From Youri Cormier at The Strategy Bridge:


Freedom. The term is so ubiquitous in its application to war we tend not to ask why that is. We take it as a given. Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom are two good examples of how the concept seems encoded into American strategic objectives, yet it is not limited to countries like the U.S. where this idea is so culturally (and constitutionally) central. Crimea was not conquered by Russia, according to Russian claims, but rather the minority Russian population of Ukraine was liberated and given the opportunity for self-determination and to vote in a referendum about their collective future. While this essay will attempt to uncover why freedom appears to stoke the warrior instinct inside of us, doing so would only lead to an impasse, were it not considered within a larger set of questions. As a systematized justification for political violence, freedom was not always so predominant as it is today. Assuming human nature didn’t change over the past few decades, we then need to uncover what did.

My Response

Cormier refers to the cause of “freedom” as key justifications for the US invasions of Afghanistan and subsequently Iraq, as well as the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Yet is this accurate?

The 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, which enabled military action against Afghanistan as well as various counter-terrorism operations in the Philippines and Africa, did not include any reference to freedom. Indeed, Operation Enduring Freedom was changed from Operation Infinite Justice, which had religious connotations, and the then-President referred to the war effort as both a “Crusade” and a “war on terror”. Nor was freedom “encoded” in the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution, which only made a reference to mentions of “liberation” in the 1991 Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution and the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act. With regard to both Afghanistan and Iraq, bringing freedom to those countries was not a prime mover from either a US legal or US public relations perspective, irrespective of the names of the actual military operations undertaken.

In 2014, Russia made several justifications for invading Ukraine and annexing Crimea, and yet none referred to freedom. On the contrary, Russia invoked the right of self-defense by its nationals in Ukraine – military and civilian – who were claimed to be under threat; separate invitations by the President of Ukraine and Prime Minister of Crimea; the protection of its nationals in Ukraine from threats; and the humanitarian cause of restoring law and order in a failed state. In March 2014, Putin called the action “reunification”, claimed that the “supreme authority” is the will of the Russian people, and defined the Russian people in very broad terms. By any measure, Russian’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 had clear irredentist justifications with some humanitarian trappings to mimic the West’s justifications for intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya.

Cormier refers to the “modern republic” in the context of the French Revolution, and yet in practice the French were hardly as free, equal, and fraternal as the English (under a constitutional monarchy) until 1870, almost a century after the Revolution. Any discussion of freedom as the “God of Modern War” would do well to examine the role of freedom in driving the victorious side in the English Civil Wars, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War, all linked by the key involvement of Puritans. I am reminded of Maj. Gen. Buell’s maxim that: “war has a higher object than that of mere bloodshed”. Such a “higher object” has been a justification for every American war effort from the Civil War to the ongoing counter-terrorism operations, and is mirrored to a lesser extent by the British.

As regards Muslim supremacist terrorism, there are Muslim intellectual and organizational leaders who benefit practically or temporally from leading this cause, not unlike those that propelled Europe’s wars of religion. For the cannon fodder and suicide bombers on the ground, freedom from the struggle of life may well be a prime mover. Islamism today is a revolution to impose and expand power over others with some rather minor references to personal and popular empowerment; National Socialism also portrayed Germans as historical victims while promoting the most severe victimization against non-Germans, and especially “non-Aryans”, as the path to a utopia.

Freedom itself can include mutually-exclusive or competing freedoms, highlighted by Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech in January 1941. At present, there is a popular debate in the United States over whether “freedom of speech” and “freedom from fear” can co-exist; the former is codified in the Bill of Rights and Constitution, while the latter has evolved from “freedom from war” to “freedom from offensive expressions and facts”. As for “freedom from want”, it has been a justification for mass murder and tyranny throughout the 20th Century. Democracies today continue the debate over positive rights and freedoms compared to negative ones. Yet returning to the American Civil War, we see the Union motivated by an abstract and ideal version of freedom (emancipation) against Confederates motivated by real and practical freedom: the expulsion of Union forces and sovereignty from the Union.

Cormier is correct about it being, “a matter of choice to which of these incarnations [of freedom] we pray”. However, I do not believe that he has made his case that, “modern war seems to require freedom to claim its legitimacy”. As the world becomes more multipolar, great powers such as China and Russia may find less and less use for couching their justifications for aggression in Western terms.