“Just War Theory” vs. American Self-Defense - The Objective Standard

Authors' Note: This essay is partially based on a lecture, “The Morality of War,” delivered by Yaron Brook at numerous venues across the country including the 2004 Objectivist Summer Conference.

It has been nearly five years since September 11, 2001—the day that Islamic terrorists incinerated thousands of innocent individuals in the freest, wealthiest, happiest, and most powerful nation on earth.

On that day and in the weeks after, we all felt the same things. We felt grief, that we had lost so many who had been so good. We felt anger, at whoever could commit or support such an evil act. We felt disbelief, that the world's only superpower could let this happen. And we felt fear, from the newfound realization that such evil could rain on any of us. But above all, we felt the desire for overwhelming retaliation against whoever was responsible for these atrocities, directly or indirectly, so that no one would dare launch or support such an attack on America ever again.

To conjure up the emotions we felt on 9/11, many intellectuals claim, is dangerous, because it promotes the “simplistic” desire for revenge and casts aside the “complexity” of the factors that led to the 9/11 attacks. But, in fact, the desire for overwhelming retaliation most Americans felt after 9/11—and feel rarely, if ever, now—was the result of an objective conviction: that a truly monstrous evil had been perpetrated, and that if the enemies responsible for the 9/11 attacks were not dealt with decisively, we would suffer the same fate (or worse) again.

After 9/11, our leaders—seemingly sharing our conviction in the necessity of decisive retaliation—promised to do everything possible to make America safe from terrorist attack. In an almost universally applauded speech, President Bush pledged to eradicate the enemy by waging a war that was to begin with Al Qaeda and the Taliban but that would “not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been . . . defeated.” In the same speech, Bush vowed: “I will not yield, I will not rest, I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people.”1

To fulfill the promise to defeat the terrorist enemy that struck on 9/11, our leaders would first have to identify who exactly that enemy is and then be willing to do whatever is necessary to defeat him. Let us examine what this would entail, and compare it with the actions that our leaders actually took. . . .


1 George W. Bush, address to both houses of Congress, September 20, 2001.

2 Angelo M. Codevilla, No Victory, No Peace (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), pp. 39, 97–98.

3 Ibid., p. 39.

4Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 3rd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p. 174, emphasis removed.

5Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 155–56.

6 Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror (New York: Basic Books, 2003), p. 57.

7 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. xi.

8 David E. Sanger, “Beating Them to the Prewar,” New York Times, September 28, 2002.

9 Michael M. Uhlmann, “The Use and Abuse of Just War Theory,” Claremont Review of Books, Summer 2003.

10 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 127.

11 Elshtain, Just War Against Terror, p. 65.

12 Ibid., p. 66.

13 Ibid., p. 69.

14 Ibid., p. 70.

15 David E. Sanger, “Pakistan Found to Aid Iran Nuclear Efforts,” New York Times, September 2, 2004.

* There is a small, insignificant minority of Machiavellian realists who consciously reject altruism, but their alternative is to say that there are no moral limits on what the United States (or any nation) can do. Such a view is a sanction to barbarism by any nation, and genuinely horrifies those with a legitimate concern for justice.

16 Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand Answers, edited by Robert Mayhew (New York: Penguin Group, 2005), p. 97.

17 Ibid., p. 95.

18 George W. Bush, Associated Press Interview aboard Air Force One, October 18, 2004.

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