the carnage in New York and Washington, the attempted assassinations of two Presidents, the invasion of Kuwait, and the chemical attacks on Saddam's subjects (and, of course, the fact that he had subjects) would be reason enough.

But then, as their excitement subsided, I think they might notice a few disturbing things: the sheer size of the US force, for one, and how far it is reaching across the ocean, for another. And they could only be dismayed to discover that their libertarian brainchild had grown up to be an empire, feeding off its citizens' labor, with legions stationed around the world, fighting in foreign civil wars, enforcing a Pax Americana, and tasting the bitter fruit of its adventures.

Once over that disappointment, though, Jefferson and his friends might spot a ray of hope in Iraq. Their radical eyes would pick up on something about the guerilla war that we — after two hundred years of relative comfort and ease — have missed.

The US government's arm is tired. Even with one hundred and fifty thousand troops, a fortune in fuel and supplies, and the best weapons ever invented, all that power is having a rough ride. Humvees loaded with high-tech regulars are sitting targets for bits of plumbing packed with C-4, left at the side of the road. There are plenty of surprises from the front, but such news would only elicit a sad smile from Jefferson, and the same from his fellow insurgent, Madison, who wrote this:

The highest number to which a standing army can be carried in any country does not exceed one hundredth part of the souls, or one twenty-fifth part of the number able to bear arms. This portion would not yield, in the United States, an army of more than twenty-five or thirty thousand men.

To these would be opposed a militia amounting to near half a million citizens with arms in their hands, officered by men chosen from among themselves, fighting for their common liberties and united and conducted by governments possessing their affections and confidence. It may well be doubted whether a militia thus circumstanced could ever be conquered by such a proportion of regular troops.

Even though Madison was talking about a war between the feds and the people, the parallel with Iraq makes it a devastating tactical appraisal. The biggest military machine — even the GPS-guided, kevlar-toting, night-fighting, uranium-shooting US Army of 2006 — can't subjugate a rabble of ornery civilians if a good number of them have guns. Yes, it can obliterate them, but that's not the same as governing them. Madison knew, and Iraq proves, that a rifle over every mantlepiece can safeguard freedom.

American insurgents from 1776 would see Iraq through the filter of their own occupation: the struggle against the Crown and its Hamiltonian successors. They would see the setbacks of the 75th Rangers in Baghdad and the 8th Cavalry in Fallujah, and would mourn the casualties among the professional soldiers, as we do, but another part of them would be saying I told you so — and might even be glad. They couldn't feel anything else, because they were rebels to the core:

The governments of Europe are afraid to trust the people with arms. If they did, the people would surely shake off the yoke of tyranny, as America did.

The man who wrote that would not have rooted for Iraq's fanatics and murderers, out to become tyrants themselves, but neither would he have cheered the federal juggernaut fighting them now. The Iraqi insurgents are the bad guys, for sure, but they are sovereign men, too, armed with nothing but light assault weapons, trip wires, and explosives. Just as Madison predicted, they are holding their own against the attack helicopters of the King. Our government is against them today, but that doesn't change their tactical likeness to the snipers of 1776.

The comparison is a disturbing one to make in the middle of our war, but we need to make it. And maybe it would put Madison and Jefferson at ease about the monster they fathered — the global superpower. A successful insurgency, independent of its underlying purpose, is a reason for every man who loves liberty to cheer.

For both of our modern wings of politics, Iraq is a lesson in government, and not the one either of them wants to learn. It proves the assertion that the best way to keep the state down is to get everyone a weapon.

Some part of the gun rights lobby should want the army to lose in Iraq, and some part of the gun control lobby should want it to win.

Let neocon Republicans, who support the war and guns in the home, and leftist Democrats, who despise both, put that contradiction in their pipes and smoke it. Do they like state power or not? I am afraid the answer is: they like it when it suits them. That is why we — who can be true patriots only by being rebels ourselves — must not forget how our patriotism was born.

Here is one last quotation, this from the insurgent commander himself:

… the rifle and pistol are equally indispensable. The very atmosphere of firearms everywhere restrains evil interference, they deserve a place of honor with all that's good.

That's not Moqtada al-Sadr talking, but George Washington. You get the idea. Staring into Iraq's quagmire, we should see a second chance for freedom everywhere, including the United States.


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