Can the American Government Wage a Just War?

  • October 23, 2023
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In a recent Mises Wire article, Connor O’Keeffe posed the question: “Is It Just War or Unjustified Slaughter of Innocents?” O’Keeffe points to Murray Rothbard’s claim that the difference between war and other manners of crime is merely a matter of scale, concluding that what we currently see occurring in the Middle East—as well as in any number of previous conflicts around the world—is not justified.

However, it can be further shown that involvement in these foreign wars is further unjustified by looking at another theory of just war built upon natural law. I am referencing the just war theory of St. Thomas Aquinas—a man that Rothbard highly praised as “the towering intellect of the High Middle Ages, the man who built on the philosophical system of Aristotle, on the concept of natural law, and on Christian theology to forge ‘Thomism,’ a mighty synthesis of philosophy, theology and the sciences of man.” As such a towering intellect, Aquinas laid out three main requirements for a just war: (1) right authority, (2) just cause, and (3) right intention.

There is a possible case to be made for all three of these requirements by both sides. However, I do not wish to question whether either side are waging just wars themselves, but rather if American involvement in this war would be just—and deeper still, whether a government like America’s can even really wage a just war at all.

This question greatly comes down to the question of right authority. In Aquinas’s time of kings, it was very clear from where the sovereign derived his power, and it was very clear when he had the right authority to wage war. However, in our time of democracy, it is a much more blurred line. It is very difficult to demonstrate such clear authority. As Rothbard has said of democratic states, “Even if 70 percent of the people decided to murder the remaining 30 percent, this would still be murder and would not be voluntary suicide on the part of the slaughtered minority.” As such, it is very difficult for a democratic—even a pseudodemocratic state as ours—to find itself with the just cause that Aquinas referenced.

This same nature of democracy blurring the lines of right authority has very clear effects upon just cause and right intention as well. Aquinas stated that to have a just cause, “those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault.”

With this in mind, I ask what was the fault for which America’s involvement would be warranted. I do not claim that neither side is at fault here. Instead, I claim that it is likely that every single reader has a different fault in mind. Once again, a sovereign like the kings of Aquinas’s time could firmly lead his people in attack because of a specific fault. However, in a democratic government, that no longer holds true. An easy example that proves this point is the recent news story regarding the beheading of babies by Hamas. Such cruel treatment is obviously in and of itself a clear-enough fault to justify retaliation—provided it was even true.

On the flip side, sites like Antiwar.com claim that the Israeli army does not have any confirmation of this story. If this does indeed turn out to be a lie to entice military action, that would be evil on its face, possibly to the degree of warranting war against the Israeli army. How is a democracy supposed to answer which is correct when the majority of Americans—and the majority of their representatives considering America is more properly a representative republic—cannot properly agree on what is the evil that has occurred?

Next, Aquinas states that “Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.” Here is perhaps the most problematic of the three principles. If these United States representatives are truly battling against an evil that has been done, then we can gratefully say that they have the rightful intention.

However, if the government is influenced by a large military industrial complex, if the representatives within the government believe they should appease donors who need military contracts, or if these representatives are angling to receive a lobbying-style job in the future with such weapons agencies, then these are far from rightful intentions. I cannot prove the intention of others, but I can at least ask if you believe the representatives’ desires.

Lastly, Aquinas raises secondary issues for a just war, which are that a just war must (1) be the last resort, (2) have a probability of success, (3) be appropriately proportional, and (4) make it possible to discriminate against civilian casualties.

These four issues are not impossible for a government such as America’s, although they are worth including since several of them have not been properly addressed. Military involvement is far from America’s last resort today. While America could have a high probability of success, their track record in the Middle East is far from glowing. Proportionality could be achieved with proper prudence—for the sake of giving the most charitable interpretation, I’ll say it’s possible, though I find it unlikely that the US government would act with proper prudence. Lastly, the US government can discriminate against civilian casualties. However, more often than not, it instead uses weaponry that produces classic overkill.

All this being said, it is overwhelmingly safe to say that US involvement in the Middle East is far from just. I further claim that, by the nature of its pseudodemocratic government, it may be impossible for America to take any military action while remaining just. However, even if it were possible, American involvement in this conflict would not be just and should not be pursued.

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