Wednesday, March 15, 2006

'Just War Theory' vs. American Self-Defense

If there ever was an event worth two trips to see, it was The Objective Standard's inaugural lecture featuring Dr. Yaron Brook's on the "Just War Theory" vs. American Self-Defense (a lecture based on his now publicly-available article of the same title).

Here's a quick recap: in contrast to America's prosecution of earlier wars in its history, America today is not effectively waging war against jihad. America is choosing the wrong targets, it is placing the lives of the enemy above the lives of its own soldiers, it is unwilling to confront the source of the enemy's power and it ultimately cannot prevail given its week-kneed posture. America has adapted this stand because its leaders are acting upon the "just war theory," an altruistic premise that dictates that one must renounce selfish interest when prosecuting war in order for that war to be moral.

Brook quoted Michael Walzer, author of a West Point textbook on military ethics:

A soldier must take careful aim at his military target and away from nonmilitary targets. He can only shoot if he has a reasonably clear shot; he can only attack if a direct attack is possible . . . he cannot kill civilians simply because he finds them between himself and his enemies. . . . Simply not to intend the deaths of civilians is too easy. . . . What we look for . . . is some sign of a positive commitment to save civilian lives. . . . if saving civilian lives means risking soldiers' lives the risk must be accepted.
Remember, the author is talking about sacrificing the lives of our soldiers in order to protect the lives of the enemy who either explicitly supports his nation's government and military, or tacitly supports it by his inaction. "Just War Theory" is altruism at its most vicious, reducing a moment of life and death into a cause for sacrifice--to one's worst enemies, yet its tenets dominate the political scene with little opposition.

Brook's alternative is to "just war theory" is to recognize that "the sole moral purpose of war is the same as the sole moral purpose of any other action by a proper government--that is, to protect the individual rights of its citizens. Every moral issue pertaining to war must be judged by this standard-and only by this standard." According to Brook, a proper war is an uncompromising fight that seeks the destruction of the enemy and the "complete restoration of the protection of individual rights and thus the complete return to normal life."

Here Brook is at his most controversial: When prosecuting a war to protect individual rights, the enemy's civilians are not "collateral" that must remain undamaged at all costs. Civilians, along with the enemy's military and government are all legitimate targets; much as William Tecumseh Sherman recognized during the American Civil War when he broke the back of the Confederacy though his march though the south. In a war of self-defense, they enemy's civilians are not to be treated as separate from their government, but as the cause of its actions and the source of its power.

Brook is absolutely right. War is hell. War's "curses and maledictions" are caused by the enemies of individual rights--not by those seeking to defend themselves. To spare such an enemy from pain when such pain would lead to his submission is utterly bankrupt. Some will certainly blanch at the thought of targeting civilians and holding them responsible for their government's policies. Yet as Brook observes, governments do not exist separate from their people; governments are the product of a people's dominant philosophy. Thus, every citizen ought to take his nation's politics seriously and fight against the causes of war. To fail to do so is simply to place one's life at the mercy of warmongers and in the way of those who seek rightful vengeance against them.

I give great credit to The Objective Standard for hosting such an important talk. The Standard is advancing a bold position that deserves a hearing. I encourage Rule of Reason readers to subscribe to the Standard; both because the ideas expressed in its pages will illuminate their own thinking, but also because the Standard is clearly taking an activist posture, which deserves to be encouraged and supported.

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