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News Link • Philosophy: Libertarianism

Libertarianism Can Offer Clear Answers About War And Peace


Are there clear limits which should be applied to the scope of the state's warfighting powers, or should its ability to use violence in pursuit of its political aims be unlimited? Can libertarianism help define these limits, even for non-libertarians?

I recently separated from the United States Air Force for reasons of a deeply held moral objection to war. When an active duty military person tries to claim such a status, they are forced to run through a tedious legal gauntlet which ensures they aren't trying to quit for the wrong reasons. Not wanting to die for or be under indenture to the American Imperial Forces doesn't count as a valid excuse. My claimed beliefs about war were scrutinized, and I had to prove total objection. This eventually led to an unusual email conversation with some faceless Judge Advocate (JA) which raised a question about the nature of war, and how the state views its role as society's agent of warfighting.

This was the question posed to me: "Candidate referenced an opposition to war because of the harm it causes to people, but does this mean he's opposed to all war? What about non-violent forms of war such as aggressive cyber warfare?"

This is as closely as I can remember the question as I first received it, since the ridiculous inquiry itself was sanitized for the final memorandum submitted up the chain of command. I couldn't say for certain if the higher up JA who posed it was trying to "help" by offering a chance for me to clarify my views vis-à-vis their legal requirements, or if they were simply trying to entrap me. Regardless, the fact that this was even brought up, and that such an idea is even a frontier of legal interpretation in the first place greatly troubled me.

It raises the question of: what is war, exactly? Specifically, to what degree can the state use violence to accomplish its overall and maybe otherwise non-violent political aims?

Here was my response:

"Offensive cyber warfare seems not to meet the traditional definition of 'the bearing of arms for military purposes': the use of tools designed to maim or kill human beings to restrict an enemy's ability to act and thus destroy their will to resist. In this sense, I'm not sure how this reference is relevant to the legal requirements associated with my claim. The nature of the query suggests an attempt to change definitions. If one removes all violence from the concept of war, one is doing something rather novel. Is someone who uses non-violent force, such as a "sit-in" protestor, engaged in warfare, and therefore subject to summary execution as a combatant? Can violent and non-violent force be equated in this way under the legal definition of warfare? My moral belief, deeply and fundamentally, says no.

"My personal convictions, and the force of my conscience on my feelings, are derived from the reality of violence in war. The military is an organization that fundamentally accepts the legitimacy of killing and maiming human beings to achieve a desired political or military objective, however seemingly necessary. Therefore, any activity within this organization cannot be morally isolated from that particular characteristic… To summarize and clarify: from my perspective, helping the military accomplish its objectives is like being an accessory to murder…"

Parenthetically, I should mention that I'm no legal expert (and also that the JA in question doesn't necessarily represent the viewpoint of DoD as a whole). Perhaps my above argument misses some nuanced legal point. When it came to my application to quit the Air Force, all I had to prove was the consistency of my personal feelings. Obviously, the Department of Defense accepts the fundamental legal and moral legitimacy of war, and wouldn't countenance a real debate over that subject anyway. Nevertheless, the episode was yet another revelation of the government's own institutional confusion about its scope and purpose as a warfighting agent. To me as a libertarian, the question invoked a contrast between two mutually exclusive visions of government, and the astonishing inability of modern American institutions to resolve that contrast.

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