Rethinking the Military Paradigm | Prof John McMurtry | (1991)

Reproduced from:

Inquiry, 34, 415–32

Rethinking the Military Paradigm

John McMurtry
University of Guelph

The article begins with an overview of the historic moment of ‘the end of the Cold War’, and of the paradoxically deepening moral, social, and environmental problems posed by the military system. It demonstrates that historical and contemporary analyses of defence and war have dogmatically presupposed the military paradigm, and have therefore failed to recognize the self-reproducing structure of covert premisses and inferences upon which it rests. In laying bare this underlying system of unreason, the analysis demonstrates that the military paradigm’s ultimately self-contradictory concepts of ‘security’ and ‘defence’ repose on unstated interests of social and political rule. Proposing new distinctions between pathological and life-enabling forms of war, and between guilty and innocent combatants, the argument develops alternative, non-military principles of war to guide rational and moral agency.

As the third millennium approaches, we confront a world-historical cross­ roads in the development of civilization. Yet the object of its choice, the military system, remains by and large presupposed as an institutional given. Even now, as it breaks and regroups before our eyes, the inner logic of its operations remains masked by events, and our concepts of defence and war remain imprisoned within military assumptions.

Yet the military paradigm poses deep problems to moral sensibility. Its purpose is to impose one party’s will on another’s by threats or acts of collective homicide. Its motive is to secure by destructive means claims over social wealth of some kind. Its typical, if hidden, social effect is to increase the wealth and power of the already wealthy and powerful (e.g. by radical increases of central-state powers, public financing of private manufacture, price rises of goods in short supply, and unrestricted exploi­tation of natural resources). It has been so deep a pattern of determining the geography of the human species, its habitat, and its forms of life that it has operated across millennia as an established given of historical formation, even as it has increasingly threatened planetary life itself.

I. The Historic Moment

But we now live in an historic moment with no known precedent. Across human civilization, the military programme for conflict resolution has become less and less credible to those not in military command. An indication of this historic change of attitude is to be found in Western public opinion pollsvover the last decade. In the United States, for example, where the right to threaten armed attack has long been a cornerstone of national culture, those supporting national armament reduction increased from 7 per cent in January 1981 to 74 per cent in January 1990.1

On the other side of the now dismantled iron curtain, the demilitarization of Central Europe was declared as state policy by the governments of both Czechoslovakia and Hungary as the decade turned, while major unilateral armaments reductions by one of the world’s superpowers, the Soviet Union, seemed to presage a sea-change of the world towards an alternative pattern of group self-defence.

In complement to this unprecedented movement of rejection of the military solution as a way of settling international disputes, there emerged an increasing correlation between demilitarized economy and economic success. This showed itself most dramatically in the increasing productive supremacy of the German and Japanese economies, which were stripped of their militaries by unconditional defeat in World War II. The same lesson was conversely revealed in the Soviet Union’s recent economic collapse after decades of escalating costs in its armaments competition with the United States. The United States, in tum, has itself suffered a precipitous decline in its relative productive position in the world in correspondence to its devotion of social resources to military build-up.2

A long-term historical pattern seems to be unfolding. Armed force has been traditionally exalted in the world’s major cultures as the gods’ Yahweh’s, Isanagi’s, Allah’s, or the Christ’s way of demonstrating collective virtue. But now national self-proving by the capacity to obliterate other societies seems ever more widely repudiated. Are we now, at the end of the second millennium, on the verge of overcoming the problem of war itself? According to transcontinental statesman and political theorist Milo­van Djilas in 1989: ‘We are now witnessing the total absence of war, the most dramatic movement in the history of man kind.’3

Reality, needless to say, is less congenial. An arresting symptom of the military system’s continued hold on the structure of civilization has been that, despite the dramatic tum of public opinion towards national arma­ments reduction in the United States, and despite the cumulative com­mitment of its former world adversary to the demilitarization of international relations, the United States government’s first military budget after the collapse of Warsaw Pact regimes in East Europe was hardly affected by this transformation of the designated enemy. Under public proclamations of ‘peace dividends’ and ’50 per cent cuts’ the U.S. adminis­tration continued to spend almost one billion dollars a day on its armed forces, while publicly conceding that its armaments  reductions were a means for achieving armaments modernization. (In the words of Secretary of State James Baker at the time, ‘Our force modernization and arms control efforts reinforce each other’.)

In all this, the U.S. government was loyally supported by its industrialized allies. Even before the appearance in late 1990 of a newly designated military enemy in the person of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, the idea of civilized societies leading a demilitarization of the world from a position of control over advanced weapons production never arose as a considered option. On the contrary, Third World military forces long advised and armed by the United States government and Western weapons manufacturers, including Hussein’s own Iraqi army, continued to be militarily assisted in their wars against perceived enemies, with or without the existence of the ‘Soviet menace’ by which this military assistance had formerly been justified. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Columbia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Angola, Zaire, Israel, and Afghanistan, for example, these military forces continue to deploy their increasingly high-tech weapons against preponderantly unarmed and indigenous peoples, typically with the effect of protecting or increasing extreme inequalities of power and possession.4 In this way, the military monster has remained very much alive under Western tutelage, operating more or less autonomically, and on behalf of interests other than international law, peace, or justice.

It is surely a general fact worth our notice in this continued, and even escalated, hold of the military system after the demise of its principal justification, that the world’s most powerful and wealthy military bloc, which is controlled by perhaps a fraction of one per cent of the globe’s population, has developed and applied its capacities of military violence independently of any threat to its borders; while the rest of the world’s peoples who might oppose this bloc’s increasing demands for natural resources, interest payments, open markets, and low-cost labour-power have been, in relation to this powerful bloc, increasingly disempowered.

A wide currency of neo-Hobbesian reasoning in the academy may provide an intellectual context of acceptance for this global pattern, but one looks in vain for any philosophical or political analysis that has examined what persists through this pattern, the internal logic of the military institution itself. Here we confront a learned culture of silence. Since the military establishments of countries can also direct their capacities to organize terror against their own populations, and indeed are now widely so deployed across the world,5it may be unwise to be sanguine about this global military Leviathan serving the interests of those who pay for the protection of its rule. It could be deployed against these citizens or peoples as well, if they happen by opposition to be identified as enemies by those in command of its increasingly all-powerful armed forces.6

We require the open windows of deep structural critique here. Dra­matically new and unprecedented openings towards world peace and dis­armament just prior to 2000 – a unilateral scaling down of the imperial sword by one superpower, the movement towards demilitarization in Europe, the escalating public preference for arms reductions reaching even to the United States – have also dialectically released new and unprecedented possibilities of military oppression.

Yet even with these new contemporary opportunities and dangers, the academy has remained generally oblivious to the inner logic of the military system and has presupposed its historical structure as a general given of analysis. ‘Just war’ doctrine has been analysed for centuries, but not the underlying military paradigm it presupposes. Countless arguments have been made against the nuclear-weapon means of war, but not against the assump­tion of social death-threat and massacre upon which military reasoning itself is founded. We have libraries of game-theoretical analyses of state-conflict scenarios, but no analysis that thinks to calculate the costs of the military programme in comparison to non-military forms of defence or war. We remain in the grip of an age-old paradigm, even at the time when the destruc­tive technologies at its service have exceeded the earth’s capacity to bear them, and the rift has opened as never before between increasing military powers and the reality of the external threat used to justify them.

II. The Hidden Premises of the Military Paradigm

What one finds in surveying the vast philosophical and social-scientific literature on war and defence is that a particular and narrow form of both is unspokenly presupposed. This presupposed form is so reductively prescriptive in its sense that one might regard it as inconceivable to human intelligence, were its objective not so conventionally assumed: namely, national defence or war means the threat or the action of systematically killing, maiming, and destroying the life-supports of other human beings by maximally efficient means.7

A family of prescriptions normally accompanies this unstated principle of military intention. Though these prescriptions may in principle contradict every value of democratic or progressive social order we espouse, they too are presupposed at the pre-reflective level. We need to unpack from the institutionally given what they are. Like the ruling purpose they serve, they can only be derived by a kind of transcendental deduction. The following general properties of the military programme are here abstracted from its operations over two millennia, and together they constitute its underlying regulative form: (i) social segregation of a specialist arms-monopolizing group to execute the programme’s general objective; (ii) a rank-ordered command structure relying upon motivation by fear to coerce its mem­bership into performing and risking its mass-homicidal prescription; (iii) immersion programmes of obedience conditioning, indoctrination, and life-uniformity to liquidate individuality and choice; (iv) an autonomous technological development whose telos is ever more efficiently homicidal and destructive weapons; (v) an enshrinement of heroic life-sacrifice as a supreme ethical good.

From this culturally universal programme of military war and defence, two main kinds of reflective or theoretical argument have arisen over two millennia of consideration: (1) arguments which specify those types of occasion when other humans are to be systematically killed and maimed with good moral reason (i.e. ‘just war’ theory, ‘moral means’ arguments, and the like);8 (2) arguments which specify, by game-theoretical or other rational calculation, those strategies for military killing and destruction which will by threat or enactment maximize payoffs for one side in the conflict.9

Further narrowing this premiss-base of the established theory of war and defence is an invariant a priori principle regulating judgment: namely, justification from the standpoint of one side only, the side to which one is assigned by one’s prescribed membership in a predefined group (what we may call the tribal a prion).10

It is difficult to discover any argument in the immense and varied literature on war and defence that does not conform to this set of unstated, and one might say deranged, first premisses. In consequence, an all-or­-nothing choice – killing, maiming, and life-means destruction on the one hand or non-retaliatory pacifist non-violence on the other – has stood as the standard foundation of institutionally recognized war and defence choice: while a systematic bias towards one side’s moral or material self­-interest has determined judgment from this underpinning set of premisses. Deriving from this premiss base, military commands have also typically assumed that the opposing sides of any military conflict will, because rationally pursuing their self-interest, inflict the worst harm they can on the other side to maximize their own side’s gains. This follows necessarily from the logic of zero-sum games where payoffs and losses are exactly equal, but is an assumption which antedates its formalization in mathe­matical theory. This regulating logic of self-interest maximization then generates a system of hypotheses called ‘worse-case scenarios’, by which the worst that the other side can possibly do is posited as a given of ‘hard realism’. Reasoning then proceeds from these postulates of gross violation by the adversary towards decisions of threatened or enacted social massacre and destruction.11

The depth and consequence of unexamined assumption here are breath­ taking, but widely assumed as requirements of ‘rationality’. War’s military mode has, by its historical dominance, so locked social and moral judgment into presupposing a homicidal and mass-destructive logic of war and defence that conventional reflection has closed itself to the most fundamental choices of which ‘making war’ or ‘self defence’ admit.

On the basis of this edifice of premisses, established military and geo­political thought typically takes the form of an escalating sequence of invalid inferences conceptualized as ‘military necessity’. This sequence follows a common pattern.

If T (Them) is an extra-territorial or internal group perceived to be in a state of hostility to a position of a state or states, U (Us), then U’s national or international command, if it believes itself militarily able, reasons as follows:

    (1) T is opposed to U.

(2) T is an enemy of U.

    (3) T is immoral.

∴ (4) T must be made to yield to U.

(5) U must be willing to deploy its military ability to prevail over T.

(6) If T continues to oppose U, U must militarily attack T.

    (7) If T effectively resists U, U must destroy the enemy, T, by large­ scale homicide, maiming and destruction of the means of life.12

No step of this inferential sequence follows. But all of its non sequitur moves are conceptualized in customary war and defence thought as, on the contrary, a sequence of rational compulsion. We see this spurious apodeictic of military logic at work transculturally in the hypnotic repetition of standard formulae of state policy: ‘strategic necessity’, ‘necessity of national security’, ‘necessity of defence’, ‘necessity of the national interest’, and so on.13

What is remarkable is that this long institutionalized programme of thought is clearly abhorrent to human sensibility. For, as we know from even the popular culture of Vietnam War films, only a coercive and totalitarian regimen of training can normally cause its implementation to be obeyed. Yet it remains by and large taken for granted even by those whose trained function it is to interrogate the irrational, or indeed the insane. The long-established incorporation of military logic into the ration­ality of state agency itself has reached beneath conscious choice into the conventional preconception of what the national self and its interests are. To expose the covert metaphysic on which the military programme rests, we must tum to a question whose answer it illicitly assumes.

III. Who is the Self of National Self-Defence?

At the base of our conceptual constructions of the world we must defend ourselves in is the self-other disjunction. As Hegel and Sartre have emphasized, this relationship of self to other may at bottom be a war, a contest to the death in some sense. But even in the restricted sense of war between human groups with homicidal weapons of attack and defence, the self­ other axis at the heart of such oppositions can take many different alterna­tive forms.

At the most primitive level, there is the Hobbesian possibility of merely individual selves, organic or national, driven by inborn appetites of power or fear to wage a bellum omnium contra omnes, with further differentiated conceptions of ‘self’ possible within these parameters: from, at one end, the self posited as a brutish shortness of existence, a mere pawn of chance in the mortal struggle, to, at the other end, a vainglorious self-concept whose negation of otherness spans across the state of nature in a projected structure of omnipotence.

By contrast, there are many other, less atavistic possibilities of the national or individual self underlying the life-and-death struggle of war: the self as free-trade contestant in a ‘marketplace competition of survival and elimination’; or, as in the brahminical tradition, the self as an ego­ annihilative warrior against attachment to material objects of desire; or, as in sociobiological theory, the self or population group as avehicle of genetic reproduction in the evolutionary war for continued life. These and other conceptions of self imply radically different types of defence and war. What might be the commercial self’s opportunity for exchange could be the spiritual self’s deadly insult. What could be a provocation of racial impurity to the genetic self might to the cosmopolitan self be an opportunity for love. What might be a mortal provocation for any of these selves could also be, for any other, a stimulus to agreement under a different construction of thought. In short, wholly different forms of war and defence are generated from different concepts of who or what we are. Thus, from Homeric warriors to contemporary anti-racists, invocations of self-identity invariably accompany declarations of war.

These are some of the fundamental alternatives of self-other lines of con­tests to the death. Yet each in tum admits of further subtypes. The ‘patriotic’ self, for example, is protean in its varieties. It may be based on disguised private self-interest commander glory, class hegemony, or envy of youth, for example. On the other hand, a nation of people might conceive of them­selves in terms of their country’s geographical integrity and preservation, or its heritage of civil and political institutions, or its potential contribution to human well-being, or the conceit of being ‘number one’ in the world. These are all options for a patriotic identity’s asserting itself through projects of defence or war. The underlying choices of value here are complex and rich, and all can provide the basis from which judgment leads to non-homicidal war. For example, against flies, corruption, or official lies.

Let us suppose, in line with current proclamations of national identity, that ‘freedom for all people’ is a nation’s self-defining objective in defence and war. This self-base obviously opens onto a horizon of possibilities very different from that of the self-base for which it may merely be the cloak: the self as essentially acquisitor. For example, the patriot of global freedom could not consistently adopt the plan of transferring a maximum of capital from poorer countries to its wealthiest citizens through military means. For the exploitation in such a project would contradict the declared patriotic identity. On the other hand, such a programme of choice and action would be quite consistent with the underlying self that seeks capital accumulation for its corporate citizens before all else. Which self a nation constitutes itself as makes all the difference to what kind of enemy that nation will face, and what sort of defence or war it will choose. The concept of ‘national self-interest’ does not designate a given, but an open question.

This is what is ultimately meant by the insight that ‘war reveals a society’s inner nature’. Through the lines of life and death it draws, war expresses what a people will sacrifice for, what they will keep, what is their ultimate self, and what is not. Almost anything at all is possible here, from nationally distributed delusion and the sovereignty of narrow class interests to the common will to make possible a comprehensive development of conscious life. The ‘national interest’ is not a premiss from which rational policy can be inferred, as is assumed in the literature that passes as analytic in these matters. It is a conclusion of an unexamined metaphysic of social self and other which has been epistemically foreclosed by a reductive military a priori which has become a cultural mindset.

IV. War and Class Interests

That the military programme rules out the open questions its premisses pose is not merely a problem of unreason . The blockage runs far deeper, into the structure of social power itself. It is a well-known fact, from the vantage-point of historical hindsight or cultural opposition, that ruling groups use the goal of ‘national self-defence’ or ‘national security’ as a recurrent pretext for what is, in fact, the defence and security of their own privileged positions of office or wealth, and the capacity to attack what poses an organized challenge to these.14 What is represented as the nation’s collective salvation from external threat is, we know from afar, a controlling class’s quite private advantage – its continuance in authority in the face of domestic unrest redirected towards an external ‘enemy’, the extravagant profiting of its leading business members from national arms races, or the seizure of foreign lands, markets, resources, strategic sites, or labour­ pools to increase its membership’s own wealth and power. Though these concealed projects of appropriation are perfectly obvious to us underneath claims of the ‘national interest’ when pursued by rulers made objective to us by time or geopolitical division, they do not normally appear thus when pursued by the leaderships of what we suppose to be our own countries. Here scepticism is suspended. This may be because those disclosures which would confirm it will be judged by others, or experienced by the sceptic himself, as treasonable or subversive.

Given the special advantages derived from the military programme by ruling classes, of whatever type, we can better understand why the military system of war has remained so generally invulnerable to second thought. Its protection of these ruling interests, publicly understood and participated in as ‘national security’, is the cornerstone of their continued rule.15 Viewed from the safe distance of another culture which gives detachment a foothold, the military programme can be critically assessed and seen for what it actually is. But even such insight from afar is normally protected by ideological con­ditioning from any self-reference and, indeed, is typically represented as a reason why the military programme must go on, to save us from other mili­taries which are not benignly directed like our own.

In this way, comprehension of the military system has remained within a closed circuit of thought, unable to break past this acculturated partiality of view to a recognition that the prescriptions of its own military programme are determined, as others’ are, by underlying demands of special interest. Consider, for example, a wide range of contemporary military establish­ments, though from a sufficient cultural remove to allow impartial reflection. In most countries of the Far East, the Middle East, sub-Sahara Africa, and Central and South America, the greatest and often only armed threat to these nations’ inhabitants has, for many years, proceeded from these countries’ own militaries, who, being inclined to view the impoverished populations over whom they rule as the primary threat to national security, have estab­lished order by such means as mass civilian terror and slaughter, despotic imposition of laws and government, violent looting and extortion, and theft of public resources. Even in the world’s most economically powerful country, the United States, the greatest danger to the well-being of its citizens now demonstrably proceeds from the pervasive military complex within its own borders: essentially through the vast expenditures on arms that have cor­respondingly reduced tribute-free citizen time and the safety of social environments, but also through nuclear-bomb insecurity, the threat of armed force against domestic opposition, and tens of thousands of mutilations and deaths of drafted citizens incurred by covertly determined military invasions of smaller countries.16 As for the external threats these military actions have been said to have deterred, it is important to keep in mind that invented threats have the peculiar advantage of being assured of effective deterrence.

V. Beneath the Military Paradigm: War as a Humanism

War entails the death of other beings. But what is to be killed? The military programme, as we know, requires people, and normally masses of young and less privileged people on both sides. Even revolutions against ruling classes have classically had the same military bias towards group homicide as war’s given goal. That is why even the emancipatory programme of Marx has generally presupposed this form of civil war, and why Engels and Lenin were fond of the military categories ‘general staff of the revolution’ and ‘march of the masses’ to describe the role of Communist Party command.

Yet the project of making war enjoins no such conclusion. Destroying humans and their capacities does not follow from the nature of war, however much we are accustomed to this non sequitur as a priori true. The destruction of an opposition is a necessary consequent of war, but this by no means requires, as the dominance of the military paradigm of war has misled us into supposing, human death or destruction.

The following premiss or its like is common to all war thought:

(1) War involves a deliberate and organized campaign by human agency to obliterate the existence of a perceived enemy.17

With the military form of war, the existence that is or is planned to be obliterated is large numbers of other human beings: possibly tens or hundreds of millions, their limbs and organs and other faculties, and their basic means of life-support, along with untold casualties of natural beings and entire eco­systems of fauna and flora as a by-product. This is a pathological form of war. Although it intends, by such devices as safe places for its non-combatant leaderships, to protect some beings from its ever greater capabilities of devas­tation, its technological development is now at the stage where even its ruling beneficiaries are not safe. What adds to this peculiar fixation upon the military programme is that human groups are perpetually engaged in other kinds of war and defence which do not destroy human beings but give them better opportunities. Our very historical development and ecological adaptation have, indeed, depended upon our waging these wars – against pathogens, disease-bearing pests, insect and rodent hordes, superstitions, tyrannies, toxic pollutants … The list is long. Its pattern may underlie both our cultural and evolutionary success as a species.

We can make a generalization about such wars which puts war in an entirely different light.

(2) The human capacity to make war is, in proportion to its co-operative inclusion, a species-distinctive ability upon which humanity’s survival and development depends.

Much could be said about this principle. I suspect that a great deal of human evolution and development could be explained from its standpoint­ humanity’s wars perhaps beginning, and certainly playing a primary role, in the organizational structures of co-operation which characterize  the species’ prehistorical and historical advances in collective capacitation. Survival against larger predators, the weeding techniques of the agricultural revolution, the effective coping with vermin and pestilences of all kinds, the conquests of a long succession of plagues and diseases, the modem movement to war on the microbial level, the advancement of allopathic medicine and hygienic practices to the present day – the theme of war’s deliberate annihilation of other being is extensive and complex. Today human groups are waging wars not in metaphor but with truly annihilative intent on more levels than ever before: against viruses and carcinomatous cells, corporate lies, industrial wastes, structures of impoverishment, self­ pity, nuclear war itself.18

The unexplored fact is that war has two fundamentally opposed forms: the enabling and the disabling. The enabling form saves or assists human or other life, as in scientific wars against lethal diseases. The disabling form, on the other hand, kills or injures developed life, as in military wars. These opposed forms embrace two polar extremes. The enabling mode of war can be mar­ginally significant, for example, against temporary insect invasions of one’s summer retreat; or it can be lastingly significant to species reproduction, for example, a war against transcontinental plagues. At the opposite pole of annihilative possibility, a disabling war can be comparatively trivial, as in a weaponless war between adolescent groups, or, at the far end of the spectrum, destructive of life itself on earth as in an all-out nuclear war.

War moves towards its pathological pole the more it destroys or is capable of destroying humans and human capacities or, more broadly, the very life of the earth. The military programme of war is plainly the historical bearer of this pathological extreme. Even those disabling wars which are apparently non-military in nature, for example inquisitorial wars against perceived satanic influences by religious authorities, acquire an ever closer family resemblance to the military programme of war the more life-destruc­tive they become. The military programme of rank-ordered command and destruction by maximally efficient scientific means may undergird even industrial devastation itself, whose systematic assaults on natural eco­systems have their historical prototype in the military model of conquest.19

We have not yet confronted the possibility that the military form of war is a deep-structural derangement of the life of our species which has become increasingly dominant the more its destructive capacities have advanced. We are now at the stage where some decisive recognition of these poles of possibility is needed to comprehend adequately our evolutionary lot. At the present juncture of humanity’s self-formation, global life itself lies between the pincers of military technology’s expansion in both its anti­-human and its anti-nature forms.

VI. Towards the Just War

Once we cease presupposing the military form of war we are better able to make a distinction between the enemy we seek to destroy by war and, what ought not to be destroyed, other human lives. Just as with morally unimpeachable wars against organic diseases and other unambiguously destructive patterns, which are best waged with an ever more exact focus against enemies whose elimination entails no loss of higher life-forms, so here. War seeks only to kill the disabling pattern. This pattern is judged the enemy (e.g. bubonic plague), not necessarily the being that bears it (e.g. the rodent).

Applying this fundamental but overlooked distinction to national enemies, we can say that such-and-such a pattern of behaviour (e.g. Nazism) is an utmost evil, and that it obliges us to go to battle to the death against it. But such a value judgment may not require the death of persons bearing the pattern (e.g. even of Nazism) for it is not persons as such which are finally depraved (since they can and may reform), but rather the murderous pattern they choose or are forced to bear.

Analysts of moral choice in war have failed to consider this fundamental distinction between agent and structure of action. Yet it emerges as a foundational option where human enemies are concerned, because agency here involves the capacity to choose against the deadly pattern, whereas non-human disease bearers have no such capacity. They (the diseased ones) normally have to be killed to get at the pattern (the disease), whereas humans, as such, need not be. As bearers of the military programme, some humans may become ‘beasts’, and this is the deep meaning of this epithet – that they have abandoned their humanity and hold incorrigibly to viciously destructive programmes. In these cases, usually confined to those who derive positions of social power from such programmes, the only way to annihilate their pattern may be to annihilate them. But these inalterable cases are far rarer than can warrant the mass-terrorist leap by military thought to projects of killing, or threatening to kill, thousands and millions, perhaps billions, of people as a ‘necessity of self-defence’.

Rather, in so far as this military programme itself increasingly endangers the security of unarmed citizens everywhere, its implementation poses the very systematic violence and threat to civilization and peace that it purports to defend against. It extends into a world-destructive possibility the organized attack on civilian peace and security its putative value is to prevent. Thus its practice gives the lie to its claimed goal.

This fundamental distinction between persons and the patterns they bear is deeper than the well-known distinction between civilians and soldiers advocated by more discriminating analysts of military war such as Elizabeth Anscombe.20 Under our deeper distinction, that is, it does not suffice for a right to kill T that T is militarily determined to kill you. Rather, one’s war is properly to be waged against the military pattern that is imposed from above, and by a command which is normally the very last to be harmed by military attack. Entirely different consequences of rational calculation and action follow. One does not look for ways of blowing up enemy soldiers, but of fighting to the death the economic-military pro­gramme by which they are temporarily and usually coercively bound. This fight can proceed by any number of long-term or short-term strategies of non-military war – abolishing established armies themselves (as in distinctively peaceful Costa Rica or post-war Japan), state policies of demilitarization (as in current Czechoslovakia and Hungary), non-violent methods of national defence (as are advocated by a growing movement led by successful civilian uprisings in Iran, the Philippines, Palestine, and Eastern Europe), or national and international activisms of weapon-dis­mantling, collective boycott, co-ordinated strike, or civilian tax-revolt against military tribute.

Again, the underlying distinction here is not that advanced by Thomas Nagel in ‘War and Massacre’, which also classically argues for restricting the proper objects of military killing to enemy combatants. We agree in specifically condemning as moral evils ‘the indiscriminate destructiveness of anti-personnel weapons; napalm-cruelty to prisoners; massive relocation of civilians; destruction of crops [and] – piecemeal wiping out of rural civilian populations in airborne anti-guerrilla warfare’.21 However, Nagel’s more discriminating and humane alternative of engaging the ‘person’ of the com­batant and no other, and then only in those respects in which this person or persons are a threat (not their families or community or other ‘irrelevant aspects’ of their being), falls far short of the deeper wedge of the distinction proposed here. For it is precisely not the person, who as such is normally trapped in his combatant role and would prefer an alternative mode of expression, who warrants destructive targeting. Rather, it is the disabling programme of which the combatant is now a bearer, the form of social life presently and typically coercively governing him, which is the proper object of annihilative attack. Opposing soldiers are only symptoms of a deeper structure, by which they too are all mortally endangered. If they do not yield up their being to any one of the requirements of the combatant role they are commanded to bear, they are subject with certitude to such consequences as public shaming, imprisonment, and military execution .

Since enemy soldiers are thus normally forced to be enemy soldiers, they lack the guilty intention to make them justly punishable for what they do. They are hostages of extreme threat, and have not the resources to resist their compulsion. Even on Nagel’s more discriminating conceptualization of the enemy, they are all none the less to be rightfully maimed or killed. The paradox that thereby arises – of justly tearing people to pieces for what they did not choose to do – is only resolved if we recognize that it is the coercive pattern, not the people bound by it, against which deadly counterattack is justly directed.

It might be replied that you are surely entitled to defend yourself against a threat, innocent or not. You might have to kill those who bear this threat, even if they are forced into their deadly role. But such a defence, if self­-preserving in immediate effect, is nevertheless shallow in conception and consequence, because it directs its attack only at other victims of military command. If these victims are killed, they will merely be replaced by still further victims coerced into the role of enemy combatants. If they are not replaced, because the war has been won, the long-term problem of killing innocent people is added to and prolonged. In either case, the effect of such a form of self-defence is to multiply the victims of the programme of killing. Consistently effective self-defence, as well as refrainment from killing the innocent, requires a deeper object of counterattack – not the persons of enemy soldiers, but the underlying military programme by which they are bound.

In a less well-known but further developed analysis, Laura Westra has also argued that Nagel’s distinction between combatants and civilians does not acknowledge the requirement of ‘culpable intent’. She writes:

Perhaps ignorance, based upon a wilful external effort to present facts, situations and actions in an appropriate rose-coloured light might place drafted enemy armies at the level of partial innocence (something like the legal notion of ‘extenuating circumstances’ perhaps). This should still be sufficient to spare them from ‘rightful obliteration’ at our hands.22

While Westra, like Nagel and Anscombe, continues to develop an impor­tant distinction between the guilty and the innocent in military war, she also continues to miss a basic point. Merely personal intentions do not and cannot get to the bottom of the matter where a collectively coercive social institution is involved. Progressive exposure of groups within the enemy population who do not, by the innocence of their intentions, deserve the terror and massacre the military system prescribes for them, does indeed draw the curtain away from the established monolith ‘Enemy’, through our fear and hatred of which we have long been conditioned into accepting the military programme. That is all to the good. But as this process of analysis leads from bystanding civilians to conscripted soldiers themselves, it reveals in its wake an underlying form of social coercion and destruction within which the very vast majority of those preparing for or involved in war on both sides are involuntarily imprisoned – the military system of war itself. It is this imposed programme of war and the special interests it is typically constructed and directed to serve that is the real enemy against which war is properly justified.

The solution to the question of whom one can rightfully kill in war will continue to evade us until we move to this deeper ground of the social structures within which participants in military war are normally constrained to act. The traditional quest to identify ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’ intentions of individuals implementing the military programme misses the underlying structure determining their actions. The full problem will be plumbed only when analysis moves to the institutionalized substructure by which personal moral intentions are essentially ruled out. Until we move to this deeper level of analysis, we are without the bearings we require to understand our problem, floundering about in assessments of guilt and innocence of role­ players in a prescribed killer game. It is this military game and its leading beneficiaries who preside in safety over its imposition that require moral targeting to advance inquiry beyond mere surface symptoms.

When we do begin to question the institutional a priori within which war’s massacres occur, and consider in reflection the more coherent alternatives of which national security and self-defence admit, much emerges to notice. We think across the military-enemy dichotomies which confine reason within automaton presuppositions of mass homicide and destruction, and begin to comprehend a larger scheme of things. The enemy which threatens us most directly, we begin to see, is within our own borders, as it is within theirs, and it is the pathological logic of the military paradigm itself.23

Received  25 February 1991

John McMurtry, Department of Philosophy, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1G2Wl


  1. New York Times and CBS News poll. 30 January 1990.

  2. Seymour Melman and Lloyd J. Dumas have reported that ‘from 1947 to 1989, the US has diverted to military purposes resources whose value exceeded the fixed reproducible, tangible wealth of the entire civilian economy’ (The Nation, 16 April 1990, p. 521). They also report that ‘every year since 1951, the new capital made available to the Defense Department has exceeded the combined net profits of all US corporations’ (p. 523). The US’s relative decline as an economic power, for example from being the world’s largest creditor nation to the world’s largest debtor nation from 1980 to 1987, is attributed to this military spending, a pattern of decline that has been plotted as well in Paul Kennedy’s well-known comparative study, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (New York: Random House, 1988).

  3. Milovan Djilas, ‘A New Form of Dictatorship: An Interview’, Telos, No. 80 (Summer 1989), p. 126.

  4. While the Soviet Union, whose ‘expansionist policies of armed force’ had been used in the past to justify United States military interventions in Central America, was dramatically reducing its armed force personnel outside its borders, military forces armed and financed by the United States were at the same time maintaining or escalating their killings of unarmed civilians in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and Columbia. Between October and November, 1989, in El Salvador, while the Soviet bloc was collapsing in Eastern Europe, civilian assassinations by US-supported security forces increased from 83 to 1,767 (The Human Rights Commission of El Salvador, 6, no. 1 (February 1990), pp. 4-5). Within the next month, Panama was invaded by US forces in violation of regional and international law, and US-sponsored military interventions persisted or escalated in Afghanistan and Kampuchea, where Soviet or Soviet-allied troops had completed promised withdrawals.

  5. In 1988 there were 111 military conflicts in the world, but less than 10 per cent were between states. Ninety-nine of the 111 were by state-armed forces against real or imagined rebels, half against indigenous peoples (Peter Wallensteen [ed.], States in Armed Conflict 1988 [Department of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University, Report No. 30, July 1989)). State militaries have great resources to devote to such wars, currently more than the total income of half the world’s population (Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures [Washington DC: World Priorities, 1989)).

  6. That the military command of the United States posits the possible need for armed invasion of its closest ally, seems indicated by the recent construction of the largest US Army installation project since World War II 80 miles from Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, at the juncture of the country’s major ethnic fissure between English Ontario and French Quebec, and within a few miles of the country’s major population, transportation, and communication lines. Since the 70,000 troop contingent at Fort Drum is equipped for winter conditions and only for ‘rapid attack against an undefended area’, with ‘neither the airfield nor the aircraft for overseas deployment’, its capacity is logistically suited only to strikes against nearby targets. It is interesting to note in this connection that ‘during its negotiations with Mexico … for the inclusion in the [free trade) agreement of an American promise not to use military intervention to enforce any trade disputes, the United States refused to agree’ (Floyd W. Rudmin, ‘Offensive Light Infantry Forces at Fort Drum, New York: Why Should Canadians Care?’ Queen’s Quarterly 96, no. 4 [Winter 1989), pp. 886-917).

  7. This presupposition of war’s nature is most arrestingly evident in contemporary ‘low intensity warfare’ strategy where the qualifying ‘low intensity’ remains consistent with obliteration of peasant villages and populations. At the other end of the spectrum of war’s analysts, these features are presupposed as war’s nature by disarmament theorists, for example by the modem founder of disarmament theory, Quincy Wright, who works from these unstated assumptions throughout the two volumes of his A Study of War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942), as well as, more tellingly, in his The Role of International Law in the Elimination of War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961). His presupposition remains shared by subsequent disarmament advocates, with the notable but only partial exception of Gene Sharp in his ground-breakingstudy Politics of Non-Violent Action (Cam­bridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973). Professor Sharp continues to presuppose the military concept of war while proposing an alternative concept of defence. Robert Holmes in his War and Morality (Princeton: Princeton University Press,1989) follows a similar pattern of thought. While he also distinctively rejects the military system of defence and searches for a ‘new conception’, thereby setting himself apart from the mainstream of analysis which considers only what type of military defence to recommend, he too continues to presuppose war in its military form and to conform to the premisses of this conception.

  8. Though questions of war’s justification and legitimate means have been prominent in Western philosophical discourse since Saint Augustine’s anecdotal reflections in The City of God and Thomas Aquinas’s Questions 40,105, and 125 in the Summa Theologia, the military paradigm of defence and war has been generally presupposed even in these ethico-religious analyses. It remains typically unscrutinized in the upsurge of recent philosophical articles and books on the subject, most of which are concerned with the ethical propriety of one instrument of military war, the nuclear bomb, whose catalysing paradox is that it threatens to harm its users. ‘To control the military monster, at least to some degree’ (in the words of Nicholas Fotion and Gerard Elfrom in Military Ethics [London: Methuen, 1986]), may now be an emergent philosophical concern, but that this military monster is national defence and war’s necessary pattern continues to be assumed in even those arguments which seek to restrain it by arms control, specific weapons abolitions, minimal credible deterrence, and exact targeting.

  9. NATO and Pentagon decision-theory and strategic analysis still restricts itself to the goal of maximizing home-side gains and opponent-side losses within the framework of both the military paradigm and zero-sum game theory. Even where there is concern to show, through such paradoxes as the Prisoner’s Dilemma, that self-interest is best secured by strategics of co-operation, as in the classical strategic-theory work of Thomas C. Schelling in The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1963), these underlying principles of the military paradigm of defence and war itself remain presupposed in such concepts as ‘credible threat’.

  10. The underpinning premisses of this tribal a priori of the military mind-set are revealed in value-loaded referring terms, the truth of whose descriptive content is simply assumed: for example, characterization of one’s own country as ‘free and democratic’ and the opposing side as a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’. These set ascriptions pervade even scholarly discourse, and operate as the premisses from which inferences of possible or recommended policies of mass homicide and destruction are ‘rationally’ drawn. Sec, e.g., Michael Novak, Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age(London: Thomas Nelson, 1983), and, rather more surreptitiously, David Gauthier, ‘Deterrence Maximization, and Rationality’, Ethics 94 (April 1984), pp. 474-95. Gauthier’s conceptualization exemplifies the military mind-set underlying even logi­cal analysis of defence choice. He begins by characterizing the intended deterrer as ‘she’ and the intended deterred as ‘he’; he then denominates the US as ‘she’ and the ‘SU’ as the assailant: in which positions he then further characterizes the US as in ‘fear’ of an SU ‘nuclear strike’ if the US ‘refuses some demand’ of the SU, or if there is US ‘refusal to acquiesce’ or ‘refusal to submit’ to the SU (see pp. 474, 478, 482, 485, 489, 491, 492, 494). This implied opposition of virtuous maiden (the United States) and violating male (the Soviet Union) is the given position from which a retaliatory nuclear strike by the US that destroys the SU is argued by Gauthier as a ‘maximally rational’ policy intention, to be implemented even if its declared intention fails to deter.

  11. For documentation of how worst-case scenarios can become perceived as real threats and then be responded to by threats of nuclear-war attack, sec George Kennan, The Nuclear Delusion (New York: Pantheon, 1982), Tom Gervasi, The Myth of Soviet Supremacy (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), and Michio Kahn and Daniel Axelrod, To Win A Nuclear War (Boston: South End Press, 1988).

  12. This is an underlying programme of thought and never defended as such in military-strategic rationales, but can be analysed out of any such rationale (see, e.g., the texts in note 10). It is a pattern of thought that also governs paramilitary organizations – national secret police, intelligence agencies and the like – whose direction or execution of homicidal attacks, torture, imprisonment of internal and external ‘enemies’ is often more routine and mass-destructive than those by uniformed armed forces, with which, through their similar logic of organization and action, they form a common type. The formal essence of this military-mind sequence is encoded in zero-sum game theory which is conventionally presupposed in military and geopolitical strategic thinking. Because in the logic of a zero-sum game, whatever one side is deprived of is necessarily won by the other, and vice versa, it is assumed as reasonable that the opponent will always calculate so as to do his worst to you as he possibly can. Operating in terms of this maximally hostile framework of rationality, it follows easily that one’s opponent in a confrontation of life-and-death stakes is conceived as an enemy, as immoral, as requiring conquest, and – since it is a military confrontation – a conquest by threatened or enacted mass homicide and destruction.

  13. Richard Wasserstrom recognizes in part this closure to rational self-criticism in military thinking when he says ‘national institutions’ have a ‘theoretical incapacity’ to perceive or to find against even the provable war crimes of their own governments (‘The Relevance of Nuremberg’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1/1 (Fall 1971), pp. 42-43.

  14. We mean by the concept ‘ruling group’ that group of any society’s decision-makers, including foreign owners or officials, who (i) together control by occupancy of state office or ownership of private capital that society’s production and distribution of social goods and means of destruction; and (ii) individually derive from these positions of control a securing or enlarge­ment of their incomes or of their power to command by military enforcement. Note that this criterion is both broader and narrower in its referent than the standard Marxian criterion of ruling-class membership: broader by its inclusion of social goods other than material means of production, and narrower by its exclusion of effective owners of social means of production whose positions of rule do not depend for their sustainment on armed force.

  15. For fuller explanation of the logic of selection and exclusion involved in this determination of a society’s ideology, sec John McMurtry, ‘The Unspeakable: Understanding the System of Fallacy in the Mass Media‘, Informal Logic 10/3 (Fall 1988) pp. 133-50. For the logical moves whereby opposition to ruling group interests is fallaciously transformed into oppo­sition to collective interests, see ‘The Argumentum on Adversarium‘, Informal Logic 8/1 (Winter 1986), pp. 27-37.

  16. Jerome 8. Wiesner, president emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and science adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, analysed the situation as follows in a paper entitled ‘A Perilous Sense of Security’, given to the National Academy of Science in Washington in April, 1984: ‘It is no longer a question of controlling a military-industrial complex but rather of how to keep the United States from becoming a totally military culture­ – a society in which military ideas and goals are accepted unthinkingly, and every domestic and international problem is subjugated to the demands of the military system’. It might be added in explanation of this military mind-set that military commodities have unique advantages for their producers – unparalleled value-added prices, uniquely rapid obsolescence by arms­ race management, monopoly conditions of production and coercible demand by public taxation.

  17. In his widely reproduced essay, ‘On the Morality of War: A Preliminary Inquiry’, Richard Wasserstrom asserts that ‘using a certain amount of deadly force under a claim of right’ is the defining characteristic of war (Moral Problems, ed. James Rachels [New York: Harper & Row, 1972], pp. 299-304). However, a ‘claim of right’ is not necessary to war, even inter­national military war, since it is not a contradiction in terms to say that ‘Nation x made war against nation y with no claim of right’. Moreover, wars against cancer, destructive falsehood, and so on, qualify under Wasserstrom’s criterion of war, as ordinary usage widely recognizes, and, as we show in our subsequent argument, by virtue of a more consistent understanding of ‘deadly force’ and ‘right’ than his definition allows.

  18. Wars against disease and the like may enable human life more inclusively by saving lives, or preserving or extending established human capacities. On the other hand, such wars may also and often necessarily disable non-human forms of life by destroying them or depriving them of habitat. This is war’s nature: to eradicate certain forms of life. It is in this way inherently tragic from a point of view for which all forms of life bear value. War can be progressive or regressive in unlimited degrees, but it is always, by definition, in some respect, deliberately annihilative. It follows from this criterion, which governs all usages of the concept, that the sacrifice war entails need never be of humans, nor even of sentient life. The highest form of war might be, as William Blake conceived it, the non-corporeal war of ideas.

  19. For accounts of the foundational connections between military organization, hierarchical command, division of labour, and destructive technology see, among his other works in the field, Rudolf Bahro’s essay on industrialism’s ‘impulse to obliteration’ in Extremism and Cold War (London: Verso and New Left Review Books,1982), as well as Riane Eisler’s, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988). In this connection, it is relevant to note that the nearly one billion dollars a day expended by the US government on lethal armed forces directed against human beings, generates at the same time the largest single source of environmentally hazardous wastes in the United States (Simon Rosenblum, ‘Mili­tarism and Environmental Security’, Ploughshares Monitor XI [September 1990], p. 14).

  20. Elizabeth Anscombe, ‘War and Murder’, originally published in Nuclear Weapons: A Catholic Response, ed. Walter Stein (New York: Merlin Press, 1961), pp. 45-62.

  21. Thomas Nagel, ‘War and Massacre’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1972), pp. 123-42.

  22. Laura Westra, ‘On War and Innocence’, Dialogue XXV (Winter 1986), pp. 735-40.

  23. I am especially grateful to Dereck Paul and Anatol Rapoport for their responses to earlier versions of this paper, and to G. A. Cohen for his valuable comments on its final draft.

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