Thomas Paine on War and Empire

It’s time again to listen to the common sense of Thomas Paine

W.J. Astore

This past weekend, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the JCS, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria for another few years, ostensibly to prevent an ISIS resurgence, and that troops would also continue to fight the Afghan War for several years to come.  This should have been been big news, but in an America now distracted by a public impeachment circus, endless wars are greeted with a collective shrug within the media.

Thomas Paine would not have been happy.  Famously outspoken for writing “Common Sense” at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, Paine had some choice words about war and empire that Americans would do well to read and heed today.

“If there is a sin superior to every other,” Paine wrote, “it is that of willful and offensive war … he who is the author of a war, lets loose the whole contagion of Hell, and opens a vein that bleeds a nation to death.”

Paine then wrote that “We leave it to England and Indians [allied with England] to boast of these honors; we feel no thirst for such savage glory; a nobler flame, a purer spirit animates America.”

Imagine an America today that felt no thirst for the savage glory of war!

Paine supported only defensive wars, for Freedom and against Tyranny, as he put it.  Remind me how keeping troops in Syria to secure oil is a just war for freedom?  Remind me how prolonging the Afghan War (now in its 18th year) by several more years is necessary for America’s defense and in the cause of freedom?

Paine further had choice words for empires that were foolish enough to wage ruinous wars far from home.  Naturally, he had Britain most in mind:

“If ever a nation was mad and foolish, blind to its own interest and bent on its own destruction, it is Britain … Bless’d with all the commerce she could wish for, and furnished by a vast extension of dominion with the means of civilizing both the eastern and western world, she has made no other use of both than proudly to idolize her own ‘Thunder,’ and rip up the bowels of whole countries for what she could get; –like Alexander she has made war her sport, and inflicted misery for prodagality [sic] sake.”

Making war our sport while idolizing our “thunderous” military — isn’t that an apt description of much of U.S. foreign policy for the past few decades?

But Paine wasn’t finished.  He made a dire prediction:

“All countries have sooner or later been called to their reckoning; the proudest empires have sunk when the balance was struck; and Britain, like an individual penitent, must undergo her day of sorrow, and the sooner it happens to her the better.”

No empire lasts forever — certainly not one that engages in endless and largely pointless wars.  Paine warned Britain about the high costs of war with America and how British forces were fated to lose, and he was right.

In a country that supposedly respects and even worships its Founders, isn’t it time Americans listened to Thomas Paine on the horrors of war and the perils of empires blinded by power and greed?

End the wars, America.  Bring our troops home.  And restore freedom to our land.

(Quotations from Paine are from “The American Crisis” as published in Thomas Paine: Collected Writings, Library of America, pp. 108, 165-66, written originally in 1777 and 1778)

12 thoughts on “Thomas Paine on War and Empire

  1. Excellent post! Paine, of course, like so many of those who rose against British rule, was a transplanted Britisher himself. But he rejected vehemently the notion of kings ruling “by Divine Right.” And now we have Emperor Trump parked on his throne, and it’s considered “divisive” as to whether he has abused the privileges of the Executive! Allow me to share another quote, one of those I’m employing in my memoir: “[I]t is the considered belief of the writer…that wars are fought by the finest people that there are…but they are made, provoked and initiated by straight economic rivalries and by swine that stand to profit from them. I believe that all the people who stand to profit by a war and help provoke it should be shot on the first day it starts…”
    —Ernest Hemingway, his Introduction to 1948 edition of A FAREWELL TO ARMS

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hemingway knew the score. I’m not sure I’d shoot them, but I’d send the war profiteers to fight at the front. Isn’t that what they want?


  2. Paine got cross wise with the Religious Establishment in his book Age of Reason:
    “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.

    I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.”

    The Tele-Evangelists, certainly confirm his statement that: “appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit”.


    1. I thought it was the President, as commander in chief, who made the decisions on where and long US soldiers remain in combat in foreign countries in our undeclared wars around the world – not the Pentagon’s senior military officer.

      Apparently, on his own accord, Gen Miley has decided US forces will stay in Syria “as long as ISIS has a presence” there. This is forever since ISIS is a jihadi ideology rooted in an extreme version of Islam. He says US forces will stay in Afghanistan until “Afghan security forces, are going to have to be able to sustain their own internal security to prevent terrorists using their territory to attack other countries, especially the United States.” This, too, is forever – Afghanistan has never had (and never will have ) a functioning national government or army. (Why not get out and use intel and targeted strikes to deal with terrorists threats like the US does in dozens of other countries?)

      By publicly making these pronouncements, Gen Miley is preempting the next elected US president for making his or her own decisions on US military policy as CINC. More amazing, why didn’t the ABC host call out the general on his blatant preemption of civilian control of our military forces?

      This is the real breech with Thomas Paine and our founding fathers.


      1. Yes — and Trump has already contradicted Milley on Syria. For Trump, it’s all about the oil, not ISIS. How refreshing!

        I think Trump could easily win in 2020 by declaring victory and pulling out of Afghanistan. But he’s too irresolute to do so. Or too distracted by impeachment and his own pursuit of wealth.


      2. There’s still a chance Trump will get in a “dust-up” with the generals and admirals. He is abysmally ignorant of military affairs–just like in every other area of expertise other than self-promotion–but we know he demands loyalty to his person. So if he decides that the Chairman of JCS is making him look bad in public, that chap won’t be serving at the pleasure of POTUS much longer!


    2. Yes, this is because Paine was an “ex-pat” Brit and Hank VIII had established Church of England (called Anglicans over here) as the official religion. It was essentially a clone of the Church of Rome at the outset, with the convenient difference that it okayed Hank getting divorced. Yes, quite sordid is the history of organized religion!!


  3. I pay little attention to the MSM so can’t judge whether a collective shrug ensued from news of continuing warfare (no surprise). However, based on what I’ve encountered in the past, they’re typically aligned with war profiteers (noted in comments above) and often derive some (inverted) aesthetic pleasure from the “savage glory” and mayhem just as many American citizens do. It’s been parodied to death but yet lives on. Further, the argument has gone round for years that anchors and columnists and pundits are in their respective positions precisely because of that cozy alignment. It’s part of the hiring, promotion, and weeding process with not-so-hidden media magnates making the actual decisions whom to promote into influential positions as useful idiots. Marginalized dissent still exists, though.


    1. Pull out a dusty copy of James Brooks’s “Broadcast News,” with William Hurt and Holly Hunter. News anchors are chosen not for smarts (though some have been highly intelligent), but for physical appearance and ability to read news copy reasonably competently. Back in the day, national newscast anchors often were allowed to write their own copy; thus was ‘Uncle Walt’ Cronkite able to voice his dissent on Vietnam. But all these folks have to answer to Corporate, ‘cuz that’s who signs their paychecks. And Corporate has clearly decided that what the country needs is PRO-WAR PROPAGANDA 24/7, constant portrayal of every swingin’ richard (pardon my reverting to old Army lingo!!) who dons a uniform as a goddamn HERO!!! And this trickles down to local newscasts. All the network affiliates here in my state play this game. Any time a Reserves or National Guard unit rotates back home from Afghanistan, or wherever, it’s a big freaking heartwarming greeting deal on the local news!! I literally have to mute the volume and avert my eyes or I’d be tossing a brick thru my TV screen! You see, “heroes” don’t commit unjustified aggression and war crimes abroad, do they? The extent to which this long-running propaganda campaign has been successful truly nauseates this anti-war veteran. As you probably already figured out!


    1. As someone who has been concerned with environmental matters a half-century now, I can assure the human race that its days are numbered. The Age of Empire is winding down. In modern times they’ve always tried to hide behind the same fig leaf. For the Brits, it was “carrying the white man’s burden” to bring enlightenment to “the person sitting in darkness” (latter phrase courtesy of Mark Twain). For the USA, it’s “We’re the Indispensable Exceptional Nation, bringing Freedom and Democracy” to the backwoods regions. Words fail me if I try to describe the depth of the hypocrisy at work there.


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