War and Justice

Some readers of my column “Moral Equivalence?” told me I was making a big mistake by applying the rules of criminal justice to warfare. Certainly, we would not condone a police force that blew up a full apartment building in order to eliminate a few criminals hiding out inside, but war is different! Most surprisingly, some of the people who took this view call themselves libertarians.

The first error they are making is to think that there is some distinct sort of justice called “criminal justice,” and that, therefore, there might be another sort called “military justice.” Justice, however, if it means anything at all, is unitary. What is just for the king is just for the peasant. What is just for a soldier is just for a private citizen. Justice, as pointed out by Hayek, is the application of the same rules to everyone, and injustice is precisely the creation of different sets of rules for different classes of people, for instance, citizens of one’s own country and foreigners.

War is a special case for justice only in that the circumstances of war tend to be more extreme than we find in peace, and the choices more agonizing. Difficult situations and moral dilemmas are real; no moral “system” can eliminate them, as, I think, the story of Abraham and Isaac was meant to illustrate. The quest for a system that infallibly spits out the answer to moral questions is an attempt to dodge the necessity for true moral choice. Nevertheless, that does not leave us in a situation where “anything goes.” We may agonize over whether we should shoot down a hijacked passenger jet that we believe is headed at a large building where it will kill far more people than are on board the jet. But to kill thousands of Iraqi civilians because it’s possible that one day Saddam Hussein might have a weapon of mass destruction that he might like to use against the US is to abandon morality for the sake of personal safety. It reduces morality to a mere afterthought; only once I am sure I can get the result I want from a situation will I then take morality into account. Abraham might obey God, but only if it won’t cost him anything.

One justification given for acts like the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that, had the US government not undertaken them, defeating Japan would have been more difficult. It is clear that, to someone who gives an answer like this, justice is not a principle but simply a nice embellishment. Shaving in the morning is nice, sure, but if you’re going to be late for work, it’s OK to skip it. And justice is nice, but if you risk losing the war by behaving justly, then it’s not really necessary.

For centuries, the idea that justice during war is not, in its essence, different than justice during peace would have been held as obviously true by most of the population of Europe. While war was seen as sometimes an ugly necessity, just war doctrine held that the same rules of morality applied to a king making war as to a peasant defending his home. The State had no special moral status, and was seen at best as a bandage, only necessary due to man’s fallen nature. Pascal (somewhat behind the times in his views, no doubt) pointed out the absurdity of the idea that if someone lives on one side of a river, they are our friends, and to kill them is murder, but if they live on the other side, they are our enemies, and to kill them is good. It is the actions of others, not their affiliation with this or that state, that determines how we may justly behave toward them.

But beginning with Machiavelli the State began to break free of the bonds of human morality. As God vanished from heaven, new prophets heralded the State as His earthly replacement. A divine entity in its own right, an expression of the spiritual development of Geist or of vast historical forces, the new state operated beyond the realm of petty individual morality. The actions of the State could not be judged like the actions of individuals, but instead by whether they forwarded the State’s interests or not.

Of course, once we accept such a doctrine, there is little we ordinary folks can say about any of the State’s activities. However, ordinary people man the State, too, and it is a suspiciously self-interested notion that the rest of us are really not in a position to judge the justice of their deeds. Nevertheless, in that they can convince us to believe it, they become increasingly free to operate without fetters. To forward that goal, they cloak their deliberations in secrecy in the name of “national security” and create vast propaganda machines to scare their subjects and indoctrinate them as to the beneficence of the government that rules them. Nothing ever advances this agenda as much as war.

That the average person accepts the myths put forward by the State is not surprising. But it is a bit of a puzzle to find some libertarians uncritically embracing such ideas. The State tells us that Jose Padilla is a dangerous terrorist: Well, then, of course he must be! (Note: I’m not saying he isn’t, merely that a public trial would seem to be the place to answer that question.) The State says that the thousand Moslems thrown in jail without counsel or trial are there for a good reason: Who are we to ask any questions about what evidence the State has against them? The ways of Geist are not open to questioning by mere mortals. But a little knowledge of history might clue people in to the fact that the State doesn’t always tell the truth.

It would seem to me that libertarians, whether favoring a minimal state or no state, must always regard any State activity with the utmost skepticism, and all claims of “necessity” as claims that must be publicly demonstrated. Furthermore, if we do not hold the State to the core principle of libertarianism, not to initiate aggression, in just the same way we hold individuals to it, then libertarianism becomes absolutely meaningless. If we do not do so, then individuals may not initiate aggression, but the State can always do so, since it can always claim it is acting for the greater good in a way that, if we only had the facts that it is hiding from us, we would comprehend and approve.

To doubt and question the State at every turn is far from unpatriotic; it is the essence of true American patriotism, and the duty of anyone who would call himself a libertarian.

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives