Letters and Replies, Fall 2009

To the authors of “‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense”:

I enjoyed your critique of “Just War Theory,” your clear identification of the fact that our enemy is Islamic Totalitarianism, and your demonstration that we are fighting a limited war while our opponents are fighting a total war (TOS, Spring 2006). Since the 2001 attacks, it has become common belief in military circles that this conflict will define our generation and possibly the next. Your article has helped me to realize that the conflict need not be ambiguous or long.

I do have some questions, however, on the appropriate uses of preemptive attack, WMDs, and torture. You come out strongly in favor of preemptive attacks on imminent threats, but how do you propose the decision to attack be made? Surely something more than a judgment call by the president is required as there is no guarantee that a given president will exercise (or even possess) the judgment necessary to make such a call. The same question applies to the use of nuclear weapons or other WMDs, with the additional query: What constitutes a significant enough threat to necessitate the use of such weapons?

As for torture, do you hold that any and all interrogation techniques are fair game, or do you draw the line somewhere? Is it not logical to maintain a certain standard of conduct (e.g., observing the Geneva Convention) because doing so will make the fight easier in other ways, whereas having no standards at all would only serve to strengthen the resolve and determination of the enemy?

Allen Short, 1st Lt., USAF

Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein reply:

Dear Lt. Short,

Thank you for your letter.

Our article offers a moral analysis of war—not a strategic or tactical analysis. These issues are closely related but distinct. As we argued in our essay, a nation’s moral views on when and how to go to war fundamentally shape its strategy and tactics. For example, a nation’s view of the moral purpose of war will shape what types of goals it pursues in war, and what types of tactics it regards as proper in pursuing those goals. Consider the moral view set forth in our essay:

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.

This standard, if applied, would endorse war strategies and tactics that would
maximally protect U.S. citizens by making use of preemption, torture, and nuclear weapons—if and when they serve that purpose.

In addition to providing the end to which all our wartime actions must be aimed, morality provides fundamental principles about the proper means. For example, it tells us of the crucial need to pass objective moral judgment on others. In foreign policy, this means taking into account all the relevant facts about other countries, such as the oft-evaded fact that Iran has been attacking America consistently since the late 1970s (the hostage crisis, Lebanon, Khobar Towers, IEDs in Iraq, etc.) as part of an openly-declared mission to subjugate the entire world to Islamic law.

Although morality’s guidance is indispensable, it is not exhaustive. To determine whether war is necessary—and, if so, what kind of war—requires much specialized study beyond the field of morality. For example, morality tells us a nation or regime that systematically violates individual rights has no right to exist, and if it has demonstrated the willingness and ability to attack us, we have a moral right to preempt any future attacks by summarily eliminating the threat. (Note that the term “preemption” is routinely misapplied to countries such as Iran that have already attacked us.) But, depending on the myriad factors that must be taken into account in making such decisions, preemptive war may be an ineffective option. For instance, upon due diligence, American military strategists might conclude that a U.S.-led, worldwide, all-out embargo on a country would be more effective than a military strike. Or perhaps a nation’s military is overextended and needs to focus on other priorities. (This latter sort of consideration applies more to non-superpowers.) As to who makes the decision, you are right to suggest that it should not be the president alone; he should consult with Congress as the Constitution demands.

Regarding the use of nuclear weapons, morality tells us that the option of using such weapons against enemies belongs on the table. But whether nuclear weapons should be used, and how, depends on the best judgment of military strategists as to the most efficient means of achieving victory. Making that determination requires specialized knowledge of the nature, function, and limitations of nuclear weapons in particular—and military history, war strategy, and psychology more broadly.

As to the use of torture, all torture techniques theoretically are fair game. They cannot be morally prohibited on grounds that they are “too humiliating” or “too hurtful” to the enemy. Such prohibitions would be altruistic, not self-interested. If, however, upon investigation, military experts discover that a particular torture technique does not work, then its use would properly be regarded as immoral. To employ a technique that one knows will not serve its intended purpose is to separate means (actions) from life-serving ends, which is the essence of immorality.

A proper policy concerning interrogation depends on many things—including the principles of psychology, which are extremely complex. Identifying and codifying the principles of interrogation require the integration of vast amounts of data from multiple fields, which can be done only by people with appropriate expertise. The endeavor should not be hampered by a false morality that places torture outside the realm of possibility.

In sum, although morality is the fundamental guide and the indispensable standard-setter for answering questions about war, it is not the only guide or standard. Military history, war strategy, the nature and limitations of various weapons, the science of psychology, and all the relevant facts surrounding a given situation must also be brought to bear. The purpose of our article was not to exhaustively address matters of war, but to set the moral context for addressing such matters.

Yaron Brook and Alex Epstein

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