May History Judge Harshly

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John Myers of the Duluth, Minnesota, News Tribune interviews Lew Rockwell

MYERS: There seems to be more discussion of the Just War theory now than in recent military events. Is that strictly because the US seems to be considering a preemptive invasion, or are there other issues involved?

ROCKWELL: All public policy involves moral issues, but particularly foreign policy and war. War kills. It destroys. It smashes what men and women have created with their own hands. It yields terror and suffering. It is radically inhumane and unleashes devils of all sorts. When we are talking about war, we are not just having a regular political debate. It’s not like discussing whether to expand housing subsidies or something. We are discussing whether to ruin and destroy lives. And the consequences of war last decades, even centuries. It is serious business.

Right now, the US is on the verge of obliterating a country that never did anything to us. The claims that it could do something to us are no more plausible than the same claim that could be made of 100 other countries. This attack will set a precedent for unending war all over the region and the world. It will transform America and make the threat and use of violence a constant part of our lives. The US is, in effect, claiming to be the consolidated world state, in charge of who rules what country and how and whether they may defend themselves.

Given this reality, it is about time that someone raises the question of justice and morality.

So far as I can tell, this war on Iraq clearly violates every tenet of Just War theory. There is no just cause. It is not defensive, nor proportional, nor a last resort, nor conducted by legitimate authority, nor protective of innocents, nor likely to leave the world a better place. In short, it is unjust.

MYERS: How can Augustine’s principles from centuries ago be relevant in the day of nuclear weapons?

ROCKWELL: In the eighties there was a huge debate on the question of just war and nuclear weapons. It is hard to get around this crucial fact: nuclear weapons cannot be targeted against military personnel and equipment alone. They necessarily destroy civilian lives, not just by accident but by their very nature. They are indiscriminate in their effects. This means that they fail a crucial test of justice: they intend to kill people who are not party to the conflict.

Given that the US was first to develop these weapons, was the first to use them against people, remains the only country to have ever used them against people, owns by far the largest nuclear stockpile in the world, and that other countries have developed and acquired nuclear weapons in response to the US threat, our course of action should be clear: we must unilaterally disarm.

So, yes Augustine’s principles are still valid. Some journalists have suggested that Just War be amended in light of new technologies. The amendment would say something like: if the world hegemon does not approve of the weapons another nation uses to defend itself, because these weapons are too effective, the hegemon may justly go to war. Another claim is that just war needs to be amended to allow for preemptive strikes, as if every war is not conducted on the excuse that it prevents greater damage later.

All of this is absurd. The claim that “mistakes were made but unintentionally” is a universal lie of the state. As for amendments to just war doctrine, they are being suggested solely to justify US actions that otherwise violate just war doctrine. These people would probably consider adding a fourth person to the Trinity just because some US official proposes it.

The whole idea of a doctrine is that it doesn’t change. It binds regardless of the particular circumstances of time and place. The advent of weapons of mass destruction only makes war harder to justify.

MYERS: Are there major faiths or beliefs, other than Republican politics, that might differ with the theory that this would not be a just war?

ROCKWELL: Anyone who claims that war on Iraq passes the just war test cannot have looked at the facts and the moral strictures with objectivity. What we are dealing with is people who prefer war to peace. That’s all there is to it. Why? Well, war is the health of the state. It is the ultimate use of power. Some people find power personally advantageous or philosophically exciting. Normalcy, peace, and prosperity bore these people.

Now, I’ve seen writings by people from other religious traditions argue that the Catholic view of just war is highly problematic on grounds that it makes war too easy to justify, that instead of preventing war, it can add a moral gloss to what is obviously an immoral thing. There’s a point here. Let me give one example. The doctrine says that one cannot intentionally kill innocents. But what if innocents are not targeted but rather die as a byproduct? Is that a violation? If not, then any military can always claim that it never intended harm.

I think there are ways around this objection. On the point about innocents, the law recognizes a category of criminal negligence, which is still punishable. Killing innocents unintentionally in war could fall into this category. But if the state were held to the normal standards we use to judge criminal behavior in the rest of life, the world would be a very different place.

The main problem with the just war criterion is that it is an abstraction. It exists on the level of theory only because there is no entity that can enforce it. Every state going to war can be expected to claim a just cause, and there will always be intellectuals to echo these claims. What are the consequences for states which engage in unjust war, especially when they are the victors? We can only hope that history will judge them harshly.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. [send him mail] is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of

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