The Unjust War

Brace yourselves, lovers of peace, for I will start by defending war. Sing this psalm with me that I have composed:
Glorious is the Lord, almighty, and righteous in all that He does.
With disdain and ease He smites the blind and insane in their conceit
Armies of darkness that break apart without feeling,
Without knowing what killed them and why they die.
His name and glory be praised to high heavens.

He breaks the proud across His knee
And throws them away.
He condemns the wicked to just punishment;
He rewards the righteous with infinite generosity.
May the ungodly tremble before the power of the Lord.

Yet to those who repent the Lord is merciful;
In His loving kindness He forgives all sins.
He sends the Holy Spirit into them, beautiful and precious, with life-giving gifts,
Though He may plunge the sinner into hell
To force him to fight the demons in him or die.

Perhaps it is in similar vein that Brian Doherty argues that "tendencies and beliefs" can, at times, be "bombed out of existence." That much is true, and, indeed, even Ludwig von Mises considered it a good argument that "there is no record of a socialist nation which defeated a capitalist nation," implying that the destructive force that can in principle be unleashed by free societies far exceeds that commanded by the unfree ones. Power, in other words, whether creative or destructive, is given only to those who obey economic laws, for obedience to the divine law entails obedience to the natural law. Hence those nations that fail to arrange their affairs properly at home and cannot help but project their internal disorder onto the world by aggressing against their less rapacious neighbors can be humbled by an application of force and shown that their behavior will not lead to success.

Further, St. Thomas denies that a war is sinful if it is conducted "by the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged"; has a just cause, "namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault"; and the "belligerents... have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil."

We may at this point stop and object to the Angelic Doctor that modern war scarcely discriminates between the combatants and non-combatants, and, indeed, as Richard Weaver explains:

War used to be described in the language of diplomacy as the ultima ratio, the "final resort": what a nation fell back on when all other means of settlement had failed. It implied that you had a logical reason on your side which in the existing situation had to be given the support of force.

Moreover, the history of civilized warfare does in fact reflect this rationale of war. The rationale assumes that there is an arbiter of the destiny of nations...

When a nation has done its best, when it had exerted its maximum lawful strength, it accepted the "arbitrament of the sword," whether that was given for or against it. If against it, the defeated party had to admit that the other side had "the better reason" and had to accept a settlement that accorded with that reason.

That was the only way that warfare can be assimilated into the framework of rational thinking. So conceived, war is used as a means of reinstituting reason or of bringing people to their senses.

But once the "old chivalric concept of the war of limited objectives conducted against soldiers only" has given way, especially after the American War Between the States, to total war in which "the sole object is to win and impose your will" by any means whatsoever, Weaver continues, war

no longer survives as an "institution," which can be described in rational terms, but becomes pure and ultimate unreason...

The advocate of total war... does not regard victory as something that is up for decision through approved methods of arbitrament, but is something the warring party has from the beginning, or rather would have except for the inexcusable resistance of a totally depraved opponent.

An interesting twist in the present war on Iraq is that that whole nation has been coalesced into "Saddam," a monstrous bogeyman who must be dispelled by the forces of "light" before the reign of "freedom," whatever meaning the imperial speechwriters attach to this term, can begin. That Saddam, being head of the Iraqi state, will likely escape while the regular citizens are blown to bits escapes their grasp.

It is possible to argue that the war on Iraq was not a just war as follows.

  1. A sovereign can put himself outside the law in five ways. First, if he acquires power by illegitimate means. Now the present war was never declared; hence, those who wage it have taken a power that does not belong to them. It is futile to object that the legislature's consent "would have been given" had the vote occurred; the point is that the vote did not occur, and the consent was not given. Suspects are not condemned to prison if their guilt seems "obvious," but only after an actual trial. An appeal to an abstract hypothetical would betray only the arguer's arrogance and contempt for the law.

    Second, if he fails to safeguard justice. Since whether or not this war is just is what we are trying to establish, it is necessary to look at the state's behavior in general. We see easily that the government, and especially the executive branch, consistently acts without any regard for the Constitution, its own laws, and international conventions, and this war is but one manifestation of the Soviet-like chaotic and brutal arbitrariness of the state.

    Third, if his actions result in social chaos rather than order. The effects of the various types of government interventions in the economy are well-known. Manipulation of the money supply is especially horrific, for it attacks economic rationality itself and thus the metaphorical Spirit of Truth within society. Insofar as this war strengthens the hold of the state over money and impels the Fed to inflate, it is an attack on the life of the human society itself. And whatever the official reasons for this war, such as liberation of the Iraqis, they will not be accomplished, just as the official ends of other government programs are never accomplished. It is probable, however, that the dictatorship of the local ruler will be substituted for that of the imperial satrap.

    Fourth, if he misuses the money in the public treasury. Every year over two trillion dollars worth of wealth is removed from the private economy, and what has the state to show for it? It builds pyramids and mausoleums for its pharaohs at home, and abroad all it knows is how to destroy. In Iraq destroy it has.

    Fifth, if between the citizens or towards other nations he fosters malice, which is contrary to charity. Bush's proclamation that "those who are not with us are with the terrorists" is sufficient to satisfy this criterion.

    It seems therefore that this war is being conducted not by a legitimate authority but by a private band of marauders and madmen.

  2. The war on Iraq is purely aggressive. No harm to any American has come from Iraq before or since the Gulf war. Not once by his actions or words did Hussein indicate himself to be a threat to ordinary Americans. Let there be no dark hints from the government of their secret knowledge of Hussein's intentions and the subtleties of the Iraqi internal politics.

  3. The main motives of those supporters of the war who can influence the state are: to expand their empire and solidify their power. These are hardly "rightful intentions."

  4. The war is far from being a last resort even when it comes to imposing the state's own will on Iraq. Wrong though it would still be, other methods could have been used to depose Hussein, such as a duel. (Surely, a duel between Bush and Saddam or their chosen champions would satisfy the Weaver's criterion of an honest battle to adjudicate the dispute, much better in fact than a collectivist war.) But the American elites wanted a war.

  5. It is being waged on civilians, cities, and the Iraqi economy.

Further, this war will surely deepen the present recession. It has, as usual, encouraged massive lying and false propaganda. It will fragment the world further into hostile camps and plunge individual human beings into barbarism. It will not reinstitute reason but sow political chaos. "Maybe the new government will make the U.S. safer from the threat of terroristic Islam," Doherty writes in the same article. It seems equally probable that as a result of a remarkable happenstance and an incredible chain of events if the state were to drop a "smart bomb" in Times Square tomorrow at 1:15pm, it would end up killing only those who have committed terrorist acts; this action would not cause any diminution of affection for the U.S. government to the point where many more people decide to join the ranks of terrorists themselves; and everyone would agree that the bombing was an integral part of the due process of law.

It almost seems as if the existence of other human beings presents an irresistible allure to the state to kill them and take their goods.

Now that the fighting seems to be coming to an end, some say that whatever casualties Iraq has suffered have been entirely its own fault. For the U.S. clearly outguns Iraq. If only the latter had surrendered at once, the war would have been avoided and innocents spared. This "conservative," to use for the sake of simplicity such crude labels, argument parallels exactly the "liberal" exhortations that people ought to submit to muggers and rapists without putting up a fight. Besides, why shouldn't the U.S. have surrendered? Surely, casualties would have been avoided this way, as well.

At this point it may occur to one to become alarmed. While the war is still going on, ought not we to refrain from criticizing the "Commander in Chief," his viziers, and especially the state's powers as such? For indeed if any soldier sees such criticism, it may sow doubt in his mind as to the righteousness of the war and tempt him to desert, disobey orders, or not fight as ferociously as he otherwise would. Similarly, any citizen may wonder whether the taxes he pays to the state are being used in the way he wants them to be used. (We may disregard for the sake of argument the obvious absurdity of this question.) This may compromise the "effectiveness" of the military.

The counter to that, however, is simply, "So what?" First, if the criticisms are correct, then their consequences, up to and including complete withdrawal of support for the war, are at least prima facie desirable. Second, if the war is unjust, destructive, etc., then those who wage it, including the troops, are, too, unjust, destructive, etc. Why must we support such people? Third, if one side in a conflict is made worse off, the other is by that very reason made better off; hence, there is no obvious improvement. Fourth, insofar as this war is stripped from its apocalyptic veneer as a battle of good vs. evil or any such fanciful adornments, there is no reason to believe that a victory (i.e., more power) for the United States government will be more desirable from the point of view of Americans, Iraqis, and everyone else than an Iraqi victory.

It is, however, far too early to feel pleased with "our" victory. For the government to have crushed a sovereign country with such breezy and nonchalant assurance, as if it were just another day at the office, implies complete assent of the parties responsible to the goodness of this action, and no society built on such delusions can last.

Update 2/19/2011. I think Weaver is nuts for defending "might makes right" in such a ridiculous fashion. "Arbiter of destiny of nations"? There is no arbiter in war. Mises was far wiser in pointing out the "injustice" that "God is for the big battalions, and that those who are better equipped defeat poorly equipped adversaries." It is problematic in an armed conflict to have moral doubts about the goodness of the cause one is "defending" in war. Doubters will lack precisely the killer instinct necessary to win. In war, God helps the ruthless and the unscrupulous. He helps the deceivers, such as snipers and ambushers, guerillas and those who execute sneak attacks. He helps the terrorists who intimidate the enemy by putting entire towns to the sword. He ignores the little girl with the flower and rewards the nuke manufacturers who evaporate her. No wonder the "old chivalric concept of the war" disappeared, if it ever really existed. Every incentive was against it.

May 24, 2003

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