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August 10, 2002

Liberventionism III: The Flight from History


by Joseph Stromberg

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

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

THE GREAT THEORY ROBBERY

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

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

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

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

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

HISTORY AS MYTH AND JUSTIFICATION

This brings me to someone who writes on a website named for a famous pamphlet by a 19th-century individualist anarchist. I know little about the website and nothing about Mr. Tim Starr, whose essay I mean to interrogate in aid of finding key symptoms of the liberventionist syndrome. The essay, "War Is Not Criminal Justice," seems a perfect example of some libertarians’ flight from history.

The piece is also remarkable for its embrace, odd in a professed libertarian, of the policy of Total War, an embrace which would be odd enough for someone who only professed to be a human being. I hasten to add that, as a matter of historical fact, that many people have embraced Total War, particularly in the lovely 20th century. Whether that was the best thing they could have done is another matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MILLION-PERSON ‘LIFEBOAT SITUATIONS’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would the Iraqi state be blameless in this?

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

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

SILVER LININGS AND GOOD INTENTIONS

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

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

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

THE PACIFIC WAR IN A CONTEXTUAL VACUUM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. No one should kill civilians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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