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‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense (Part 1)

Taking self-defense seriously means embracing the morality of victory, not sacrifice.

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Editors’ note: This essay was originally published on ARI’s website and then in Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism.

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.

On September 11, 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 whomever 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.

Who is the enemy that attacked on 9/11? It is not “terrorism”—just as our enemy in World War II was not kamikaze strikes or U-boat attacks. Terrorism is a tactic employed by a certain group for a certain cause. That group and, above all, the cause they fight for are our enemy.

The group that threatens us with terrorism—the group of which Al Qaeda is but one terrorist faction—is a militant, religious, ideological movement best designated as “Islamic totalitarianism.” The Islamic totalitarian movement, which enjoys widespread and growing support throughout the Arab-Islamic world, encompasses those who believe that all must live in total subjugation to the dogmas of Islam and who conclude that jihad (“holy war”) must be waged against those who refuse to do so. Islamic totalitarians regard the freedom, prosperity, and pursuit of worldly happiness animating the West (and especially America and Israel) as the height of depravity. They seek to eradicate Western culture, first in the Middle East and then in the West itself, with the ultimate aim of bringing about the worldwide triumph of Islam. This goal is achievable, adherents of the movement believe, because the West is a “paper tiger” that can be brought to its knees by sufficiently devoted Islamic warriors.

Given that the enemy that attacked on 9/11 is primarily ideological, what, if anything, can our government’s guns do to defeat it? Our government cannot directly attack the deepest, philosophical roots of Islamic totalitarianism; however, to defeat Islamic totalitarianism as a physical threat, it does not need to do so. Why? Because an indispensable precondition of an active, threatening Islamic totalitarian movement—one for which individuals are willing to take up arms—is its active support by Arab and Islamic states that assist, embody, and implement it. Without this state support, Islamic totalitarianism, and thus Islamic terrorism, could not exist as a major threat.

We can see how the end of state support for a movement can destroy the threat it poses in the cases of Communism and Nazism, two militant movements with world-conquering, totalitarian ambitions. As Angelo M. Codevilla, Professor of International Relations at Boston University, writes:

Recall for a moment the Communist movement’s breadth and depth. The Communist Party was just the tip of the iceberg. Every political party, every labor union, every newspaper, every school, every profession, every social organization had sympathizers with Communism who played a significant role in its life. . . . Where now are all those people, young and old, who would argue and demonstrate, and scheme and spy and kill and betray for the grand cause of Communism? They were no more when the Soviet Union was no more, just as sunflowers would cease to exist were there no sun. As for those ferocious Nazis . . . only the name remains, as a hackneyed insult. Human causes are embodied by human institutions. With them they flourish, without them they die. Communists and Nazis everywhere ceased to be a problem when the regimes that inspired them died.2

For Islamic totalitarianism, the “sun” (the equivalent of Communism’s Soviet Union) is Iran. Iran was founded on the principles of Islamic totalitarianism, implements the ideals of the movement in a full-fledged militant Islamic theocracy, and thus embodies its cause—providing the movement with a model as well as indispensable spiritual hope and fuel. Iran is also a leading supporter of the terrorist groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hezbollah. (Compared with Iran, the Taliban in Afghanistan was a bit player.) The second leading state supporter of Islamic totalitarianism is Saudi Arabia, which has spent more than seventy-five billion dollars on the Wahhabi sect of Islam that inspires legions of Islamic totalitarians, including Osama bin Laden.

Without physical and spiritual support by these states, the Islamic totalitarian cause would be a hopeless, discredited one, with few if any willing to kill in its name. Thus, the first order of business in a proper response to 9/11 would have been to end state support of Islamic totalitarianism—including ending the Iranian regime that is its fatherland. As a secondary priority, a proper fight against the enemy that attacked on 9/11 would have involved ending state sponsorship of terrorism by Arab states derivatively connected to Islamic totalitarianism—states such as Syria (and, before it was ended, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq). These regimes are active supporters of Arab-Islamic terrorism and mouth support for the Islamic totalitarian cause, but are not ideologically committed to it; these regimes support this cause out of political expediency. Supporting Islamic totalitarianism gains power for them; by supporting anti-Western causes and jihadists, Arab states direct the misery of their people toward America and Israel and away from their own brutal rule. Supporting Islamic totalitarianism also gains money for Arab states; for example, the leaders of Syria, a stagnant nation with no oil wealth, are wealthy because oil-rich Iran pays them for providing assistance to terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah. Dealing effectively with these accessories to Islamic totalitarianism would require, first and foremost, getting rid of the primary supporters of the movement. The next step would be, where necessary, making clear to these derivative regimes that any cooperation with that movement or its aims is not expedient, but a guarantee of their destruction.

What specific military actions would have been required post-9/11 to end state support of Islamic totalitarianism is a question for specialists in military strategy, but even a cursory look at history can tell us one thing for sure: It would have required the willingness to take devastating military action against enemy regimes—to oust their leaders and prominent supporters, to make examples of certain regimes or cities in order to win the surrender of others, and to inflict suffering on complicit civilian populations, who enable terrorist-supporting regimes to remain in power.

Observe what it took for the United States and the Allies to defeat Germany and Japan and thus win World War II. Before the Germans and Japanese surrendered, the Allies had firebombed every major Japanese city and bombed most German cities—killing hundreds of thousands. Explaining the rationale for the German bombings, Churchill wrote, “the severe, the ruthless bombing of Germany on an ever-increasing scale will not only cripple her war effort . . . but will create conditions intolerable to the mass of the German population.” And as we well know, what ended the war—and the Nazi and Japanese imperialist threat to this day—was America’s dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.

The Civil War provides another stark example of what can be required to win a war. In 1864, as the war was dragging on in endless, bloody battle, the Northern general William Tecumseh Sherman helped end it with a devastating campaign against Georgia’s civilian population. After burning the city of Atlanta, Sherman’s army ravaged much of the rest of Georgia by burning estates; taking food and livestock; and destroying warehouses, crops, and railway lines. These actions had the effect not only of disrupting the supply of provisions to Lee’s army in Virginia, but also (and more importantly) of making the war real to the civilian population that was supporting it from the rear. This, in turn, broke the spirit of the men on the front lines, who were now worried and demoralized by what was happening to their homes and families.

In both World War II and the Civil War, once massive defeats were handed to the enemy, the causes that drove the military threats were thoroughly defeated as political forces. There are no threatening Nazis or Japanese imperialists today, nor was there any significant political force agitating for the reemergence of the slave South after the Civil War.

To have decisively defeated Islamic totalitarianism post-9/11, America would have had to both correctly identify the enemy and show the same unmitigated willingness to defeat its identified enemies as it had in past wars. In the weeks after 9/11, the American people, for their part, seemed willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent another 9/11. And throughout the Arab and Muslim world, many feared that they would be made to pay for the aggression of their nations. An expert on the Middle East reports that although 9/11 was greeted by much celebration by civilians in the Muslim world, many feared “that an angry America might crush them. . . . Palestinian warlords referred to the events as Al Nakhba—‘the disaster’—and from Gaza to Baghdad the order spread that victory parties must be out of sight of cameras and that any inflammatory footage must be seized.”3 But the fear of our enemies in the Middle East quickly disappeared once it became clear that few, if any, of them would pay for the atrocities of 9/11.

'To have decisively defeated Islamic totalitarianism post-9/11, America would have had to both correctly identify the enemy and show the same unmitigated willingness to defeat its identified enemies as it had in past wars.' Click To Tweet

Observe that nearly five years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11—longer than it took to defeat the far more powerful Japanese after Pearl Harbor—the two leading supporters of Islamic totalitarianism and the majority of their accessories remain intact and visibly operative. Iran is aggressively pursuing nuclear weapons, led by a president who declares that our ally Israel must be “wiped off the map,” and by mullahs who lead the nation in weekly chants of “Death to America.” Abroad, Iran’s terrorist agents kill American troops in Iraq, while its propagandists attempt to push Iraq into an Islamic theocracy. Saudi Arabia continues to fund schools and institutions around the world that preach hatred of America and advocate Islamic totalitarianism. Syria remains the headquarters of numerous terrorist organizations and an active supporter of the Iraqi insurgency that is killing American troops. The Palestinian Authority continues a terrorist jihad initiated by Yasir Arafat—a jihad that can be expected only to escalate under the entity’s new leadership by the Islamic totalitarian group Hamas. Throughout the Arab-Islamic world, “spiritual leaders” and state-owned presses ceaselessly incite attacks against the West without fear of reprisal.

America has done nothing to end the threat posed by Iran and Saudi Arabia, nor by Syria and the Palestinian Authority. In the rare cases that it has taken any action toward these regimes, its action has been some form of appeasement: extending them invitations to join an “anti-terrorism” coalition (while excluding Israel); responding to the Palestinians’ jihad with a promised Palestinian state; declaring “eternal friendship” with Saudi Arabia and inviting its leaders to vacation with our president; responding to Iran’s active pursuit of nuclear weapons with the “threat” of possible, eventual, inspections by the U.N.

Of course, America has done something militarily in response to 9/11; it has taken military action against two regimes: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. But in addition to these not having been the two most important regimes to target, our military campaigns in each case have drastically departed from the successful wars of the past in their logic, aims, methods—and in their results. In Afghanistan, we gave the Taliban advance notice of military action, refused to bomb many top leaders out of their hideouts for fear of civilian casualties, and allowed many key leaders to escape in the Battle of Tora Bora. And in Iraq, we have done far worse. While we have taken Saddam Hussein out of power, we have neither eradicated the remnants of his Baathist regime, nor defeated the insurgency that has arisen, nor taken any serious precaution against the rise of a Shiite theocracy that would be a far more effective abettor of Islamic totalitarianism than Saddam Hussein ever was.

In terms of ending the (limited) threat posed to America by the respective countries, the “war” in Afghanistan was a partial failure, and the “war” in Iraq is a total failure. Our leadership, however, evaluates these endeavors not primarily in terms of whether they end threats and dissuade other hostile regimes from continuing aggression, but in terms of whether they bestow the “good life” on the Middle Eastern peoples by ridding them of unpopular dictators and allowing them to vote in whatever government they choose (no matter how anti-American). This objective is presently consuming endless resources and thousands of American lives in Iraq, where we are sustaining a hostile Iraqi population until they can independently run their new nation—in which Islam is constitutionally the basic law of the land.

How is all of this supposed to fulfill our leaders’ pledge to defend America? The democratically elected Iraqi government, we are told, will somehow lead to a renaissance of “freedom” in the Middle East, which will somehow stop terrorism in some distant future. In the meantime, we are told, we should show “resolve,” take off our shoes at the airport, and pay attention to the color-coded terror alerts so we can know how likely we are to be slaughtered.

Empty talk of “complete victory” notwithstanding, our official foreign policy regarding America’s security against Islamic terrorism is: accepted defeat. We have not been willing to take military action against the most important threats against us, and the type of military action we have been willing to take has not succeeded in making us safer. And most disturbing of all, despite our travesty of a foreign policy, the vast majority of once-enraged Americans has not demanded anything better. Most Americans acknowledge that Iraq is a debacle, that we will not be safe anytime soon, and that we have no plans to deal effectively with threats such as Iran’s nuclear weapons program—yet there is widespread resignation that this is the best we can do. This—in response to a threat caused by pip-squeak nations, against the most powerful military in history.

Why? What explains the defeatism of the leaders and citizens of the most powerful nation on earth?

One crucial factor is the failure of our intellectual and political leadership to clearly identify the nature of our enemy, to recognize that terrorism stems from a religious ideological movement that seeks our destruction and that that movement is widely supported by Muslim peoples and states.

One intellectual motivation for this evasion is the doctrine of multiculturalism, which holds that all cultures are equal, and thus that it is immoral for Western culture to declare itself superior to any other. Having swallowed this doctrine, most of our intellectuals and politicians are reluctant to identify a clearly evil, militant ideological movement as an aspect of Arab-Islamic culture or to acknowledge its widespread support in that culture.

An even more significant motivation is the religiosity of many Americans (especially conservatives). While the militant methods of Islamic totalitarianism are anathema to religious Americans, the ethical prescriptions of the movement—a life of faith, material renunciation, and sacrifice for a “higher” cause—are consistent with everything religious Americans hold as ideal. These Americans are thus reluctant to indict such ideas as the cause of a massive evil and, instead, are drawn to the theory that our enemy is confined to isolated individuals such as Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and a few crazy followers. Our leaders go even further; not only are they reluctant to indict Islamic ideas, they bend over backward to claim that no truly Islamic movement can be responsible for terrorism because “Islam is peace.” Islamic terrorists, they claim, have “hijacked a great religion.”

America’s intellectual failure to identify the nature of the enemy is a major cause of its defeatism—but this failure, and its responsibility for our policies, only goes so far. For example, none of our politicians identify our enemy as “Islamic totalitarianism”; however, they all know and admit that Iran and Syria are active sponsors of terrorism, that Iran is developing missiles and a nuclear weapon, that Saudi Arabia turns out legions of wannabe terrorists, and many other facts pointing to the conclusion that if we are to be safe, these states must be stopped. Shortly after 9/11, President Bush demonstrated some understanding of the role of state support of terrorism when he declared: “From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Despite his misgivings about indicting any variant of any religion, he has condemned “Islamic Radicalism” as a major source of the terrorist threat.

If America were to take military action to end the threats we face, even based on our leaders’ limited understanding of these threats, it would be far more significant and effective than what we have done so far. Why, then, haven’t our leaders taken such actions?

The reason is that, despite their claims that they will do whatever is necessary to defend America, our leaders believe that it would be wrong—morally wrong—to do so. They believe this because they consistently accept a certain moral theory of war—one that has come to be universally taught in our universities and war colleges. This theory is accepted, at least implicitly, not only by intellectuals, but by our politicians, the leadership of our military, and the media. And while the American people are not explicitly familiar with this theory, they regard the precepts on which it is based and the policies to which it leads as morally uncontroversial. The theory is called Just War Theory. To understand today’s disastrous policies, and to reverse them, it is essential to understand what this theory holds.

Continue to Part 2 here.

Image credit: Picture Alliance via Getty Images.


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  1. George W. Bush, address before a joint session of Congress on the U.S. response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 20 September 2001. As transcribed in 228 Notes John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project (Santa Barbara, CA: University of California (hosted), Gerhard Peters (database), www.presidency. ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=64731 (accessed 2 Jan. 2009).
  2. Angelo M. Codevilla, No Victory, No Peace (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), 39, 97–98.
  3. Codevilla, No Victory, No Peace, 39.
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Yaron Brook

Yaron Brook is chairman of the board of the Ayn Rand Institute and host of The Yaron Brook Show.

Alex Epstein

Alex Epstein, president and CEO of the Center for Industrial Progress and a former ARI fellow, is the author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and, most recently, Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas — Not Less.

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