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Tyranny and civilians at war

Part I of III

Arguments over war in Iraq and its justification, recently fuelled by emotions running high over the first anniversary of the Sept 11th attacks, have been plaguing the libertarian camp. Samizdata decided to summarise its contributors’ positions on war in general and Iraq in particular and received some interesting responses. There are many strands of arguments for and against war on Iraq and it is impossible to even mention them all in one posting. There are several interesting points I wish to add to or stress in the debate.

One of the objections to Perry’s position on the destruction of tyranny and libertarian opposition to it comes from Julian Morrison (a comment on the above linked article):

There are many ways and means of destroying tyranny, but the only ones that are “libertarianly correct” are those which do not involve harm to innocents. Assassination is far preferable, for example, to war – and hand-to-hand war is preferable to blanket bombing. There exists no right to murder, regardless of how convenient it might be.

Here justification of war is reduced to the effects it may have on the civilian population or innocents. This makes opposition to tyranny impossible. For example, makes it impossible to fight anybody ruthless enough to use human hostages.

Ignoring for a moment the other important conditions of just war, which I will deal with in Part II, I want to look at Nazism and communism as examples of historical tyrannies that were accepted as evil to be justifiably eliminated. Opposing Nazism by force was justified as self-defence and the war against Hitler and Germany has been accepted as a just war. The WWII experience proves appeasement wrong on both grounds – moral (fails in self-defence) as well as strategic or practical (gives the enemy opportunity to accumulate weapons and pose a greater threat).

Although during WWII the distinction between a dictator and the nation he lead was blurred, the Cold War made abundantly clear that there is a difference between a dictator waging a war with the country behind him and a dictator with the civilian population being at his mercy and under the same threat as his opponents.

Perry mentions Czechoslovakia as a case in point and I will merely add to his voice. During 1968 Prague Spring civil resistance the Warsaw pact used military threat on the civilian population and in the early days of the Velvet Revolution of 1989 there was in our minds a real threat that the communist government would use the army on the demonstrators. How could an attack by the West make the situation any worse in a country where the state is ready to use ‘military force’ (not just law enforcement) on its citizens? Whether I die being run over by a T-55, shot by AK-47 or by a stray ‘Western’ bomb does not make much difference to me as an individual in such situation. In fact, young and idealistic as I was in those days, I’d probably prefer the latter, given that being killed during a ‘Western liberation’ would at least serve a purpose I agreed with, whereas being killed by communists wouldn’t.

We know Saddam has used military force and chemical weapons on Kurds and will not hesitate to use such force again… Those who oppose war on Iraq on ‘moral grounds’ will find it hard to wriggle out of agreeing that it was right for the West to fight Nazism and wrong to leave the nations of Eastern Europe under communism. The problem is that Nazism and communism are obviously wrong ex-post and the current debate is about determining the moral and strategic position ex-ante.

To be continued…

Doctrine of Just war and libertarians (Part II)
Strategic considerations for attack on Iraq (Part III)

6 comments to Tyranny and civilians at war

  • Dale Amon

    I’ve a supporting point for you. If you remember the evening when Perry, his friend and myself spent working through alternate scenarios for World War II, from which I think you were driven near screaming…

    Although we have numerous disagreements on what-ifs, I think that once the numbers were laid out, it was clear that had France struck pre-emptively in 1939, the war would have ended much sooner and in an early defeat for Germany.

    One could therefor make the moral and ethical case that France’s failure to do so directly resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people who might not otherwise have died.

    Sometimes the ones who are for not acting sound to me very much like those who would ban a chemical as carcinogenic that might kill a small number of people over a long period of time while ignoring the large number of lives improved or extended by it.

    What of those who would live if we acted? Don’t they have rights as well?

  • Julian Morrison

    I guess since youse guys are replying me, I’d better reply you, or seem churlish.

    First: my insistence on non-attack of innocents does not prevent taking actions that cause others to harm innocents. Nobody is morally responsible for anybody else’s choices. If you shoot at Mr Thug but he’s pushed an innocent into the path of your bullet, you aren’t a murderer. This is a totally different scenario to *knowingly using overkill*. It’s a matter of options. If a bad guy is using “human shields” you are out of options, he has shoved innocents into your path. If you throw a hand grenade into a crowd when an aimed rifle shot would have been as effective, you’ve commited murder.

    Second and following on from the above: a war in which civillians (or even conscripts) die in droves is not the only avenue of attack against Iraq. Asassination is possible and more plausible – even assuming lots of assassins die and fail, less lives will be lost that way (both on “our” side and “theirs”) than by a ground attack let alone a “bomb them back to the stone age” startegy.

  • Absolutely, Dale, although looking purely at the numbers is too utilitarian for my liking. In combination with an a priori moral justification for rooting out evil (in this case a pre-emptive strike on Nazi Germany based on Hitler’s oppression of the German people, or even better on the basis of his annexation of and demands for other territories, Austria and Czechoslovakia), the argument, of course, holds.

    Numbers are important in overall analysis, just as consequences are an integral part of judging an act but, by themselves, they can be ‘dangerous’ for the individual. For example, what if I am one of those people to whom the carcinogenic chemical proves lethal, etc. But, as you know, that is a different discussion.

    As a supporting point though, about the moral responsibility of those who fail to act when acting is the morally appropriate thing to do, it’s got my thumbs up!

  • While I’m usually happy to blame France for everything…

    There’s a better case that intervention in Germany should have occurred at latest by 1936, in response to Germany’s blatant contravening of Parts I and V of the Versailles Treaty: officially announcing to the world on March 10, 1935 the existence of the luftwaffe; passing a law on March 16 introducing conscription and establishing a Germany army of 36 divisions; re-occupying the demilitarised Rhineland in March 1936.
    Any nation with sufficient moral fibre, be it UK or France, should have sent in the boys right then and there; apart from being legal under the terms of the Treaty, it would also have been a piece of cake.

    Interestingly (something I’ve just learned anyway), in February 1933 France rebuffed a secret proposal from Poland for joint military action against Hitler.

  • Auguste

    Yes,wemust have more such articles!!!

  • “We know Saddam has used military force and chemical weapons on Kurds and will not hesitate to use such force again… Those who oppose war on Iraq on ‘moral grounds’ will find it hard to wriggle out of agreeing that it was right for the West to fight Nazism and wrong to leave the nations of Eastern Europe under communism.”

    Well, if you are going to point this out, then it is very dishonest (or perhaps just ignorant) not to point out that the U.S. was giving substantial military aid to Iraq, and knew about his use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, when it happened. He also used them against Iranian troops, with our knowledge. This was a violation of the Geneva convention, yet the U.S. was uninterested in punishing him until he invaded Kuwait.

    The moral issues surrounding WWII are difficult for pacifists like me. Yes, Hitler was evil and needed to be stopped. On the other hand, much of the economic problems in Germany which allowed Hitler to come to power were created at the end of WWI–a totally pointless war based around monarchs’ money and colonial influence. The situation at the end of WWII substantially aided the creation of the cold war, so it seems that war leads to more war. Perhaps fighting in WWII was somewhat justified, but there were still some highly immoral actions in it (like firebombing cities, and the use of nuclear weapons).

    “How could an attack by the West make the situation any worse in a country where the state is ready to use ‘military force’ (not just law enforcement) on its citizens?”

    British military force was used against Indians on several occasions (in one instance resulting in several thousand deaths), yet the Indians were able to get rid of them through nonviolent resistance. If people want to liberate their own country, they can. Governments, no matter how tyrannical, serve only when the people allow it. It may mean a great price to them, but it is a price they would willingly pay–not have it put upon them by some outside force. This is something fundamental to libertarian thought–freedom of choice, but you take the consequences of that choice.