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Foreign Policy in Voice for Reason
Foreign PolicySelf Defense & Free Trade

“Just War Theory” vs. American Self-Defense

by Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein | Spring 2006 | The Objective Standard

Authors’ Note: This essay is partially based on a lecture, “The Morality of War,” delivered by Yaron Brook at numerous venues across the country including the 2004 Objectivist Summer Conference.

It has been nearly five years since September 11, 2001 — the day that Islamic terrorists incinerated thousands of innocent individuals in the freest, wealthiest, happiest, and most powerful nation on earth.

On that day and in the weeks after, we all felt the same things. We felt grief, that we had lost so many who had been so good. We felt anger, at whoever could commit or support such an evil act. We felt disbelief, that the world’s only superpower could let this happen. And we felt fear, from the newfound realization that such evil could rain on any of us. But above all, we felt the desire for overwhelming retaliation against whoever was responsible for these atrocities, directly or indirectly, so that no one would dare launch or support such an attack on America ever again.

To conjure up the emotions we felt on 9/11, many intellectuals claim, is dangerous, because it promotes the “simplistic” desire for revenge and casts aside the “complexity” of the factors that led to the 9/11 attacks. But, in fact, the desire for overwhelming retaliation most Americans felt after 9/11 — and feel rarely, if ever, now — was the result of an objective conviction: that a truly monstrous evil had been perpetrated, and that if the enemies responsible for the 9/11 attacks were not dealt with decisively, we would suffer the same fate (or worse) again.

After 9/11, our leaders — seemingly sharing our conviction in the necessity of decisive retaliation — promised to do everything possible to make America safe from terrorist attack. In an almost universally applauded speech, President Bush pledged to eradicate the enemy by waging a war that was to begin with Al Qaeda and the Taliban but that would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been . . . defeated.” In the same speech, Bush vowed: “I will not yield, I will not rest, I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.”1

To fulfill the promise to defeat the terrorist enemy that struck on 9/11, our leaders would first have to identify who exactly that enemy is and then be willing to do whatever is necessary to defeat him. Let us examine what this would entail, and compare it with the actions that our leaders actually took.

Who is the enemy that attacked on 9/11? It is not “terrorism” — just as our enemy in World War II was not kamikaze strikes or U-boat attacks. Terrorism is a tactic employed by a certain group for a certain cause. That group and, above all, the cause they fight for are our enemy.

The group that threatens us with terrorism — the group of which Al Qaeda is but one terrorist faction — is a militant, religious, ideological movement best designated as “Islamic Totalitarianism.” The Islamic Totalitarian movement, which enjoys widespread and growing support throughout the Arab–Islamic world, encompasses those who believe that all must live in total subjugation to the dogmas of Islam and who conclude that jihad (“holy war”) must be waged against those who refuse to do so. Islamic Totalitarians regard the freedom, prosperity, and pursuit of worldly happiness animating the West (and especially America and Israel) as the height of depravity. They seek to eradicate Western Culture, first in the Middle East and then in the West itself, with the ultimate aim of bringing about the worldwide triumph of Islam. This goal is achievable, adherents of the movement believe, because the West is a “paper tiger” that can be brought to its knees by sufficiently devoted Islamic warriors.

Given that the enemy that attacked on 9/11 is primarily ideological, what, if anything, can our government’s guns do to defeat it? Our government cannot directly attack the deepest, philosophical roots of Islamic Totalitarianism; however, to defeat Islamic Totalitarianism as a physical threat, it does not need to do so. Why? Because an indispensable precondition of an active, threatening Islamic Totalitarian movement — one for which individuals are willing to take up arms — is its active support by Arab and Islamic states that assist, embody, and implement it. Without this state support, Islamic Totalitarianism, and thus Islamic terrorism, could not exist as a major threat.

We can see how the end of state support for a movement can destroy the threat it poses in the cases of Communism and Nazism, two militant movements with world-conquering, totalitarian ambitions. As Angelo M. Codevilla, Professor of International Relations at Boston University, writes:

Recall for a moment the Communist movement’s breadth and depth. The Communist Party was just the tip of the iceberg. Every political party, every labor union, every newspaper, every school, every profession, every social organization had sympathizers with Communism who played a significant role in its life. . . . Where now are all those people, young and old, who would argue and demonstrate, and scheme and spy and kill and betray for the grand cause of Communism? They were no more when the Soviet Union was no more, just as sunflowers would cease to exist were there no sun. As for those ferocious Nazis . . . only the name remains, as a hackneyed insult. Human causes are embodied by human institutions. With them they flourish, without them they die. Communists and Nazis everywhere ceased to be a problem when the regimes that inspired them died.2

For Islamic Totalitarianism, the “sun” (the equivalent of Communism’s Soviet Union) is Iran. Iran was founded on the principles of Islamic Totalitarianism, implements the ideals of the movement in a full-fledged militant Islamic theocracy, and thus embodies its cause — providing the movement with a model as well as indispensable spiritual hope and fuel. Iran is also a leading supporter of the terrorist groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. (Compared with Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan was a bit player.) The second leading state supporter of Islamic Totalitarianism is Saudi Arabia, which has spent more than seventy-five billion dollars on the Wahhabi sect of Islam that inspires legions of Islamic Totalitarians, including Osama Bin Laden.

Without physical and spiritual support by these states, the Islamic Totalitarian cause would be a hopeless, discredited one, with few if any willing to kill in its name. Thus, the first order of business in a proper response to 9/11 would have been to end state support of Islamic Totalitarianism — including ending the Iranian regime that is its fatherland. As a secondary priority, a proper fight against the enemy that attacked on 9/11 would have involved ending state sponsorship of terrorism by Arab states derivatively connected to Islamic Totalitarianism — states such as Syria (and, before it was ended, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). These regimes are active supporters of Arab–Islamic terrorism and mouth support for the Islamic Totalitarian cause, but are not ideologically committed to it; these regimes support this cause out of political expediency. Supporting Islamic Totalitarianism gains power for them; by supporting anti-Western causes and jihadists, Arab states direct the misery of their people toward America and Israel and away from their own brutal rule. Supporting Islamic Totalitarianism also gains money for Arab states; for example, the leaders of Syria, a stagnant nation with no oil wealth, are wealthy because oil-rich Iran pays them for providing assistance to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. Dealing effectively with these accessories to Islamic Totalitarianism would require, first and foremost, getting rid of the primary supporters of the movement. The next step would be, where necessary, making clear to these derivative regimes that any cooperation with that movement or its aims is not expedient, but a guarantee of their destruction.

What specific military actions would have been required post-9/11 to end state support of Islamic Totalitarianism is a question for specialists in military strategy, but even a cursory look at history can tell us one thing for sure: It would have required the willingness to take devastating military action against enemy regimes — to oust their leaders and prominent supporters, to make examples of certain regimes or cities in order to win the surrender of others, and to inflict suffering on complicit civilian populations, who enable terrorist-supporting regimes to remain in power.

Observe what it took for the United States and the Allies to defeat Germany and Japan and thus win World War II. Before the Germans and Japanese surrendered, the Allies had firebombed every major Japanese city and bombed most German cities — killing hundreds of thousands. Explaining the ration­ale for the German bombings, Churchill wrote, “. . . the severe, the ruthless bombing of Germany on an ever-increasing scale will not only cripple her war effort . . . but will create conditions intolerable to the mass of the German population.” And as we well know, what ended the war — and the Nazi and Japanese Imperialist threat to this day — was America’s dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.

The Civil War provides another stark example of what can be required to win a war. In 1864, as the war was dragging on in endless, bloody battle, the Northern general William Tecumseh Sherman helped end it with a devastating campaign against Georgia’s civilian population. After burning the city of Atlanta, Sherman’s army ravaged much of the rest of Georgia by burning estates; taking food and livestock; and destroying warehouses, crops, and railway lines. These actions had the effect not only of disrupting the supply of provisions to Lee’s army in Virginia, but also (and more importantly) of making the war real to the civilian population that was supporting the war from the rear. This, in turn, broke the spirit of the men on the front lines, who were now worried and demoralized by what was happening to their homes and families.

In both World War II and the Civil War, once massive defeats were handed to the enemy, the causes that drove the military threats were thoroughly defeated as political forces. There are no threatening Nazis or Japanese Imperialists today, nor was there any significant political force agitating for the reemergence of the Slave South after the Civil War.

To have decisively defeated Islamic Totalitarianism post-9/11, America would have had to both correctly identify the enemy and show the same unmitigated willingness to defeat its identified enemies as it has in past wars. In the weeks after 9/11, the American people, for their part, seemed willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent another 9/11. And throughout the Arab and Muslim world, many feared that they would be made to pay for the aggression of their nations. An expert on the Middle East reports that although 9/11 was greeted by much celebration by civilians in the Muslim world, many feared “that an angry America might crush them. . . . Palestinian warlords referred to the events as Al Nakhba — ‘the disaster’ — and from Gaza to Baghdad the order spread that victory parties must be out of sight of cameras and that any inflammatory footage must be seized.”3 But the fear of our enemies in the Middle East quickly disappeared once it became clear that few, if any, of them would pay for the atrocities of 9/11.

Observe that nearly five years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — longer than it took to defeat the far more powerful Japanese after Pearl Harbor — the two leading supporters of Islamic Totalitarianism and the majority of their accessories remain intact and visibly operative. Iran is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons, led by a President who declares that our ally Israel must be “wiped off the map,” and by Mullahs who lead the nation in weekly chants of “Death to America.” Abroad, Iran’s terrorist agents kill American troops in Iraq, while its propagandists attempt to push Iraq into an Islamic theocracy. Saudi Arabia continues to fund schools and institutions around the world that preach hatred of America and advocate Islamic Totalitarianism. Syria remains the headquarters of numerous terrorist organizations and an active supporter of the Iraqi insurgency that is killing American troops. The Palestinian Authority continues a terrorist jihad initiated by Yasser Arafat — a jihad that can be expected only to escalate under the entity’s new leadership by the Islamic Totalitarian group Hamas. Throughout the Arab–Islamic world, “spiritual leaders” and state-owned presses ceaselessly incite attacks against the West without fear of reprisal.

America has done nothing to end the threat posed by Iran and Saudi Arabia, nor by Syria and the Palestinian Authority. In the rare cases that it has taken any action toward these regimes, its action has been some form of appeasement: extending them invitations to join an “anti-terrorism” coalition (while excluding Israel); responding to the Palestinians’ jihad with a promised Palestinian State; declaring “eternal friendship” with Saudi Arabia and inviting its leaders to vacation with our President; responding to Iran’s active pursuit of nuclear weapons with the “threat” of possible, eventual, inspections by the U.N.

Of course, America has done something militarily in response to 9/11; it has taken military action against two regimes: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But in addition to these not having been the two most important regimes to target, our military campaigns in each case have drastically departed from the successful wars of the past in their logic, aims, methods — and in their results. In Afghanistan, we gave the Taliban advance notice of military action, refused to bomb many top leaders out of their hideouts for fear of civilian casualties, and allowed many key leaders to escape in the Battle of Tora Borah. And in Iraq, we have done far worse. While we have taken Saddam Hussein out of power, we have neither eradicated the remnants of his Baathist regime, nor defeated the insurgency that has arisen, nor taken any serious precaution against the rise of a Shiite theocracy that would be a far more effective abettor of Islamic Totalitarianism than Saddam Hussein ever was.

In terms of ending the (limited) threat posed to America by the respective countries, the “war” in Afghanistan was a partial failure, and the “war” in Iraq is a total failure. Our leadership, however, evaluates these endeavors not primarily in terms of whether they end threats and dissuade other hostile regimes from continuing aggression, but in terms of whether they bestow the “good life” on the Middle Eastern peoples by ridding them of unpopular dictators and allowing them to vote-in whatever government they choose (no matter how anti-American). This objective is presently consuming endless resources and thousands of American lives in Iraq, where we are sustaining a hostile Iraqi population until they can independently run their new nation — in which Islam is constitutionally the basic law of the land.

How is all of this supposed to fulfill our leaders’ pledge to defend America? The democratically elected Iraqi government, we are told, will somehow lead to a renaissance of “freedom” in the Middle East, which will somehow stop terrorism in some distant future. In the meantime, we are told, we should show “resolve,” take off our shoes at the airport, and pay attention to the color-coded terror alerts so we can know how likely we are to be slaughtered.

Empty talk of “complete victory” notwithstanding, our official foreign policy regarding America’s security against Islamic terrorism is: accepted defeat. We have not been willing to take military action against the most important threats against us, and the type of military action we have been willing to take has not succeeded in making us safer. And most disturbing of all, despite our travesty of a foreign policy, the vast majority of once-enraged Americans has not demanded anything better. Most Americans acknowledge that Iraq is a debacle, that we will not be safe anytime soon, and that we have no plans to deal effectively with threats such as Iran’s nuclear weapons program — yet there is widespread resignation that this is the best we can do. This — in response to a threat caused by pip-squeak nations, against the most powerful military in history.

Why? What explains the defeatism of the leaders and citizens of the most powerful nation on earth?

One crucial factor is the failure of our intellectual and political leadership to clearly identify the nature of our enemy, to recognize that terrorism stems from a religious ideological movement that seeks our destruction and that that movement is widely supported by Muslim peoples and states.

One intellectual motivation for this evasion is the doctrine of Multiculturalism, which holds that all cultures are equal, and thus that it is immoral for Western Culture to declare itself superior to any other. Having swallowed this doctrine, most of our intellectuals and politicians are reluctant to identify a clearly evil, militant ideological movement as an aspect of Arab–Islamic culture or to acknowledge its widespread support in that culture.

An even more significant motivation is the religiosity of many Americans (especially conservatives). While the militant methods of Islamic Totalitarianism are anathema to religious Americans, the ethical prescriptions of the movement — a life of faith, material renunciation, and sacrifice for a “higher” cause — are consistent with everything religious Americans hold as ideal. These Americans are thus reluctant to indict such ideas as the cause of a massive evil and, instead, are drawn to the theory that our enemy is confined to isolated individuals such as Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and a few crazy followers. Our leaders go even further; not only are they reluctant to indict Islamic ideas, they bend over backward to claim that no truly Islamic movement can be responsible for terrorism because “Islam is peace.” Islamic terrorists, they claim, have “hijacked a great religion.”

America’s intellectual failure to identify the nature of the enemy is a major cause of its defeatism — but this failure, and its responsibility for our policies, only goes so far. For example, none of our politicians identify our enemy as “Islamic Totalitarianism”; however, they all know and admit that Iran and Syria are active sponsors of terrorism, that Iran is developing missiles and a nuclear weapon, that Saudi Arabia turns out legions of wannabe terrorists, and many other facts pointing to the conclusion that if we are to be safe, these states must be stopped. Shortly after 9/11, President Bush demonstrated some understanding of the role of state support of terrorism when he declared: “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Recently, despite his misgivings about indicting any variant of any religion, he has been condemning “Islamic Radicalism” as a major source of the terrorist threat.

If America were to take military action to end the threats we face, even based on our leaders’ limited understanding of these threats, it would be far more significant and effective than what we have done so far. Why, then, haven’t our leaders taken such actions?

The reason is that, despite their claims that they will do whatever is necessary to defend America, our leaders believe that it would be wrong — morally wrong — to do so. They believe this because they consistently accept a certain moral theory of war — one that has come to be universally taught in our universities and war colleges. This theory is accepted, at least implicitly, not only by intellectuals, but by our politicians, the leadership of our military, and the media. And while the American people are not explicitly familiar with this theory, they regard the precepts on which it is based and the policies to which it leads as morally uncontroversial. The theory is called Just War Theory. To understand today’s disastrous policies, and to reverse them, it is essential to understand what this theory holds.

“Just War Theory”

Consider the following passage from the book Just and Unjust Wars by Michael Walzer:

A soldier must take careful aim at his military target and away from nonmilitary targets. He can only shoot if he has a reasonably clear shot; he can only attack if a direct attack is possible . . . he cannot kill civilians simply because he finds them between himself and his enemies.4

Simply not to intend the deaths of civilians is too easy. . . . What we look for . . .is some sign of a positive commitment to save civilian lives . . . if saving civilian lives means risking soldiers’ lives the risk must be accepted.5

Walzer’s prescriptions are not the idle musings of an ivory tower philosopher; they are exactly the sort of “rules of engagement” under which U.S. soldiers are fighting — and dying — overseas. When our marines in Baghdad do not shoot back when fired upon from a mosque, or when our helicopter pilots are shot down while flying too low in an attempt to avoid civilian casualties while in pursuit of their targets, they are following the dictum that we should show a “positive commitment to save civilian lives” even if this entails “risking soldiers’ lives.”

Just and Unjust Wars serves as the major textbook in the ethics classes taught at West Point and dozens of others colleges and military schools. More broadly, Just War Theory — for which Just and Unjust Wars is the most popular modern text — is the sole moral theory of war taught today.

Just War Theory is conventionally advocated in contrast to two other views of the morality of war: pacifism and “realism.” Pacifism holds that the use of military force is never moral. Just War theorists correctly criticize this view on the grounds that evil aggressors exist who seek to kill and dominate the innocent, and that force is often the only effective way to stop them. War, they hold, is therefore sometimes morally necessary.

“Realism” is the view that war has no moral limitations. Just War Theory rejects this theory as well, holding that war, when necessary, must be conducted in accordance with strict moral principles. Since “realism” renounces morality, Just War theorists observe, its advocates cannot in principle oppose wars or acts of war in which the guilty unjustly kill the innocent. More broadly, Just War theorists argue, “realism” is deficient because it denies the need to think carefully about the moral issues raised by war. Given that, in wartime, thousands or millions of lives hang in the balance — given that war is a major undertaking with the potential to do massive good or massive evil — we are obligated to consider the important, and non-obvious, moral questions that war raises. These questions include: Under what circumstances should a nation go to war? And: What should a nation’s policies be toward the soldiers and civilians of enemy nations?

These questions, Just War theorists argue, must be thought about systematically, in advance of any particular war, so that we can do the right thing when the circumstances arise. These are not questions to be answered by the seat of our President’s pants, in response to the international or domestic whim of the moment. To act in such a way, they say, would be an injustice to all those who are sent to war, and especially to those whose lives are ended because of it.

All of these arguments against pacifism and “realism” — and for systematic analysis of the morality of war — are valid. They lend credence to the claim that Just War Theory is a practical and moral theory of war. But an investigation of Just War Theory — and its consistent practice in our so-called “War on Terrorism” — demonstrates that it is neither practical nor moral. To the extent that Just War Theory is followed, it is a prescription for suicide for innocent nations, and thus a profoundly unjust code.

All forms of Just War Theory provide guidelines that fall into two categories: justice in entering a war, and justice in waging a war. (These two categories are known as jus ad bellum, and jus in bello, respectively.) Broadly speaking, Just War Theory holds that a nation can go to war only in response to the impetus of a “just cause,” with force as a “last resort,” after all other non-military options have been considered and tried — with its decision to go to war motivated by “good intentions,” with the aim of bringing about a “good outcome.” And it holds that a nation must wage war only by means that are “proportional” to the ends it seeks, and while practicing “discrimination” between combatants and non-combatants. Finally, in a requirement that applies to both categories, Just War Theory holds that the decision-making power for when, why, and how to wage war — including the declaration of war — must rest with a “legitimate authority.”

By themselves, these guidelines — “good intentions,” “just cause,” “last resort,” “proportionality,” “discrimination,” and “legitimate authority” — are highly ambiguous. Their meaning and interpretation depend on the view of the “just,” the “good,” and the “legitimate” presupposed by Just War Theory — that is, the theory’s basic view of morality. Although advocates of Just War Theory differ on many specifics about the nature of morality, they all hold one fundamental idea in common. To zero in on this idea, let us turn to the origins of Just War Theory: the writings of the Christian theologian Saint Augustine on the proper use of violence by individuals.

In his work, Augustine asked whether a Christian can ever justify killing another, given the Biblical imperative to “turn the other cheek.” Augustine’s answer was this: One can use force, not to protect oneself, but to protect one’s neighbor. As the scholar Jean Elshtain, author of the highly regarded book Just War Against Terror, explains:

For early Christians like Augustine, killing to defend oneself alone was not enjoined: It is better to suffer harm than to inflict it. But the obligation of charity obliges one to move in another direction: To save the lives of others, it may be necessary to imperil and even take the lives of their tormenters.6

Thus, according to Augustine, if only you are attacked, you are obligated to turn the other cheek and die, because personal self-defense is immoral; only if someone attacks your neighbor’s cheek are you permitted to retaliate.

Augustine’s theory is not about justice in the sense of the innocent defending their lives against the guilty. In Augustine’s view, the guiding purpose and standard for the just use of force by individuals — trumping guilt or innocence — is that it must be an act of selfless service to others.

All of this boils down to this: One’s life is not an end in itself, to be defended righteously for its own sake — but a means to some “higher” end, to be sacrificed or preserved as is required by one’s moral duty to serve others. This is a perfectly consistent expression of the present-day morality of altruism.

“Altruism” literally means “other-ism”; it holds that one should live one’s life in selfless service to the needs of others, with sacrifice for their sake as the highest virtue. To act for one’s own sake, according to altruism, is immoral (or, at best, amoral). The morality of altruism is descended from Christianity but is accepted today in various forms by both the religious and the non-religious. While consistent adherence to altruism is widely recognized as impractical, altruism is nevertheless almost universally upheld as the moral ideal, and almost never challenged. Observe that while few seek to live a Mother Theresa-like life, no one questions that her life was a moral archetype.

Augustine did not write systematically about the application to war of his altruistic, Christian views on the use of violence, though he did apply these views to strongly endorse the practice of fighting wars to relieve suffering and spread Christianity to other nations. After Augustine, other Christian theologians greatly expanded Just War Theory (as it later came to be known). Eventually, it was developed by both religious and secular philosophers, and adopted in various forms by groups as disparate as Christians and atheists, by self-proclaimed “hawks” and borderline pacifists, by moral absolutists and moral relativists. The most significant development in Just War Theory since Augustine’s time is that the theory has come to include an endorsement of what it calls a “right to self-defense.” But because Just War Theory has maintained its Augustinian, altruistic roots, its alleged “right” to self-defense turns out to be no such thing.

Let us explore in detail the meaning and consequences of the guidelines of Just War Theory, focusing on their employment in America’s “War on Terrorism.” Consider first the requirement that a nation go to war only in response to a “just cause.” What constitutes a “just cause” for war? The classic “just cause” that led Augustine to sanction war, and that Just War theorists have endorsed ever since, is a “humanitarian crisis”: a situation in which a foreign people is suffering from aggression or oppression or genocide. Walzer goes so far as to say that “ . . . the chief dilemma of international politics is whether people in danger should be rescued by military forces from outside.”7 Many Just War theorists hold that the sacrifice of American soldiers and American wealth for “peacekeeping” and “humanitarian” missions (where no threat to the U.S. is at stake) — such as in Sudan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Somalia — is morally mandatory.

Where in such “just causes” is the justice for the innocent, hardworking individuals who are forced to fund this “humanitarianism,” let alone for those who die in such missions? The “justice” is to be found in Just War Theory’s standard of justice: the altruistic notion that justice means selfless service to the needs of others. In practice this means that the world’s “haves” (the productive, the virtuous, the happy) are to sacrifice for the sake of the world’s “have-nots.” American soldiers, in this view, should not fight for themselves and their freedom; they should fight to serve anyone who needs them.

Given that Just War Theory regards individuals, not as ends in themselves, but as means to the ends of others, what is its view of the right to self-defense, that is, the right of a people to defend its own lives and freedom, not for the sake of a “humanitarian” cause, but for its own sake?

While in name Just War Theory claims to uphold a right to self-defense, in substance it denies this right. Self-defense, the theory holds, is a “just cause” for war. This means that if the people of a nation are suffering aggression, oppression, or genocide, and are themselves capable of stopping it, they are morally entitled to respond militarily. But — and this is the crucial part — only under strict conditions. Aggression from another nation is a “just cause,” according to Just War Theory, but only as a “last resort” — and only if the decision to go to war is motivated by “good intentions.” (These qualifications apply to “humanitarian” “just causes” as well, but we will focus on their application to alleged wars of self-defense.)

Let us first examine the requirement that war must be a “last resort.” This restriction is often portrayed as a sensible policy that simply entails taking the act of going to war seriously, rather than going to war willy-nilly. But, in fact, war as a “last resort” goes far beyond forbidding wars of whim or aggression; it means that a nation cannot go to war immediately even when there is an objective threat — that is, when another nation has shown the willingness to initiate aggression against it. Because the use of military force involves the harming of others, Just War Theory holds, every other conceivable avenue short of using military force must be tried: appeasement, U.N. resolutions, being persuaded by the crocodile tears of enemy leaders, and anything else that pacifists (or U.N. ambassadors) can muster.

What is an innocent nation to do when it knows of a threat that, if left unaddressed, could result in a catastrophic attack on it at some point in the future — such as the knowledge possessed by the U.S. of Iran, a nation that sponsors terrorism, spreads Islamic Totalitarianism, develops nuclear weapons, has attacked U.S. interests in the past, and promises the eventual destruction of America? Such projections are dismissed by Just War theorists as merely hypothetical (“How can we know what the future will hold?”). Projections of future attacks, they hold, are tainted by self-serving motives — that is, too much concern for one’s own life and liberty, too little concern with the consequences of war on others (such as the Iranians) — and thus morally out of the question as a cause for action. For example, in 2002, Walzer told the New York Times: “we don’t have to wait to be attacked; that’s true. But you do have to wait until you are about to be attacked.”8

The requirement that war be a “last resort” is inimical to the requirements of self-defense, which demand that serious threats be stopped as soon as possible. Observe that evil nations and movements do not commit major atrocities out of the blue; they need time to build their forces, gain converts, extract concessions, and win small victories; they need to convince themselves and their followers that they have a chance of success. The earlier their intended victims retaliate, the less damage the thugs can do, and the easier it is to dispose of them.

Consider Germany in the 1930s. Hitler, who had stated publicly his intentions for domination of Europe and the world, was an objective threat to his neighbors. He was a threat as soon as he came to power, and then increasingly so as he built up a military, explicitly rejecting existing treaties with England and France. Yet these nations took no military action against his regime. Then Germany annexed Austria, and was met with no military response. When Nazi troops occupied the Rhineland (a disputed area on the border with France), they were given a pass. When Hitler asked the European leaders to hand him the free state of Czechoslovakia, they did. It took the invasion of Poland to prompt the European nations to take military action against the Nazis. They practiced war as a “last resort”; and we know the result.

Or consider the rise of Islamic Totalitarianism. In 1979, a new Iranian regime founded on Islamic Totalitarian principles held fifty-two Americans hostage for four hundred and forty-four days, while America helplessly begged for their return and Iranian leaders had a world stage to proclaim their superiority to the nation they call the “Great Satan.” Not one American died during the hostage-taking — but, with America on her knees, the burgeoning anti-American movement achieved a crucial victory.

What would Just War Theory say about whether this situation warranted a military response? Did it rise to the level of a direct attack sufficient to place us at the point of “last resort” with Iran and other nations that sponsor Islamic terrorism? Not according to Jimmy Carter. What about after two hundred and forty-three marines were killed in Lebanon in 1983? Not according to Ronald Reagan. Or after Khomeini’s fatwa offered terrorists a bounty to destroy writer Salman Rushdie and his American publisher for expressing an “un-Islamic” viewpoint in 1989? Not according to George Bush, Sr. Or after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993? Not according to Bill Clinton. The pattern is telling.

Since there is no definable threshold at which to declare something a “last resort,” the threshold tends to default to some kind of a range-of-the-moment, perceptual-level event, such as a massive, direct attack by an enemy nation (e.g., 9/11). Until then, Just War theorists and their pacifist spiritual brothers can always concoct new schemes for appeasement, or new fantasies that the enemy has reformed, or new rationalizations that their aggression is our fault — and thus claim that to wage war would be immoral. By the time war becomes a “last resort,” an innocent nation has endured far more risk, fear, and destruction than was necessary — and will have to endure far more in order to defeat a long-appeased and thus more powerful enemy. “Self-defense” as a “last resort” is not self-defense.

Further undermining the self-defense of an innocent nation is the requirement of Just War Theory that the decision to go to war be motivated by “good intentions” — that is, seeking a “good outcome.” This requirement, by naming the motive and purpose of war, goes to the heart of what Just War Theory means and demands.

What does “good” mean here? It means “altruistic.”

According to Just War Theory, it is wrong for a nation to be exclusively concerned with its own well-being in deciding whether to go to war; it must demonstrate concern for the well-being of the world as a whole — including the well-being of the nation it is attacking. Only such a concern will yield a “good outcome” — that is, an altruistic outcome.

Insofar as it constitutes “good intentions” for any part of a mission to be devoted to a nation’s own defense, it is justified as altruistic: by the “sacrifices” that leaders and especially soldiers make to “serve their country” — a country that is defended as an altruistic one. For example, when President Bush discusses why America is a country worth defending, he emphasizes our charity, our service to other nations, the religiosity of many Americans, and so on. He does not emphasize the fact that we devote our lives to making money and pursuing happiness.

In implementing Just War Theory, the less a nation is concerned with the well-being of its own citizens, and the more it is concerned with that of others, the more it proves its “good intentions.” The more it seems to be going to war for the sake of its own citizens, the more suspect its motives. Observe this at work in the two wars our government has entered since 9/11: the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The impetus for both wars, especially in Afghanistan, was clearly the events of September 11 and the realization of the extent of the terrorist threat to America. But observe that while President Bush said that America has a right to defend itself, he did not consider the elimination of the threat posed by these countries to be a sufficient justification for war in either case. In both wars, he defended his actions, not just as a response to the threat of terrorists to America, but as a response to their threat to the “world.” Bush supplemented the alleged self-defense portions of each mission with massive campaigns to relieve Afghan and Iraqi suffering — suffering that constituted uncontroversially “just causes.” And in the case of the war in Iraq, he made a crucial component of his justification the goal of preserving the “integrity” of the U.N. (an organization whose myriad dictators are committed opponents of American interests), whose resolutions Saddam had violated.

In the buildup to the war in Iraq, President Bush was especially concerned with giving the mission an altruistic purpose. He sought to justify the self-defense aspect of the war on the grounds of preemption, an idea controversial among commentators, politicians, and Just War theorists. Thus, President Bush made sure to focus, above all, on the goal of freeing the Iraqi people of a tyrant and showering them with food, collectively owned oil, and “democracy.” The name of the war, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” perfectly reflects Bush’s moral priorities.

As an expert who is sympathetic to Just War Theory wrote in the Claremont Review of Books:

In the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, to have listened to President Bush, or to his principal civilian and military advisors, was to learn how profoundly just-war thinking has influenced the leadership of the world’s most powerful nation. One may of course disagree with their conclusions, but one has to be impressed by the evident care they took to provide moral justification for their actions. Measured by any objective standard, Operation Iraqi Freedom plausibly met all the criteria for just war . . . a serious, good faith effort was made to subject American policy to rigorous moral scrutiny.9

Whenever President Bush wants to defend the morality of the wars we have fought, he insists that we fight for reasons “larger than our nation’s defense.” When Bush refers to our “good intentions” in Iraq, as he frequently does, he speaks not of our intention to defend ourselves, but of the intentions of American citizens to pay and of American soldiers to die so that Iraqis can hold a mob vote.

An injunction to go to war with altruistic intentions, seeking an altruistic outcome, is in direct contradiction to the requirements of self-defense; it forbids the very essence of self-defense in the context of war: identifying and defeating enemy nations.

To identify a nation as an enemy is to recognize it as a committed initiator of force that threatens one’s own life, that forfeits its right to exist, and that in justice deserves whatever is necessary to end the threat it poses. By Just War Theory’s moral standards, however, there is no such thing as an enemy nation. Even when a nation initiates aggression, it is not regarded as the proper object of retaliation, but as a haven of “others” to be served. (This notion is, unsurprisingly, rooted in Augustine’s religion, Christianity, which countenances us to love everyone — especially, as proof of extreme virtue, to “love thine enemy.”)

Observe that America has not gone to war with one nation since September 11. In each war, President Bush has made clear that we are in Afghanistan or Iraq to aid the “Afghan people” or the “Iraqi people,” and that we oppose only their current leaders. In the case of Iraq, he has made the well-being of the Iraqis, including the satisfaction of their religious and political desires, the overriding purpose of the war.

Given that the purpose of war, according to Just War Theory, is the well-being of others (including those who are, in fact, one’s enemies), it is logical that Just War Theory also precludes a nation from waging war in a manner that will destroy its enemies. It is imperative, according to Just War Theory, that war be fought by unselfish, sacrificial means, in which great value is accorded to the citizens of enemy nations. This is the meaning of the requirements of “proportionality” and “discrimination.” Proportionality is the idea that the value gained by the ends a war seeks must be “proportional” to the damage incurred during the war. To advocate that ends and damage be “proportional” presupposes a standard of value by which these are to be weighed. What is the relative weight, for example, that the U.S. government should accord an American civilian and an Iraqi civilian? Since Just War Theory holds that a government’s intentions are “good” to the extent that it places value on other peoples, including enemies, by its standard of value a government of an innocent nation should place equal value on the lives of its citizens and those of enemy nations. On this view, in America’s “War on Terrorism,” we have to “balance” the lives of American soldiers and civilians with the lives of the enemy nation’s soldiers and civilians. According to Walzer, “In our judgments of the fighting, we abstract from all consideration of the justice of the cause. We do this because the moral status of individual soldiers on both sides is very much the same: they face one another as moral equals.”10

This is what our present and future military leaders are learning at West Point. They are being taught that no matter the cause of war, they are risking their lives to fight and kill their moral equals — that they must regard protecting the life of a fellow soldier as morally equivalent with saving the life of the enemy.

The requirement of “proportionality” is one reason why we did not do any damage to the infrastructure of Iraq or Afghanistan, so as not to inflict “disproportionate” suffering on the people. And it is probably the reason that the promised “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq never materialized. Proportionality means that in fighting a war we cannot conduct ourselves in a way that hastens victory or that minimizes our casualties.

The requirement of “proportionality,” as bad as it is, is made even worse by the requirement of “discrimination,” which is a clarification on the value a government is to accord various types of people under “proportionality.” The requirement of “discrimination” holds that a nation defending itself must differentiate between combatants and noncombatants, valuing noncombatants more highly by providing them with “immunity.” Just War Theory regards all noncombatants as “innocents” with “rights” to be respected. We must, according to Elshtain, “make every effort to avoid killing noncombatants . . . women, children, the aged and infirm, all unarmed persons going about daily lives, and prisoners of war. . . .”11 To those who would reject such imperatives in order to defend one’s own people, Elshtain replies: “The demands of proportionality and discrimination are strenuous and cannot be alternatively satisfied or ignored, depending on whether they serve one’s war aims.”12

Observe the inversion of justice here. Benevolent, individualistic, life-loving Americans, and death-worshipping, collectivist, nihilistic Arabs — such as the dancing Arabs who celebrated 9/11 — are regarded as equally worthy of protection by the American military. The exception is if the American is a soldier and the Arab is a civilian, in which case the Arab’s life is of greater value.

The requirements of “proportionality” and “discrimination” are deadly to the nation that takes them seriously. A nation fully committed to defending itself must value the lives of its citizens more than the lives of its enemy’s citizens; it must be morally confident in its goodness, in its right to exist, and of the rightness of killing whomever in enemy nations it must to preserve the lives and liberty of its citizens. Self-defense may well require killing more of the enemy’s citizens than the enemy has killed of ours. It is commonly necessary in war to break the spirit of a foreign people whose nation has initiated aggression in which they are complicit. This often requires killing civilians, and in some cases even targeting them, as America did in World War II. These actions were regarded as just by leaders who viewed civilians of enemy nations as part of the national war machine and rarely truly innocent — and who viewed any deaths of actual innocents, including children, as wholly the moral responsibility of the nation that initiated war.

Just War Theory forbids such tactics. A nation with “good intentions,” practicing “proportionality” and “discrimination,” cannot possibly raze a city as Sherman did. This is why, although Sherman’s actions helped to end the Civil War, he is a reviled figure among Just War theorists: His goal was to preserve his side by inflicting unbearable misery on its enemy’s civilian population — the opposite of “good intentions.” Many Just War theorists hold — as by their standard they are obliged to hold — that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 was immoral. America, they claim, should have valued Japanese civilians over the hundreds of thousands of GIs who would have died invading Japan.

In Afghanistan and Iraq, we see the consequences of not being led by a Sherman-like policy. Our policy of dropping food packages in Afghanistan gained us the scorn of our enemy, who was often the beneficiary of these gifts. Our declared purpose of helping the Afghan people provided security for Osama Bin Laden, his deputies, and his Taliban supporters; they knew that we would be reluctant to bomb them out of their hideouts for fear of killing the Afghans we were there to serve.

In Iraq, since our declared purpose is the well-being and happiness of Iraqi citizens, the countless hostile Iraqis feel free to condemn our troops, to incite violence against them, and to provide refuge to insurgents. President Bush has stressed that we did not go to war against Iraq (only against Saddam), but for the Iraqi people. Thus, we did not make it a priority to defeat them. Almost daily in Iraq, our troops risk their lives because of rules of engagement that place the lives of Iraqi civilians above their own. This was evident in our withdrawal from Fallujah in 2004 when we feared civilian casualties, and in the fact that when we returned to Fallujah in 2005 we allowed tens of thousands of people, including thousands of insurgents, to leave the town before the battle began. Indeed, from the first bombing, the war has been conducted in a way so as to minimize Iraqi casualties, and at almost any cost. Is it any wonder that an insurgency arose? Is it any wonder that leaders and citizens of other terrorist nations feel no real pressure to stop threatening America?

In the “War on Terrorism,” the U.S. is following the pronouncements of Just War Theory in regard to civilians with incredible dedication, and has received much acclaim among Just War theorists for doing so. In Elshtain’s evaluation of the war in Afghanistan, she writes:

The United States must do everything to minimize civilian deaths — and it is doing so. . . . The United States must investigate every incident in which civilians are killed — and it is doing so. The United States must make some sort of recompense for unintended civilian casualties, and it may be making plans to do so — an unusual, even unheard of, act in wartime.13

She adds:

It is fair to say that in Afghanistan the U.S. military is doing its best to respond proportionally. If it were not, the infrastructure of civilian life in that country would have been devastated completely, and it is not. Instead, schools are opening, women are returning to work, movie theaters are filled to capacity, and people can once again listen to music and dance at weddings.14

What she does not mention — but what must never be forgotten — is the price that has been paid for such supposedly “just” conduct. That price is the hundreds of heroic American men and women who have been killed so that Afghans and Iraqis may live and their mosques may stand (to say nothing of whatever unknown price the rest of us will pay when the undefeated enemy next attacks America).

The final Just War requirement that we will discuss is the mandate that the decision-maker who chooses both when and how to go to war must be a “legitimate authority.” Historically, this has been a minor restriction, meaning simply that a government (not a private militia or gang) should declare war. In recent decades, however, it has become a major restriction, because Just War theorists regard a “legitimate” authority as one who will ensure that force is used with “good intentions,” that is, unselfishly. For example, many Just War theorists have come to hold that a war is invalid unless authorized and supervised by the U.N. And even those who do not regard U.N. approval as strictly necessary, such as President Bush, value the approval of other nations as evidence of lack of selfishness. Observe Bush’s frantic desire to make an Iraq mission that was suitable to the U.N. and then, failing that, to assemble any and every insignificant nation into a “coalition of the willing.”

Self-defense requires that a nation assess, independently and objectively, by the standard of the lives of its own citizens, what to do. To subordinate that to a coalition or to Kofi Annan — for the reason that they are not concerned with our interests — is unjust and suicidal.

In the “War on Terrorism,” America has taken self-destructive action after self-destructive action in the name of winning over the U.N. and “coalition partners.” America’s missions in Afghanistan and Iraq were stymied by the vetoes of such so-called allies as the Saudis (who denied us use of aircraft landing strips) and of other nations (who urged us to limit the number of ground troops in Afghanistan), forcing us to rely on duplicitous warlords who connived in the escape of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. As a result of Bush’s submission to “legitimate authorities,” we have sacrificed victory.

All of the requirements of Just War Theory help to explain why the Bush Administration has felt justified in going to war only in Afghanistan and Iraq — and only then with major “humanitarian” purposes in each mission, which failed to eliminate the threats posed by the nations.

Just War Theory has also had a major influence in determining the wars our government does not think it is justified to fight. President Bush has taken no military action whatsoever against Iran, none against Saudi Arabia, none against Syria. President Bush is not ignorant of these threats — he is well aware of the fact that these countries sponsor terrorism; in the case of Iran and Syria, he has said so repeatedly. But he has done nothing militarily to stop the threats these countries pose, nor is there any indication he will do so in the future. Instead, he continues to engage in “diplomatic” bribery, nudging the U.N., inviting terrorist nations into “anti-terrorism” coalitions, and other completely ineffective — indeed, self-destructive — moves.

As discussed earlier, our improper identification of the enemy, motivated by multiculturalism and religion, has played a major part in our mis-selection of targets. Additionally, the altruistic war in Iraq has so discredited the idea of military action, by fatally engaging our troops for no clear purpose and with no clear standard of victory, that few Americans want to go to war again. But another major reason why we are reluctant to target our major enemies today — and why we did not target them from the outset — is that they do not meet Just War Theory’s qualifications for military action.

Of course, from a self-defense standpoint, Iran was and is the most important regime to defeat — much more so than Iraq. But under Just War criteria, the case for war with Iran would be almost impossible to make, whereas the case for war with Iraq was relatively simple. Iran was not ruled by a universally accepted “monster”; Iraq was. The “will of the Iranian people” had not been obviously thwarted; the “will of the Iraqis” had been. Iran had not violated nearly two dozen U.N. resolutions; Iraq had. The Iranian people had not been subject to mass slaughter; the Iraqis had. These considerations, while nearly irrelevant in terms of self-defense, are decisive by the criteria of Just War Theory.

What about the fact that Iran is the spiritual fatherland of the ideology driving Islamic terrorists? Or the fact that the “will of the Iranian people” largely supports the deadly ideology that seeks the extermination of the West? Or the fact that Iran is developing a nuclear arsenal? Or the fact that Iran has sponsored terrorist attacks on Americans abroad on numerous occasions in the past? According to Just War Theory, so long as Iran has not yet unleashed a devastating, direct attack against us, and so long as there is no altruistic emergency, these facts do not justify military action or the threat of military action; at most, they are justification for endless “diplomacy” or a request for a U.N. resolution. In an interview in 2004, Bush said: “We will continue pressing [Iran] diplomatically. . . . Diplomacy failed for 11 years in Iraq . . . and this new diplomatic effort [in Iran started] barely a year ago.”15 Could anything be more encouraging for the nations and groups seeking to wage a long-term battle against the West?

In the case of our refusal to take or threaten military action against the leading sponsors of Islamic terrorism, we see the true meaning of the restrictions of Just War Theory regarding when a nation can go to war, and how it must fight. A nation that will go to war only as a “last resort,” in response to a “just cause,” with “good intentions” — and once it goes, employ “proportionality” and “discrimination” — is a nation that will endure unnecessary risks and even mass death before going to war. And even if it goes to war, it will fight with both hands tied behind its back.

Just War Theory, to summarize, is the application of the morality of altruism to war. It holds that the citizens of an innocent nation are not ends in themselves, but means to some “higher” end. In today’s version, it claims that the citizens of an innocent nation can “defend” themselves — as a means to realizing the goal of sacrificing themselves to the needs of others (including those who are in fact their enemies). This is not a right to self-defense, but a “duty” to practice altruism.

To the extent that Just War Theory is practiced, it leads to unnecessary fear, suffering, and death visited on innocent nations — and to the rise of evil movements and regimes — all while it claims to be virtuous and practical.

Because it purports to support self-defense while actually forbidding its preconditions, Just War Theory is uniquely dangerous. Unlike pacifism, it is eminently plausible to today’s Americans. Americans will not accept en masse a theory that explicitly forbids them self-defense against their evil enemies. But they will accept a theory that claims to endorse both self-defense and the altruistic morality that they have grown up believing is the ideal. They do not realize that it is either–or.

What, in fact, happens to policies that could potentially lead to self-defense, such as giving every state sponsor of Islamic terrorism an ultimatum to cease and desist, or else? The altruism underlying Just War Theory makes our leaders morally rule out such policies without consideration. And then, whatever course of action they do consider and pursue, they portray as in America’s self-defense and self-interest.

The ultimate embodiment of Just War Theory and its embrace of self-destructive policies under the partial cloak of self-defense is the present overall foreign policy of President Bush: the “Forward Strategy of Freedom.” This strategy is the Bush Administration’s policy of spreading “democracy” throughout the Middle East and other backward areas. The first major step of this strategy is the establishment of a “free Iraq,” which allegedly will be an inspirational “beacon of freedom” for the rest of the Middle East and inspire them toward “democratic reform.”

These are goals that Just War Theory would applaud; they embody “good intentions” (i.e., altruistic intentions) in our foreign policy and in our choice of wars. True to the popular advocacy of Just War Theory, however, President Bush does not frame the Forward Strategy of Freedom as good only on altruistic grounds; if he did, the American people would not tolerate it (nor would he). He argues that this strategy is the one that will best serve America, that by encouraging the “liberation” of oppressed nations we promote our own security. For example, in his State of the Union Address in 2005, Bush proclaimed: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Why is the Forward Strategy of Freedom our “best hope”? Because, as Bush and others point out, free nations do not initiate aggression (including terrorism), whereas unfree ones do. So a “free,” “democratic” Middle East promotes our self-defense.

In analyzing whether this policy is in fact in America’s self-defense, let us leave aside for a moment its massive evasions about what freedom is and requires — the fact that freedom (i.e., individual liberty) and democracy (i.e., unlimited majority rule over the individual) are entirely different and incompatible things, the second being an enemy of the first. Even assuming that our leaders had any idea what freedom is, and how to most efficiently establish it, would this be a policy in America’s self-defense?

Absolutely not. The one half-truth in the argument for the Forward Strategy of Freedom is that truly free nations do not initiate aggression against other nations. But so what? There are dozens of statist nations that do not threaten America, either, because they fear us or have no ideological interest in fighting us.

The question of what is in America’s self-defense comes down to: What is the best way to make other nations non-threatening as quickly as possible? To consider this question objectively, one must be willing to consider all our options, including: quickly deposing terrorist and especially Islamic Totalitarian regimes, threatening the inhabitants with retribution if they threaten America again, and then moving on to ending support of terrorism by other regimes. Given the options available to us, it is inconceivable that the best strategy is to spend endless military resources to set up a “democracy” in Iraq, and then pray that every terrorist nation decides to adopt a free, constitutional government. To make the Middle East even semi-free would cost a tremendous amount of time, money, and American lives. Given the options available to us, the Forward Strategy of Freedom is entirely self-sacrificial. But because the Bush Administration has morally ruled out a true strategy of self-defense, it can delude itself into believing that, as its members repeatedly tell us, it is doing “everything possible” to protect us.

Because Just War Theory removes from the table the possibility of forthrightly defeating our enemies, its advocates must concoct bizarrely indirect means of stopping them (bizarre is the only adjective that does justice to a policy of hinging American security on the similarities between today’s Iraqis and Jefferson-era Americans). Observe that in Bush’s policy the “liberation” of Iraq is not seen as part of defeating that country, but as replacing the necessity of defeating it. And the magical inspiration it is supposed to provide to Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and so on, will allegedly replace the necessity of militarily confronting those nations. Since Bush feels morally unwilling to defeat our enemies, he regards it as necessary to delegate that task to their subservient and sympathetic populations. Instead of making us more secure, this policy has inspired the Iraqi insurgency, made Iran and Saudi Arabia feel more confident than ever, and may well allow the Iraqi people to eventually vote their country into an Islamic dictatorship akin to Iran. (Given the big victories by religious Shiite politicians in Iraqi elections so far, they are well on their way.) And because our failure to defeat our enemies only contributes to the success of Islamic Totalitarianism, our support for elections in the Middle East foretells that Islamic Totalitarians will “democratically” be given greater influence; we have already seen increases in the political influence of even more committed supporters of Islamic Totalitarians in Saudi Arabia, of Hezbollah in Lebanon, of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority.

To call this a policy of American self-interest or American self-defense is to invert the meaning of these concepts. This is a policy of American self-destruction, and it is made possible by a theory that morally rules out self-defense while claiming to support it.

The President’s version of Just War Theory is not the only one; there are many different varieties of the theory, and their various advocates emphasize and interpret the rules differently. Some, such as the Pope, are borderline pacifists and emphasize the “last resort” rule. Others, under the influence of multiculturalism, believe that most “peacekeeping” missions are wrong, not because they are sacrificial, but because one should not “impose” one’s definition of a better life on a foreign people.

But such disagreements are ultimately insignificant as far as America’s self-defense is concerned, because none challenges the theory’s basic altruist premises. Observe that the media, Democrats, and intellectuals do not criticize the Bush Administration for its failure to smash the insurgency in Iraq or for doing nothing to fight the threat posed by Iran. Most criticisms of Bush amount to him not being altruistic enough. They accuse him of “rushing” to war despite the desires of other nations; they tally civilian casualties; they fixate on humiliated prisoners of war; they treat any deficiency in Afghan or Iraqi standards of living as a moral travesty on the part of America. Thus, the competing proponents of Just War Theory differ with the Bush Administration not on whether America’s security should be sacrificed for the sake of others, but only on how.

Just War Theory, in the final analysis, is anti-self-defense and anti-justice. By preaching self-sacrifice to the needs of others, Just War Theory has led to the sacrifice of the civilized for the sake of the barbarous, the sacrifice of victims of aggression for the sake of its perpetrators, the sacrifice of noble Americans for the sake of ignoble Iraqis — the sacrifice of the greatest nation in history for the sake of the worst nations today.

The Morality of Victory

In terms of fundamentals, Just War Theory is completely unopposed by any other theory of war today.

For those concerned about self-defense, the alleged alternative to Just War Theory is “realism”: the idea that there is no connection between morality and war. “Realists” hold that war should be entered into and fought according to strictly “practical” considerations. But this position is not a viable alternative to Just War Theory. First, as Just War theorists rightly point out, “realism” evades the fact that war is an act of monumental moral significance, and by treating it otherwise one sanctions truly horrific things, such as wars of aggression. Second, the dictum that one must evaluate war according to simply “practical” considerations is intellectually empty, since there is no such thing as practicality detached from morality.

Any claim that a course of action is “practical” presupposes some basic end that the course of action achieves. For example, any claim that “diplomacy” with Iran is practical, or that an ultimatum against Iran is practical, or that sending a nuclear warhead to Iran is practical, presupposes some basic goal that it will achieve — whether that goal be the approval of others, or the “stability” of the Middle East, or winning “hearts and minds,” or eliminating the Iranian threat. The question of what basic ends one should pursue in war is inescapable to the issue of practicality — and it is a moral question.

Because “realism” rejects the need for moral evaluation, and because the need for moral evaluation cannot be escaped, its advocates necessarily take certain goals for granted as “obviously” practical. Which goals? Those widely seen as valid — that is, the goals of altruism.

Consider the case of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, a prominent “realist.” Does he call for America’s unequivocal, uncompromising self-defense using its full military might, since that would be eminently practical in achieving America’s self-interest? No. Instead, when he ran the State Department, he sought to avoid war, to appease any and every enemy, to court “world opinion,” to build coalitions, to avoid civilian casualties — while at the same time somehow to protect America. In other words, he did everything that pacifism and Just War Theory would have him do.* While Powell and his ilk may say that they eschew moral analysis in matters of foreign policy and war, altruism nevertheless shapes what they think and seek to do.

“Realism,” therefore, is no antidote to Just War Theory. It is not even a theory of war but an intellectual parasite that camouflages the destructive nature of altruism with a professed concern for “practicality.” To bury the moral issues involved in war for the sake of “practicality” does not erase them; rather, it serves to entrench the status quo, by offering covert altruism as the only alternative to overt altruism.

There is no escape from morality, and no reconciling self-defense with the morality of altruism. To escape from the destructiveness of Just War Theory, therefore, we must embrace a moral approach to war that rejects altruism and fully upholds self-defense, thus providing the moral foundation for free, innocent nations to secure the lives and liberty of their citizens in the face of aggression.

Such a moral foundation exists in the morality of rational self-interest (also known as rational egoism or rational selfishness), the code of ethics originated by philosopher Ayn Rand.

Rational self-interest holds that every individual ought to live his own life for his own sake, by his own independent effort — without sacrificing himself to others or others to himself. It holds that the individual’s self-interest is achieved, not by doing whatever he feels like doing, and not by placing his goals in opposition to his neighbors’ freedom, but by living a life of reason, productivity, and trade.

According to rational egoism, the greatest threat a rational man faces to the achievement of his goals — and the greatest threat to a harmonious, prosperous, free society — is the initiation of physical force by others. In justice, when someone initiates force against an innocent man — whether by violence, theft, or fraud — the initiator of force deserves to be met with retaliatory force.

In the egoistic approach, the need for individuals to be free from the initiation of force necessitates the existence of governments — and the option of war. A proper government places the retaliatory use of force under principled, objective control. A proper government is founded on the principle of individual rights — the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights sanction the individual’s freedom of action; they recognize the right of eve­ry individual to pursue his own goals by his own judgment: to produce, trade, speak, write, love, and live as he chooses, free of the threat of force. A proper government is the agent and servant of its citizens. It exists only to protect their rights by forbidding the initiation of force and by retaliating against those who initiate it — whether the aggressor is a criminal at home or a nation abroad.

Like an innocent individual, an innocent nation does not seek to exist at the expense of other nations, by force. But once force is initiated against it and its citizens, it must respond righteously with force; anything else is an injustice toward its citizens and an abdication of its moral purpose: to protect their rights.

Once the basic egoist view of morality and government is understood, the egoist view of war follows readily: The sole moral purpose of war is the same as the sole moral purpose of any other action by a proper government — that is, to protect the individual rights of its citizens. Every moral issue pertaining to war must be judged by this standard — and only by this standard.

Achieving the purpose of “self-defense” means the complete restoration of the protection of individual rights and thus the complete return to normal life, achieved by the permanent elimination of the threat. This is the only proper meaning of “complete victory.” Defeat in the war with Islamic Totalitarianism does not simply mean that America becomes an Islamic theocracy or that our soldiers fight battles in the streets of Atlanta; these prospects are, fortunately, extremely unlikely. Defeat means any enduring negative change to the American way of life as the result of an active enemy, such as the colored alerts, or the provisions of the Patriot Act that allow virtually anyone to be investigated as a terrorist subject, or the random airport searches suffered by innocent travelers.

The “self” in “self-defense” includes not just a nation’s civilians, but also its soldiers. Contrary to the policies of the Bush Administration, American soldiers are not sacrificial animals, but full citizens of the United States. Rational soldiers are motivated by their own values, by their own desire to live free of the threat of violence against themselves and their loved ones. The fact that a soldier chooses a risky profession does not make him any less entitled to every protection his government can provide. To send soldiers into battle, as we have done in Iraq, with rules of engagement that place the lives of Iraqis above their own, is a moral crime.

By the standard of individual rights, a nation can morally go to war only for the purpose of self-defense, and can morally do in war only what is necessary for that purpose. Both wars of self-sacrifice (“humanitarian” wars) and wars of aggression — and acts of self-sacrifice or aggression within war — violate the rights of citizens, especially of soldiers. Both entail forcibly sacrificing the lives and money of individuals for the sake of some “higher” cause — whether relieving the suffering of the Somalians or satisfying the power-lust of a President.

The necessity of war in self-defense arises when a nation is attacked or threatened by a foreign aggressor. In some cases it might be possible to stop such an aggressor through lesser coercive means, such as sanctions or ultimatums. Once it becomes clear that the enemy is undeterred, however, military force is not a “last resort,” but the only resort.

In response to the Iranian hostage-taking of 1979, for example, America was morally obligated to inflict massive retribution on the Iranian regime immediately. As Ayn Rand said at the time, the proper response to the assault was to “march with force the first or second day after the hostages were taken.”16 For America to do anything less in such a situation is to capitulate to the aggressors and to abdicate its moral responsibility to its citizens. America did something less and is still paying the price.

All aggression, including terrorism, is fueled by hope — the hope of success in achieving some irrational goal or furthering some irrational cause. For a nation like the United States to be secure from threats for the long term, its enemies must know that initiating force against it will bring nothing but their own destruction. Supporters of any cause that seeks the destruction of the U.S. must be made to realize that that cause is doomed.

Acts of aggression left unpunished can lead only to further acts of aggression. Appeasing the initiators of force, as we have seen throughout history, leads to more and greater violence. Thus a proper, rights-respecting government does not appease its force-wielding enemies; it acts to eliminate them. Such action, when executed consistently in self-defense, will not only destroy the particular initiator of force; it will also deter other such threats. Indeed, it is America’s reputation for appeasement, for being a “paper tiger,” that fuels the belief of Islamic Totalitarians that they can bring down America.

It is important to note that a proper morality does not require that one be directly attacked in order to retaliate. We need not sit idly by as Iran builds nuclear weapons and missile launchers; we need not wait to respond until they have destroyed an American city. A preemptive strike is justified if the nation involved is an objective threat — that is, if it has shown, in action or in official statements, its willingness to initiate or advocate force against us. For America to identify a nation as an objective threat does not mean to identify exactly when or how that threat will materialize (that is impossible); rather, it means to identify that a nation or regime has the will and means to attack or support an attack against the United States. A nation that threatens innocent nations thereby forfeits its right to exist and deserves whatever consequences innocent nations visit on it. There is an analogy here to domestic criminals. When a government establishes that a man is making death threats against his wife, or has hatched a plot to kill her, it properly throws him in jail — it does not wait until her corpse is found, on the grounds that he might change his mind and not carry out the threat.

To fight and win a proper war of self-defense requires two basic courses of action: (1) objectively identify the nature of the threat and (2) do whatever is necessary to destroy the threat and return to normal life, with minimum loss of life and liberty on the part of the citizens of the defending nation.

The specific identity of any given threat and what is necessary to destroy it is not the province of morality; it requires specialized cultural and military knowledge (whereas morality applies only to the basic principles governing human life). But the morality of rational self-interest provides crucial, principled guidance in identifying and then destroying a threat. It holds that the identification of a threat, just like any identification, can be achieved only by means of a scrupulously rational process — unclouded by considerations such as an unwarranted affinity for religion, or the desire to be liked by foreign leaders, or the dogma that all cultures are equal. As for what to do about any given threat, egoism gives the crucial sanction, in enemy territory, to kill and destroywhomever and whatever needs to be killed and destroyed in order to end the threat to the victim country. Such a policy, contrary to Just War Theory, upholds both the principle of justice and the principle of individual rights. Depending on the circumstances, legitimate targets can include the leaders, soldiers, and civilians of the enemy nation.

There is a popular notion, held by nearly every advocate of Just War Theory, that only a handful of crazed dictators and bomb-toting terrorists are our enemies; all other residents of the unfortunate, backward states are “innocent” civilians, tragically trapped among these few killers. Accordingly, we must wage war, not against a nation, but against the few evildoers within it, treating the rest of the population with the same respect we accord American citizens. This notion is false and deadly.

As Churchill and General Sherman understood, civilians play a crucial role in sustaining the military aggression of an enemy country, and directly targeting them can save the lives of one’s own soldiers and civilians. During the Civil War, the civilian population of the South provided motivation and encouragement for its soldiers, greatly prolonging their willingness to wage war against the North. So long as the civilians were exempted from the direct consequences of their actions, they continued to fuel the war effort of the South, which in turn took thousands upon thousands of Northern lives. By directly targeting the civilian population, Sherman was performing an act of moral heroism: fully living up to his responsibility of protecting the citizens of the North.

Now take the case of Islamic terrorism, a threat in which civilians are also a crucial source of spiritual support. Many civilians across the Arab world give terrorists encouragement by worshipping them as heroes. Newspapers in many Arab countries spread anti-Americanism and glorify the martyrdom of the terrorists. Clerics promise terrorists a glorious afterlife. Madrassahs indoctrinate students with Islamic Totalitarianism. Even civilians who do not entirely support the methods of Islamic terrorists are often sympathetic to and encouraging of their goal of Islamic world domination. Enemy civilians are also a crucial source of material support for terrorists; these civilians frequently provide terrorists with hideouts, money, and weapons. Rich statesmen pay large bounties to the families of suicide bombers.

Most civilians of oppressive regimes do nothing to oppose or resist or change their governments. This passivity does not render them innocent; it renders them accomplices to the evils of their regimes. This passivity is one of the major factors enabling these regimes to commit atrocities against innocents at home and abroad. Unless oppressed civilians take active steps to object to the evil ways of their government, or to go underground, they are morally responsible for the actions of their government. (The positive or negative consequences of the actions one’s government performs in one’s name is one reason why being active in regard to politics, especially intellectually active in this realm, is a selfish obligation.)

“Individual citizens in a country that goes to war,” Ayn Rand once said in response to a question on this topic,

are responsible for that war. This is why they should be interested in politics and careful about not having the wrong kind of government. If in this context one could make a distinction between the actions of a government and the actions of individual citizens, why would we need politics at all? All governments would be on one side, doing something among themselves, while we private citizens would go along in happy, idyllic tribalism. But that picture is false. We are responsible for the government we have, and that is why it is important to take the science of politics very seriously. If we become a dictatorship, and a freer country attacks us, it would be their right.17

To summarize: The civilian population of an aggressor nation is not some separate entity unrelated to its government. An act of war is the act of a nation — an interconnected political, cultural, economic, and geographical unity. Whenever a nation initiates aggression against us, including by supporting anti-American terrorist groups and militant causes, it has forfeited its right to exist, and we have a right to do whatever is necessary to end the threat it poses.

Given that a nation’s civilian population is a crucial, physically and spiritually indispensable part of its initiation of force — of its violation of the rights of a victim nation — it is a morally legitimate target of the retaliation of a victim nation. Any alleged imperative to spare noncombatants as such is unjust and deadly.

That said, if it is possible to isolate innocent individuals — such as dissidents, freedom fighters, and children — without military cost, they should not be killed; it is unjust and against one’s rational self-interest to senselessly kill the innocent; it is good to have more rational, pro-America people in the world. Rational, selfish soldiers do not desire mindless destruction of anyone, let alone innocents; they are willing to kill only because they desire freedom and realize that it requires using force against those who initiate force. Insofar as the innocents cannot be isolated in the achievement of our military objectives, however, sparing their lives means sacrificing our own; and although the loss of their lives is unfortunate, we should kill them without hesitation.

Any true freedom fighter caught in America’s fire understands the nature of the situation his nation has put us in, supports our cause, hopes for the best, and blames his government and fellow citizens for the danger he is placed in. He recognizes the principle that any innocent deaths in war are the sole moral responsibility of the aggressor nation.

Doing whatever is necessary in war means doing whatever is necessary. Once the facts are rationally evaluated, if it is found that using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran’s nuclear facilities or flattening Fallujah to end the Iraqi insurgency will save American lives, then these actions are morally mandatory, and to refrain from taking them is morally evil.

To close our discussion of a self-interested, truly just approach to war, let us apply it to two issues that have been extremely prominent in the ongoing war in Iraq: the proper treatment of POWs, and when and how we should occupy a foreign people, including the issue of whether we should establish a free or semi-free society in an occupied country.

Let us begin with POWs. How should POWs be treated? Given the purpose of war, the answer must be: in a way that protects the individual rights of one’s citizens. It is often the case that it is in one’s interest to treat POWs well, because this will encourage enemy soldiers to surrender rather than fight to the death. If more enemy troops surrender, fewer of one’s own troops will die. In a situation where POWs are no threat, treating them well is in one’s self-interest — and treating them badly or killing them is sadistic and self-destructive. However, treating prisoners well does not make sense if, for example, they are hampering one’s efforts to win, or if they are refusing to divulge vital information that could save the lives of one’s own troops. If humiliation or torture is an effective method of extracting information that would save American lives, we should humiliate or torture prisoners as necessary.

Of course, if a POW is truly innocent — that is, a genuine opponent of his regime who was forced to fight for it — he will eagerly provide the victim nation with all the information to which he is privy; no torture will be necessary. Thus, torture is potentially necessary only for the guilty. Those who wish to hide information that could protect the lives and rights of Americans in the name of fidelity to the triumph of Islam have forfeited all rights and deserve any form of abuse that can possibly be used to extract information.

Whether and under what conditions torture is practical is a specialized military question. The moral point is: If and to the extent torture is an effective technique to save American lives, and it is used on those who are initiating force against us, then it is morally obligatory. The idea, prevalent in Washington and in the halls of academia, that it is wrong and inhumane to torture Al Qaeda operatives scheming to kill Americans is suicidal. To not do whatever is necessary to extract information from the inhuman monsters that plan the mass murder of Americans is a horrific violation of the moral purpose of government, which is to protect the lives of its citizens.

Terrorists caught on the battlefield are not innocent until proven guilty; they are by that fact proven guilty of pursuing the deaths of Americans. Just as it is legitimate to kill them in the battlefield, so it is legitimate to use whatever force is necessary on them in an effort to achieve victory once they are caught.

The question of occupation — when one should occupy a country, and what one’s goal should be in occupying it — properly arises only after the nation in question has been defeated. If a nation has not been defeated, it cannot be successfully occupied.

Once an aggressor country is defeated, there is a legitimate question of what the victor should do. There are numerous options, ranging from letting the most powerful domestic faction take over (with the knowledge that any aggression against America will lead to the same fate as the predecessor), to handing over the reins to a friendly strongman or tribe, to making a serious effort to establish a proper, free society.

There is only one standard by which to properly evaluate the situation and choose between these options: What is the least expensive, most effective way to ensure America’s long-term security — that is, to protect the individual rights of Americans? Again, much of this depends on specialized questions of military strategy and the cultural–political conditions of the defeated country. But such a strategy can be properly formulated only if the strategists recognize that the freedom of an enemy country is at most a means to an end for the innocent nation, never an end in itself.

In the event that the establishment of a proper government is in America’s self-defense, every aspect of setting up that government must be governed by that purpose. If we are risking American lives and spending billions of dollars, we must do everything possible to ensure that the new government is non-threatening, if not a staunch ally.

The egoist approach to war — that is, the genuinely just war theory — is completely at odds with Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom, which, aside from rejecting the need to defeat our enemies, lets hostile Middle East mobs choose whatever government they wish. When Bush was asked whether he would accept an Iran-style Islamic Republic in Iraq — after some two thousand American lives had been lost and some two-hundred billion dollars spent — he said he would, because “democracy is democracy.”18 Democracy is democracy — that is, democracy is mob rule, which is precisely why it must be rejected in any proper occupation. (When a population has proven itself to be non-threatening to America, it should be given the power to vote, but only in the selection of leaders, not the content of the constitution.) Note that in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur did not ask the Japanese to write a constitution but forced a constitution written by Americans onto the Japanese. Both America and Japan have benefited from this for sixty years.

If, during the course of an occupation, a major insurgency arises against the occupier, then a state of war has resumed — and the insurgency should then be crushed by any means necessary, just like the government that preceded it. But if a war has been fought properly, with the enemy seeing the futility of his ways and offering his unconditional surrender, such an insurgency is very unlikely. The insurgency in Iraq is made possible by President Bush’s failure to actually defeat that nation. If we had fought the war properly from the outset, the thought of an insurgency would be terrifying both to today’s insurgents and to the many civilians that support and protect them. Contrast the fiasco in Iraq today to the occupation of Japan after World War II — in which zero Americans were killed by insurgents.


When Ayn Rand wrote about the moral code she originated, the code of rational self-interest, she stressed that morality is a matter of life and death. The right ethics, she held, leads to individual (and societal) survival, prosperity, happiness; the wrong ethics leads to misery, poverty, death.

This is true in every field but is especially true in the realm of war, as the present struggle has made clear. We are losing the war on Islamic Totalitarianism because our leadership, political and military, is crippled by the morality of altruism, embodied in the tenets of Just War Theory. The moral code inherent in Just War Theory defines rules that undercut, inhibit, and subvert any hope of success in war, because it demands that one regard one’s own life as the sacrificial object of others. The moral code of rational self-interest, by contrast, defines principles to attain the values that one’s life and happiness require — including success in war and national self-defense. Altruism is the morality of defeat, and rational self-interest is the morality of victory.

America faces a choice between two irreconcilable foes: self-defense or altruism — which are but forms of the basic choice we all face: life or death. Let us choose life.

* There is a small, insignificant minority of Machiavellian realists who consciously reject altruism, but their alternative is to say that there are no moral limits on what the United States (or any nation) can do. Such a view is a sanction to barbarism by any nation, and genuinely horrifies those with a legitimate concern for justice.

About The Authors

Yaron Brook

Chairman of the Board, Ayn Rand Institute

Alex Epstein

Alex Epstein was a writer and a fellow on staff at the Ayn Rand Institute between 2004 and 2011.


Acknowledgment: The authors would like to thank Onkar Ghate, Senior Fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute, for his invaluable editorial assistance with this project.

1 George W. Bush, address to both houses of Congress, September 20, 2001.

2 Angelo M. Codevilla, No Victory, No Peace (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), pp. 39, 97–98.

3 Ibid., p. 39.

4Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 3rd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 174, emphasis removed.

5Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 155–56.

6 Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 57.

7 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. xi.

8 David E. Sanger, “Beating Them to the Prewar,” New York Times, September 28, 2002.

9 Michael M. Uhlmann, “The Use and Abuse of Just War Theory,” Claremont Review of Books,Summer 2003.

10 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 127.

11 Elshtain, Just War Against Terror, p. 65.

12 Ibid., p. 66.

13 Ibid., p. 69.

14 Ibid., p. 70.

15 David E. Sanger, “Pakistan Found to Aid Iran Nuclear Efforts,” New York Times, September 2, 2004.

16 Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Answers, edited by Robert Mayhew (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), p. 97.

17 Ibid., p. 95.

18 George W. Bush, Associated Press Interview aboard Air Force One, October 18, 2004.