Every Veterans Day, I try to do something special to remember or honor a veteran. I don’t like the standard flag-waving event that this day has become for many people. In many Veterans Day speeches, the speakers talk about the hundreds of thousands of American veterans who gave their lives for our freedom. The problem with that is twofold: (1) Very few of those who were killed in war literally gave their lives but instead had their lives ripped away, and (2) very few of them fought for our freedom. So my tribute this time is to a veteran who did not give his life and knew that he wasn’t fighting for our freedom. That veteran is Richard H. Timberlake, Jr.

Dick Timberlake, who has become a personal friend, is a fairly well-known monetary economist and a veteran of World War II. Timberlake’s book They Never Saw Me Then is his account of his time in World War II, first training to be a pilot in the United States and then being a co-pilot of a B-17 on bombing raids over Germany. The book ends with his being wounded in one such raid and then recuperating in hospitals in England and the United States. The title of his book, he explains, comes from the thought that he and his buddies had about their wish for various friends, relatives, and “enemies”: “Boy, if they could see me now.” But because they couldn’t see him then, he writes, his recourse is to tell the story himself. He tells it well.

One thing that is clear throughout the book is that Dick Timberlake had one main goal during the war: to preserve the life of Dick Timberlake. And, he points out, this was the norm. He quotes from Arthur Hoppe, a journalist for the San Francisco Chronicle: “I suppose there were a few in World War II who were fighting for freedom or democracy, but in my three years in the Navy I never met one of them. … [W]e were fighting to stay alive. And that is the true horror of war.”

Arthur Hoppe, writes Timberlake, “had it right.”

But if this is how everyone thought, what makes Timberlake’s book special? Not mainly that he’s a good writer, but that he is willing to speak out about the horror of war. It helps, also, that Timberlake is a free-market economist who understands the harmony that markets lead to and the chaos and destruction that war causes.

We often hear about soldiers in World War II trying to go after Hitler. But Timberlake recognizes the reality. He writes:

All of my fellow airmen and I knew that Hitler and his henchmen were atrocious and loathsome examples of the human race. Yet, any U.S. soldier or airman who thought even briefly about his job of trying to kill and destroy ‘the enemy,’ knew that he was not within range of damaging Hitler and other Nazi leaders. We could not reach their personal environments or influence their decisions; our activities were many magnitudes removed from hurting them. We could only chip away at the peripheries of their domain and hope that they would realize the futility and fallacy of their ways. To do so, we had to try and kill our enemy counterparts with whom we had no personal quarrel at all. We aimed our bombs at their strategic war-making industries and infrastructure, but in the process we knew that we could not avoid hitting churches, schools, and innocent people. Many of us thought that a better way must exist. Fifty-six years later, I still think so.

Reading the line about killing counterparts with whom he had no personal quarrel, I thought of a vignette I read years ago:

General: “Men, we’re surrounded, but the enemy has the same number of soldiers we do. So some man out there is going to try to kill you, and your job is to kill him first.”

Private: “General, could you point to the man you want me to kill? I believe that he and I can make another arrangement.”

Timberlake gives a pithy statement of the essence of war: “War is the mutual destruction of capital, both human and non-human.”

Timberlake also recognizes the cause of war. He writes:

Finally, in their external affairs governments must resist any temptation to intervene in the affairs of other peoples. It takes a government to wage a war. So governments must take the same oath of nonintervention – live-and-let-live – with other governments as each individual observes with other individuals. The model for this point-of-view is the political system the Founding Fathers put together when they wrote the Constitution of the United States.

So what do we owe our veterans on this Veterans Day and, indeed, on all days? Timberlake has an answer:

Surely, if societies owe anything to the veterans of former wars and the innocent soldiers and people destroyed in these catastrophes, it is a responsibility to avoid further warfare by every practicable means. So far as I can see from my vantage point, societies and governments are not following my simple prescription – or any other effective strategy – for preventing wars of all varieties. In not doing so, they are betraying the trust that my wartime colleagues, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice, and I reposed in them.

This was first published at antiwar.com in November 11, 2008. Here’s my tribute to him when he died in 2020.