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The Costs of War, Part II

My post "The Costs of War" has elicited more than a dozen comments so far, and if there are any additional comments to be made, I will be sure to reply in that thread. But I wanted to take this opportunity to expand on the points made in the former post, since I have benefited from a good chat with an offlist correspondent on these issues.

Comments welcome.

My correspondent would prefer to remain anonymous; it is more important for me to post comments that enable me to work through an issue, rather than to focus on who said what. I'd like to extend my appreciation for the offlist correspondence.

Let's call my correspondent "Dr. A" so that we can avoid using gender-identifiers. :) Dr. A writes:

I have to comment on your comparison of Ayn Rand to Ward Churchill. It's quite impossible to justify, try as I might. You were clear in saying that there is no moral equivalence, but to responsibly make the comparison requires a lot more explanation, qualification and context than you gave it.

I do, in fact, agree that much more discussion is merited. But, as I said in the comments section of that thread, not every blog post is meant as a full-fledged, finished article. I like using the blog to "think out loud." Unlike a few people I've met through the years, I don't wait to dot every "i" and cross every "t" before publishing anything, especially in an electronic era of real-time "give-and-take." (Books and professional journal articles are a different breed, of course.) I just think that dialogue on these issues is necessary. And I'm delighted to receive the feedback, especially when I'm clearly grappling with what I believe is a dilemma. Dr. A continues:

9-11 was an intentional act. The tunnel disaster in Atlas [Shrugged] was the result of a build-up of (domestic) evasion and irresponsibility that no person specifically intended. The tunnel disaster therefore invites the question: who was responsible and to what degree? Rand is pointing to the fragments of responsibility in many for the mosaic of negligent causes to a tragedy. We know who was specifically and fully responsible for the evil brutality that occurred on 9-11. It wasn't us.

Not only is the point well taken, but Dr. A drives home an issue that I should have articulated with much greater care. Given my Hayekian predilections, it's an obvious issue too. It revolves around the distinction between intended human action and unintended social consequences. No single person on the Comet intended for that tragedy to occur, and yet, through their ideas and actions, each person reflected and perpetuated a social and cultural milieu that made such a tragedy possible. And this, after all, is part of the very essence of the interventionist dynamic, as I described it in my "Understanding the Global Crisis" article. So much of what Rand calls the "New Fascism" arose by default, by an ad hoc process of moral and philosophical deterioration, over generations. For Rand, the neofascist US economy "was—and is—a de facto, predatory fascism, the result of pragmatic expediency and of ad hoc, incremental policies that had enriched some groups at the expense of others."

The key phrase here is "ad hoc." This is not meant to whitewash the growth of statism over the past hundred years. It's not as if it took place completely "behind people's backs," as Marx might have put it. There have certainly been groups that campaigned for, and that became adept at using, the political process to enrich themselves; these groups aim to achieve this enrichment. But it is not necessarily the case that each parasitic group intends to contribute to the growth of state power, which, in the long run, destroys the host that is required for such parasitism to exist. A good point on this topic was made by economist Karen Vaughn; I cite it in my book, Marx, Hayek, and Utopia. While it may be

correct to note the class character of government interventionism, it does not follow that the overall growth of government has been intended by the various classes. It is still quite possible to see the overall growth of the state as an unintended consequence of the relative expansion of particular government agencies, programs, and regulations.

Or, as I stated in my L&P essay, "Ideology and Myth in American Politics," the reality of the mixed economy

nourishes the development of ad hoc groups, because groups become the only political units that matter. Simultaneously, it atomizes a society, as people-in-groups become increasingly fragmented and fractured across every dimension, in search of this or that privilege or exemption: a Hobbesian "war of all against all"—which goes global.

Rand herself understood that many groups were responsible for the growth of state power, but she never assumed that all were equally responsible; some are quite clearly more "equal" than others, to use an Orwellian phrase. As I pointed out in "The Costs of War," Rand focused on those who bolstered statism explicitly; she also recognized the key role played by certain structurally privileged interest groups in the rise of the "New Fascism" (Grinder and Hagel are even more explicit in their article, already cited, detailing the location of "ultimate decision-making" in neofascist political economy.)

But Rand, who grew up under Soviet communism, also understood that people trapped in specific circumstances not of their own making, must sometimes milk the inner contradictions of the system just to survive (see We the Living, for example). If that entails going to public schools, driving on public roads, taking public scholarships, Social Security benefits, unemployment compensation, etc., while the state is busy robbing your money through the tax structure, so be it.

Because there are differential beneficiaries in a mixed economy, I think it is valuable, then, to focus on that question highlighted by Dr. A: Who is responsible and to what degree? Perhaps these questions invite a hierarchy of "sins" in a corrupt social system. Rand might reserve a special place in hell for those who have consciously used the state to benefit themselves at the expense of others, as well as for those who have been part of the ideological vanguard, legitimizing the interventionist functions of the state.

But Rand also seems to distinguish between those whom she would hold morally accountable, and those who might be held legally responsible. In the Comet tragedy from Atlas Shrugged, for example, there are people who are responsible for the technical glitches that made the train accident inevitable. But there is nothing that Rand leaves to accident in the construction of her plot, from a moral perspective. In the general atmosphere of the novel, where the failure of statist intervention is dramatically illustrated, each action—taken, euphemistically, in the "public interest"—is actually a cover for exploitation, which undercuts private property, social accountability, and individual responsibility. As I write in my essay "Ayn Rand: A Centennial Appreciation":

Rand documents, painfully, how the destruction of the market economy and its specialization and division of labor is, ultimately, a destruction of the "division of responsibility." In a statist social order, where everybody owns everything, nobody will be held responsible for anything. "It’s not my fault" is the statist’s credo.

Given all this, I think there is much more to be said about moral complicity and the death of innocents in war. For example, one thing that still concerns me is this. Rand argues that, "[i]f by neglect, ignorance, or helplessness, [the citizens] 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." Here, she seems to be observing a fact: people will suffer the consequences, even through no fault of their own.

But, in other circumstances, she clearly believes that people should suffer the consequences. She argues: "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." By using the word "some," however, Rand accepts the possibility that there may be citizens who do not "put up with dictatorship." And Rand would certainly not blame people held at gunpoint in a concentration camp, whether it is called Auschwitz, or whether it applies to a whole segment of an oppressed society. There are dissenters who don't have the means to get out of a slave pen. There are those who find themselves in very tangled, complex personal situations, involving family and other relationships. There are children who have no choice.

Some might argue that parents are responsible for children, and that governments who transgress put their own citizens at risk, and are thereby responsible, from a moral standpoint, for what happens to their citizenry. But a bomb doesn't discriminate between those who should and those who should not bear the consequences. Placing the moral responsibility for war on the outlaw government that uses its citizenry as a human shield does nothing to alleviate the suffering of those who are caught up in the conflict through no fault of their own.

It is for this reason that even if one is morally committed to one's cause, the decision to go to war, with full knowledge of its devastating effects and long-term unintended consequences, is a grave decision.

Returning to my initial essay on these questions of moral complicity and responsibility, I did make an explicit comparison between Rand, Churchill, and Bin Laden. Dr. A takes exception to the comparison, and to Churchill's own comparison of the WTC victims to "little Eichmanns." In this instance, Churchill compared these victims to a very "specific Nazi whose incredible evil/level of guilt is known," and on that point, Dr. A will get no argument from me. I too found it appalling. There is little doubt that Rand would have been equally appalled; her work invites "the reader to self-examination," as Dr. A puts it, not to make "moral excuses for evil."

So Dr. A wonders why I'd use Churchill in my "on-going quest to demonstrate Rand's 'radicalism'." But I don't think that in this particular instance I was attempting to demonstrate Rand's radicalism per se; in truth, I was merely confessing my uncomfortability with the unqualified ways in which this issue of moral complicity has been handled by people with such different ideological frameworks—including Rand, who, despite some qualifications, never developed a full treatment of the subject. (Most of her statements on this subject came in Q&A sessions, not formal essays.) I made the comparison because, if I accept Rand's maxim that people who are complicit in a situation bear some responsibility for it (albeit differential responsibility relative to their roles in it), then I must grapple with the equivalent use of that maxim by those who repudiate the moral framework that Rand enunciated, a framework I continue to accept.

I agree with those commentators, therefore, that it is always necessary to reintroduce the moral dimension; one cannot detach any single principle from its embeddedness in a rational moral perspective.

I should make one final comment here. In the past, I have made similar comparisons across political perspectives by focusing on methodological considerations. As many of my readers know, for example, I have used the word "dialectics" to describe the "art of context-keeping," and in so doing, I have invited comparisons among thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Menger, and Rand. But the point of my comparison was not to drain dialectics of all meaning; it was to isolate, for the purposes of analysis, a principle, and then, to trace how its embeddedness in different frameworks has made for huge applicative differences.

If I were not concerned about the moral and political framework, I'd only be an advocate of "dialectics," rather than "dialectical libertarianism." And in this day and age, that phrase helps to distinguish my own position from previous incarnations of both dialectics and libertarianism.

Ultimately, the battle is not over the applications, implications, or qualifications of principles or methods taken in isolation. It is over the philosophic and moral framework that gives such principles and methods their existential meaning. Otherwise, as Dr. A suggests, any "clinical comparisons" will have the unintended consequence of wiping out the very dimension upon which our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor depend.

Noted at L&P here.



Those were two thought provoking articles you wrote. However, I believe that you start out the argument under the wrong premise.

The problem was not, is not, nor will be "our Crusade for Democracy" , that is an inversion of the real problem. If there is a moral culpability, it lies not with our government’s actions - but their in-actions. It was the preceding years of pacifism, appeasement and political inertia that were their complicity in 9-11. Nothing else.

That said, the core of your argument is fascinating. The issue of moral complicity is one that I too find Rand to be less than thorough on.

When we think of the term, “moral complicity” we tend to think in terms of abetting some sort of crime or wrongdoing. But one can also be complicit in the creation of wondrous things, complicit in being at the center of free exchange of goods, complicit in being instrumental in the changing of whole cultures from primitive darkness to rational enlightenment.

Churchill’s argument has a semblance of validity to it, except not in the sense of our moral complicity in a crime – but rather our moral complicity as that which stands in the way of the criminal.

Doubting Thomas (George)

"But a bomb doesn't discriminate between those who should and those who should not bear the consequences."

In this connection, let me point out one (hah) "concrete" example of the moral idiocy of many peoples' screeching against the Iraqi operation:

American targeteers seriously grappled with the moral problem presented by attempting to destroy anti-aircraft emplacements in dense urban zones. The problem was how to do it without destroying surrounding buildings (homes, etc.) and killing their inhabitants. This was an obvious and explicit distinction between combatants and non-combatants, and it went all the way back to Vietnam, where the NVA would place anti-aircraft artillery on roofs of hospitals, for instance. Under air-attack rules of engagement in those years, a lot of dedicated people simply accepted the combat risks, and far too many of them got killed while they were at it.

With the advent of GPS-guided weapons, able to achieve unprecedented CEP ("Circular Error Probability") reaching very near zero, it dawned on attack planners that they didn't need explosives in order to destroy targets like a radar or a gun emplacement in an urban zone: they could simply *crush* them with two thousand-pound *concrete* "bombs". They made up shapes from concrete, fitted them with GPS guidance packages, and started squashing these targets: the revolution in Precision Guided Munitions had brought us full-circle back to the point of *throwing rocks* at enemies, with full, modern combat, effect.

I submit that there are "discriminat[tions]" *at work* that deserve -- *demand* -- acknowledgment, for this reason: I see no reason on earth to believe that bin Laden would make them.

This is a crucial moral difference between us and them.

Well, it was always my opinion that it is not how the war is lead, but why the war is lead.

I had no problem with the US Air Force leading strikes against Baghdad, because they wanted to minimize US casualties in advance. They were at war with an enemy that would use hospitals and children as hostages for their Anit-Aircraft weaponry.
Although the modern warfare is not even half as precise as you describe it, the technics are essentially as you described them (as can be seen in the desasters of the Balkan warfare).

It is not the war that was led in an inhumane fashion, because every war results in blood-shed and high death tolls, it was the way it started.

@George Codero:

You name appeasment, but was it really appeasment? The US had first made an appeasment error in the Desert Storm era, where the support of the people was with the US, but they had been let down by the United States.
Now, the U.S. government started out in an act of vengenace against Afghanistan (totally supportable, because of the Taliban, being a host country of Al-Kaida and else), but also Iraq.
Don't we have to ask ourself, if there shouldn't be a balance in this? When is the death toll of US soldiers and "innocent" foreigners so high, that the goals don't justify them or the danger to our own country is too high?

I think this is a valid question that Thomas von Aquin and Augustus asked themselves. And it is something that not even Bush answered with any good evidence...

Thanks, folks, for your comments on this thread as well.

DT, you and I continue to have our differences on the war and such, but I agree that complicity goes both ways. One can be complicit in immorality, and in wondrously moral things too. And one can be punished for the latter as surely as one can be published for the former.

Let me also say that when I stated---"But a bomb doesn't discriminate between those who should and those who should not bear the consequences."---I didn't wish to leave the impression that I was a pacifist. When I advocated (and continue to advocate) the evisceration of Bin Laden and Company, I knew/know full well that "war is hell"---even in this era of technological sophistication. I was just trying to drive home the point that every decision to go to war has its costs. And when we advocate it, we best do so knowing that the alternative ~also has its costs~, and that those costs might be far higher than the ones incurred by warfare.

I, for one, hadn't had you in mind, Chris.


In your response to me you say, "And one can be punished for the latter as surely as one can be published for the former."

Did you mean to say punished again, instead of "published"? Or is there a joke hidden in this?

At any rate, I will note that even as you wrote it, there is some truth there. People do indeed tend to be 'punished' for their complicity in the noble, and they also tend to be 'published' for their complicity in immorality!

BTW, if I remember correctly, you're a published writer, is that right?

Ha Ha ha ....... lol


ROFL ... George, I'd like to say it was a Freudian slip and leave it at that. LOL

Great posts. The responsibility/complicity issue is so often confused by virtually *everyone* involved in any morally complex endeavor that it is well worth the effort to get things straight.

Compare to your quotations the famous line from Lincoln's second inaugural:

'...if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."'

That's always been the most disturbing of all Lincoln's utterances for me; he speaks as if the continuation of the war were none of *his* will, but only God's.

Thanks for the comment, Nicholas.

Ironically, this is the same Lincoln who was famous for saying: "I do not pray that God is on my side. I pray that I am on God's side."

Lincoln is one of the most rhetorically complex of all Presidents; take a good look at Stephen Cox's essay, "George W. Bush and the Pageant of America," in the April 2005 issue of LIBERTY. Like Edgar Lee Masters, Cox argues that Lincoln "owed his all to literary genius." A good piece, btw.