A Time to Kill? Part Two

The consequences of war are one of the elements in Christian theories of just war.  Now, few Americans are sufficiently Christian as to take Christian arguments seriously.  They may justly claim to have “joy joy joy” down in their hearts, but that joy will not prevent them from divorcing their wives, cheating on their taxes, or watching Hollywood movies.  Nonetheless, the traditional criteria for a just war do in fact correspond to common sense and, in fact, go back to ancient Roman views on the subject.

The Roman view--sometimes carried out with pious hypocrisy--was that only wars of defense and revenge were just and thus would not provoke the wrath of their divinities.  A war of naked aggression, such as were carried on by Carthaginians and by the successor-states that emerged from Alexander's short-lived empire, was forbidden, though, as their enemies pointed out, they could be creative in manufacturing a casus belli--though nowhere near so creative as Americans have been.  For Romans, wars were just when they were fought in response to an attack on Roman territory or on the territory of allies with whom Rome had a treaty.   Justifications in Livy, which seem strained to us today, such as the significance of  the Carthaginian siege of Saguntum, were important to his Roman readers.  Caesar's war or conquest and rapine in Gaul was justified on the grounds of protecting Gallic allies from their Gallic enemies, from the Helvetii, and from Ariovistus and the Germans.

One important episode, which took place in the murky (at least morally murky) lead-up to the Punic Wars, occurred in 281 BC.  The Roman consul Postumius Megellus arrived on a diplomatic mission in the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy. The Tarentines had long been at war with the barbaric Italic tribes of southern Italy and had hired mercenaries such as a Spartan king and the king of Epirus. who was brother-in-law to Alexander the great.  Rome had a treaty with Tarentum in which she agreed not to sail ships past a certain point, but when their aid was invoked by Greek cities beyond that point, they sent a small squadron, which was captured.  The soldiers and sailors were detained and mistreated.

The consul's mission was to secure the release of the prisoners.  He was taken to a theater, where the mob insulted his bad Greek and threw filth at his white toga.  Postumius, pointing to the soiled garment, solemnly declared: “You are laughing now, but you will weep when this stain is washed away in blood.”

Such was the Roman view of the sanctity of its officials sent on a diplomatic mission, and such has always been the attitude of virile nations whose citizens and public officials are insulted or attacked.  Rome's hands were far from clean in its dealings in southern Italy, but the Greeks of Tarentum were too clever by half.  In case any incautious reader draws the conclusion, I want to underscore a very simple point:  I am not saying the Romans were right to go to war with Tarentum or that their hands were clean, any more than I am saying that President Trump did unequivocally the right thing or that American hands in the Middle East are anything but dirty.

These are situations in which expanding nations inevitably find themselves, and, while I might prefer the scenario outlined by Kevin Philipps, who argues that the US should sink, as the Netherlands did, gracefully into the status of a second rate power, that is not a position likely to be taken by any party or faction.  Jefferson disliked slavery, but when John Quincy Adams and his pals decided to demagogue the issue and oppose the entry of Missouri into the Union as a slave state, he sagely observed that Americans had the wolf by the ears and dared not let him go.  If a country insists upon having an Empire, then they had better be prepared to accept the liabilities and responsibilities that go with it, and among the very first of these is a determination to punish any acts of aggression against American territory, personnel, or citizens.

I am not going to take my readers through a survey of just war theory, but I shall limit myself to the most obvious observations.  I am taking it for granted that for a war—or lesser act of aggression—to be just, it must be, as the Romans understood, undertaken in response to an act of aggression against the territory, property, or persons for whom I am responsible. The aggression must be more substantial than a conjecture or fear.  Cato the Elder's calls for war against Carthage were partly based on fears and conjecture but also on the threat Carthage had posed in the past and on the resurgence of Carthaginian territorial ambitions.  The Senate dragged its heels--and I believe they were right to do so--but the situation of Rome and Carthage was quite different from that of the United States and any of the petty states of the Middle East, especially Iraq, after it had been humiliated in the Gulf War.

Consider the analogy.  If I hear that some thug across town is talking wildly in a bar about invading my neighborhood for criminal purposes, or if I fear that my neighbor is contemplating violence against me or my family, I cannot in justice anticipate what I imagine to be his violent intentions.  The same goes for Bush II’s highly immoral argument that Saddam Hussein had been stockpiling “weapons of mass destruction” for future use against the United States.  In the first place, the evidence was so thin that even I and many other prudent people without particular sources of information found the argument ludicrous.  Secondly, Bush, Cheney, and the rest did not and could not use their best information, because the USA had in fact supplied weapons of mass destruction to Iraq as a gambit in our dealings with Iraq.

The intelligence on Soleimani unequivocally makes him the controller and mastermind of Iran’s military and terrorist activities in the Middle East.  If we can believe the evidence, he is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and allied soldiers, and, if it is true that the attack on our embassy was conducted by pro-Iranian stooges, then his killing is more justifiable than the killing of Osama bin Laden, who, if we can believe the accounts, was more or less in custody.  The USA, if I can recall correctly, did call for the arrest of Soleimani, and Iran’s refusal to turn him over made him something of an outlaw.  To attempt to arrest a high-ranking general would have been a suicide mission.

But, whether Saddam possessed or did not possess weapons of destruction was a minor question that came secondary to the basic principle invoked by the Bush II administration and its allies, including Ms Clinton.  Their shockingly immoral justification for war discredited the entire adventure from the beginning.

If an armed thug has crossed my threshold or, as I would argue, even set foot upon my property—much less pointed a gun at me or a member of my family—he has sacrificed all moral claims to be treated as anything but a would-be killer.  If an armed force invades a country or attacks the border, then the rulers have not only the right but the duty to respond with force.  The same goes if, for example, we could prove that the Saudis were targeting American tourists.  It goes without saying that an attack on an American embassy or other outpost of US sovereign must be regarded as an act of war.

Thus the Iranians’ attack on our embassy in Tehran and the taking hostages of American citizens was an act of aggression, an aggression which, when it was shown to have the support of the Iranian government and, when later the Iranians involved were not arrested but even rose to high position within the government, constituted an act of war.  If it is true that the recent attack on our embassy in Bagdad was sponsored by Iran’s military leadership, then it was an act of war.

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

1 Response

  1. Avatar Josh Doggrell says:

    I have often used a similar analogy when analyzing the Dubya Doctrine of “preemptive strikes.” Consider: My neighbor verbally threatens me by shouting such threat from the doorway of his home (maybe he just has a menacing look, but for the sake of argument, let us say he actually makes a threat to do me bodily harm). I decide it is a matter of “family security” to conduct a “preemptive strike,” and thereby proceed to leave my property, armed with my trusty Winchester pump shotgun, enter his home, and shoot him dead. I then return to my property and wait for the police to arrive, at which point I will rationally explain to them the “preemptive strike” defense. Surely, they will understand and make the necessary notations in the report. They will then apologize for any inconvenience and carefully leave without driving through the grass. Case closed.