Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW

Summary:  Fifth in a series of notes about America’s grand strategy.

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A clear and sound justification for using force provides a basis for clear thinking and speaking about this vital subject.  The latter helps motivate our allies, attract support from the uncommitted, and weaken the resolve of our enemies.   As Thomas Jefferson said of an earlier crisis:

“This was the object of the Declaration of Independence … to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take.”
—  Letter to Richard Henry Lee dated 8 May 1825

But a weak moral and intellectual basis for our actions leaves us vulnerable to our enemies and looking unpredictable to our friends.  Which describes our situation today, due to a conflict between our strategy and tactics, one which seriously weakens both our internal cohesion and global authority.  This post discusses the problem and proposes a solution.

Most Americans want to fight only just wars:  wars undertaken for good causes, fought according to the “law of nations” (the language in Section I, Article 8 of the Constitution).  In western thinking going back to the Peace of Westphalia, civilians are distinct from soldiers and military forces is properly directed (when possible) only at soldiers.  This is a core concept in both our self-image and grand strategy.

“Strategies are things you talk about, not things you do.”
—  Scott Adams, Dogbert’s Management Handbook (1996)

Unfortunately this is not the American way of war (nor that of our enemies, the subject for a different discussion).  Our military tactics rely on intensive firepower.  This minimizes our casualties but only at the cost of massive numbers of enemy civilians injured and dead.  The use of nuclear weapons under Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) is the logical consequence of this approach.  As is use of heavy firepower in Baghdad neighborhoods.  Calling the dead “collateral damage” provides us with moral cover only to those not paying attention.


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Flawed thinking has bad consequences

“My, my, my! Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.”
— Private Detective Philip Marlowe in the movie The Big Sleep (1946)

Firepower is tactically effective, but at the cost of strategic weakness.  Officers in our armed forces require attorneys to advise them, and often force them to take actions prosecutable by a strict application of both American and international laws.  Outside reviews of our actions consistently worry that our efforts create more new enemies than we kill.  Worse, our enemies can exploit this divergence between our principles and our actions.  Fortunately our current foes have not exploited this, unlike North Vietnam’s leadership – which used this lever to convert a military defeat into total victory.

This results from a distinction between civilian and military targets that does not even make sense.  How can we fight under such rules against opponents who exploit them by hiding among civilians and operate without uniforms?  Such rules work only when fighting enemies nice enough to follow our rules.  Our thinking on these matters is irrational, like police who must rely on crooks to turn themselves in.

A logical response:  assassination

Against such enemies we have only one legitimate target:  the enemy’s leaders.  Since they are well-guarded against conventional attack, that leaves only assassination.  The nature of our dilemma is so great that reasonable people consider it, breaking with all western tradition.

  1. The Political Consequences of Assassination“, ZARYAB IQBAL (University of South Carolina) and CHRISTOPHER J. ZORN (Pennsylvania State University), 8 November 2007
  2. Hit or Miss? The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War“, Benjamin Jones and Benjamin Olken, National Bureau of Economic Research, May 2007

These authors do not recommend assassination, but this sort of utilitarian analysis has long been the first step in war — blurring the line from unthinkable, to reasonable, to routine.  Chemical weapons, strategic bombing, and (but for the grace of God) atomic warfare.  This kind of thinking is evidence of a dead policy, not least because it is unrealistic.  Our leaders know what will happen if they authorize assassination of other leaders (as Castro may have demonstrated to Kennedy).   The role of national leaders killed in the 20th century proves the inability of the finest security to defeat a determined assassin.  Fortunately there are solutions.

Another perspective

Force does not help unless we can justify its use.  To find a new moral authority for our actions we could look into our past.  Let’s enter our WayBack machine and go back to Greece in the first century AD, where a tent maker named Paul was writing an Epistle to the Romans.  In chapter 13 he wrote:

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. T he authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. F or rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.

Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority?  Then do what is right and he will commend you.  For he is God’s servant to do you good.  But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing.  He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.  Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

This gives a clear justification for obeying even the most evil and tyrannical governments.  Unless authority comes only with consent of the governed.   As moral agents responsible to God, we cannot be justly compelled to commit evil.  Hence we the people are collectively responsible for the government and its acts, much as in the Old Testament God held the people of Israel collectively responsible for their impiety — and for which they were collectively punished.

Consent of the governed is a foundational concept for the American Constitution, usually attributed to John Locke.  However it has far deeper roots in western civilization.  For example, from Wikipedia (paraphrased):

The Declaration of Arbroath of 1320 was a declaration of Scottish independence … in the form of a letter submitted to Pope John XXII … It states that lord Robert, because of “Divine Providence” along with “the due consent and assent of us all, have made him our prince and king.”

This does not imply that only democracy is legitimate.  Consent of the governed can just as easily result in tyranny.  A people might not overthrow an evil ruler, like Hitler, or be so ovine that they tolerate oppression.  Either way the people make a collective moral choice to follow their national leaders.

Collective responsibility is foreign to the thinking of many American’s, but nicely explains the realities of world history.  People must hang together or hang separately.  Alternatively, if the people are not responsible, then who is?  Stripping a people of their responsibility for the state is to see them as sub-humans, merely sheep.

A new world order

In this vision, people are responsible for their government — and held responsible for their government’s actions (including us).   Wars are waged between peoples, as they have always been in the modern era.  This justifies everything from “collateral damage” to strategic bombing, even winning hearts and minds with artillery fire (see here and here) — our way of war since 1941.   It is a harsh doctrine, as is any based on reality instead of fantasy.

What changes under the new rules?  We use force much the same as we do today.

  1. Our carriers still rule the seas, ready to rain death on our enemies.
  2. Our atomic candles remain buried in the Dakota plains, ready for instant use.

This doctrine does not justify the use of force in excess to the expected gains, or to the danger prevented, or for illegitimate goals.  It does bring our actions and professed beliefs into closer agreement.  We no longer need lie to others about what we do — or to ourselves.

Other posts about grand strategy

Does America need a grand strategy?  If so, what should it be?  Answers to these questions illuminate many of the questions hotly debated about foreign policy and national security.  Here are some posts on this subject.

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy   (31 January 2006).
  2. America’s Most Dangerous Enemy   (1 March 2006).
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW   (4 January 2007).
  4. America takes another step towards the “Long War”   (24 July 2007).
  5. One step beyond Lind: What is America’s geopolitical strategy?   (28 October 2007).
  6. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I  (19 March 2007; revised 7 June 2008).
  7. How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II  (14 June 2008).
  8. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past  (30 June 2008).
  9. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris  (1 July 2008).
  10. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles  (2 July 2008).

Click here to see a list of all posts about strategy and military theory.

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9 thoughts on “Justifying the use of force, a key to success in 4GW

  1. “As moral agents responsible to God, we cannot be justly compelled to commit evil. Hence we the people are collectively responsible for the government and its acts,”

    May I point out that this can result in no-win situations. If I am the citizen of a government that is both evil and competent, and I attempt to extricate myself from the evil (e.g. let us say that I am a German in 1940 and I refuse to agree with racist ideology) — I get punished, maybe fatally. But if I try to keep my head down and ride out the storm — I am still liable to collective punishment.

    There’s no incentive for any kind of constructive behavior. If one is subject to collective punishment, one might as well be a berserk madman — one is going to get punished, no matter what.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: You are thinking of yourself only as an individual, a mote in the wind. People’s power exists only collectively, acting together. Collective responsibility is one spur to collective action. Otherwise we get what many Germans did under Hitler: enjoy the benefits, then deny responsibility when things end badly.

  2. FM:

    Under your last heading, “A New World Order,” you mention “In this vision…” What vision? Are you referring to collective action and responsibility? Pardon me, but I didn’t follow your logic there… please clarify. Is this subject to be continued in another installment of the series?

    I’ll await your reply, but would only make the point that collective responsibility is much tougher to define than one might think. The allied powers learned this directly in the aftermath of WWII, when they attempted to identify and punish the Germans most responsible for the Holocaust and the most destructive war in human history. At what point does one draw the line demarkating hardened war criminals from common people caught up in events beyond their control?

    Is it to arrest and imprison all members of the Nazi Party? That approach is flawed, because some Germans were coerced into the joining the party, under the threat of death, loss of their homes, imprisonment or the like. Are we to hold prepubescent boys who joined the Hitler Jugend as criminals? What about members of the professional military, many of whom disliked Hitler and fought only to oppose the Communists? Many were horrified to learn of the “final solution,” while others were not. After the war, rank-and-file soldiers claimed they were only following orders when they were gassing or shooting Jews, Russian POWs, or others deemed expendible by the regime. Yet, many did so with relish and did not have to be prompted to do so. These were the sort of questions addressed by the Denazification authorities. Inevitably, some true Nazis were missed – such as Kurt Waldheim – and wound up in postwar positions of respect and repsonsibility. One could argue that the only “pure” Germans who weren’t Nazis were those with the foresight to leave Germany… as Eistein did, for example. Isn’t that what the notion of collective responsibility forces us to conclude?

    My point is not to absolve individuals of responsibility for their actions, or those of their governments; obviously each of us is to a degree cupable (however small) for the actions of those we elect. Rather, it is to note that few of us common folk have the ability or the moral authority to topple an unjust government, as would a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King. Most of us are preoccupied with simply getting from day to day. I would love to have the sort of clout necessary to influence my elected representatives, up to and including the President, but the simple fact is that I do not. Therefore, holding me accountable for their actions is at best problematical.

    If collective responsibility is to have real currency in our system of government and way of life, politics must again become more local, so that a sufficiently motivated person can indeed make his voice heard in the councils of government. I’ve dealt with big government on several occasions, and lobbied for some issues/measures of meaning to me. I’ve written a lot of letters, made a lot of phone calls, and belonged to several advocacy groups – and none had any measureable effect on our legislators except when an interest with enough clout got involved – i.e. a big company, another part of the federal bureaucracy (such as the army or other uniformed service), etc. I have been utterly unsuccessful in getting any sort of legislative audience or attention because I am not a big-dollar campaign contributor or an influential constituent. In a word, I do not have access. Viewed coldly, I have had about as much effect on the actions of my government as a fly on the window. Thus, acting as if I have some sort of collective responsibility for – say – the Iraq War – is ludicrous.

    Thanks for the column; I’ll await your reply.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: the trials after the war were the icing on the cake, an almost trivial clean-up operation. We found the people of Germany and Japan collectively responsible for WWII, and delivered punishment from the air. We, the Allies, killed aprox a million civilians.

    We were taxed too highly by England and so successfully executed a revolt. Now we’re fat and happy, passing off responsibility for unpleasant things done by our government. “It’s the system, pass the chips. I’ll take responsibility after the elves reform the world.”

    “Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
    Robert Louis Stevenson, perhaps apocryphal

    I doubt anyone will buy our excuses, any more than we even bother to listen to those of the German and Japanese people in WWII.

  3. FM:

    Of course, I have omitted a very great exception: the ballot box. Our elected officials do indeed care about our opinions when they are seeking our votes, but not much else of the time. Perhaps I am getting cynical in my middle-age!

  4. “People’s power exists only collectively, acting together.”

    There are different kinds of power. The Unabomber had the power to defy the richest nation in the world for years on end. His defensive power was vast. His offensive power was minor — just a few killings and maimings, less than a disgruntled postal worker could rack up with a .22 rifle. His ideological power is fairly small — there are some Deep Greens who revere him, and a larger group who are influenced by him. The defense and offense were individual — the ideology is a collective, community-based power.

    “Collective responsibility is one spur to collective action. Otherwise we get what many Germans did under Hitler: enjoy the benefits, then deny responsibility when things end badly.”

    If collective action comes down to “write your rep and then vote” I think it’s been nonfunctional in the USA for many years. Jeff Vail and John Robb have offered some thoughts on resilient communities. I suspect the non-voting behaviors of resilient communities will amount to more collective power than all the votes of all US voters — BUT if one could combine resilient community with voting, that would be an awesome force for change.

    Also, I like Pete’s comment:”few of us common folk have the ability or the moral authority to topple an unjust government”…
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I am astonished that the concept of collective action is so foreign to us that it should need the degree of explanation apparent from your reply. That is very depressing, suggesting that my theory (b) is correct, that we are no longer capable of (or perhaps interested in) carry the burden of self-government.

    Perhaps we have evolved into passive, coach-potatoe, chip-eating serfs. Fortunately we have TV to keep us entertained, and the internet over which to exchange whines.

  5. Gen. Wes Clark supposedly said to his staff, while bombing Serbia, “If we loose this war, we will end up as war criminals!”. He has a known good sense of humor, still, he has a point for the future…

    In the question of Iran war , I would consult the Pythia of Delphy, she is an expert of war outcomes, and a long time Iran watcher.
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    Fabius Maximus: For more on the Pythia — the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi – see Wikipedia, and here for famous oracular statements from Delphi.

  6. Until governments can be held accountable for acting according to the wishes of the people (versus the elites), your idea of holding people accountable for the actions of government is frankly appalling.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: There is no way to determine the “rightness” of these things until we speak with God (death being the price of admission). However, I find appalling the thought that we are just passengers. How wonderful we have it: fat, comfortable, with a degree of liberty unkown to almost all humanity until the modern era … and with no responsibility for our government.

    Past generations suffered and died to obtain freedom and responsibililty. It appears that we consider anything more than pulling a lever in a booth too great a price. This is a fine viewpoint — for serfs. And serfs we will be all to soon with such an attitude.

    Ben Franklin was prescient in many things, but never more than in this incident:

    At last the closed doors of Independence Hall were opened and the delegates as they issued from the building found themselves surrounded by a crowd of citizens eager to know what had been the outcome of the Constitutional Convention’s long deliberations. Among them was Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia. She approached Dr. Franklin with an anxious question: “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” “A Republic” replied the Doctor, “if you can keep it.”

    From Meet Dr. Franklin, THE FRANKLIN INSTITUTE (1943)

  7. Hello:

    Thank you for your replies to the comments above.

    “I am astonished that the concept of collective action is so foreign to us that it should need the degree of explanation apparent from your reply. That is very depressing, suggesting that my theory (b) is correct, that we are no longer capable of (or perhaps interested in) carry the burden of self-government.”

    FM, you are correct in part; clearly there is a substantial segment of the US population who are ignorant of or uninterested in self-government. They are too busy watching “American Idol” or whatever it is that such people do. As long as the gravy train doesn’t grind to a halt, they are happy to let others lead them without complaint or comment. It is very much a modern day version of “bread and circuses.”

    However, dropping the other shoe, aren’t you being a bit unfair characterizing me and people like me as incapable or unwilling of assuming the burdens of self-government?

    I possess individual self-discipline, and hold the traditional values of the Protestant work ethic; there is no budget deficit in my household and we live within our means; my wife and I have been married for 17 happy years; and we participate to the degree possible in civic and religious life. We are certainly not perfect, but we strive to be decent citizens, and good people. If that’s not a working definition of self-government, I do not know what is.

    The degree to which I am culpable in our country’s troubles and excesses is the degree to which I am ignorant of how to influence our elected officials, and generate and then use constructively collective (group) power. Welding people into groups that have bargaining power is a political enterprise and not all of us are political animals. Further, it is depressing that so few of us understand how to operate effectively in today’s public policy environment, but if anything, that is an indictment of our antecedents – our parents, our teachers, and the previous generation of leaders – than us. We were not taught how to steer the ship of state, or how to be stewards of the traditions handed down to us. That’s known as a failure of leadership, I believe.

    In other words, I have participated in the democratic process to the degree I know how. I have written letters, made phone calls to my Congressional representatives, and taken part in advocacy and volunteer organizations. We research how and on what we spend our dollars, and give charitably when we can. We worship at the church of our choice. We donate blood frequently. We vote as often as the law permits for the candidates of our choice (holding our noises all the while, I might add). Oh, one other thing: I volunteered for military service on several occasions since 9-11 (I was refused due to being past the age cutoff, but that isn’t my fault).

    Short of fomenting a second American revolution, what else did you have in mind, FM? Can you think of another manner in which we could contribute as citizens that we are not currently doing? I mean that sincerely, without sarcasm or irony. If you have further suggestions, please share them. Nothing would please me more than to influence our policymakers to “straighten up and fly right” as the old song goes.

    All the best – I’d better get back to work.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I prefer to keep these discussions on a rational and impersonal level, as 1st person discussions over-heat quickly. But anyway…

    “I possess individual self-discipline, and hold the traditional values of the Protestant work ethic; there is no budget deficit in my household and we live within our means; my wife and I have been married for 17 happy years; and we participate to the degree possible in civic and religious life. We are certainly not perfect, but we strive to be decent citizens, and good people. If that’s not a working definition of self-government, I do not know what is.”

    How would any of these change if Obama declared himself Emperior Obama? Any Roman subject could justly say this. This is self-discipline in your worldly interest. Commendable, but not “self-government” in the sense we are discussing, as it assumes no responsibility for the State or society.

    The next step up is local organizing for political purposes. Recruiting, working the party system, donating cash and time. I suspect that this would suffice, if sufficient numbers of citizens participated.

    “Can you think of another manner in which we could contribute as citizens that we are not currently doing?”

    Like so much in life, it is all about numbers. How many citizens do we have?

    At some point we might need to move up the list of actions, but no point in worrying about that when we have not tried steps lower on the ladder. The Tree has not yet weakened to the point that fertilizer is need, IMO.

  8. “the concept of collective action is so foreign to us”

    Collective action has a lot of pitfalls in 2008 ( in the US ) that do not IMHO resemble the pitfalls of history.

    Example: Organizing a labor union in the USA is more difficult than it was before Taft-Hartley. If a US dissident tries to organize collective action against unemployment, he is in for a bumpy ride.

    Example: Criminal records are not only better-circulated than in the past, they also can be used for hiring discrimination. A “disorderly conduct” or “trespassing” charge can prevent a lower-class worker from getting hired, even though it was incurred for the public good.

    Other challenges remain that resemble the challenges of the past.

    Example: Freemasons have never been entirely accepted by the mainstream — at one point, the US had Anti-Masonic political parties. Currently those who publicly agitate for reform, e.g. Alex Jones, associate Freemasons with plutocrats. So would-be reformers who are also US Freemasons face a classic dilemma in their social “presentation of self.”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I hope you are kidding. Union organizing was highly dangerous in the 19th century, and dangerous up to the 1930’s. What is your standard of “difficult” and “bumpy ride”, relative to subject under discussion — liberty?

  9. “The next step up is local organizing for political purposes. Recruiting, working the party system, donating cash and time.”

    William S. Lind has gone on record as endorsing Ron Paul for President — but it appears that Ron Paul will not be entered as an actual candidate. I believe that this is due to corruption in the party system. They allow genuine reformers to go through the motions of running, but the puppetmasters will not permit real reformers the opportunity to get on the ballot.

    Likewise I think it would have been sheer folly (or suicidal courage) for a German to say, in 1933, “If you don’t like this Chancellor, the next step is to organize a party and work within the legitimate party structures of the German state. Donate time and money! Make sure your neighbors vote!” At that point, Germany was beyond restoration to a functioning democracy, so going through the motions of organizing was simply counter-productive.

    As for my union comparison, it is still entirely possible for a native-born American to get killed for trying to organize a union.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I feared it would come to this point of absurdity, comparing political action in today’s America to 1933 Germany. Godwin’s Law prevents an adequate reply to this interesting excuse for our collective inaction, which is probably just as well.

    “Ron Paul will not be entered as an actual candidate. I believe that this is due to corruption in the party system.”

    Quite an statement. And the evidence for this? I have been an active Republican for almost 30 years, and know nobody who thought he could win the Republican vote. Even those I know who voted for him considered him a long-shot. (Republican humor: “Foreign wars, massive growth of government, large deficits — if we had elected a Republican President none of this would have happened.”)

    “As for my union comparison, it is still entirely possible for a native-born American to get killed for trying to organize a union.”

    It is possible to get killed going into the wrong restaurant in Philly (it happened to a friend of mine). But we do not declare eating out a dangerous activity because the odds are quite favorable. Any evidence to support this as a reasonably likely event?

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