Military Humanitarianism:
A Moral Impossibility

by Wendy McElroy

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 ‘need’ 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 ‘just war’ capture a sense of what the qualifier ‘just’ usually means. ‘War’ 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 ‘just’ 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 ‘just’ 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 ‘just 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 ‘get’ 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.

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