Freedom: The God of Modern War?

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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.

Before the twentieth century, wars fought by modern republics might have been deemed legitimate for a variety of reasons, including indeed freedom from foreign occupation or local oppression, but also other reasons that might make us cringe today: colonization, evangelization, debt collection, monarchical successions, glory, plunder, vengeance, territorial conquest, and many more. As the bulk of these other justifications receded in history, freedom remained.

Though it may appear the central role it plays today was achieved by default, because the other reasons lost their appeal or legitimacy in the republican ethos, a better question to ask is why, unlike the others, freedom did not end up equally relegated to obsolescence. What differentiated it from the reasons above, or even for that matter other secular ethical concepts on which our societies are constituted?

"Give me liberty, or give me death!" (Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

The modern republic is built on a secular idea of the greater good, best expressed in the French devise (motto)—"liberté, égalité, fraternité"—which is so much more than a mere slogan. It encompasses a system of interrelated syllogisms that gives life to the ethical system within the republic’s borders and institutions. None of the three could be built into society were it not for the other two. The very act of mutual recognition of one another’s liberties and equality as co-citizens makes us brothers, even with perfect strangers. Liberty would be meaningless if it wasn’t equal for all and mutually recognized as such. Equality only makes sense if we allow one another the freedom to enjoy it. And yet, in the famous Delacroix painting, we don’t see an allegorical representation of equality or fraternity guiding the people in arms: that job is for Liberty. In the American Revolution, no one declared, “Give me equality and fraternity or give me death!” Neither of the two had such a heroic connotation.

Move ahead one hundred years. We might have expected that anarchist and communist revolutionaries, fighting in the name of an egalitarian society without borders, might have found their courage in the ethical construct of total fraternity or total equality, but this did not really carry the fight. The enemy being the capitalist state, freeing the proletariat from the owning class oppression became the true call to arms. In a speech to the Tribunal of Lyon in 1883, a group of accused anarchists proclaimed their resolve in a most concise manner: they were fighting as and for “workers who demand all of freedom, nothing but freedom, absolute freedom!”[1]


If the state-building objectives of revolutionaries are generally guided by a will to establish a variety of ethical tenets into the structure of society that would undo and replace the ones already in place, why then is their fight so detached from the larger scope of their intentions? And why does freedom apparently take center stage as the other justifications are relegated to the sidelines? The phenomenon seems almost universal in scope. It includes both ends of the right/left spectrum, but also applies to groups that position themselves completely outside of it. Al Qaeda and Islamic State speeches regularly call upon the grace of God and their agenda is to serve as a constitutive vehicle for the implementation of Sharia law, but in the fighting aspect or call to arms aspect of it propaganda is fundamentally a liberation narrative involving the exclusion of the Western influence, and putting an end to its imperialism, oppression, and military presence in the Holy Land.

Answering why modern war seems to require freedom to claim its legitimacy is no small task. In fact, it takes on mythical proportions. This article argues the rise of freedom as the last or eternal principle of justification for war can be explained by the fact that freedom shares highly distinctive cognitive constructs with religion and ultimately both justify war the very same way. This explains why, among the secular ethical concepts at the heart of the modern republic, freedom is the one evoked to justify war. Interestingly, it also provides a parallel insight into why religion can equally generate this fighting instinct, and why a particularly virulent form of political violence can emerge when both justifications are amalgamated into a single call to arms as we currently see among jihadist groups. Luckily, though, despite the apparently irreconcilable chasm between the two world views—secular and religious—the two are not condemned to perpetual war. Their violent confrontation is tied to a single justification process, while beneath it lies far more compatible, complementary, and common ethical objectives that can be unearthed.


Hannah Arendt, a pillar of twentieth century political philosophy, provides us with a useful starting point to launch this exploration. Lost in a sea of other incredible insights, we find a short, lesser known paragraph that provides us with a thought-provoking link between war and the concept of freedom:

Hannah Arendt (Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images)

Freedom was introduced into the debate of the war question only after it had become quite obvious that we had reached a stage of technical development where the means of destruction were such as to exclude their rational use. In other words, freedom has appeared into this debate like a deus ex machinato justify what on rational grounds has become unjustifiable.[2]

There is something curious to the idea of a deus ex machina. What exactly is this external phenomenon operating the justification process behind the scene? Perhaps there is afterall something godlike. However, before we get to that point, we must note there is something missing: freedom did not merely take center stage, it literally cleared the podium. Historically, humanity had no problem being upfront and even proud of fighting for these many other reasons.


Of course, we may be candid and accept that aspects of these darker raisons d’État may continue to exist at sub-levels of war planning, consciously or not, but they are never admitted, let alone publicly proclaimed. The military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan were not called Operation Hang Hussein or Operation Taliban Vengeance, regardless of whether those thoughts were on the mind of certain individuals in the population, or even decision makers. These ideas could not have been validated as a generalized consensus in the population nor even a smaller consensus in the halls of power. It is not merely a question of better labeling. Democracies are ethically constructed in a way that makes such propositions not merely reprehensible, but impossible to rationalize in the very public discourse that generates and legitimizes the republic’s power to act in the world.


Non-violent coercive tools were also enhanced, including various features of the Chapter VI and Chapter VII mandates of the UN Security Council that range from mediation to economic sanctions. As a result, even cases of aggression, annexation, and failure to respect international law have also been somewhat subdued in their ability to legitimize a counter-attack. Given that the escalation of war among great powers would be too risky, non-violent tools of coercion become all the more attractive. The modernization of weapons explains why the reasons for waging war might become fewer, and why war might be replaced with other solutions whenever possible. Otherwise, we might imagine absurd propositions of violence. Strategic nuclear weapons to stop a genocide in Rwanda? Carpet bombing Shanghai in retaliation for currency manipulation? The potency of war is such that the limited aims that led to minor conflicts, occasionally escalating to major conflicts during pre-industrial times, are no longer matters for war to settle. We have added new tools into the world’s tool shed, in order to salvage the concept of proportionality in the use of force.

But is there really anything that would in fact be proportional to our modern capacity to kill and destroy? There are likely as many answers to this question as there are people who would answer it. But, according to Arendt, there is nothing that could be rationally justified. The rationalization process needs to happen externally to the concept of war, thus her reference to a deus ex machina. We understand why there would be much fewer reasons to fight, when the tool’s power becomes analogous to swatting a fly with a rocket propelled grenade, but it does not explain why this would not undermine the role of freedom in the equation as well, just like all the others. Arendt was right to look to the role of modern weapons, but she stopped short explaining the underlying phenomenon at play.

Industrialization, she explains, caused wars to become far too destabilizing to political regimes, and she offers the examples of the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War, which were immediately followed by the overthrow of the Second Empire and the Revolution of 1905 on the defeated sides.[3] There was apparently a connection between the modernity of weapons and political collapse operating in a single direction: defeat in modern war leads quickly to absolute political annihilation if not because of the war itself, then because of its denouement.

Carl von Clausewitz painted by Karl Wilhelm Wach (Wikimedia)

We must turn to Clausewitz and Fichte to uncover the solution to the problem raised by Arendt. Fichte came up with the term absolute war to explain why a people in revolution against a tyrant will not be stopped by a compromise. Their objective is non-negotiable, because the demand is total: to annihilate the existing political hierarchy—something a political hierarchy is necessarily unwilling to give up.[4] Clausewitz, who read and commented on Fichte, further developed absolute war to create a totally conceptual term meant as an imagined ideal of what a war could be if it were freed of all possible limitations such as limited objectives, the fog of war, friction, etc.[5.6]

The goal here was to imagine the limitless nightmare of pure, unimpeded escalation. This ultimately allowed Clausewitz to objectively demonstrate war’s political element, since he could show the tendency of wars towards such extremes, or away from them and towards standstills, was in either case the result of an act of policy.[7] By encompassing all possible variants of war that exist between these two poles, Clausewitz could validly claim all wars are the continuation of policy by other means. More importantly for our subject at hand, what remains of both versions of the concept absolute war is its revolutionary aspect. Clausewitz was using his version to try to understand why the French Revolution so destabilized Europe and why Napoleon rose to become a God of War, suggesting at times that Napoleon embodied the closest thing the world had ever seen to this absolute—though he hesitated in making the point.[8,9]


The difference between these wars and those since the industrial revolution was that to become extreme in the time of Clausewitz and Fichte, a war had to be revolutionary in scope, it had to mobilize mass armies, and eventually inch its way in the direction of absolute war. Extremes were achieved through escalation and the political will to do so as a reciprocation of action between two opponents. The development of the modern war machine, however, meant the extremes would hereafter become the starting point, not the end point or the direction of war. After the industrial revolution, and all the more so since the Second World War, war contains an absolute element the very moment it is waged because the power of destruction invested in the military apparatus is revolutionary in scope—the destructiveness is too great for any government to withstand.

This complete turnaround, far from undermining Clausewitz’s conclusions, actually reaffirmed them all the more vehemently. After the First World War, three Great Powers collapsed and faded away from history. The fourth was so crushed, though not extinguished, that it came back with a vengeance. After the Second World War, the losing side was occupied and imposed new constitutions to avoid any such resurgence. The entire world map was redrawn within a decade or two, and the international diplomatic and economic systems were founded (and we are after all still living in 1945 in some ways). The First World War revolutionized Europe. The Second World War revolutionized the world. Modern war is revolution.

This is the key. Revolution is at the root a quest for freedom—it binds and unites people and generates their sense of collectivity and expression. “I revolt, therefore we are,” wrote the existentialist Albert Camus, paraphrasing Descartes’ metaphysical starting point.[10] Revolt does indeed generate something higher than ourselves in our mind. Once war becomes a revolutionary tool—one that makes or breaks governments, like Gaddafi, Hussein, or the Taliban, because of the sheer disproportionate firepower of it—then it should not come as a surprise that, as Arendt stated, freedom stands out as a deus ex machina that gives meaning to it all. It is a reciprocal relationship. Modern war’s revolutionary and absolute character seems to require the concept of freedom to be intelligible, because otherwise, the means and the ends would be impossible to connect in a way that we could rationalize...which is not to say it is rational in itself, but rather that we can wrap our minds around it if we so choose.

Whether we look to South Sudan or Crimea, the action of separating the former or annexing the latter, both were equally proclaimed in the name of the right to self-government and the freedom of minorities from the oppression of the majority. Even the currently popular principle of Responsibility to Protect is nothing more than a new branding on an old concept: freedom from oppression. We may question the validity of the claims all we want, but the fact remains that the claim is the tool of legitimization, because it is the only publicly acceptable and rationally arguable stance that can be taken in implementing the destructive violence that technology has unleashed. No other reason would fly.


Freedom is akin to a space one is attempting to occupy. It has an inherently military aspect to it: set conceptual borders; limit incursions into them. To claim freedom for yourself or for your group implies that you already perceive someone else in the equation from which you will take it. It brings us back to the popular adage: your right to swing your fists ends where my nose begins. It is a very thin red line. There are as a result strategic benefits to fighting for freedom as opposed to fighting for a system of laws or a larger vision of society, be it liberal, communist, or Sharia. This alone explains at least part of its universal uptake.

Once harm is identified, or even just a hypothetical harm, freedom from it will serve a double purpose. The first is that it identifies the enemy or the target. Your demand to be free from a nosebleed clarifies in your mind who you suspect is trying to give you one, but more importantly, it liberates your conscience from a passive reaction to it. Suddenly, you allow your mind to identify the other not as your comrade or brother. They are not your equal. They are not a holder of rights. They are the enemy and this jump in the thought process allows you in turn to claim and enact your right to raise a fist and aim squarely for their nose.

The labeling effect of freedom can equally be found in the name Boko Haram, the jihadist insurgency in Nigeria responsible for kidnapping hundreds of girls from their school dormitory. The words boko haram roughly translate to western and non-Islamic education is a sin. The potency of their call to arms is derived from their attempt to legitimize the existence of a space or territory where this external influence is extinguished, but also it identifies the enemies outside the territory as well as enemies within.

Boko Haram (Africa Express)

To understand why the labeling effect is not as strong in the case of fraternity and equality for example, we must dive a bit deeper into the distinction between the three parts of the French devise. This comes down to our intuition in the face of subjective concepts and objective concepts, or the difference between our reactions towards feeling something and knowing something. When I recognize that something is subjective, but undoubtable, because it is entirely within me, I know it to be true. The purest feeling of fraternity would be the love I feel for my immediate family. There is no doubt in my mind and I can be content just knowing it. In the case of equality, it is the exact opposite. It is totally objective and measurable: I don’t feel it, I experience it as fact. One man is rich, the other is poor. If I can count it I can know it. One man has the right to a fair trial by a jury of his peers as well as a lawyer, while the other is sentenced without a hearing and without an ounce of proof. Though I arrive at it for completely opposite reasons, one purely subjective, the other purely objective, my knowledge of equality and fraternity concludes itself in an intuitive kind of certainty. And certainty calms rather than excites the mind. 

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard (Wikimedia)

Unlike the first two, freedom has a specific feature to it that is analogous to how the theologian Kierkegaard described the existence of God, which is objectively uncertain.[11] Both are relational concepts instead of being purely internally subjective or purely externally objective. Both require a leap of faith in order to achieve a certainty that, while it is not necessarily true, is nonetheless true to me. One must believe the other intends on punching their face, because until the action is done, there will always be doubt regarding the intention. And even if the action were done, the intention could remain challengeable: it was an accident, I thought you were someone else.

But there is more to it. Freeing a people or a territory also demands a belief in the fact that things will be better once this action has been successful. The allegorical freedom we channel and incarnate is a sort of ghost, it is a promise regarding the future, a spirit that one can attach themselves to and die for heroically and selflessly, because there is some promised land ahead. The willingness in modern republics to wage war, despite the damages it may inflict, occurs because we believe in and elevate freedom as a greater good that is conceptually detached from the material world, and therefore justifies harm and destruction within the material world. This, however, only becomes real or materialized when we take it upon ourselves to incarnate this pseudo-divinity.[12]

In religion or freedom, our objective uncertainty encourages us to seek out solace in the certainty of others through consensus—we evangelize others to feel less alone in our beliefs. We propagate our ideas to strengthen their validity in our minds and those of our followers and brothers in arms. That is why a quest for freedom, much like a crusade, can spread and ignite an entire population, because it thrives on propaganda.

When modern secular republics are fighting religious extremists, both may have a thoroughly distinct idea regarding what constitution will best serve the people’s interest and the likelihood of a sustainable peace, but ultimately this question is not at the forefront of the fight. The legitimation processes built on religion are in fact very similarly constructed in our minds as those built on freedom. Jihadist groups are simply building on both simultaneously, thus superimposing their legitimation effects. An important reflection that must be had in order to break the two apart is how the international community can successfully offer an alternative promise of freedom that will be as compelling as it is credible and concrete, so as to compete with the allegorical figures leading the insurgency.

The difficulty is that freedom is not a singular concept. It is fraught with paradox. When do claims for collective freedom become threats to individual freedoms? What good is political freedom on paper if human security and access to basic requirements of life are such that there would be no way to make any use of it as a tool for improving one’s situation? Freedom can easily become a senseless abstraction if it is not built into societal structures that generate human development.


And then there are chimerical concepts of freedom, like the anarchist demand—for all of freedom, nothing but freedom, absolute freedom—which are not only emboldened, but also void of any applicable, measurable, physical delivery mode. When objectives are immaterial, where does the fight end? Quests for irrational or limitless concepts of freedom lead to equally irrational and limitless concepts of war. They defined “what” freedom they wanted—an abstract question that leads to abstract answers—but actually, the only questions regarding freedoms we should ask are which freedoms and how?


Freedom remains a ghost insofar as it is used merely as an ectoplasm attached to war superficially, to justify actions that may not in fact be justifiable at the core, to shout a mere slogan in the hope it may silence other interests a state may have in waging it, but would prefer no one noticed. Freedom only becomes material, real, and rational when it goes beyond a mere promise for the future, and becomes something we can actually grasp, enjoy and most of all, use as a tool of self and collective betterment. The thing to remember is that while freedom has all the attributes of a god of war, it also has all those of a creator, a builder, and an enabler. It becomes a matter of choice to which of these incarnations we pray.

Youri Cormier currently teaches international security courses in the Joint Command Staff Programme of the Canadian Forces College and is Adjunct Professor with Royal Military College of Canada. He is the author of War as Paradox: Clausewitz and Hegel on Fighting Doctrines and Ethics.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Declaration to the Tribunal of Lyons by the Accused Anarchists 1883, in Daniel Guérin, Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre. Tr. Mitch Abidor, La Cité Editeur, Lausanne, 1966.  (accessed March 13, 2018)

[2] Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution, New York: Penguin Classics, 1977, p. 4

[3] Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution, p. 5

[4] Fichte, Johann Gottleib, Machievel et autres écrits philosophiques et politiques, Ed. & Tr. Luc Ferry & Alain Renaut, (Paris: Payot, 1981), P. 56-57.

[5] In an anonymous letter to the author which he penned in 1809, in reply to Fichte’s text on Machiavelli.

[6] Echevarria, Antulio, Clausewitz and Contemporary War, (London: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 67.

[7] Cormier, Youri, War as Paradox, (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), pp. 115-140

[8] Clausewitz, Carl von, On War, Ed. & Tr. Howard/Paret, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), bk 8, ch 3-A, p. 583.

[9] Cormier, Youri, War as Paradox, (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016), pp. 128-129.

[10] Camus, Albert, L’homme révolté, (Paris : Gallimard, 1951), p.36

[11] Kierkegaard, Soren, Concluding Unscientific Postscript. trans. David F. Swenson; introduction, notes, and completion of translation by Walter Lowrie (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941), p. 182, 7 : 170.

[12] Cormier, War As Paradox, pp 286-291. 

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