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‘Just War Theory’ vs. American Self-Defense (Part 3)

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.

Start with Part 1 here.

The Morality of Victory

In terms of fundamentals, Just War Theory is completely unopposed by any other theory of war today.

For those concerned about self-defense, the alleged alternative to Just War Theory is “realism”: the idea that there is no connection between morality and war. “Realists” hold that war should be entered into and fought according to strictly “practical” considerations. But this position is not a viable alternative to Just War Theory. First, as Just War theorists rightly point out, “realism” evades the fact that war is an act of monumental moral significance, and by treating it otherwise one sanctions truly horrific things, such as wars of aggression. Second, the dictum that one must evaluate war according to simply “practical” considerations is intellectually empty, since there is no such thing as practicality detached from morality.

Any claim that a course of action is “practical” presupposes some basic end that the course of action achieves. For example, any claim that “diplomacy” with Iran is practical, or that an ultimatum against Iran is practical, or that sending a nuclear warhead to Iran is practical, presupposes some basic goal that it will achieve—whether that goal be the approval of others, or the “stability” of the Middle East, or winning “hearts and minds,” or eliminating the Iranian threat. The question of what basic ends one should pursue in war is inescapable to the issue of practicality—and it is a moral question.

Because “realism” rejects the need for moral evaluation, and because the need for moral evaluation cannot be escaped, its advocates necessarily take certain goals for granted as “obviously” practical. Which goals? Those widely seen as valid—that is, the goals of altruism.

Consider the case of former secretary of state Colin Powell, a prominent “realist.” Does he call for America’s unequivocal, uncompromising self-defense using its full military might, since that would be eminently practical in achieving America’s self-interest? No. Instead, when he ran the State Department, he sought to avoid war, to appease any and every enemy, to court “world opinion,” to build coalitions, to avoid civilian casualties—while at the same time somehow to protect America. In other words, he did everything that pacifism and Just War Theory would have him do.1 While Powell and his ilk may say that they eschew moral analysis in matters of foreign policy and war, altruism nevertheless shapes what they think and seek to do.

“Realism,” therefore, is no antidote to Just War Theory. It is not even a theory of war but an intellectual parasite that camouflages the destructive nature of altruism with a professed concern for “practicality.” To bury the moral issues involved in war for the sake of “practicality” does not erase them; rather, it serves to entrench the status quo, by offering covert altruism as the only alternative to overt altruism.

There is no escape from morality, and no reconciling self-defense with the morality of altruism. To escape from the destructiveness of Just War Theory, therefore, we must embrace a moral approach to war that rejects altruism and fully upholds self-defense, thus providing the moral foundation for free, innocent nations to secure the lives and liberty of their citizens in the face of aggression.

Such a moral foundation exists in the morality of rational self-interest (also known as rational egoism or rational selfishness), the code of ethics originated by philosopher Ayn Rand.

Rational self-interest holds that every individual ought to live his own life for his own sake, by his own independent effort—without sacrificing himself to others or others to himself. It holds that the individual’s self-interest is achieved, not by doing whatever he feels like doing, and not by placing his goals in opposition to his neighbors’ freedom, but by living a life of reason, productivity, and trade.

According to rational egoism, the greatest threat a rational man faces to the achievement of his goals—and the greatest threat to a harmonious, prosperous, free society—is the initiation of physical force by others. Injustice, when someone initiates force against an innocent man—whether by violence, theft, or fraud—the initiator of force deserves to be met with retaliatory force.

In the egoistic approach, the need for individuals to be free from the initiation of force necessitates the existence of governments—and the option of war. A proper government places the retaliatory use of force under principled, objective control. A proper government is founded on the principle of individual rights—the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights sanction the individual’s freedom of action; they recognize the right of every individual to pursue his own goals by his own judgment: to produce, trade, speak, write, love, and live as he chooses, free of the threat of force. A proper government is the agent and servant of its citizens. It exists only to protect their rights by forbidding the initiation of force and by retaliating against those who initiate it—whether the aggressor is a criminal at home or a nation abroad.

Like an innocent individual, an innocent nation does not seek to exist at the expense of other nations, by force. But once force is initiated against it and its citizens, it must respond righteously with force; anything else is an injustice toward its citizens and an abdication of its moral purpose: to protect their rights.

Once the basic egoist view of morality and government is understood, the egoist view of war follows readily: The sole moral purpose of war is the same as the sole moral purpose of any other action by a proper government—that is, to protect the individual rights of its citizens. Every moral issue pertaining to war must be judged by this standard—and only by this standard.

Achieving the purpose of “self-defense” means the complete restoration of the protection of individual rights and thus the complete return to normal life, achieved by the permanent elimination of the threat. This is the only proper meaning of “complete victory.” Defeat in the war with Islamic totalitarianism does not simply mean that America becomes an Islamic theocracy or that our soldiers fight battles in the streets of Atlanta; these prospects are, fortunately, extremely unlikely. Defeat means any enduring negative change to the American way of life as the result of an active enemy, such as the colored alerts, or the provisions of the Patriot Act that allow virtually anyone to be investigated as a terrorist subject, or the random airport searches suffered by innocent travelers.

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The “self” in “self-defense” includes not just a nation’s civilians, but also its soldiers. Contrary to the policies of the Bush administration, American soldiers are not sacrificial animals, but full citizens of the United States. Rational soldiers are motivated by their own values, by their own desire to live free of the threat of violence against themselves and their loved ones. The fact that a soldier chooses a risky profession does not make him any less entitled to every protection his government can provide. To send soldiers into battle, as we have done in Iraq, with rules of engagement that place the lives of Iraqis above their own, is a moral crime.

By the standard of individual rights, a nation can morally go to war only for the purpose of self-defense, and can morally do in war only what is necessary for that purpose. Both wars of self-sacrifice (“humanitarian” wars) and wars of aggression—and acts of self-sacrifice or aggression within war—violate the rights of citizens, especially of soldiers. Both entail forcibly sacrificing the lives and money of individuals for the sake of some “higher” cause—whether relieving the suffering of the Somalis or satisfying the power-lust of a president.

The necessity of war in self-defense arises when a nation is attacked or threatened by a foreign aggressor. In some cases it might be possible to stop such an aggressor through lesser coercive means, such as sanctions or ultimatums. Once it becomes clear that the enemy is undeterred, however, military force is not a “last resort,” but the only resort.

In response to the Iranian hostage-taking of 1979, for example, America was morally obligated to inflict massive retribution on the Iranian regime immediately. As Ayn Rand said at the time, the proper response to the assault was to “march with force the first or second day after the hostages were taken.”2 For America to do anything less in such a situation is to capitulate to the aggressors and to abdicate its moral responsibility to its citizens. America did something less and is still paying the price.

All aggression, including terrorism, is fueled by hope—the hope of success in achieving some irrational goal or furthering some irrational cause. For a nation like the United States to be secure from threats for the long term, its enemies must know that initiating force against it will bring nothing but their own destruction. Supporters of any cause that seeks the destruction of the U.S. must be made to realize that that cause is doomed.

Acts of aggression left unpunished can lead only to further acts of aggression. Appeasing the initiators of force, as we have seen throughout history, leads to more and greater violence. Thus a proper, rights-respecting government does not appease its force-wielding enemies; it acts to eliminate them. Such action, when executed consistently in self-defense, will not only destroy the particular initiator of force; it will also deter other such threats. Indeed, it is America’s reputation for appeasement, for being a “paper tiger,” that fuels the belief of Islamic totalitarians that they can bring down America.

It is important to note that a proper morality does not require that one be directly attacked in order to retaliate. We need not sit idly by as Iran builds nuclear weapons and missile launchers; we need not wait to respond until they have destroyed an American city. A preemptive strike is justified if the nation involved is an objective threat—that is, if it has shown, in action or in official statements, its willingness to initiate or advocate force against us. For America to identify a nation as an objective threat does not mean to identify exactly when or how that threat will materialize (that is impossible); rather, it means to identify that a nation or regime has the will and means to attack or support an attack against the United States. A nation that threatens innocent nations thereby forfeits its right to exist and deserves whatever consequences innocent nations visit on it. There is an analogy here to domestic criminals. When a government establishes that a man is making death threats against his wife, or has hatched a plot to kill her, it properly throws him in jail—it does not wait until her corpse is found, on the grounds that he might change his mind and not carry out the threat.

To fight and win a proper war of self-defense requires two basic courses of action: (1) objectively identify the nature of the threat and (2) do whatever is necessary to destroy the threat and return to normal life, with minimum loss of life and liberty on the part of the citizens of the defending nation.

The specific identity of any given threat and what is necessary to destroy it is not the province of morality; it requires specialized cultural and military knowledge (whereas morality applies only to the basic principles governing human life). But the morality of rational self-interest provides crucial, principled guidance in identifying and then destroying a threat. It holds that the identification of a threat, just like any identification, can be achieved only by means of a scrupulously rational process—unclouded by considerations such as an unwarranted affinity for religion, or the desire to be liked by foreign leaders, or the dogma that all cultures are equal. As for what to do about any given threat, egoism gives the crucial sanction, in enemy territory, to kill and destroy whomever and whatever needs to be killed and destroyed in order to end the threat to the victim country. Such a policy, contrary to Just War Theory, upholds both the principle of justice and the principle of individual rights. Depending on the circumstances, legitimate targets can include the leaders, soldiers, and civilians of the enemy nation.

There is a popular notion, held by nearly every advocate of Just War Theory, that only a handful of crazed dictators and bomb-toting terrorists are our enemies; all other residents of the unfortunate, backward states are “innocent” civilians, tragically trapped among these few killers. Accordingly, we must wage war, not against a nation, but against the few evildoers within it, treating the rest of the population with the same respect we accord American citizens. This notion is false and deadly.

As Churchill and General Sherman understood, civilians play a crucial role in sustaining the military aggression of an enemy country, and directly targeting them can save the lives of one’s own soldiers and civilians. During the Civil War, the civilian population of the South provided motivation and encouragement for its soldiers, greatly prolonging their willingness to wage war against the North. So long as the civilians were exempted from the direct consequences of their actions, they continued to fuel the war effort of the South, which in turn took thousands upon thousands of northern lives. By directly targeting the civilian population, Sherman was performing an act of moral heroism: fully living up to his responsibility of protecting the citizens of the North.

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Now take the case of Islamic terrorism, a threat in which civilians are also a crucial source of spiritual support. Many civilians across the Arab world give terrorists encouragement by worshipping them as heroes. Newspapers in many Arab countries spread anti-Americanism and glorify the martyrdom of the terrorists. Clerics promise terrorists a glorious afterlife. Madrassas indoctrinate students with Islamic totalitarianism. Even civilians who do not entirely support the methods of Islamic terrorists are often sympathetic to and encouraging of their goal of Islamic world domination. Enemy civilians are also a crucial source of material support for terrorists; these civilians frequently provide terrorists with hideouts, money, and weapons. Rich statesmen pay large bounties to the families of suicide bombers.

Most civilians of oppressive regimes do nothing to oppose or resist or change their governments. This passivity does not render them innocent; it renders them accomplices to the evils of their regimes. This passivity is one of the major factors enabling these regimes to commit atrocities against innocents at home and abroad. Unless oppressed civilians take active steps to object to the evil ways of their government, or to go underground, they are morally responsible for the actions of their government. (The positive or negative consequences of the actions one’s government performs in one’s name is one reason why being active in regard to politics, especially intellectually active in this realm, is a selfish obligation.)

“Individual citizens in a country that goes to war,” Ayn Rand once said in response to a question on this topic,

are responsible for that war. This is why they should be interested in politics and careful about not having the wrong kind of government. If in this context one could make a distinction between the actions of a government and the actions of individual citizens, why would we need politics at all? All governments would be on one side, doing something among themselves, while we private citizens would go along in happy, idyllic tribalism. But that picture is false. We are responsible for the government we have, and that is why it is important to take the science of politics very seriously. If we become a dictatorship, and a freer country attacks us, it would be their right.3

To summarize: The civilian population of an aggressor nation is not some separate entity unrelated to its government. An act of war is the act of a nation—an interconnected political, cultural, economic, and geographical unity. Whenever a nation initiates aggression against us, including by supporting anti-American terrorist groups and militant causes, it has forfeited its right to exist, and we have a right to do whatever is necessary to end the threat it poses.

Given that a nation’s civilian population is a crucial, physically and spiritually indispensable part of its initiation of force—of its violation of the rights of a victim nation—it is a morally legitimate target of the retaliation of a victim nation. Any alleged imperative to spare noncombatants as such is unjust and deadly.

That said, if it is possible to isolate innocent individuals—such as dissidents, freedom fighters, and children—without military cost, they should not be killed; it is unjust and against one’s rational self-interest to senselessly kill the innocent; it is good to have more rational, pro-America people in the world. Rational, selfish soldiers do not desire mindless destruction of anyone, let alone innocents; they are willing to kill only because they desire freedom and realize that it requires using force against those who initiate force. Insofar as the innocents cannot be isolated in the achievement of our military objectives, however, sparing their lives means sacrificing our own; and although the loss of their lives is unfortunate, we should kill them without hesitation.

Any true freedom fighter caught in America’s fire understands the nature of the situation his nation has put us in, supports our cause, hopes for the best, and blames his government and fellow citizens for the danger he is placed in. He recognizes the principle that any innocent deaths in war are the sole moral responsibility of the aggressor nation.

Doing whatever is necessary in war means doing whatever is necessary. Once the facts are rationally evaluated, if it is found that using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran’s nuclear facilities or flattening Falluja to end the Iraqi insurgency will save American lives, then these actions are morally mandatory, and to refrain from taking them is morally evil.

To close our discussion of a self-interested, truly just approach to war, let us apply it to two issues that have been extremely prominent in the ongoing war in Iraq: the proper treatment of POWs, and when and how we should occupy a foreign people, including the issue of whether we should establish a free or semi-free society in an occupied country.

Let us begin with POWs. How should POWs be treated? Given the purpose of war, the answer must be: in a way that protects the individual rights of one’s citizens. It is often the case that it is in one’s interest to treat POWs well, because this will encourage enemy soldiers to surrender rather than fight to the death. If more enemy troops surrender, fewer of one’s own troops will die. In a situation where POWs are no threat, treating them well is in one’s self-interest—and treating them badly or killing them is sadistic and self-destructive. However, treating prisoners well does not make sense if, for example, they are hampering one’s efforts to win, or if they are refusing to divulge vital information that could save the lives of one’s own troops. If humiliation or torture is an effective method of extracting information that would save American lives, we should humiliate or torture prisoners as necessary.

Of course, if a POW is truly innocent—that is, a genuine opponent of his regime who was forced to fight for it—he will eagerly provide the victim nation with all the information to which he is privy; no torture will be necessary. Thus, torture is potentially necessary only for the guilty. Those who wish to hide information that could protect the lives and rights of Americans in the name of fidelity to the triumph of Islam have forfeited all rights and deserve any form of abuse that can possibly be used to extract information.

Whether and under what conditions torture is practical is a specialized military question. The moral point is: If and to the extent torture is an effective technique to save American lives, and it is used on those who are initiating force against us, then it is morally obligatory. The idea, prevalent in Washington and in the halls of academia, that it is wrong and inhumane to torture Al Qaeda operatives scheming to kill Americans is suicidal. To not do whatever is necessary to extract information from the inhuman monsters that plan the mass murder of Americans is a horrific violation of the moral purpose of government, which is to protect the lives of its citizens.

Terrorists caught on the battlefield are not innocent until proven guilty; they are by that fact proven guilty of pursuing the deaths of Americans. Just as it is legitimate to kill them in the battlefield, so it is legitimate to use whatever force is necessary on them in an effort to achieve victory once they are caught.

The question of occupation—when one should occupy a country, and what one’s goal should be in occupying it—properly arises only after the nation in question has been defeated. If a nation has not been defeated, it cannot be successfully occupied.

Once an aggressor country is defeated, there is a legitimate question of what the victor should do. There are numerous options, ranging from letting the most powerful domestic faction take over (with the knowledge that any aggression against America will lead to the same fate as the predecessor), to handing over the reins to a friendly strongman or tribe, to making a serious effort to establish a proper, free society.

There is only one standard by which to properly evaluate the situation and choose between these options: What is the least expensive, most effective way to ensure America’s long-term security—that is, to protect the individual rights of Americans? Again, much of this depends on specialized questions of military strategy and the cultural-political conditions of the defeated country. But such a strategy can be properly formulated only if the strategists recognize that the freedom of an enemy country is at most a means to an end for the innocent nation, never an end in itself.

In the event that the establishment of a proper government is in America’s self-defense, every aspect of setting up that government must be governed by that purpose. If we are risking American lives and spending billions of dollars, we must do everything possible to ensure that the new government is non-threatening, if not a staunch ally.

The egoist approach to war—that is, the genuinely just war theory—is completely at odds with Bush’s Forward Strategy of Freedom, which, aside from rejecting the need to defeat our enemies, lets hostile Middle East mobs choose whatever government they wish. When Bush was asked whether he would accept an Iran-style Islamic Republic in Iraq—after some 2,000 American lives had been lost and some 200 billion dollars spent—he said he would, because “democracy is democracy.”4 Democracy is democracy—that is, democracy is mob rule, which is precisely why it must be rejected in any proper occupation. (When a population has proven itself to be nonthreatening to America, it should be given the power to vote, but only in the selection of leaders, not the content of the constitution.) Note that in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur did not ask the Japanese to write a constitution but forced a constitution written by Americans onto the Japanese. Both America and Japan have benefited from this for sixty years.

If, during the course of an occupation, a major insurgency arises against the occupier, then a state of war has resumed—and the insurgency should then be crushed by any means necessary, just like the government that preceded it. But if a war has been fought properly, with the enemy seeing the futility of his ways and offering his unconditional surrender, such an insurgency is very unlikely. The insurgency in Iraq is made possible by President Bush’s failure to actually defeat that nation. If we had fought the war properly from the outset, the thought of an insurgency would be terrifying both to today’s insurgents and to the many civilians that support and protect them. Contrast the fiasco in Iraq today to the occupation of Japan after World War II—in which zero Americans were killed by insurgents.


When Ayn Rand wrote about the moral code she originated, the code of rational self-interest, she stressed that morality is a matter of life and death. The right ethics, she held, lead to individual (and societal) survival, prosperity, happiness; the wrong ethics leads to misery, poverty, death.

This is true in every field but is especially true in the realm of war, as the present struggle has made clear. We are losing the war on Islamic totalitarianism because our leadership, political and military, is crippled by the morality of altruism, embodied in the tenets of Just War Theory. The moral code inherent in Just War Theory defines rules that undercut, inhibit, and subvert any hope of success in war, because it demands that one regard one’s own life as the sacrificial object of others. The moral code of rational self-interest, by contrast, defines principles to attain the values that one’s life and happiness require—including success in war and national self-defense. Altruism is the morality of defeat, and rational self-interest is the morality of victory.

America faces a choice between two irreconcilable foes: self-defense or altruism—which are but forms of the basic choice we all face: life or death. Let us choose life.5

Image credit: Picture Alliance via Getty Images.


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  1. 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.
  2. Robert Mayhew, ed., Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A (New York: New American Library, 2005), 97.
  3. Mayhew, Ayn Rand Answers, 95.
  4. Associated Press, “Bush Doesn’t See Longtime U.S. Presence in Iraq,” published on Foxnews.com, 19 October 2004, www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,135868,00. html (accessed 2 Jan. 2009).
  5. The writers would like to thank Dr. Onkar Ghate, Senior Fellow of the Ayn Rand Institute, for his invaluable editorial assistance with this essay.
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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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