You gotta remember to put one in his brain. Your first shot puts him down, then you put one in his brain. Then he’s dead. Then we go home.
~ The gangster u2018Tic Tac’ from Miller’s Crossing
It is not often that I disagree with what passes my eye when reading libertarian websites. At this point I’ve guzzled the Kool-Aid and bask happily in the progressive sunshine, relaxed and red-eyed. So when I recently came across a libertarian-slanted review of Elaine Scarry’s Rule of Law, Misrule of Men that seconded that book’s condemnation of W and Obama’s policy of targeting enemy leaders for assassination, I was surprised to find myself muttering to the walls as I processed it. I usually only do that when reading Paul Krugman.
I’m not one to take on anybody over the subject of international law — I’m no expert — but I reserve the right to say that something disturbs the moral sense, and to follow the laws of "civilized" war that prohibits the assassination of the enemy’s political leadership is unjust and irrational. On this count I’m with W, Obama, and all the other bloodthirsty lunatics who have ruled America for the past half-century. While I disagree with their insatiable urge to meddle, bomb, and assassinate on a global scale, I am arguing my belief that their position on assassination is just, rational, and should be the primary tool of any nation at war.
While the legally trained mind may point to the "Rules Of War" as reason to not mark your enemy’s political class for assassination, recall that it is only natural that every country’s political class — who write the laws of international behavior among themselves — have taken the prohibition against attacking civilians (long a part of civilized man’s concept of the proper course in war) and pulled that protective blanket off the working masses and instead wrapped it about themselves. It is here that we see the world’s political classes have developed a class conscience; on this matter it is not the workers of the world who have united, but the politicians.
It is the politician who rules, who is the wellspring behind war, always and everywhere. Bernard De Jouvenel once pointed out "the business of the ruling class is war. But then, war is the business of no other class" (De Jouvenel, 158) and he was spot on. Who else but the politician orders armies raised, atomic bombs dropped, and builds forward operating bases with guard towers at hundred yard intervals? Why this ridiculous prohibition on targeting them, while all the while they’re ordering air armadas to firebomb entire cities of men, women, and children into ashes and dust? Why can’t they feel war’s consequences, too? Yet today, international law cleaves humanity into two classes — granting wartime protection to those who do not deserve it while removing it from the innocents who do.
Granted, "history never lacks instances to show us of vast masses of men submitting to a yoke which is hateful to them, and lending unanimous and willing aid to keep in being a power which they detest." (De Jouvenel, 87) Sadly, you can slaughter uncountable multitudes of Joe Six Pack and the bloodied survivors will simply re-link arms, sing a patriotic Ode to their master, then human wave attack your machine gun nests again and again. People are funny like that. The road to victory, if taken exclusively through fighting them, will be extra bloody and far longer. Civilians are, to be blunt, a waste of ammunition (white phosphorus shells don’t come cheap), so shooting them should be avoided at all hazards.
On the other hand the political class are not only legitimate targets but also the primary one to go after, too, as they have the most to lose (an entire country under their thumb), don’t wish to risk it, and (most importantly) determine when their side will submit. The 1986 US bombing of Libyan dictator Gaddafi’s family compound proved far more effective and humane than carpet-bombing Tripoli would have been, methinks. The former made Gaddafi and his surviving family members into what they are today, another "ally" in the War of Terror; the latter would have steeled his resolve and made him a hero in his subjects’ eye. To adopt such a policy as used against Gaddafi would make war far more humane and leave Joe Six Pack out of it to the maximum extent possible. Yet, current international law has this absurd prohibition forbidding attack against an entire segment of your enemy’s population, and its most important segment, no less — its head.
Think how the frequency of war might decrease if every politician knew that should his country become involved in one he’d flinch every time he started his car each morning. Every politician the world over most certainly has taken that into consideration, and here we find what likely is the primary reason for this Kafkaesque ban. The 1976 Congressional Church Committee (tasked with investigating rumors of wide-spread use of assassination by America’s politicians — which it found plenty of) stated in its conclusions "assassination should be rejected as a tool of American foreign policy" as it may "incite retaliatory attempts on the lives of U.S. officials." (Note the same worry does not exist in our Congressmen for the troops in the field who, if captured by insurgents, might very well find themselves water-boarded in retaliation for their political leaders’ policy of torture.)
That same 1976 Congressional investigation revealed widespread "peacetime efforts by U.S. intelligence agency officials to cause the deaths of foreign heads of states…considered detrimental to the interests of the United States" and now, with the timeless, inexorable nature inherent in man’s addiction to power, that policy has been extended to include American citizens. This targeting of civilians is a throwback to barbarism and replicates a sordid policy widely practiced during America’s Civil War. It was given clearest example by the Union Army’s 1864 March to the Sea.
The Union commander General W.T. Sherman had remarked that he would make the Southern people — civilians — feel the heavy hand of war, that he would "make Georgia howl," and he made good on his promise. Yet, what did his brutal March advance, other than the military? The deaths of countless innocents and the destruction of good feeling that workers North, South, and everywhere should harbor for each other.
And to prove that God has a sense of humor, in the year prior to this blatant campaign against unarmed civilians the very same US Army had adopted The Leiber Code that proclaimed, "Civilized nations look with horror upon offers of rewards for the assassination of enemies as relapses into barbarism."
It would have been more just (and more to the purpose) had Sherman’s Army ignored the Leiber Code, left all the Southern civilians alone, and concentrated its efforts on the South’s political elite. For Sherman’s Army to have captured or shot dead every Southern politician they could lay their hands on, confiscated or burned all their stately homes — all of their property in fact — the war would likely have ended far sooner. Instead, Sherman deployed his artillery about Atlanta and ordered them to fire at will so "every house in the town should be battered by our artillery." (Sherman, 576)
Ludwig Von Mises once praised the dawn when "belligerents began to respect certain limits which in a struggle against men should not be transcended" as an advance of civilization. (Mises, 169) Indeed it was, but today we have taken a decided step backward in this respect, and the limits of what now is permissible in war are clearly upside down and need to be put right side up. In the event of war the most rational, moral, and effective means to bring it to a quick and successful end is to target for assassination, smart bomb, or drone attack every member of the enemy nation’s political class, to make them feel the harsh hand of war, and to leave the working masses out of it unless absolutely necessary.
So keeping a steady eye on the enemy country’s politicians, from the mayor of their smallest hamlet to the very pinnacle of their political pyramid, it does good for a civilized nation at war to blow the bugle, let loose the dogs, and declare it hunting season — on the fox, not the squirrel.
- Sherman, William T. Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman. (Library of America, NY, NY, 1990)
- De Jouvenel, Bertrand. On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth. (Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, IN, 1993)
- Mises, Ludwig Von. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. (Fox & Wilkes, San Francisco, CA, 1996)
CJ Maloney [send him mail] lives and works in New York City. He blogs for Liberty & Power on the History News Network website and the DailyKos. His first book (on Arthurdale, West Virginia during the New Deal) is to be released by John Wiley and Sons in February 2011.