Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Is there any Moral Justification for Fighting for One’s Nation? Reflections on Just War Foundations

Once more there has been some buzz on the internet about the question of National Service in Singapore, I offer this article as a reflection upon the question of nation, government and the conditions of a just-war.

…what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace.

Luke 14:31-32

quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia?

(States without justice are but robber bands enlarged)

-St Augustine

Lex Talionis and the Sixth Commandment: The Sole Foundation of a Just War

That war is the collective infliction of death and bodily destruction in aid of certain ends is true by definition. But if this is so, then there is one justification and only one end which would justify the infliction of death and bodily destruction: the lex talionis principle (an eye for an eye). Thus, the only justification for setting aside the Sixth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill) is the immediate and direct threat of bodily death and destruction to oneself whereby one may repay with an “eye” and defend oneself using an equivalent means.

The Idolatry of Serving in a War for any other Gods or Ends

But if the lex talionis principle is the sole foundation for a just war, then it becomes self-evident that most contemporary justifications and reasons for war are simply absurd and nonsensical, e.g. defending one’s homeland, one’s national way of life, even one’s “nation”, etc. Consider for the moment the argument of going to war to defend one’s national way of life. Do you mean to say that you would kill and maim hundreds and thousands of people simply because you are unwilling to learn a new language or adopt a certain cultural practice? Or simply because you have a sentimental attachment to certain aesthetic or cultural forms? What are we to make of masses and masses of citizens willing to kill and be killed in aid of some linguistic practice or cultural aesthetics?

That Cromwell, he knows how to treat parliament eh?

Precisely the same logic applies also to other contemporary “ideological” justifications, e.g. democracy, human rights, freedom, self-determination, etc. Do you mean to say that you would justify killing hundreds and thousands of people simply because you have a preference for a certain electoral process or political organisation? Or simply because a particular government is corrupt, you would therefore inflict death and destruction to remedy corruption? Or simply because you think the language of your laws are worded better, or that your laws are administrative and politically more efficient?

Why don’t we impose the death penalty for crimes of corruption then since corrupt government justifies the wide scale affliction of death and destruction? Better yet, we should also have the death penalty for inefficient bureaucrats and legislators who give us badly worded laws! Now that would be enormous fun eh?

It is ludicrous to believe that somehow simply because a nation or government commands us to kill and maim and fight for the most absurd of reasons that we have both a right and duty to do so.  If a person claims that some spirit or god told him to kill someone to free a person from demons possessing him, we would have this person institutionalised without ado. But when a state or government or nation tells us to kill and destroy to free people from “cultural oppression” or because they have been possessed by oppressive beliefs and cultures, we go ahead in march and song, singing proudly and merrily away as we proceed to “exorcise” the cultural demons from others with missiles and bombs.

The Separation of Community from Government

Who gave nations and governments the right to set aside the law of God and nature? Who gave nations and governments the right to violate the Sixth Commandment in aid of its own ends and ideology?  In this, the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself has greatly erred in arguing that,

Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense. Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations.

Public authorities have no such right and duty to impose upon citizens to defend the “nation” or “freedom of nations”. The sole justification for the government wielding of the sword is to defend lives, not “nations” or the “community” or “culture” or “self-determination”, or “freedom”, etc. No government has the right to impose upon its citizens the unjust obligation to inflict death and injury to defend a cultural practice or language or form of political or governmental organisation.

A nation or a community or culture must and should be sharply distinguished from the government. It is neither necessary nor mandatory for every nation to possess its own government and a nation can co-exist within a larger and broader imperial government. It is instructive to note here the Bethel Confession of 1933 drafted by the Lutheran theologians, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hermann Sasse, whereby they argue that God has instituted various “orders of preservation” in this world, among which includes “marriage”, “family”, “nation/community” (Volk) and “government” (Obrigkeit). However, they go on to say,

Man cannot escape from any of these orders, nor can any of them be transferred or transformed into another. Marriage remains marriage, the nation [Volk] remains the nation, government [Obrigkeit] remains government.

This was written to refute the concept of the “Total State” whereby each “order” is derived from another order or to be subsumed into another (nor can any of them be transferred or transformed into another). Each order is not derived from another but have been, as it were, “directly” instituted by God, not instituted via another order. Therefore the integrity and being of the nation, or civic community, is not dependent or derived from the existence of a national government, and a national or civic community can exists under a broader and vaster imperial government as Melanchthon teaches in the Wittenberg Articles that the Kingdom of God does not set aside, “civil empire, local government, or domestic authority, but rather it confirms all of them and commands us to maintain them as the ordinance of God”. The concept of “self-determination”, “national freedom” which would kill and maim just for a certain political form or ideal are false idols and wicked spirits possessing masses of man to defy the Sixth Commandment in aid of vile romantic ideals.

Thus to repeat again, the government who alone wields the sword of violence has only one justification and one justification only for the use of collective violence and infliction of death and bodily destruction: the defence of the lives and bodily health of its charge. But national and local governments have no right whatsoever call upon its citizens to die en masse to defend romantic absurdities of “self-determination” or “national freedom”, or some mythical organic link between nations and self-government, and in the face of stronger enemy, it is both right and proper for national or local government to give up its “national freedom” or “self-determination” and subject themselves before the more powerful imperial authority to safeguard the lives of its charge. Yes, surrender is as much a valid strategy and tool of local governments for safeguarding the lives of its citizens as war!

Pirates and Willing Surrender and Subjugation

I have been harping upon the concept of “defense of lives” as the sole justification for the use of collective violence and for setting aside the Sixth Commandment. Therefore one can only resort to use violence only against what I would call “pirates” whose only end is not rulership but to pillage, loot, destroy and kill, who are not “rational agents” concerned with rational/fair mutual cooperative benefits and dealings. To those who refuse to engage in the logic of negotiation or discussion, whose sole aim is a grab and run, slash and kill, then yes, a collective self-defence is appropriate.

But such “pirate cases” do not constitute the bulk of wars, especially in the later part of human history. In ancient times, it is not unusual or uncommon for smaller tribes and nations to simply willingly agree to become vassal states for larger empires and nations, both reason and prudence lead these peoples to simply agree to give a tithe and acknowledge their authority to preserve both the peace and the lives of their communities, since they have judged it irrational to fight against the superior forces and lose thousands of lives in contradiction to the justification of national defense, as taught by the Christ’s parable. (For example, we can recall how many Asian nations simply accepted the imperial authority of China during Zheng He’s expedition) Numerous examples can even be found in Old Testament of tribes who have heard that the Lord is with Joshua’s tribe and cooked up a plan to make peace with them, or how even God himself has commanded Israel (or was it Judah I can’t remember), to accept the imperial authority of the Assyrians, which they didn’t obey and got themselves crushed. Therefore prudential judgements in weighing feasibility of entering into war is common wisdom, known to both Christians and pagans, being grounded upon the more fundamental law of nature of lex talionis.

Christ’s parable alludes to some of the fundamental principles of a just war, namely, the consideration that there would be excellent prospects of a success and that the engagement in a war will not result in greater loss of lives and destruction as compared to suffering the threat itself. Such considerations would rule out tout court any right of nations to call upon all its citizens to defense, the contradictory absurdity of risking the lives of its entire citizenry to protect their lives!

One final consideration before we proceed. It is sometimes alleged that a ruling authority may place oppressive economic and social burdens upon the people, and that it maybe necessary to fight and rise up for “freedom” and “social justice”, etc. But once more, it is not just to kill anyone simply over money and economic reasons, and simply because the economic and monetary suffering is widespread does not thereby somehow miraculously justify the taking of a single life unless we are talking about mass starvation in which case the life principle is involved again. Thus on this logic there is simply no just cause for the American rebellion over mere taxes.

Anyway, since we are operating on the premise of rational rulers and agents and not “pirates”, it is not in the self-interest of imperial authorities to burden their subjects too much lest they deplete the capital store and reduce the productivity of their subjects. Rather, oppressed citizenry can always call the bluff of the rulers and offer to strike or even be executed rather than pay taxes which they cannot bear and rational rulers would rather compromise than destroy completely valuable workers and sources of income.

Some Troubles with the Defense of a Third Party

If indeed the lex talionis principle, the use of death and bodily injury to defend lives and bodily health from violence, is the sole basis of war, is there any justification for one nation to go to war to another nation which is inflicting death and bodily harm upon its own citizens? Is there any place for considerations of the “defense of a third party”, where a nation can attack another nation to stop their government or whatever from inflicting bodily violence upon its people?

It is important to note in passing that the logic of “liberation” has always been the argument of conquerors and imperialists who free subjugated peoples by crushing their “oppressors” and bringing them under their benign rule. With this inconvenient fact of history in mind, we should be very war y of such arguments.

That said, we can easily consider this question based on the principles which we have already mentioned. One reasonable chance of success and two the engagement must not result in greater loss of life and bodily injury than what is currently being suffered.

If the “liberator” nation is an imperial power by virtue of its superior forces, then it can, legitimately by virtue of a sort of “might is right”, subject the lesser powers to its imperial rule and in so subjecting these lesser powers to its rule and bring a cessation of bodily injury and death. However, in especially chaotic situations, it is impossible to judge the certainty, even of an imperial power, of being able to bring about peace and order and a lessening of loss of life and bodily injury that they are currently suffering. If the intervention is not whole-hearted and committed, if there is no will to impose peace and order, then the “intervention” may result in more death and bodily injury than the current situation and would not be justified at all. (This is of course our recent experience with the American war-mongering).

To put it simply, nations and empires with the superior forces and arms and therefore, reasonable chance of success in bringing bodily peace would most probably be already overlords over these “oppressive” local governments and therefore it becomes simply an internal matter of bringing their vassal states to heel, and therefore it is not a matter of war but simply internal peace. For nations that are not however, either it is because they are lesser powers and have not yet been subjected to imperial rule, and thereby the just war principles applies and calculations of success be made, or they are a superior power and therefore the calculations indicates no reasonable chance of success or engaging in a war which would lead to more bodily destruction than rescue.

Conclusion: Were the Allied Powers Justified in Engaging in WWII?

If the principles here are true, then the surprising conclusion would be that the Allied Powers were not in the least justified in declaring war and fighting against Hitler. First, Germany never declared war against Britain and France, they did. Secondly, Germany is not a “pirate”, they did not go conquer their lands to exterminate their populace or for the sole main purpose of death and destruction and looting and pillage. They did establish civic rule and governments wherever they conquered. Thirdly, while one may cite the Holocaust as a legitimate “defense of third  party”, but the fact is that no European power were certain of these exterminations until after the war, and therefore cannot cite these as a justification for attack. Forth, even if they were certain of the Holocaust, there was no serious or reasonable chance of success upon the part of Britain and France that they would succeed in defeating Hitler. Fifth, the only reason that they succeeded was that they committed the entire nation into a Total War and the death of millions of Jews does not justify the hundreds and millions of deaths in both combatant and civilian casualties and therefore the evils of engaging in the war far outweighs the lives saved by defense of the third party. Finally, the Allied Powers have never pretended to enter into the war upon Just-War considerations otherwise they would never have allied with the equally genocidal, if not much more so, Soviets.

“Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”

WWII was about “freedom”, “self-determination”, “liberty”, etc, The modern gods of our time who have tempted and possessed millions in service of myths, fairy tales and superstitions, and in service to these malevolent spirits, billions have died and to this day, hundreds and thousands continue to die under the banner of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”,


One comment on “Is there any Moral Justification for Fighting for One’s Nation? Reflections on Just War Foundations

  1. Pingback: A Query on Pope Francis’s Call for a Crusade; Is there a Moral Duty to Use Violence to Protect People from Eviction or Exile? | Defunct Creakings of a Cog

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This entry was posted on October 8, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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