Military Humanitarianism: A Moral Impossibility

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The
concept of a "holy war" has been given new expression
in the recent policy of "military humanitarianism" adopted
by the United States and the United Nations. For example, the bombing
of Serbia and the military occupation of Bosnia have been justified
by the much publicized u2018need' to prevent ethnic cleansing in the
region. The announced motive behind these military aggressions was
considered so holy that the standard protocols of international
conflict – such as a declaration of war or territorial aggression
on the part of the enemy – were forsworn.

Yet
protocol is the essence of a holy war, especially as that concept
has been developed in Catholic "just war" theory. For
centuries, religious thinkers have struggled to resolve the apparent
contradiction between the principle of "Thou shalt not kill"
and the policy of war. The solution that evolved was expressed through
standards by which to judge whether a war was just(ified), or not.

What
Constitutes a Just War?

In
their approach to war, Christian ethics and classical liberalism
have much in common – namely, they both establish a theoretical framework
in which it is wrong to harm innocent parties. Thus, it is interesting
to adapt the basic structure of Christian just war theory to shed
light upon the question, "Is it a just war possible to those
who refuse to aggress against innocent people?" In his book
"War and Conscience," the minister Allen Isbell lists
several conventional requirements that a just war must meet. They
include: the war must be a last resort; it must have a just origin;
it must have a legitimate aim; it should embody a reasonable level
of force as a response; it must be waged by a proper authority against
a proper enemy; the execution must be just; and, it must have the
promise of beneficial victory. In short, a just war does not merely
seek to achieve a proper end, it is also conducted by righteous
means.

These
protocols for a u2018just war' capture a sense of what the qualifier
u2018just' usually means. u2018War' can be defined as the declaration of
conflict by one State against another by which it commits the people
and resources under its jurisdiction to hostilities against the
opponent's people and resources. (Historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel
has observed that each state actually declares war against three
enemies: the other state; the people of the other state; and, its
own dissenting citizenry.)

The
definition of u2018just' is more complex. Consider some of the requirements.

1. The
war must have a just origin.

The
use of force is justified only as a response to aggression – that
is, in self-defense or in defense of an innocent third party. Moreover,
proper force can only be directed at those who have initiated or
are perpetuating the aggression. This is an individualistic approach.
That is, the rights violated through aggression are individual ones,
rather than the collective ones that traditionally lead to war,
e.g. a violation of territorial soveriegnty. Nevertheless, it is
possible to imagine a war erupting through a massive violation of
individual rights.

A
practical problem immediately arises, however. The prerequisites
necessary to assess the justness of the war's origin – such as time,
all pertinent information, arbitration by a neutral party – are rarely
available at the point war is declared. A war might be adjudicated
u2018just' in retrospect, but this is comparable to holding a fair trial
after a guilty defendant has been executed.

2. The
war should be a reasonable response.

Just
as you do not shoot people for traffic infractions, the level of
wartime force must be appropriate to the aggression encountered.
It must be no more than what is necessary to protect the individual
rights of person and property.

The
question of what constitutes a reasonable response is complicated
by the presence of States that claim a monopoly over all wartime
policy, including the ability to behave reasonably. Indeed, the
State usurps the right to define what is reasonable. For example,
a pacifist who believed that non-violent resistance is the most
reasonable protection against aggression would not be allowed to
behave according to his definition. Nevertheless, it is still possible
to imagine a war with just origins that entails a reasonable level
of force in response.

3. The
war must be declared by a proper authority against a proper enemy.

If
every human being has the right to self defense, then no one can
properly take it from him. If a State acts only on behalf of those
individuals who agree to place their right to self defense in its
hands, then the State has proper authority to declare war. But it
has no right or authority to do so on behalf of people who wish
to be at peace. For example, in World War II, the United States
had no authority to declare war on behalf of those Americans of
German, Italian or Japanese ancestry who might have been understandably
reluctant to engage in the conflict.

For
the sake of speedy argument, let's assume that the war is declared
against a proper enemy.

This
leaves the other two categories against whom the State also declares
war – namely, the people within the enemy State and its own dissenting
citizenry. Can this be done with proper authority? With regard to
those who dissent within the State's own borders, the underlying
assumption of a u2018just war' precludes aggressing against anyone who
has not used force themselves. In short, it is never proper use
force to coerce agreement from peaceful people.

With
regard to the people of an enemy State, any act of war would have
to discriminate between the innocent and the guilty so as to spare
the former injury. A just war would have to eschew weapons of mass
destruction and be conducted in a manner reminiscent of the 19th
century, when civilians used to picnic beside battlefields, confident
that the military on both sides would respect the distinction between
civilians and combatants. It would require an extreme weakening
of the current pervasive nationalism that classifies people by countries
and uses that classification as a definition of innocence or guilt.

4. The
war's execution must be just.

This
point is somewhat redundant but worth stressing due to the inability
of modern weaponry and tactics to discriminate between the innocent
and the guilty. It is said that, as long as weapons are aimed only
at valid targets, the bombing of enemy cities is valid. In short,
the injury to innocents is excused as unintended, as "collateral
damage." This argument misses the point. Although the injury
inflicted upon the innocent may not an intended consequence of the
bombing, it is a fully foreseeable one. It is not an accident that
can be forgiven, but a known and predictable consequence of an action.
Moreover, unlike an accident, war involves denying reparations to
those wrongfully injured on the losing side. If anyone knowingly
acts in a manner that will harm innocent people and denies them
redress, he cannot subsequently hide behind the fact that this was
not his primary goal.

Some
argue for indiscriminate weaponry on the grounds of utilitarianism.
That is, if one State is willing to use bombs, others must respond
in kind or be devastated. This argument may be true. If so, it may
be a reason to eschew either war or ethics that condemn harming
the innocent.

Others
claim that when your life is threatened, you have a right to respond
defensively even it means firing into a crowd at the aggressor.
The responsibility for unintended harm lies with the aggressor.
If this argument is valid, an interesting math question arises.
How many bystanders are you justified in harming in self-defense?
Two, twenty, a thousand? What if the aggressor is in a building – can
you blow it up in self-defense? If not, why not? After all, once
the principle of eschewing harm to innocents is abandoned, how do
you run the math on what number is acceptable? In war, the math
embraces the millions of people who live in an enemy State. Bombing
them is comparable to summarily executing a crowd of people in order
to u2018get' the aggressor in their midst.

The
foregoing are merely a few of the protocols by which to evaluate
whether a war is just. And with each question considered, the possibility
of such a phenomneon becomes so increasingly remote as to become
unimaginable.

The
Free Market Alternative to War

Fortunately,
a rich history of anti-war theory provides an alternative means
to secure to international peace. The classical liberal Richard
Codben expressed the core of this analysis when he said there should
be as much traffic as possible between the peoples of the world
and as little as possible between the governments. This vision leads
to a world of both free trade and isolationism, wherein individuals
deal freely with each other unencumbered by governmental ambitions
and conflicts.

Unfortunately,
the classical liberal view of war was dealt a virtual death blow
by World War I. Indeed, the entire tradition declined as a result
of the growth of government and disillusionment occasioned by that
global upheaval. Classical libertarianism incurred such damage because
its approach to war was an integral part of its theory of state
and society.

Ironically,
in turning to the State to solve conflict, people turned away from
the one social mechanism that could ensure a peaceful society: the
free market. One of the most eloquent explanations of how economic
freedom can eliminate violence between individuals and nation was
offered in 1733 by the philosopher Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire
in a work entitled "Letters Concerning the English Nation."
The "Letters" was written as though to explain English
society to a friend back in France. Voltaire was particularly interested
in how toleration rather than open conflict predominated in England.
He choose religious toleration as his focus because of the bloodshed
religious differences had caused in France.

Letter
Five dismissed the idea that the English government had anything
to do with the peacefulness of English society. Indeed, politics
strongly favored tension, not tolerance since "No one can hold
office in England or in Ireland unless he is a faithful Anglican."
In Letter Six, Voltaire described how the peaceful society was a
pure expression of the free market. He observed, "Go into the
Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court,
and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there
for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the
Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion,
and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt."

English
commerce established a social arena within which people dealt with
each other solely for their own economic benefit and, so, ignored
extraneous factors such as the other party's religious beliefs.
On the floor of the London stock exchange, the economic self-interest
of the Christian and the Jew outweighed the prejudice that might
otherwise cause violence.

Voltaire
singled out for praise the same aspect of commerce that Karl Marx
would later condemned. The market place was impersonal or, in more
negative terms, it dehumanized people. They ceased to be individuals
who were expressing their humanity and became interchangeable units
who bought and sold. To Voltaire, the impersonal nature of trade
was its great strength. It allowed people to disregard divisive
factors that had historically disrupted society and caused war between
nations.

Moreover,
the peace created by commerce extended far beyond the instant of
buying or selling. As Voltaire phrased it, "On leaving these
peaceable and free assemblies [at the London Stock Exchange], some
go to the synagogue, other in search of a drink…" In the
end, "all are satisfied" because they have benefited.
All are peaceful because they anticipate similarly benefiting in
the future.

In
Conclusion

Historically
speaking, war has been the antithesis of justice. It returns man
to a Hobbesian state of nature in which all are at war with all.
Yet, also historically, there have been brakes that could be applied
to protect societies from open conflict. An example of one such
brake has been the need for a President to secure the approval of
Congress before declaring war. One of the most disturbing trends
within current warfare is the erosion of these safeguards against
conflict.

Under
the auspices – some would say the guise – of the United Nations, the
United States was able to militarily devastate areas of Europe that
had committed no act of aggression against it. The death and destruction
was accomplished in the name of justice. Yet it was conducted in
a manner that did not permit the questions that are necessary to
establish whether a war is just. Moreover, the war and subsequent
occupation has destroyed the only chance that the ethnically diverse
region has for peace: the free market.

May
11, 2000

Wendy
McElroy is author of The
Reasonable Woman
.

Wendy
McElroy Archives

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