Morality of war
by Ari Armstrong
The following article originally appeared at Boulder Weekly on September 23, 2004.
"Iraq was the wrong war." And that's about where agreement between Yaron Brook, executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, and many Boulderites is likely to end. Brook was quick to add, "I will propose alternative targets that I think are more appropriate." He will speak on Thursday, Sept. 23, at 7:30 p.m., at the University of Colorado in University Memorial Center 235.
Brook will discuss the war on terror in the context of his criticism of "just war theory." He said he wants to throw that theory "completely out the window." He explained, "It is an altruistic theory. That is, it places other countries, other people's interests, above the interests of the United States. It basically views our soldiers as sacrificial animals, not only for U.S. citizens… but more importantly as sacrificial animals for the Iraqis, or for the Afghans, or for the Europeans, or whomever it happens to be, instead of as soldiers in a military that's selfishly pursuing American interests and self-defense."
Brook continued, "The only criteria for engaging in war is the rational self-interest of the American people. The only goal of the government is to defend and protect the individual rights of Americans. That's it. And therefore the only criteria for whether to go to war or not is, is this war going to defend and protect individual rights… I'm very much for America being aggressive in its war against militant Islam and against terrorism."
When should we go to war? "As soon as another country initiates force against you, or you have solid evidence that it plans or supports the initiation of force against you, you have a right to engage in war against them," Brook said.
Brook doesn't believe the U.S. should seek United Nations approval before going to war. Instead, "we should withdraw" from the UN, an institution he calls a "moral abomination" that tries to place the U.S. "on the same moral plane… with barbaric regimes from every corner of the world."
Decisive military action to defend the rights of Americans is crucial, but we need to carefully figure out which wars to fight, when and by what means. We shouldn't reflexively support or oppose any particular military venture.
Unfortunately, both the major wings of the "anti-war" camp do just that. I'll call these camps the pacifists and the anti-statists. They're not only "anti-war" in the sense of being opposed to a particular military venture they believe is imprudent; they're against war in principle, regardless of the context.
The pacifist camp is represented by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center. I spoke with Carolyn Bninski of the Center, and she expressed the common view of the anti-war left. Bninski rejects the notion that the war on terror is primarily an ideological war and that the complaints cited by terrorist groups are pretexts for murder. Instead, she said, "the root causes" of terrorism "are grievances that certain groups of people in the Arab and Muslim world have in regard to U.S. foreign policy." These "grievances" stem from U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, the "imbalance of support" for Israel and sanctions on Iraq, she said.
Pacifism generally incorporates two other core ideas, which Bninski expressed. First, military force is generally counterproductive. "Military violence is an ever-increasing spiral," she said. Thus, anti-war activists hasten to argue U.S. intervention creates a "breeding ground" for new terrorists. Second, military force is morally equivalent to terrorism. Bninski pointed to the civilian casualties in Iraq and asked, "Why is that more justified than individual terrorists killing innocent people?"
I asked Bninski what she thought of Iran and North Korea seeking nuclear weapons. "As long as the U.S. has them, we're in no moral position to say someone else shouldn't have them," she said.
The other anti-war camp tends to reflexively oppose all government action. (Pacifists, on the other hand, dislike military action but often advocate a massive welfare state.) Michael Badnarik, the Libertarian Party's presidential candidate, expressed this position when he spoke at CU on Sept. 9. He shared Bninski's view that military action in the Middle East is both unjust and counterproductive. He told Colorado Inside Out, "We've been involved in the Middle East… we are poking other countries in the eye with a sharp stick. And it's little wonder that at some point in time, somebody has decided they were going to retaliate." As did Bninski, Badnarik suggested America bears primary responsibility for the terrorist attacks.
When pressed, both Badnarik and Bninski grant the U.S. can go to war when attacked. (Apparently Sept. 11 doesn't count.) Badnarik said he supports national defense, not international offense. He said he supports using limited military force internationally for the purpose of bringing known terrorists to trial. Bninski said America can use military force "perhaps in self-defense… under international law." However, she qualified, "I don't know that I would advocate that personally."
Brook is eager to come to Boulder. "I think, in spite of its reputation of being a very left-wing place, I'm sure there are plenty of people open to a different message. And, indeed, I would hope that even those people on the left are still open to rational discussion and debate and to hearing an opposing point of view. If not, then this country is really in big trouble. It's all about free speech, and it's all about rational discussion and trying to convince the other guy that you're right and they're wrong. I look forward to it."