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War: An Objectivist View

War: An Objectivist View

10 Mins
July 1, 2010

Consider two horrific acts. Number one: a depressed father enters his living room, shoots his wife and children, and then himself. Number two: a depressed widow walks into a hotel, she presses a trigger, and she and everyone else within 30 yards dies in a burst of flame and flesh. Number one, I submit, is a crime. Number two, however, turns out to be an act of war.

Both war and crime involve acts of violence. The difference is the scope and purpose of the violence. The targets of the father in my example are the members of his family. His purpose, insofar as he could be considered to be aiming at a goal, is to wipe out those particular people. The widow’s aims are another matter. She has been raised a Sunni radical, and knows little of the world beyond her village. Her brother and father were killed by an American rocket attack the year before. Suicide attacks like hers, directed at prominent economic, military, and governmental targets, have become a tactic of choice for poor insurgents combating a political and social order of which they disapprove. The widow is an informal soldier in a war.


War involves violent conflict among or against human organizations. More than a mere fight among individuals, it sets groups against groups, armies against armies, nations against nations. We often call a fight among gangs for control of a neighborhood a “war,” (although if it is one, it is a constrained one, because the control they are fighting over has limits). At the other end of the scale there can be a war among alliances that span the globe to determine the future of the human race. Most basically, war sets governments against governments.

Although you wouldn’t know it from today’s political debates, government does not exist to allow a million people to sing “kumbaya” together. Its purpose is not to embody our moral aspirations. It is not uniquely qualified to decide how schools, banks, and car companies should be run. Government’s unique function is the enforcement of law. As Ayn Rand put it, “the government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control.” (“The Nature of Government,” in Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, p. 331)

If we disagree about an art movement, or about whether a new tech toy is to die for or a rip-off, or about preserving an old building as against a woodland, we do not need violence to get things our way. We can convince or ignore, buy or boycott, purchase or persuade. Win or lose, we can continue to live in our own way, using our own property as we deem best. Our lives remain our own. Our property does, too.

But if we disagree about who should have the authority of law—who should be allowed to dominate the use of force in an area—there is no question that, whatever the outcome, the losers will have the decision forced upon them. Government is not optional. Where a government rules, there is no private sphere that is beyond adjudication in the law and outside the reach of soldiers and police to enforce laws. You may fight the Law, but the Law wins.

In liberal, democratic societies, we of course have systems for deciding on government policy without violence and for keeping government out of private life in practice. These systems—founded in private property, free speech, and a general tolerance of political opponents—allow politically disaffected citizens to see a peaceful road toward political change in the future.

Still, at no moment in democratic politics is it unclear who rules. An American election may decide who will be president. But who is president at any given moment, and what his powers are, are never in question.

But it is not always that easy. Peaceful political change rests on the public’s acceptance of the legitimacy of the political order and on the impracticality of trying to overthrow it by force. Both of these factors vary widely among societies. In Afghanistan, no government has ever held full sway over the country. For many Afghans, loyalty to tribe, clan, and faith are prized far above loyalty to government and country. A prickly sense of honor is bolstered there by inadequate roads, poverty, and mountains, all of which hamper the reach of the government. It hasn’t mattered what kind of government, either: Russian-backed communists, Saudi-backed Taliban fanatics, or the current NATO-backed semi-liberals have all struggled to impose their rule. This is just what it means for there to be war. And in fact, civil war has been endemic to Afghanistan for decades.

Our classic view of war is not the civil wars and revolutions I have been describing, but competition between states for control of territory. To be sure, those are wars, too. The first Persian Gulf war, for instance, was fought to decide which government would rule Kuwait. At the opposite extreme in scale and scope is a gang war fought over who will control a territory. Gangs—as organized, illegal enterprises—are insurgents against the official government. But in all cases, war is fought to decide who rules.


War takes place in a social zone where dispute exists as to what the law is and who is in charge of enforcing it. Because government itself, to be worthy of the name, oversees the rules regarding force in a region, force is necessarily the means of disputing its authority. A government threatens to kill people, take or destroy their property, and/or imprison them by force. So war, being a dispute over governance, comes down to killing people, taking or destroying property, and imprisoning enemies.

To speak of “laws of war” is thus, fundamentally, an oxymoron. We see this in the unrestricted destruction that has been meted out in modern “total wars” such as World War Two and in the indiscriminate attacks characteristic of contemporary urban terror-warfare. To be sure, there are treaties, like the Geneva Convention, that impose rules on warfare, and states have reasons beyond bare altruism for observing the rules of war (such as humane treatment of prisoners). But those reasons are often based in a state’s expectation of equivalent treatment from its enemies. The United States has internal debates about the extent to which it should apply the terms of the Geneva Convention to Islamist irregulars in Iraq and Afghanistan precisely because our enemies there do not reciprocate with equivalent treatment.

The philosophy of war has traditionally distinguished between justice in making war (jus in bello) and the justice of going to war (jus ad bellum). This is a valid distinction, but when we apply it, context matters. In the Objectivist view, moral principles such as justice are objective relative to a context. Morality is not a “view from nowhere”; it is not timeless and a-contextual. Our normal sense of justice is tied to the normal context of human life, which emphatically does feature a government and law. Indeed, for modern life, the normal context includes as well a rough-and-ready expectation that one’s rights will be respected; fending off thugs and execution squads is not the situation that modern morals are meant to handle. Justice, properly understood, aims to promote productive, rational relations between people in the normal context, where one can presume that a stranger is at least not a danger and is quite possibly a source of friendship, inspiration, mutual aid, knowledge, or goods-in-trade.

In war, however, one must presume that one’s rights will not be respected. One can presume that any stranger may well be a deadly threat. Anyone not clearly identified as “on my side” probably is on the other side. And he wants to kill you. In normal life, your survival and productiveness demand that you act on your own judgment. You may adhere to the rules of a group—company policy, for instance—but only insofar as it serves your interest to do so. In war, your survival and effectiveness require that you follow orders and support the group. You may need to exercise individual initiative—but only insofar as it promotes your side’s success on the battlefield. In normal life, there is no fundamental conflict of human interests. But a war creates a fundamental conflict; because war exists between groups, it makes mortal foes of total strangers.

An ethic for promoting life in harmony with others cannot apply on a battlefield. War requires its own quite different ethical principles. In the Objectivist view, both the ethics of peace and the ethics of war derive from the need of human beings to survive and flourish. But morality cashes out differently depending on the context.


War disrupts the harmonious and orderly nature of normal society. (If you think competing for a job or struggling with the dating scene is hard, think about what it’s like to dodge RPGs and cluster bombs!) War involves acts that in the normal context of life would be regarded as indiscriminate murder and mayhem. In war, force is not subject to objective control. There will be “collateral damage” in war: people who in the normal context would obviously be innocent bystanders become bloody victims. It is a hell unleashed on Earth.

Therefore war is not a state to be entered into lightly. Engaging in war at all can be justified only as the lesser of two evils. What reason can there be for fighting a war?

The proper purpose of government is to enforce a social system that protects the rights of its citizens. Nothing less would serve the self-interest of the citizens. Assuming the government is in fact a protector of rights, then one of its primary tasks is to defend the country against external attacks. Between rights-protecting states, defense against attack can be the only reason to wage a war. Wars among liberal democracies have been few on the ground since that form of government first emerged in the eighteenth century. This has been no accident: the liberal democracies—the free world—are those that do protect at least an essential minimum of freedom.

The free countries of the world are really natural allies, since their citizens share an interest in protecting their own freedom, and they have no objective interest in attacking each other. However, many governments around the world do not recognize even minimal rights of free speech and free assembly. Many fail, too, to provide the basic elements of rule of law. These tyrannies have no justification for existing. Furthermore, they are often a direct source of threats.

Witness, among recent wars, the Falklands War of 1982, launched by the military junta ruling Argentina against free Britain; the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s fought between a dictatorship and a theocracy; or the 2001 NATO invasion of Afghanistan against the Taliban theocracy because of its sponsorship of the authors of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Even the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a war made necessary by tyranny, despite the errors and incompetence that exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s military dictatorship and that bungled the early stages of the occupation.

Since the rights of the citizens of a tyranny are not being protected in the first place, a rights-respecting country could act to overthrow the unjust regime without betraying its basic principles. Indeed, the liberation of an oppressed people is in the long-run self-interest of all free people—although not, in many cases, worth fighting a war over.

Given all this, practical military relations among free countries must center on plans for alliance and mutual defense. Meanwhile, unfree countries will remain the primary source of threats. Wealth and technology make countries powerful. But in modern times, wealth and technology have tended to develop only where there is political and economic freedom. Until tyranny and looting manage to produce wealth, we can expect that the unfree countries will be the scene of almost all wars going forward (barring a nuclear Armageddon). Armed forces in unfree societies (from the Russian army to the insurgent terrorists of Al Qaeda) are unlikely to be able to wage war effectively against the core of the free world in Europe, East Asia, and North America. But since tyrannical governments are in essence parasitical, it is not surprising that they often view war as a tool for extending their power. And so they remain a threat that must be watched and countered.

Because tyrannical regimes have no moral claim to rule, the free world needs to deal with them carefully, not tolerating threats that can be addressed by force, but not yielding to the temptation to wage war when in fact peaceful relations—employing trade, open communications, and long-term moral suasion, for example—would be more productive. Even unjust regimes usually have a degree of legitimacy in terms that their own culture widely accepts (think of the royal family of Saudi Arabia, or the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler in World War Two, as two examples). So it is not a simple matter to replace an unjust regime with a just one, as the United States discovered to its dismay in Iraq. (The U.S. nation-building project in Iraq was hampered, too, by a faulty conception that just government is nothing more than electoral democracy, a view propounded by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, among others.) The free world will need to encourage greater freedom within tyrannies, and its people should offer the carrot of peaceful relations or alliance to those that show promise of improving or that cooperate in facing mutual threats.


International law (those gentlemen’s agreements among states) embraces the set of principles called jus in bello as a basis for limiting the behavior of combatants. But the belief in a-contextual moral principles and the idea of morality as a limit on self-interested behavior are both contrary to the basic moral approach of rational egoism. A rational egoist should act in accordance with the principles that identify the most practical long-range means of advancing his life. In normal situations, these principles include respecting the rights of others and seeking values from others only by trade, because these are the means to wealth, health, and happiness. In wartime, free countries should act in ways that, first and foremost, promote the lives and well-being of their citizens.

Some Objectivists have asserted in recent years that this means that the U.S. military should disavow no means of fighting its wars. For instance, no matter how small the war, nuclear weapons should never be formally taken off the table. Some have argued that the best response to Islamist terrorism is to set aside humanitarian qualms and bomb various cities of the Middle East back to the Stone Age. Islamists are irrational, after all, and the irrational can be cowed only by brute force. So goes the argument.

Yet no one would argue that rational people should try to defraud, rob, or enslave people who hold mystical beliefs or have strong commitments to self-sacrifice, even though neither of those viewpoints can be defended on rational grounds. “Ally” and “enemy,” “free” and “unfree”—these conceptual categories unite groups whose members differ in many salient aspects. Is an ally only a country that shares bone-deep values with your own? Or is it really just a coalition partner-of-the-moment, coming along for this particular fight? Similarly, the unfree countries range from China to the Sudan. The first is a great civilization recouping world-class status by unleashing the creativity and industry of its people. The second is a country that limps along on robbery and the oil revenues that foreigners find in its deserts. Classifications such as “unfree” summarize something that we know about the countries in question; they do not summarize everything we know.

And it isn’t prudent to ignore the facts in dealing with people. Around every fanatic there are a hundred moderates who provide various kinds of support, from the moral to the economic. Slaughter all of them and you will galvanize ten thousand friends and countrymen to crusade in defense of their homes, lives and beliefs. Mass reprisals for rebellions almost always create even more support for the rebellion itself. Why shouldn’t we nuke Middle Eastern cities where the people jeer against America in the streets? Because we don’t want to receive worse than jeering, and in any case, people have a right to jeer. Because we don’t want to cause Europe to ally with the Arab potentates and all of Asia against us. Because we aren’t a threat to humanity, and we never should seem to be.

A free country’s goal in fighting war thus cannot be merely to win, but to promote the long-term security, well-being, and freedom of its citizens. Long-term security requires that foreigners do not view one’s country as a reckless threat. It requires that foreigners’ thinking evolve over time toward a belief in liberty. To succeed at this in the long term requires that free countries use force proportionately when at war, taking square aim at tyrants and terrorists, and showing that freedom is on the side of the general public. That is why collateral damage matters so much, and why it can make sense to take an indiscriminately destructive weapon like the hydrogen bomb off the table in some contexts. It is a practical means of improving our long-term security.


The traditional philosophy of just warfare distinguishes between the rights of combatants and those of non-combatants. Perhaps it would be better to call these groups “combatants” and “supporters.” In the era of total war and urban terrorist-insurgencies, the distinction between the front line and the rear is strained at best. When a whole society is the supply train for an army or a rebellion, the people that buy the bombs are as essential to the war effort as the people that drop them.

Furthermore, if we see war as an act that calls law and governance into question, then every citizen seems charged with the responsibility of making a choice between one government and another. To fight or submit is a hard choice, possibly bringing deadly consequences, but that is the price of living in anarchy. Yet perhaps a citizen need not choose one side or the other. One way to avoid either cooperating or rebelling is to go on strike, as the heroes of Atlas Shrugged did, becoming a non-contributing member of society and avoiding all participation in the war. It means not doing business and not paying taxes. If one can lie low in that way, then one can truly become a non-combatant. But that is not what most so-called “non-combatants” do. Those who continue to support their government in wartime are indicating their choice.

Because there is no clear line between combatants and non-combatants in a country at war, proportionality and consideration are important policies for the war-making of a free country. The short-term goal of any battle is to disable the enemy force. Killing them is just one way of doing this. In fact, in most battles, most of the losers don’t die; rather, they lose unit cohesion or the will to fight. An example of this was the way entire Iraqi army divisions evaporated in the face of allied air and ground attacks during the drive to Baghdad during the 2003 invasion. Often, the soldiers just deserted and went home. That’s good enough. In fact, it’s better than killing, because it can make the transition to peace easier later. It is crucial not merely to win a war, but to win it in the right way, a way that bodes best for the long-term security of the victors.


Since at least the Seven Years’ War of 1756–63 (which included the French and Indian War), the Great Powers of the world have engaged in a spiraling cycle of ever-bloodier and deeper-reaching conflicts. From the hundreds of thousands who died during Napoleon’s invasion of Russian in 1812, to the millions dead “in Flanders’ fields” in World War One, to the tens of millions slaughtered in Europe and Asia in World War Two, it seemed a final apocalypse was creeping inexorably nearer. But the cycle has not come to fruition, and there is reason to think it won’t.

Before there was capitalism, war was the pursuit of parasitical elites seeking to extend their wealth and power. Great wealth in pre-industrial society was not created, it was taken. Caesar was talented, but it was the loot of his conquests that made him super-rich. Indeed, in the past, untold generations of aristocrats and warriors venerated battle as the true test of manhood and nobility. But science, innovation, and economic liberty have changed all that. They have magnified the horror of war and have revealed the bankruptcy of militarism. There is no country today made rich by war. The countries that prosper are not those fighting wars of conquest. They are those that open their capital markets and empower businesspeople to produce. The United States didn’t invade Iraq for oil—but if it had done so, we would account it a very bad bargain.

Could there be peace throughout the world, then? Yes, and a peace based in freedom would be in everyone’s best interest.

However, the hope for a durable and just peace is like the hope for an end to poverty. Should a laissez-faire economy radically reduce poverty over time, raising all boats even as its incentives erode the culture of poverty? Yes it should. And in fact, this is what economic freedom has brought to country after country. And yet, it would be unrealistic to say that no one will ever have terrible luck, or that no one will ever be foolish. Poverty might be reduced, but it cannot be eliminated so long as people have free will.

Similarly, while it is increasingly clear that war is not the means to wealth or happiness, one would have to be blind not to see that people all over the world still venerate war as a means of salving lost pride (think of Arabia), or demonstrating power (think of Russia), or showing resolve towards pesky, undemocratic foreign regimes (think of America). So war will be with us for a long, long time. Indeed, if world culture turns away from reason and liberty, as it often threatens to do, the danger of war can only increase.

Warfighting has an insidious effect on domestic politics—the calls for solidarity boil over into greater social controls. It is morally and psychologically damaging to those who take part, since the proper conduct for success on the battlefield, and the experience of being on the battlefield, are often at odds with the mental requirements of the normal context of peacetime. Therefore wars should be few, and their aim should be to make war less necessary in the future. Yet this is not the counsel of pacifism. It is instead the counsel of steadfast preparedness and just conduct in all contexts.  


William Thomas

William R Thomas writes about and teaches Objectivist ideas. He is the editor of The Literary Art of Ayn Rand and of Ethics at Work, both published by The Atlas Society. He is also an economist, teaching occasionally at a variety of universities.

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