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On total war

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  • Robert Waldrop
    The Old Cause by Joseph R. Stromberg http://www.antiwar.com/stromberg/s-col.html August 10, 2002 Liberventionism III: The Flight from History There have been
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 20, 2002
      The Old Cause
      by Joseph R. Stromberg
      August 10, 2002

      Liberventionism III: The Flight from History

      There have been complaints that I have not named the
      "liberventionists." I do not see the necessity for this, since I
      assume that readers of this website read widely. For the record,
      however, let us stipulate that liberventionists include at least the
      following: many Objectivists, the CATO Institute,several self-named
      "anarchists" writing on the web, libertarians who harbor the illusion
      that the Republican Party is worth more than the proverbial powder to
      blow it to Hell, and so on.

      I see no reason to name all these people. Everyone must have run
      across their opinion pieces and "blogs" by now. I will not do PR for
      these characters.


      That said, there is an amazing intellectual failure at the heart of
      liberventionism, that is, the context-dropping erasure of any real
      distinction between the state, on the one hand, and society – and,
      yes, individuals- on the other. I have said this before, but it bears

      "We" are not the government. The government is not "us." Libertarians
      ought to be able to understand that. Hell, conservatives sometimes
      understand it.

      We refer to the vast network of personal and impersonal relations and
      exchanges necessary to our existence and happiness as "society."
      Society is not the state, nor is the state the steering mechanism,
      "brain," or Great Macro-Organ of society. The state is an ongoing
      organization of the "political means to wealth" and is, therefore,
      necessarily made up of a minority of the individuals making up a
      particular society.

      Why the state is "ongoing" is an interesting question, which I must
      leave to one side for now. My point is that states are subsets of
      societies and impose costs on society through force, threats of force,
      and ideological persuasion. And yet, "we" are not the state, any more
      than "we" owe the national debt to "ourselves."

      This elementary distinction was crystal clear to Albert Jay Nock, H.
      L. Mencken, Frank Chodorov, Felix Morley, and other founders of
      libertarian social analysis. It has been understood, intermittently,
      by many other thinkers. The point at issue transcends any present
      wrangle within libertarian circles, and ought to be of interest to
      anyone who lives in a society on top of which there is a state


      This brings me to someone who writes on a website named for a famous
      pamphlet by a 19th-century individualist anarchist. I know little
      about the website and nothing about Mr. Tim Starr, whose essay I mean
      to interrogate in aid of finding key symptoms of the liberventionist
      syndrome. The essay, "War Is Not Criminal Justice," seems a perfect
      example of some libertarians’ flight from history. The piece is also
      remarkable for its embrace, odd in a professed libertarian, of the
      policy of Total War, an embrace which would be odd enough for someone
      who only professed to be a human being. I hasten to add that, as a
      matter of historical fact, that many people have embraced Total War,
      particularly in the lovely 20th century. Whether that was the best
      thing they could have done is another matter.

      Starr’s essay claims to answer a piece by Gene Callahan on Lew
      Rockwell’s website. Callahan is quite capable of defending himself.
      Here I am only interested in Starr’s doctrines as they emerge from his

      Starr complains that Callahan mistakenly makes an issue of whether or
      not the hundreds of thousand Japanese civilians done to death by US
      aircraft "were necessarily to blame for their government and military’
      s war against the USA." They were not, he says, but that doesn’t

      It is all right to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people
      because that is the nature of modern war.

      Such an assertion might tempt one to ask if modern war is at bottom an
      inherently criminal enterprise, but Mr. Starr is not troubled. No, he
      says, "because of the total mobilization of the Japanese economy" and
      plans to involve the whole population "in the event of US ground
      invasion," Japanese civilians "still contributed to the Japanese
      military threat to the USA."

      So no one is really innocent in modern war, because the war-making
      state apparatus - a minority of the population, remember – enrolls
      everyone in its projects.

      Let us try this argument out in reverse. Once FDR had his war, he and
      his government proceeded to their own national-socialist "total
      mobilization" of the American economy. Under these conditions, every
      American employed in industrial production was therefore a fair
      "target" for Japanese air attacks, had the Japanese been capable of
      making them. I daresay it looks a little different from this end of
      the telescope.

      But wait, Starr concedes that Japanese civilians "not engaged in war
      production or in the militia" might not have been, strictly speaking,
      proper targets. Unhappily, the bombs of the day were not all that
      accurate, so in practice everyone in Japanese cities was a target
      anyway. It’s no one’s fault, really. We have to bomb and sauve qui

      Fine. Could the Japanese government have made the same argument, had
      they been able to obliterate all of Seattle while "intending" to take
      out some munitions factories? Is this merely a question of whose ox
      was gored?

      Invoking the common law principle of estoppel, I submit that on the
      Total Warriors’ own theory, they cannot deny to Japanese forces the
      "right" to obliterate Seattle if they (the US Total Warriors)
      simultaneously hold that US forces had a "right" to burn down most of
      the cities in Japan. Such a "right," on either side, did not exist.

      The defenders of Total War claim that, given industrialization and
      economic mobilization, hardly anyone is a non-combatant, really. This
      is said to be the inexorable "logic" of modern war. Under the plea of
      military "necessity" traceable to (among others) Francis Lieber, a
      German immigrant who rationalized Abraham Lincoln’s experiments in
      Total War, Total Warriors also claim that making war on the enemy’s
      entire society is also "lawful."

      Logically, if these are the "laws" or rules inseparable from modern
      warfare, both sides may play by them. If they may not, some reason
      should be given why this is so. The best that US Total Warriors,
      including liberventionists, seem to have to offer is the claim that
      the Good may always kill the Bad out of hand.

      In the case of libertarian warmongers, the Good vs. Bad doctrine may
      have an organic relation to the peculiar Randian doctrine of
      imperialism. Randians often maintain that "free societies" may always
      launch aggressions against "unfree societies," when the busy schedule
      of the former permit such philanthropies. Libertarian deployment of
      the Good vs. Bad card may also derive from the Neo-Conservative drive
      toward exporting "democracy" worldwide by armed violence, as
      opportunities arise.


      Mr. Starr’s commentary resembles those lifeboat arguments so loved by
      libertarians of a certain mindset. His examples simply involve larger
      numbers fighting over the one available raft or hanging from the
      flagpole five stories from the ground. These are fun, I suppose, but
      don’t often teach us anything useful.

      Starr holds, as noted, that people producing war materials and those
      in the militia were "fair game." It is nice to see a notion of
      fairness creep into American strategic thinking, but it may not be
      enough. What about people making food, medicine, wool socks? Might not
      those things be useful to the Japanese army? What about people making
      things which kept the munitions workers alive? Are they fair game?
      After all, the arms-makers could not make arms, if the farmers didn’t
      farm, and the farmers couldn’t farm, I suppose, if the scythe-maker
      didn’t make scythes.

      There is no logical stopping point short of making war on the entire
      economy and society of the enemy. That is pretty much what the United
      States did with its bombing campaigns against Japan. Under Total War
      reasoning it is hard to see why every Japanese should not have been

      Still, Starr writes that any Japanese civilians killed, over and above
      those he has specified, were – you guessed it – "collateral damage,
      whose death and wounding are properly the fault of the Japanese
      government/military, not the US." As a substitute for thought, as a
      mere slogan, "collateral damage" has certainly earned its keep, but it
      does not seem a very satisfactory explanation of what happens when you
      firebomb whole cities.

      On this argument, if, hypothetically, a subset of American society
      called the state pursues policies that kill off half million or more
      Iraqis, this is morally the fault of a subset of Iraqi society, i.e.,
      the Iraqi state, aka Saddam Hussein and his subordinates. On the face
      of it, it appears that the US government killed off the Iraqis,
      however indirectly, and blamed Hussain for making them do it. Well,
      they still did it. The US government then points to a smaller number
      of Iraqis killed by the Iraqi government, as if this absolved the US
      from its policies.

      On the face of it, both governments have killed Iraqis, but at last
      count the US government was responsible for a much larger number of
      deaths. Call me cynical, but how else are we to read this? I suppose
      we could blame the Iraqis, dead or otherwise, for the high crime of
      failing to overthrow Hussain at Uncle Sam’s behest, but I would rather
      deal with serious arguments here.

      Once again let us try the peacetime version of Total War reasoning in
      reverse. I say "peacetime" because the US and British blockade of
      Iraq – an act of war – has been repackaged as "sanctions," which are
      allegedly an instrument of peace. What if, as an alleged act of making
      peace, Iraq should blockade the United States, having previously
      destroyed much of our infrastructure – water treatment plants, etc. –
      and millions of Americans should die as a result of this embargo?

      Would the Iraqi state be blameless in this?

      If under Total War reasoning, whole societies, rather than their state
      overlords, are naturally in conflict, and if these conflicts are so
      fundamental as to admit of no solution short of war, or disguised war,
      is not every American a legitimate target of the victims of prior US
      policies? Has not the US government itself put us in this awkward

      Is not the US government logically "estopped" from saying it is wrong
      for others now to follow its own bad example with respect to targeting


      There is a silver lining for Mr. Starr. After killing as many Japanese
      as possible from the air – note that I do not say "necessary" –, US
      occupiers handed out chocolates, gave the Japanese a liberal
      constitution and land reform, and quit killing Japanese. For Starr,
      this proves US good "intentions," and good intentions prove
      conclusively the moral rightness of everything done up to the minute
      of surrender.

      Starr finds further proof of US benevolence in the fact that
      "MacArthur called for massive famine relief to prevent widespread
      starvation due to the destruction of the Japanese merchant marine and
      railroad networks during the war" (my italics). Well, who could
      possibly have done all that and brought the Japanese population near
      starvation? Blank out, as Rand used to say.

      Anyway, the ever-noble British government established the precedent by
      doing its best to starve the German people, generally, in World War I.
      The US implicitly endorsed the British policy. The Good may always
      starve the Bad.


      I have said that Starr treats the Pacific war as a huge, if unreal,
      lifeboat dilemma. Perhaps that is not quite right. He has, however,
      left it rather unexplained.

      Perhaps the Japanese just got up one morning, and hating us for our
      greatness, our democracy, our liberal values, our superior grooming,
      up and attacked Pearl Harbor for no better reasons than those. Or
      perhaps the US state and the Japanese state developed imperial
      rivalries over control of the China market, among other things, from
      the late 19th century onward. Perhaps this clash of imperial ambitions
      had something to do with the origins of the Pacific war.

      The Japanese leadership had in mind to treat parts of East Asia much
      the way the US treated Latin America. The US, Britain, and the
      Netherlands informed them that only mature nations should have
      empires. The dull Japanese failed to see the logic of that assertion.

      That is the general background. The specific background of the Pacific
      war, on the US side, has to do with FDR’s desperate search for a means
      of forcing the American people into wars they wished to avoid. In that
      search, he did his level best to corner the Japanese state leaders so
      that they would strike back, giving him a casus belli. Evidently, this

      Separating out Japanese society from the Japanese state, and American
      society from the American state, seems a good way to bring more
      realism into the discussion of the Pacific war.

      Mr. Starr is more interested in taking up the case of José Padilla. I
      leave it to others to argue about that. He does make an interesting
      observation, however, in this part of his article: "Rothbardian
      libertarians like Callahan don’t seem to understand the international
      laws of war."

      This not quite right. We do understand them. These laws have been
      cobbled together over time by cynical state actors, who increasingly
      chose to shred the rules followed in previous centuries. To the extent
      that provisions presently exist which might actually limit the carnage
      of war, great powers ignore them. One need only think of the real
      posture of the US toward the Geneva Convention, as opposed to
      rhetorical poses sometimes struck by US representatives when the TV
      cameras are running.

      If the laws of war say there is a "right," or that it is "lawful," to
      obliterate civilians by bombs or cruise missiles or to starve whole
      populations because a state claiming to embody The Hopes of All
      Mankind doesn’t like some local despot, the laws of war need renewed
      scrutiny, deconstruction, and criticism. Libertarians do not appeal to
      imperial US rescripts or UN Security Council resolutions for moral
      authority. They appeal to the older law of nations, the jus gentium,
      grounded in the concept of
      natural law.

      So what might we conclude? Tentatively, I suggest the following:

      1. No one should kill civilians.

      2. If a state does kill civilians "belonging" to other states, it is
      illogical and hypocritical for it to complain when other states kill
      "its" civilians.

      3. The various killings referred to in point 2 are wrong.

      4. Someone should set a good example in these matters.

      5. The United States will probably not be the power that sets a good
      example in these matters.

      What is needed is a re-evaluation of Just War Theory. By this I mean a
      discussion that does not stop with jus ad bellum, i.e, whose cause is
      just, but takes in jus in bello, i.e., the question of what means are
      moral, whether a cause is just or otherwise. This would mean throwing
      overboard all that post-1945 pseudo-Christian Just War theorizing
      which legitimated nuclear weapons and the like on the rather thin
      ground that the hearts of one side were pure.

      What we need is a further escalation of the radical criticism of
      states and state actions to which Murray Rothbard contributed so much.
      Rothbard did indeed understand the bloody 20th century, including its
      so-called international laws. Quite rightly, he rejected it and went
      back to the sources of Western freedom and order.
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