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The Costs of War

Last weekend marked the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. I have found myself thinking about the costs of the war, and of the many issues that war raises...

Comments welcome.

The Crusade for Democracy

With bubbling democratic impulses being felt from Lebanon to Iran, some neoconservative commentators have practically declared victory in this war. They are focused on the most recent news as if it demonstrates the Hegelian inevitability of some Brave New Democratic World Order. Whether or not this was the actual reason for going to war in Iraq or a result of that war, the causes of which are open to debate, it is clear that, from the beginning, neoconservative policy-makers have equated this democratic quest with the quest for American security and hegemony. It is the same kind of democratic crusade that served as the ideological motivation for Wilsonians in World War I and the liberal interventionists in World War II, and that led inadvertently to the creation of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Soviet Russia in the first instance, and a half-century of Cold War Communist tyranny in the second instance.

As I have stated in an ongoing debate on the Atlantis II Yahoo Group Discussion List, this crusade has come at significant cost, both qualitative and quantitative: billions of dollars, 1,500+ US dead, 11,000+ US wounded, and 30,000+ total US medical evacuations. And there are unknown thousands of Iraqi dead—which brings sobering irony to the oft-cited sentiment that if the US had done nothing in the face of Saddam Hussein's brutality, "many Iraqis were likely to be killed." I suppose some will decide the long-term value of this war by weighing the number of corpses on each side of the scales of justice.

In truth, some neocons understand (or at least understood) that democracy is not enough. Unlike Charles Krauthammer of today, Charley the K of yesteryear (circa 1993) got it right when he argued that "Democracy is not a suicide pact" (hat tip to Atrios):

Are we not violating the very tenets of democracy that are supposed to be the moral core of American foreign policy? No. Because democracy does not mean one man, one vote, one time. In the German elections of 1932 and 1933, the Nazis won more votes than any other party. We know what they did with the power thus won. Totalitarians are perfectly capable of achieving power through democracy, then destroying it.

Moreover, democracy does not just mean elections. It also means constitutionalism—the limitation of state power—in political life, and tolerance and pluralism in civic life. ...

The Growth of State Power

A "limitation of state power" is not consistent with the use of war as "politics by other means," as Clausewitz put it. That should come as no surprise; frequently, the use of war is the very means by which governments attempt to resolve problems that they themselves have either created or to which they have contributed decisively. And throughout history, war has been the most significant means to a vast increase in the size and scope of state power. I have examined, in countless discussions (see here, here, and in essays indexed here, for example), the role of US foreign policy in contributing to that cauldron of problems that is the Middle East. As much as these problems emerge from the caliphatic desires of Islamic fundamentalists and the tribal, ethnic, and religious strife in that region of the world, all of which long predates US intervention, the fact remains that the US has been targeted because of its foreign policy. And, in the long-run, it is only a radical change in US foreign policy, and, by extension, in US domestic policy, that will make a fundamental difference for the lives, liberties, and property of American citizens.

As Ayn Rand remarked so many years ago: "Foreign policy is merely a consequence of domestic policy." And both are reciprocal reinforcements of the system she identified as the "New Fascism":

While the government struggles to save one crumbling enterprise at the expense of the crumbling of another, it accelerates the process of juggling debts, switching losses, piling loans on loans, mortgaging the future and the future's future. As things grow worse, the government protects itself not by contracting this process, but by expanding it. The process becomes global: it involves foreign aid, and unpaid loans to foreign governments, and subsidies to other welfare states, and subsidies to the United Nations, and subsidies to the World Bank, and subsidies to foreign producers, and credits to foreign consumers to enable them to consume our goods...

... and so on, and so on. I'm tickled by the mere mention in this passage of the World Bank, which is oh-so-very-timely; some Rand-friendly writers applaud the New Reign of Paul Wolfowitz at the World Bank, when they should be advocating its abolition. Remember how Alan Greenspan was going to lead the U.S. to a free society as head of the Fed? Ugh.

The important point to emphasize is this: These institutions are the levers of state power; they constitute a part of the nexus of ultimate decision-making in contemporary political economy, the means to a vast redistribution of wealth toward politically favored groups; fundamental change in such a political economy is possible only with the complete dismantling of its structures and institutions. And that's why I can't bring myself to applaud the elevation of more "efficient" managers who will do a "better job" of administering oppressive statist institutions and of consolidating the privileges of those who benefit from these institutions. (I should note that it is highly debatable just how "efficient" these managers have been; on Wolfowitz, for example, see Arthur Silber's post here; on Greenspan, see especially Larry J. Sechrest's article in the current Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, abstract here.)

Who? Whom?

All of this brings to the fore an important issue that was first expressed as an old Leninist question: "Who? Whom? Who is the oppressor, who the oppressed? Who is doing what to whom?" And there is a corollary issue: Who bears responsibility in a complex system of oppression?

I addressed these subjects to some extent in my book, Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism:

R. W. Bradford conceptualizes the difficulty in a discussion of the Randian argument that those who receive benefits from government or who take public jobs are “morally justified” only if they regard these as “restitution,” while those who advocate for such benefits “have no right to them.” As the public sector crowds out the private sector, it is self-defeating for libertarians to become martyrs, while ceding to the profiteers of statism all the alleged benefits of the system. Rand’s only warning to prospective public sector employees is that they ought not to take jobs that bolster statism ideologically or that require the enforcement of “improper” laws, i.e., laws that violate individual rights per se. Like Rand, [Murray] Rothbard argues that in a state-run world one should “work and agitate in behalf of liberty,” “refuse to add to its statism,” and “refuse absolutely to participate in State activities that are immoral and criminal per se.” When one realizes that, for Rothbard, the very existence of the state is criminal, one begins to grasp the significant problems. For as Bradford observes, it is often difficult to evaluate the propriety of jobs or benefits—public or private—under statism. Recalling the Ruby Ridge conflict, he reasons: “Sure, it’s easy to see that, say, the FBI murder of Vicki Weaver while she held her baby in her arms in the doorway of her home is an ‘improper’ function of government.” But he wonders: ". . . what about the secretary who helps the FBI agent, who killed Mrs. Weaver, with his paperwork? Is his job also improper? What about the cook in the FBI cafeteria? Is his? And what about the person who hauls the trash from the FBI headquarters? Does it make a difference if the trash hauler or the cook work for a private firm that contracts with the FBI? I suspect that Rand, and most libertarians, would reply that these tasks are peripheral to the murder of Mrs. Weaver, and that the person who prepared the FBI agent’s lunch is not acting improperly. . . . But this doesn’t really answer the question of where exactly the boundary between proper and improper action lies."

Bradford emphasizes that, while the inner contradictions and crimes perpetuated by statism are omnipresent, our evaluation of moral action in that context requires a precise understanding of the particular conditions within which a given person acts. One can only determine the propriety of an action by factoring into one’s evaluation such important issues as people’s knowledge of the situation, their causal distance from the crime committed, the enormity of the crime, and the mitigating circumstances. Without taking these important qualifications into account, libertarians might gain “credibility” for adhering strictly to their own principles. But such adherence translates into a rationalistic application of dogma that comes “at the price of human suffering.”

Rand, Churchill, Bin Laden, and Moral Complicity

Think of how much more important these qualifications are in assessing the level of responsibility for individuals who live under the concrete historical circumstances of a particular time and place during a war. Rand addressed, on more than one occasion, the issue of the killing of innocents in wartime. (Silber has dealt with this issue extensively here.) Rand was famous for arguing that the responsibility for so-called collateral damage in warfare rests with those who initiated force, not with those who retaliate against it. She stated further:

This is a major reason people should be concerned about the nature of their government. If by neglect, ignorance, or helplessness, they couldn't overturn their bad government and choose a better one, then they have to pay the price for the sins of their government—as all of us are paying for the sins of ours.


That's why we have to be interested in the philosophy of government and in seeing, to the extent we can, that we have a good government. A government is not an independent entity: it's supposed to represent the people of a nation. If some people put up with dictatorship—as some do in Soviet Russia and as they did in Germany—they deserve whatever their government deserves. The only thing to be concerned with is: who started that war? And once you can establish that it is a given country, there is no such thing as consideration for the "rights" of that country, because it has initiated the use of force, and therefore stepped outside the principle of rights.

Rand stated additionally:

If you could have a life independent of the system, so that you wouldn't be drawn into an unjust war, you would not need to be concerned about politics. But we should care about having the right social system, because our lives are dependent on it—because a political system, good or bad, is established in our name, and we bear the responsibility for it.

There have not been many more poetic illustrations of these principles, and of the maxim that "ideas have consequences," not only for politics but for culture as well, than that which is found in Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. The passage I have in mind is not about war, per se, but it is relevant. It comes at the end of the chapter, "The Moratorium on Brains," and it is a dramatization of the destruction of the Comet, the fastest train in the country. It's actually, for me, one of the most memorable passages in the novel. There are different ways to interpret this passage. Some would say that Rand is clearly placing moral culpability on the passengers of the Comet, who are, in fact, the actual victims of the tragedy. Some would say that it's not so much "moral culpability" as it is complicity in the tragedy: These passengers accepted some or all of the premises that made the tragedy possible, and, to a certain extent, Rand is simply concretizing an old Biblical and Karmic adage: "As ye sow, so shall ye reap." Ironically, this perspective is partially what led the infamous Whittaker Chambers to declare, in the pages of the right-wing National Review: "From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber—go!'" Here's the passage:

It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them.

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 1, was a professor of sociology who taught that individual ability is of no consequence, that individual effort is futile, that an individual conscience is a useless luxury, that there is no individual mind or character or achievement, that everything is achieved collectively, and that it's masses that count, not men.

The man in Roomette 7, Car No. 2, was a journalist who wrote that it is proper and moral to use compulsion "for a good cause," who believed that he had the right to unleash physical force upon others—to wreck lives, throttle ambitions, strangle desires, violate convictions, to imprison, to despoil, to murder—for the sake of whatever he chose to consider as his own idea of "a good cause," which did not even have to be an idea, since he had never defined what he regarded as the good, but had merely stated that he went by "a feeling"—a feeling unrestrained by any knowledge, since he considered emotion superior to knowledge and relied solely on his own "good intentions" and on the power of a gun.

The woman in Roomette 10, Car No. 3, was an elderly school teacher who had spent her life turning class after class of helpless children into miserable cowards, by teaching them that the will of the majority is the only standard of good and evil, that a majority may do anything it pleases, that they must not assert their own personalities, but must do as others were doing.

The man in Drawing Room B, Car No. 4, was a newspaper publisher who believed that men are evil by nature and unfit for freedom, that their basic interests, if left unchecked, are to lie, to rob and to murder one another—and, therefore, men must be ruled by means of lies, robbery and murder, which must be made the exclusive privilege of the rulers, for the purpose of forcing men to work, teaching them to be moral and keeping them within the bounds of order and justice.

The man in Bedroom H, Car No. 5, was a businessman who had acquired his business, an ore mine, with the help of a government loan, under the Equalization of Opportunity Bill.

The man in Drawing Room A, Car No. 6, was a financier who had made a fortune by buying "frozen" railroad bonds and getting his friends in Washington to "defreeze" them.

The man in Seat 5, Car No. 7, was a worker who believed that he had "a right" to a job, whether his employer wanted him or not.

The woman in Roomette 6, Car No. 8, was a lecturer who believed that, as a consumer, she had "a right" to transportation, whether the railroad people wished to provide it or not.

The man in Roomette 2, Car No. 9, was a professor of economics who advocated the abolition of private property, explaining that intelligence plays no part in industrial production, that man's mind is conditioned by material tools, that anybody can run a factory or a railroad and it's only a matter of seizing the machinery.

The woman in Bedroom D, Car No. 10, was a mother who had put her two children to sleep in the berth above her, carefully tucking them in, protecting them from drafts and jolts; a mother whose husband held a government job enforcing directives, which she defended by saying, "I don't care, it's only the rich that they hurt. After all, I must think of my children."

The man in Roomette 3, Car No. 11, was a sniveling little neurotic who wrote cheap little plays into which, as a social message, he inserted cowardly little obscenities to the effect that all businessmen were scoundrels.

The woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12, was a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.

The man in Bedroom F, Car No. 13, was a lawyer who had said, "Me? I'll find a way to get along under any political system."

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 14, was a professor of philosophy who taught that there is no mind—how do you know that the tunnel is dangerous?—no reality—how can you prove that the tunnel exists?—no logic—why do you claim that trains cannot move without motive power?—no principles—why should you be bound by the law of cause-and-effect?—no rights—why shouldn't you attach men to their jobs by force?—no morality—what's moral about running a railroad?—no absolutes—what difference does it make to you whether you live or die, anyway? He taught that we know nothing—why oppose the orders of your superiors?—that we can never be certain of anything—how do you know you're right?—that we must act on the expediency of the moment—you don't want to risk your job, do you?

The man in Drawing Room B, Car No. 15, was an heir who had inherited his fortune, and who had kept repeating, "Why should Rearden be the only one permitted to manufacture Rearden Metal?"

The man in Bedroom A, Car No. 16, was a humanitarian who had said, "The men of ability? I do not care what or if they are made to suffer. They must be penalized in order to support the incompetent. Frankly, I do not care whether this is just or not. I take pride in not caring to grant any justice to the able, where mercy to the needy is concerned."

These passengers were awake; there was not a man aboard the train who did not share one or more of their ideas. As the train went into the tunnel, the flame of Wyatt's Torch was the last thing they saw on earth.

However much one agrees or disagrees with Rand's various characterizations here, or with the degree of moral culpability that she may or may not ascribe to various individuals living in oppressive social conditions, one thing is clear: For Rand, nothing less than a fundamental transformation of those social conditions, of the political and social system, will do. And this transformation must be founded upon a philosophic and cultural revolution. Under social conditions that institutionalize a war of all against all, where nobody and everybody is responsible for anything and everything, all become part of an "orgy of self-sacrifice." And all pay the price.

Try though I might, I don't think I find much that is essentially different here from some of the musings of that notorious left-winger Ward Churchill. Now before this comment induces a stroke in my readers, let me state a few necessary caveats: I am not interested in debating the life or viewpoint of Ward Churchill, or the truth-content of his statements. I am, quite frankly, appalled by any suggestion that the victims of 9/11 deserved their fate and by any comparison of these victims to Nazis. But there was a recent thread on the Nathaniel Branden Yahoo Group List that compelled me to reflect on the "ominous parallels" at work here between Rand's and Churchill's positions.

Churchill set off a firestorm in the days after 9-11-2001, when he suggested that the victims of that day were "little Eichmanns" insofar as they were involved in a politico-economic system, and its infrastructure, which Islamic fundamentalists had targeted. For Churchill, this is a testament to "blowback" from a history of destructive US foreign policy. Here's Churchill's explanation of his statement:

Finally, I have never characterized all the September 11 victims as "Nazis." What I said was that the "technocrats of empire" working in the World Trade Center were the equivalent of "little Eichmanns." Adolf Eichmann was not charged with direct killing but with ensuring the smooth running of the infrastructure that enabled the Nazi genocide. Similarly, German industrialists were legitimately targeted by the Allies.

It is not disputed that the Pentagon was a military target, or that a CIA office was situated in the World Trade Center. Following the logic by which US Defense Department spokespersons have consistently sought to justify target selection in places like Baghdad, this placement of an element of the American "command and control infrastructure" in an ostensibly civilian facility converted the Trade Center itself into a "legitimate" target. Again following US military doctrine, as announced in briefing after briefing, those who did not work for the CIA but were nonetheless killed in the attack amounted to "collateral damage." If the US public is prepared to accept these "standards" when they are routinely applied to other people, they should not be surprised when the same standards are applied to them.

It should be emphasized that I applied the "little Eichmanns" characterization only to those described as "technicians." Thus, it was obviously not directed to the children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by killed in the 9/11 attack. According to Pentagon logic, they were simply part of the collateral damage. Ugly? Yes. Hurtful? Yes. And that's my point. It's no less ugly, painful or dehumanizing a description when applied to Iraqis, Palestinians, or anyone else. If we ourselves do not want to be treated in this fashion, we must refuse to allow others to be similarly devalued and dehumanized in our name.

The bottom line of my argument is that the best and perhaps only way to prevent 9-1-1-style attacks on the US is for American citizens to compel their government to comply with the rule of law. The lesson of Nuremberg is that this is not only our right, but our obligation. To the extent we shirk this responsibility, we, like the "Good Germans" of the 1930s and '40s, are complicit in its actions and have no legitimate basis for complaint when we suffer the consequences. This, of course, includes me, personally, as well as my family, no less than anyone else.

Now, again, I'm not interested in debating Churchill's particular formulations here. And clearly, there are many profound differences between Rand and Churchill on many issues. But they are both concerned with complicity in the workings of a system that each of them defines as unjust. And their concentric circles of "complicity" are wide.

What is even more provocative is that Osama Bin Laden himself has argued similarly:

In my view, if an enemy ... uses common people as human shield, then it is permitted to attack that enemy. For instance, if bandits barge into a home and hold a child hostage, then the child's father can attack the bandits and in that attack even the child may get hurt. ... The American people should remember that they pay taxes to their government, they elect their president, their government manufactures arms and gives them to Israel and Israel uses them to massacre Palestinians. The American Congress endorses all government measures and this proves that the entire America is responsible for the atrocities perpetrated against Muslims. The entire America, because they elect the Congress.

This intersection of viewpoints among stark ideological opponents reminds me of Rand's comment back in the 1960s, when she noted that the vanguard among religious, leftist, and Objectivist intellectuals genuinely understood what was at stake in the global arena: "Well, as a friend of mine observed," Rand wrote, "only the Vatican, the Kremlin, and the Empire State Building [where Rand's offices were then located] know the real issues of the modern world." Of course, Bin Laden is not the Vatican, and Churchill is not the Kremlin, but these individuals do represent strains of religious and left-wing thought, so the thematic parallel remains.

If we abstract from this discussion any consideration of Rand's or Churchill's or even Bin Laden's philosophical or political positions, if we abstract from this discussion any consideration of the lives and/or broader ideological commitments of these individuals, I find no way of avoiding the implication of comparability.

All the more reason to apply to these issues the significant qualifications raised by Bradford in the passages cited above. Without these qualifications, I fear that we would be left with the creeping rot of collective guilt, whereby each of us would be held responsible for every moral transgression committed by our respective governments or governing bodies.


There are still battles to be fought: cultural, political, and military. The costs of the current war in Iraq can be measured in casualties (both visible and "invisible") and in expenditures. They can be measured too in unforeseen and unwanted consequences. But there is one "casualty" that is to be welcomed: The death of analytical simplicity. The war compels us to think hard about the moral issues—the applications, implications, and qualifications—raised above. A recognition of historical and systemic complexity does not require us to collapse the distinction between "good" and "evil" or the distinction between retaliatory and initiatory force. What it requires is a simultaneous assault on those who seek to destroy American life, liberty, and property—and on those ideas and policies that have delivered Americans to this historic moment.

Also noted at L&P (note comments there as well), Light of Reason, The Node, Pirate Ballerina, and Rational Review News Digest.

Update: See "The Costs of War, Part II," for additional thoughts on the subject.


On The Picket Line recently, I noted:

Those of you who have been following the saga of Ward “Little Eichmanns” Churchill will be delighted to read the words of Colonel Harry F. Cunningham, [WWII-era] spokesman for the Fifth Air Force: “We military men do not pull punches or put on Sunday School picnics. We are making War and making it in the all-out fashion which saves American lives, shortens the agony which War is and seeks to bring about an enduring Peace. We intend to seek out and destroy the enemy wherever he or she is, in the greatest possible numbers, in the shortest possible time. For us, there are no civilians in Japan.”

"If we abstract from this discussion any consideration of Rand's or Churchill's or even Bin Laden's philosophical or political positions, if we abstract from this discussion any consideration of the lives and/or broader ideological commitments of these individuals, I find no way of avoiding the implication of comparability."

But this is precisely the problem I have with your argument: By abstracting the lives and ideological commitments of the individuals, you rob them of all right and wrong. Where Churchill argued that the so-called little Eichmans deserved their fate merely for working in legitimate businesses, Rand did no such thing. The characters she blames are all in legitimate businesses (newspapers, sociology, schoolteaching, etc), but it is their ideas that condemn them. Moreover, they are subject to a peculiarly "ideological" fate: They die, not in real life, but in an idealized novel.

As to bin Laden, who advocates active killing of those who do not accept his brand of nonsense (rather than just moral culpability for failing to think)--I find the parallel is too strained to be useful.


What I've done here is not to rob the writers of their distinctive moral perspectives; I actually state in this entry that I am appalled by any suggestion that the 9/11 victims deserved their fate. I am on record for advocating the destruction of Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network, and I state explicitly in this very entry that none of this should be used as a way of sidestepping the very real moral issues of right and wrong that are crucial to any discussion of complicity.

But you miss one major point. I quote Rand's principle external to the novel, Atlas Shrugged. See above, but here it is again:

"This is a major reason people should be concerned about the nature of their government. If by neglect, ignorance, or helplessness, they couldn't overturn their bad government and choose a better one, then they have to pay the price for the sins of their government—as all of us are paying for the sins of ours."

How is this principle any different from what Churchill or even Bin Laden is saying?

Different moral frameworks shape the implementation of the principle, different ways of conceptualizing "the sins of government" are at work, but the principle is the same: that people will (should?) pay for the sins of their government.

And that's what I'm questioning: Not the necessity for a crusade against real evil, the kind of evil as Rand defined it: at war with human life. But the acceptance of that principle---that people will (should?) pay for the sins of their government---without the kind of intense qualification that a writer like Bill Bradford emphasizes.

Hey, Rand had nipples, and so does Osama... and Ward Churchill has them too! The similarities are just uncanny!

You know, jwpaine, your parody says nothing.

What I've done here is to try to isolate a principle. How I've done it should be familiar.

I've omitted measurements (the specific moral frameworks in question), while retaining the ~essence~ of the principle involved. Once we've re-introduced the measurements, we can see how differently each writer (Rand, Churchill, Bin Laden) ~applies~ the principle. But I don't see an essential difference in the principle, and what I'm asking people to do is to look at the principle critically.

As I suggest above, there is a creeping collectivism in that principle: blaming the citizenry for the actions of its government. I'm uncomfortable with that principle, to say the least.

Chris, you write:

"This is a major reason people should be concerned about the nature of their government. If by neglect, ignorance, or helplessness, they couldn't overturn their bad government and choose a better one, then they have to pay the price for the sins of their government—as all of us are paying for the sins of ours.

"How is this principle any different from what Churchill or even Bin Laden is saying?"

To which I answer:

Simple. Rand observed that all people will suffer if enough of them favor a bad government--because in her philosophy there is no conflict between the moral and the practical. Bin Laden by contrast recommends actively making people suffer for choosing the practical--most likely, I suspect, because he knows that his own way is perfectly impractical for life on this earth. To observe that both Rand and bin Ladin forsee suffering over the sins of government is to blank-out that one sees the punishment as harsh but ineivitable--while the other is busy trying to inflict it from the outside.

In your reply, you even hint at the difficulty yourself where you write, "people will (should?) pay for the sins of their government." I take the difference between "will" and "should" as fundamental, with Rand observing the first, and bin Laden seeking to cause the second. The difference between an intellectual prediction (like Rand's) and the active promotion of violence (like bin Laden's) seems too large to be patched over.

Perhaps your essay does not really create the kind of false similarities for which I criticized it. But I have to admit I'm rather at a loss about what it accomplishes. What significant, meaningful new fact do we learn here?

Jason, interestingly, Bin Laden goes so far as to say (in the link provided) that "[t]here are many innocent and good-hearted people in the West," but, essentially: That's too bad. Muslim fundamentalists are striking back at America, he claims, because they have to defend themselves against the attacks on Islam that America has staged. And if a few innocent people die, tough. He doesn't believe in the noninitiation of force principle, but he clearly frames his argument ~as if he does~. He sees his attacks on America as ~retaliatory~. The man may be trying to inflict punishment on Americans, but he's doing it, from his own sick perspective, as a means to an end; he's a warrior with specific policy goals.

Now, none of this is a problem, if you divide the world into "light" and "dark" and see all "good" on one side and all "evil" on another. The moment you allow for mixed premises on either side, or both, you have a moral dilemma.

Rand may have been on sturdier grounds concerning the Nazi and Soviet examples. But the problem remains for those of us who have been critical of the history of US foreign policy in the Middle East, who admit that there have been, in fact, serious consequences to the US getting into bed with the Saudis, and propping up the Shah of Iran, and siding with Hussein in his battle against Iran, and aiding the mujahideen in their fights against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Can we not admit the "sins" of such US policies, without paying the price for these policies the way Bin Laden would have it?

Jason, you think that Rand makes a clear distinction between whether people "will" pay for those sins of policy and whether people "should" pay for those sins. But that distinction seems to be fudged by Rand's Atlas Shrugged passage; she may not say it outright, but she seems to suggest that these people are getting what they deserve. They ~should~ be paying for their sins precisely because they are complicit in the tragedy that befalls them.

Finally, Jason, you ask: "But I have to admit I'm rather at a loss about what [the essay] accomplishes. What significant, meaningful new fact do we learn here?"

Well, I don't think of my blog as a place to post significant, meaningful new facts---with every post. :) Part of the utility of this blog is to try to deal with things that make me uncomfortable. It should come as no surprise that I don't have all the answers. But when I come upon some question to which an easy answer is not forthcoming, I like to deal with it. I put it out there. Maybe you and other readers might help to shed some light on these issues... see things in a way that I missed. I may be 45, but I can still learn. :)

Ultimately, the essential issue still needs to be addressed: To what extent should the citizenry be held responsible for the sins of its government? Particularly when we're talking about our own government.

To be clear: I blame Al Qaeda for the 9/11 attack, and hold Bin Laden and his cronies responsible. And I believe they should be hunted down and destroyed. But this does not eliminate the fact that I am seriously bothered by the role of the US in creating the context for 9/11---after years and years of awful foreign policies that played right into the hands of these fanatical Islamicists. There was "sin" in those years of foreign policy; but I don't believe that the people in those Twin Towers should have paid for it.

I still think there is a fundamental difference between the two. Rand seems to say that suffering is a natural consequence of bad government. Noting is required of the "good" side to bring about this effect--It happens all by itself.

Bin Laden is calling on people actively to punish the "bad" side by killing them, something Rand never wanted. The bad guys' own mistakes were quite enough in Rand's mind; they are not remotely enough for bin Laden. The difference could not be clearer or more important to me.

You ask, "To what extent should the citizenry be held responsible for the sins of its government?" I would suggest that we have no rightful power to add or detract in this column: To add greater punishment than already exists would place us in line with the bin Ladens; to detract would mean giving our moral sanction to interventionist foreign policies that neither you nor I support.

Rand also hints at this answer in Atlas Shrugged: In one of my favorite passages, a woman asks Francisco d'Anconia what lies in store for the future of the world. "Just whatever it deserves, madam," he answers. "Oh how awful!" she replies.

"How is this principle any different from what Churchill or even Bin Laden is saying?"

I can tell you how, Chris.

The difference is in the fact that Churchill and bin Laden are bigots. And let me define my term for you: they would positively -- actively -- refuse to think about the sorts of disinctions that Rand would draw.

This is why I have no sympathy with the people who I see opposing the war. They never hesitate to refer to Bush & Co. as "evil", when the fact is very different. The conservatives in power are merely stupid. Of course, that's bad enough, but one of these things is not like the other, and therein lies the crucial moral difference.

And when someone like bin Laden goes on about "innocent and good-hearted people in the West", and "attacks on Islam", I would just as soon plug a .45 slug right through his forehead. He certainly never stopped to consider exactly who they might be, before 9/11.

Look: this is a man pissed-off because this country based a military force in his country during the first round with Saddam. We could debate the probity of that whole affair (and you might be surprised at what I would agree to), but to equivocate that with "attacks on Islam" is completely outrageous.

And Churchill is a straight-up commie. There really isn't anything else to consider in his case.

Billy, long time, no see. :)

Unfortunately, you will have to stand on line, behind me, and a few other New Yorkers, who are fully poised with .45s in hand. You do not have to convince me of the bigotry of the Islamicist fanatics or the bigotry of some of those on the left.

I'm not prepared to say, however, that Churchill, specifically as quoted above, is ~not~ making distinctions. He's clearly distinguishing between "technicians," for example, and, "children, janitors, food service workers, firemen and random passers-by killed in the 9/11 attack."

Now, Rand does make distinctions---but even her distinctions are not as nuanced as those suggested by Bradford in the passages I cite above. Accepting Rand's overall moral framework as I do, and deeply influenced by a larger Randian and post-Randian tradition---including those aspects of Rand's work that were radically critical of US politics---I'm still uncomfortable with the statements I've cited above.

My point in this post was not simply to make the shocking comparison of disparate people; but the shocking comparison has utility: it compels me and others to focus on the ~principle~ involved.

Finally, as for having "no sympathy with the people who [you] see opposing the war"---surely ~you~ can make distinctions, no? There are people on both sides of this war debate who have very different reasons for either supporting or opposing the actions in Iraq. I think we forget those distinctions at our peril.

Anyway, good to see you and others posting here.

Chris -- as for Churchill and any distinctions he might foist, I'll only say that I don't believe one single word he has to say about any of it.

As for my distinctions: I say you're right. You got me. I didn't make that very clear, except for the succeeding sentence, in which I pointed out the "Bush is evil" crowd. That's just hysterical rubbish. I could illuminate the thing this way: you would have to look high and low for anyone more convinced than me of the preceeding president's (whose name I never dignify) "evil", but when he got going on that whole Kosovo adventure, I didn't call that "evil".

And that's not to mention the various actions that he took against Saddam: the ones that very often go down the memory-hole.

The principle[s] that you're hitting on are crucially important. You're right about that.

You know what, though? This goes to my contention that is manifestly irresponsible to teach twentieth century American history without extensive reference to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Let me mystify the matter further: in his "Red Wheel" series of novels, Solzhenitsyn once asserted that the single most important gunshot of the twentieth century is the one that killed Pytor Stolypin in 1911, because he represented the last chance to head-off what happened in 1917. What he's pointing out is what I've always said: "History is a list of consequences."

And what we're really talking about is the general stupidity of American government at coming to terms with that list in the twentieth century.

Here's the kicker: neither Churchill or bin Laden are remotely interested or capable to come to terms with any of it. So? So; we're all living with the consequences of a blind hatred of something inept to deal with the worst force in the past hundred years of world politics, which force hated America first.

You could call it a family tradition.

Billy, one of the reasons I wanted us to abstract from Churchill's larger corpus or his life was precisely because of the fundamental problems that ~both~ of us would have with that corpus. I made it a point of saying that I wanted just to consider these particular statements because of their comparability.

Of course, you'll get no argument from me about "History" being a "list of consequences." Truer words have rarely been spoken. And I appreciate what you're saying about Kosovo and the President Whose Name You Dare Not Mention; ironically, Bush himself was critical of that President---and any attempted "nation-building" projects he was, uh, mounting at the time. Times they are a changin'.

Chris -- you're damned right about that "nation building" rot, and I saw that coming.

My idea was to summarily blast Saddam's regime out of existence, and then the last American officer should stand in the door of the last airplane out of Baghdad and tell the locals: "You'd better get your shit together. Don't make us come back."

I called it the High Plains Drifter solution.

And I never had the least confidence that Bush could approach anything remotely like it.

Marvellous stuff Chris :-)

It is fascinating that three so very different thinkers would recognise the same principle at work. Seems to me the crucial different is what, having recognised the phenomenon, they then intended to do about it.

As for Iraq, though I am a western fan (and with due respect to Mr Beck's work, much of which I do enjoy :-)) I'm not sure the "High Plains Drifter" solution is really appropriate here - I pretty much agree with Chris' argument that the west should never have touched the place with a barge pole, but given the various socio-cultural forces at work i honestly don't think there would have been a cat's chance in hell of the Iraqis getting anything at all together had the west simply taken saddam out and then left. The region ought to be stable before the departure, which unfortunately probably necessitates a *limited* nation-building excersise.


Hey, thanks for the additional comments gents.

Just a note to inform commentators that I've posted a "sequel" to this entry... the continuing saga of me "thinking out loud" on an issue with which I continue to grapple.

See "The Costs of War, Part II" here:



How do we determine one’s responsibility for the actions of one’s government? Tough question! A few notes:

First, a correction: You write, "Churchill set off a firestorm in the days after 9/11/2001." Actually, he wrote the infamous essay (later turned into a book) on 9/12/01, but it and he remained obscure until January 2005, shortly before Churchill was scheduled to speak at Hamilton College (where I'm a senior).

Second, another key part of Churchill's odious, fatuous essay is this: “Recourse to ‘ignorance’ -- a derivative, after all, of the word ‘ignore’ -- counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in . . . it was because of their . . . refusal to see.”

Third, during the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, the Allies granted G.M. Gilbert, a German-speaking intelligence officer and prison psychologist, free access to the defendants. On the evening of April 18, 1946, Gilbert spoke privately with Hermann Göring, Nazi Reichsmarshall and Luftwaffe Chief. An excerpt from Gilbert's book, Nuremberg Diary (New York: Farrar, Straus, 1947, pp. 278-279), pertains nicely to the subject at hand:

We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

“Why, of course, the *people* don’t want war,” Göring shrugged. “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece. Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the *leaders* of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.”

“There is one difference,” I pointed out. “In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.”

“Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.”

Fourth, what about Rand's concept of the sanction of the victim, that is, that the victim always conspires with the victimizer, that the power of evil, which is inherently impotent, comes from the willingness of the good to serve it?



Matthew: thanx for the nod.

As for "limited" nation building, I suggest shipping the United Nations wholesale from Manhattan to Baghdad. (In fact, I already have. already have -- http://www.two--four.net/comments.php?id=P211_0_1_0) If that wouldn't fit the descriptor ("limited") then I can't imagine what would.

For my own part, I have never been interested in paying bribes or ransoms of any sort in order that incipient savages might civilly behave themselves. For example, I would offer the Marshall Plan, and doubly-so in a context of my definition of history, quoted above. I see no point in going around that mulberry bush again, but, rather, every argument against it.

Just a side note on Jonathan:

It is called Nürnberg, because I believe Nuremberg is a different town. If you mean the war crime tribunal after World War II (14. November 1945: Nürnberger Prozesse).

Thanks so much for all your comments. And, yes, Jon, you're right about the Churchill firestorm. I actually remembered editing that statement to say "post-9/11 period" or some such... so thanks. Very interesting quotes too!

On the issue of the "sanction of the victim": It actually complicates this topic a bit. In some instances---like the Comet example---Rand is saying that the people on the train actively ~shared~ the premises of those responsible for social deterioration; they are actually among the oppressors and exploiters. In the case of the "sanction of the victim," it's more along the lines of sharing, implicitly, the premises of the people who oppress you, and therefore, collaborating in your own victimization. Such people are genuine victims who are exploited, unwittingly, by participating in their own martyrdom.


You wrote:
"Jason, you think that Rand makes a clear distinction between whether people "will" pay for those sins of policy and whether people "should" pay for those sins. But that distinction seems to be fudged by Rand's Atlas Shrugged passage; she may not say it outright, but she seems to suggest that these people are getting what they deserve. They ~should~ be paying for their sins precisely because they are complicit in the tragedy that befalls them."

I don't see how you can read it that way in the context of both the book as a whole, and of the loss of The Comet. What she is clearly saying, clear to me at least, is that the incident in the tunnel is a consequence of the actions these people took. (She leaves the actions of some implicit, revealing only their beliefs, with the assumption that they have acted on them.) But the accident is a natural consequence, not an artifical consequence created by others to punish them. This is the difference between 'will' and 'should'.

They are not paying for their sins, they are experiencing the manifest consequences of their actions, consequences which happened naturally not only without anyone intentionally creating them, but also in spite of active attempts by many (Dagny in particular) to protect these people from those consequences.

The entire context of the book is one of reap what you sow, and Galt's mission was not to create more suffering as punishment, but to show the 'men of mind' the futility of trying to protect others from the consequences of their own actions, to bring them to a place where they will no longer suffer the negative externalities of those consequences, and to get them out of the way of those consequences so they could happen natually.

That is the difference between Churchill/bin Laden and Rand. The latter actively promote creating artifical consequences. They said 'should' - and acted (or supported actions) to make it happen when nature was too slow for them - while Rand left it at 'will'.

Kyle, you make very good points; let me encourage you to read Part II of this mini-series here:


... where I think I deal much more adequately with the issue of "intentions" and "unintended consequences."

The only problem I still see is this: I don't think Rand creates any artificial distinction between fact and value. She says, at the beginning of this passage---"It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them." It seems to me that there is, at the very least, the hint of a suggestion that these people ~should~ be reaping what they sow ~through their own ideas and actions~, making it a dramatic illustration of the law of causality.

And, quite honestly, when I first read the book, and saw all the nightmarish ideas and their consequences on display in ATLAS SHRUGGED, I found it very hard, as a reader, ~not~ to get some minimal satisfaction when people got their comeuppance. It's not that I was led to embrace a blood-lust or what Chambers characterized as "To a gas chamber Go!"; it's that the book clearly demonstrates that "ideas have consequences," and there is no greater way to dramatize this principle than with that fundamental alternative in the universe: life and death.

"It is said that catastrophes are a matter of pure chance, and there were those who would have said that the passengers of the Comet were not guilty or responsible for the thing that happened to them." It seems to me that there is, at the very least, the hint of a suggestion that these people ~should~ be reaping what they sow"

This strikes me as analogous to the theistic argument for design. 'It can't be random chance, so it must be by intent'. It is a fallacious dichotomy. It is a denial of causality, not a demonstration of it. Rand's saying that it is not chance and that the passengers share responsibility does not imply that it is normative (we could argue over her use of 'guilty'). That false dichotomy also denies causality.

In the context of the novel, the implication is that the consequences are unavoidable - they are not subject to anybody's opinion of whether they should or should not happen, they ~just are~. This comes very close to being explicit in one of the main plots of the book, which is Dagny's insistence that the destruction of her railroad ~should not~ happen, yet it happens anyway.

That we might feel satisfaction in its happening says nothing about whether it ~should~ happen. 'Should' is meaningless applied to causality. It is the combination of internal values and external causality that creates 'should' from 'is'. 'Should' only comes into play after a value is decided upon and then only in the context of intentional action. Our satisfaction does not rise to the level of a value, it is an acknowledgement of the integrity of the universe - an integrity which ~just is~. It is valid to talk of 'should' in the context of bin Laden's actions and Churchill's reaction to them, it is not valid in the case of the Comet, and I don't think that Rand thought it was.

BTW - Bin Laden could, by a sick stretch of logic, be said to have made his victims 'pay' in the sense that he acquired something he believed to be of value in exchange for their past behavior. (It's the same sick logic that demands that criminals 'pay their debt to society' by rotting in prison, but I digress...) If we perceive value in the passenger's comeuppance it is a value empty of any meaning or consequence. It is not a valid value, (not wrong or right, simply ~not is~), so it is not valid to say the passengers 'paid' for their sins.

Kyle, you make very good points. But your comments remind me of something Rand said in her "Lectures on Fiction-Writing" (this, taken from THE ART OF FICTION):

"Fiction is an atheistic universe: you are the God who is creating it, but there must not be any God in your writing."

Unfortunately, in this world, where people are constantly shifting responsibility for their actions, not everybody gets their comeuppance. Recognizing the validity of what you say does not mean that we still can't appreciate Rand's position as the literary god of her literary world who both wishes to demonstrate causality---and justice.


Rand's position of God of her novel might imply a normative motivation for which events she chooses to portray, and which fictional facts she juxtaposes. She might be (probably is) telling us, the readers outside the context of the novel, that we shouldn't act this way because these may be the consequences. It does not necessarily carry into the context of the novel itself and imply that those events themselves have any normative content - that she was telling the characters in the novel that they should die.

If she really meant to use 'guilty' in the colloquial sense, then she was wrong, and your comparison to Churchill, at least, has some validity. I don't think that the context of the book supports that interpretation.


Thanks again for your input.

I actually took a look at Rand's JOURNALS, particularly her construction of the Taggart Tunnel catastrophe. She writes that "[t]he disaster is made possible by the illusion of the old morality, on which people rely, even though it is not there any longer, they count on it after they have destroyed it." That "old morality" is the morality of individualism and responsibility, such that when

"anyone tried ... to pass the buck, he would be exposed and penalized, because the principle of objective truth was the standard, and the objective fate of the railroad enforced this standard upon the owners. ... But ~now~, the purpose of the railroad is ~not~ the objective success of an objective performance---as it is not the purpose of the whole society and of its present economic system. ~Now~, one lives, not by the objective result of one's effort, but by means of and at the expense of other men. ... This is how, functioning on the dead hulk of a morality which they have destroyed, counting upon it when they have made it impossible, men come to the spectacle of a great physical machinery (the railroad)---built for safety [on the basis of] a moral principle (individualism)---becoming the tool of a dreadful destruction, instead. This is what the material shell will do, when its soul has been destroyed."

Rand then provides, in her notes, a list of "the passengers 'who weren't guilty'"---and she places that phrase "who weren't guilty" in quotes, because she's clearly suggesting they ~were~ guilty of having contributed to the destruction of that "soul." In discussing the "personal types" of the passengers, Rand views them as expressive of the "main philosophic points" at war with a genuine human society: collectivism, anti-ability, the malevolent universe, power lust, anti-reason, materialism, anti-business.

I might have more to say about this in a day or two.


Here is something to think about.

In 2003, according to the FBI, 16,503 people were murdered in the US by various criminals. In 2001, Bin Laden murdered approximately 3000+ people. One difference is that the Bin Laden murders could have been pervented if Bush et al had taken terrorism seriously prior to 9/11. As Richard Clark and others have shown, he did not. The US government, the sole purpose of which is to protect its citizens, was asleep at the switch on 9/11. Any fair reading of the facts shows that while low level FBI agents were aware of the threat, higher level officials failed to follow through. Yes, the US has made serious foriegn policy mistakes but even without them the threat of terrorism would not disappear. Have we forgot about OK City? The real sin of government is not doing what government is supposed to do in the first place and the Iraq war has probably done more harm than good for domestic security in the long run. America's job is not to save the world. Rand would have condemed the Iraq war for the same reason she condemed the Vietnam war: Sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice; Money and lives down a endless rat hole without purpose, save to selflessly bring democracy to a country that is not likely to sustain it without perpetual US intervention, which in turn ties up our miltary, makes recuiting new soldiers difficult if not impossible all while real threats to our security from N. Korea and China continue to brew.

Thanks Doug, for your comments.

I'm not entirely sure what Rand would have said about the Iraq war (the answer is much clearer, I think, concerning the need to retaliate against Al Qaeda), but I do think the evidence is overwhelming that, as an opponent of US entry into virtually every war of the 20th century, Rand's reaction to the Iraq war would have been very different from the reactions posted by some of her contemporary followers. And, as you know, I've written quite a bit on Rand's radical critique of US foreign policy---a critique that has been ignored or obscured by too many of those followers.


Thanks for the response. Indeed, it would be a presumption for anyone to know what Rand would have said about anything. I was only making a point and afterwards regretted having said it that way. Yet, one can infer, as you have, what she probably would have thought. Came across your site only recently. Have not read all of your works but enough to understand your basic views. We may have briefly come into contact years ago via E-mail about the Reisman affair. In connection with those orthodox followers: I saw them briefly on C-SPAN around the time of the Iraq invasion and was shocked at what I heard and saw. Rather than an atmosphere of calm reason, they projected a tribal, blood thirsty, shoot-em-up attitude towards the whole middle east. There was no real discussion, only cheerleading. Can't say I saw all of this meeting but the awful impression it made on me will never fade from memory. The scene on C-SPAN made me cringe, as one would upon hearing a singer, who obviously cannot sing in tune. I thought to myself that, to a casual observer, these people would not seem quite sane and if they had considered reading Rand before turning on C-SPAN, they would quickly change their mind, and the channel.

Hey Doug, thanks for your comments.

I agree completely that there's nothing wrong, per se, with attempting to trace the implications of Rand's views for today's situation. But it's virtually guaranteed that in any post-Randian universe, there will be disagreement over the implications and applications of Rand's various insights.

As you suggest, I, myself, have a very definite view of the implications of what I term Rand's "radical legacy."

But there are some hopeful signs even among the more "orthodox" interpreters of Rand. Today, that "orthodox" monolith has been fragmented by differences of opinion on everything from Bush to Iraq to the war on terror. One recent article published on the site of the Ayn Rand Institute, for example, talks of "Bush's Betrayal of America." See here:


BTW, you mention George Reisman. You might be interested to know that Dr. Reisman has an article in the current issue of THE JOURNAL OF AYN RAND STUDIES, a scholarly periodical of which I am a founding co-editor. Reisman's article is on "Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises"; it is part of a larger Centenary symposium entitled, "Ayn Rand Among the Austrians." See here:



Perhaps the principle that distinguishes the guilty from the innocent among those who live under statism is whether or not individuals are fighting statism. I don't mean that one must fight it by force, but that one must take a stand by whatever means, limited or not, private or public, is available. For example, in the USSR, there were people who copied by hand forbidden books on liberty and passed those copies around; they could do no more, but they did that much. Other people merely whispered to their families that the latest news of Soviet industrial triumphs was vastly exaggerated. Such people are guiltless of complicity with their rulers, even if guerilla warfare is impossible to them.

Good to see you here, Barbara!

You've actually opened up a whole area of important discussion: the degree, type, and effectiveness of nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience. I think you're also right that such resisters are not guilty of complicity.

In this regard, I've learned a lot from (and highly recommend) the works of Gene Sharp on the techniques of nonviolent resistance. The emphasis here is on ~resistance~. Sharp always argued that "nonviolent" does not mean "pacifist" and that so much has been accomplished in the kinds of "simple" acts that you describe.