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

War, Nuclear Weapons and “Innocents”

by Onkar Ghate | September 28, 2001

America is at war.

To win, we must destroy not just individual terrorists like Osama bin Laden and his allies in Afghanistan but the power of brutal, authoritarian governments to send out their armies of terrorists against us. Central among these is Iran, but the enemy includes Iraq, Syria, Sudan, the PLO and others.

The task ahead may be difficult, but we must not waver. We should constantly remind ourselves that these dictatorial regimes are arming themselves with nuclear, biological and chemical weapons aimed at our destruction. We dare not wait for another massacre before we eliminate their ability to attack us.

Many are now wondering, aloud or silently: Should the United States use nuclear weapons to destroy the enemy?

Determining what are the proper military means of achieving America’s objective in the war, and whether those means include nuclear weapons, is an issue for our generals. But the real worry behind the question is whether the U.S. government has the moral right to use its full military arsenal in waging the war. To this question I can say, as a philosopher, that morality answers with an unequivocal “Yes.”

The basic issue is that of self-defense. When men are initiating force against you in order to destroy you, you have the moral right to kill your would-be murderers by any means possible. To think that one thereby descends to the moral level of one’s attackers is as absurd as to think that a policeman descends to the level of Al Capone if he kills Capone in a shootout.

The U.S. government is simply the agent of its citizens, charged with one and only one responsibility: to secure and defend the rights — and very lives — of its citizens against aggressors. If in waging war our government were to consider deaths in enemy countries as a cost that must be weighed against the deaths of American citizens or soldiers, it would be violating its most basic function. It would no longer be an agent for our self-defense, but theirs.

What could be more morally obscene than 20,000 additional Americans killed in another attack on our cities because our government failed to bomb Iran, worried that Iranian casualties would be too high? Equally obscene would be to send our soldiers to war — courageous individuals ready to defend their freedom and ours — and then have our government not do everything in its power to minimize their deaths.

Morally, the responsibility of the U.S. government is to destroy the aggressors and minimize U.S. casualties. If our military decides that in this war, as in WWII, it needs nuclear weapons, so be it.

But what of the “innocent” civilians in enemy states that could be killed in the process?

Many civilians in those states hate us and actively support, materially and spiritually, their tyrannical regimes. They are not innocents. As we drop our bombs, should we worry about the lives of Palestinians who celebrated by dancing in the streets on September 11?

Other civilians in enemy states are passive, unthinking followers. Their work and economic production, however meager, supports their terrorist governments and so they are in part responsible for the continued power of the aggressors. They too are not innocent — and their deaths may be unavoidable in order for America to defend itself.

The civilians in enemy territory who actually oppose their dictatorial regimes are usually the regimes’ first innocent victims. Any such individuals who remain alive and outside of prison camps should try to flee their country or rebel.

Destroying innocents qua innocents should not be our goal — and true innocents should welcome American attack on their country. They know that they might be killed in the process, and even that they are legitimate targets insofar as they are forced to support their dictatorial regimes, but they will also know that it is their only chance at freedom. In WWII, occupied Europe welcomed American invasion, even though this meant that some civilians who actually resisted the Nazis would die in American bombings.

We must not allow human shields to deter us from defending ourselves. The U.S. government, properly and morally, in the name of defending the lives of its citizens, ordered the shooting down of the airplanes-become-missiles, even though this meant killing not only the terrorists but also the innocent American captives onboard. If this principle applies to Americans onboard their own planes, how much more so does it apply to people in Afghanistan or Iran?

The responsibility for all deaths in war lies with the aggressor who initiates force, not with those who defend themselves.

War is terrible but sometimes necessary. To win this war, we must not let an immoral concern with “innocents” weaken our resolve. We must have the profound moral conviction that we have the right to exist. We have the right to destroy those who initiate force to deprive us of our rights and lives. With full moral certainty we must urge our government to defend our lives, even if that requires nuclear weapons and hundreds of thousands of deaths in terrorist countries.

About The Author

Onkar Ghate

Chief Philosophy Officer and Senior Fellow, Ayn Rand Institute