Is non-interventionism immoral?by tarran
“The noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and the war’s desolation.” Robert Heinlein Starship Troopers
For as long as I can remember, people interested in politics have been debating various crises where the main question was whether or not the U.S. military should go and bomb somebody who was doing something bad. All too often the debate involved two camps talking past each other, with the proponents arguing that the bad guys were really bad, and the opponents arguing that it was a waste of tax-payer money. Eventually Hitler is brought up, and then the debate becomes useless because few things kill rationality in a conversation quicker than accusing someone of supporting the Holocaust.
These arguments pit two truisms against each other. The first is Jon Stuart Mill’s observation that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.” The second principle is Thomas Jefferson’s observation that “War is an instrument entirely inefficient toward redressing wrong; and multiplies, instead of indemnifying losses.” Both truisms are correct yet seem to be irreconcilable.
Often, when two principles that are correct seem to contradict each other, it is because the thinker is making a bad assumption, and this is the case here. The choice is not between “looking on and doing nothing” on the one hand and “war” on the other. There are many ways to resist or oppose evil that do not involve “war”.
The modern conception of war works in the following way: a nation state commandeers some quantity of resources and, if need be, conscripts people. It then attacks another group of people in an attempt to break the will or the capability to fight of those the nation state has decreed to be an enemy. This manner of fighting is quite successful and yet is profoundly immoral on three counts:
1) The commandeering of goods leave those who owned the goods worse off.
2) Any conscription is slavery. Conscripts who are killed have been deprived of their lives.
3) The people killed or injured by the nation state are often not its enemies but people who have the misfortune to live in territory controlled by the attacking nation-state’s enemies.
4) Ditto for the people who own property that is destroyed by the nation state.
Note that none of these moral objections impinge on opposing evil! If I were to purchase a sniper’s rifle and bullets and go out and assassinate Adolf Hitler I would not be injuring any innocent. Nor would I be endangering anyone but myself.
There is nothing immoral about a group of people getting together to decide to fight some evil and pooling their resources, like the American citizens who volunteered to fight the Nazi war machine in Spain by joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. If George Bush had raised a private army to liberate Iraq, staffed it with people who volunteered specifically for that cause, and equipped it with voluntary donations, we would not be having this debate. Those who wanted to see Saddam dancing the Danny Deever could work toward that end, while those who wanted nothing to do with the enterprise could continue on with their daily lives.
“But isn’t that a classic case of allowing good men to do nothing? Doesn’t that ensure that evil will be victorious?” some of you may be wondering. Perhaps. But, let us examine this question with a Reductio Ad Absurdum: should everyone in the world drop everything they are doing and do nothing but hunt for the killer until they have caught him every time a murder is committed? What can someone living here in Massachusetts do but “look on” when a rape is committed in Shanghai?
Obviously, we must decide what evils require us to act, and which evils we cannot do much about, which brings up the question of who decides which cases require us to act and which don’t? To me the obvious answer is that the people who can act are the ones that should be making the decision, that these decisions should be individual ones!
What the interventionists are really claiming is that they should have the power to substitute their own judgments for those of the people whose resources and services they wish to commandeer. They seek to force people to fight or sacrifice property to a cause those people do not support. Regardless of how just the interventionists’ cause, compelling people to support it is inherently immoral – and there is no way to convert that wrong into a right.
At this point, I am sure one of you is thinking, “Okay, but the Abraham Lincoln brigades were a military failure! Franco won and ruled Spain into the mid 1970’s! It took total war – the commandeering of all the production of the most industrially advanced nation on earth – to defeat Hitler! By the time people could have been persuaded to fight him, it would have been too late!”
The fact is, a substantial number of people who came under Nazi or Stalinist control collaborated with those regimes. It was the people who lived in the occupied territory who were the “good people who did nothing”. Had they actively resisted, destroyed the census records, refused to fight on behalf of the German army etc, the Nazi war machine would have collapsed. The Germans never attempted an invasion of Switzerland, since the well armed population was thought to be unconquerable.
Nor was massive bombardment and total war required to wipe Nazism off the face of the earth. The Soviet Union, as nasty and evil an empire as the Nazi one, collapsed without a single U.S. bomb dropped on a single city. They did not collapse because of the Reagan arms build-up. They did not collapse because the CIA gave Stinger missiles to the Afghani resistance. They collapsed because the victims, the people living within the Soviet Union, had stopped cooperating with the Soviet government.
To evade their victims’ anger, every totalitarian regime points to some outside threat as a justification for the privations suffered by their victims. “Don’t have enough food? It is the Yankee embargo.” “You can’t take shampoo on a plane because of terrorists.” “You must flee the city and abandon your possessions because the Americans are about to bomb it.” How much easier is it, then, when the threat is real? If Khmer Rouge had tried to use the specter of a coming Swiss bombardment as the explanation for the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, they would have faced far more resistance. Because the American government had a track record of bombing cities controlled by communists, the population believed their leaders’ lies and cooperated in their own destruction.
Furthermore attacks where non-combatants are hurt tend to backfire; when American bombs rained down on Germany, did the Germans blame Hitler? No. It stiffened their resolve and made them much more willing to obey the German government, much as when German bombs rained down on England, the English banded behind their government.
A expansionist totalitarian government can only be stopped when the leadership gives up, dies, or the populace stops obeying it. Generally it is doomed once it cannot expand any more since the looting accompanying the expansion is what keeps the system going. If left to their own devices, eventually majority of the population will come to see the regime as their enemy rather than outsiders. But if they are injured or killed by outsiders that process will not occur. Thus invasive or punitive war is a needlessly destructive, rarely successful, and inherently immoral method of attempting to free people from tyranny.
“Interventionism”, a scheme that depends on semi-indiscriminate state violence – or the threat thereof – using confiscated men or materiel to alter the actions of people whom the interventionists don’t like is thus inherently immoral. “Non-interventionism” is not a declaration of a willingness to do nothing and sit idly by, it is the rejection of an immoral tool.