George Will’s False Choice on War and Drones

Failure to distinguish between the private person and state action is always a recipe for muddled thinking. This is especially so in regard to the conduct of war. Though it can occur between any cluster of persons, war is characteristically seen as a state activity through and through. War, as Randolph Bourne saw it, is “the chief function of States.” Because the state exists by violence and predation, war and the state end up “inseparably and functionally joined.” This leaves little room for a truly “just war” in any proper understanding.

In a recent column for the Washington Post, editorialist George Will makes a notable attempt at reconciling state-sanctioned murder with the security needs of the citizenry. Titled “A Case for Targeted Killing,” Will endorses the U.S. government’s utilization of drones in fighting the ambiguously defined War on Terror. His reasoning is straightforward enough: because drones can be used for precise targeting, they are more efficient and humane than a scorched earth policy of outright invasion. In regard to the targeted missile strike of a compound thought to house Saddam Hussein during the run-up to the costly war in Iraq, Will asks,

Would it have been morally preferable to attempt this by targeting, with heavy bombing, not a person but his neighborhood?

He answers “surely not” and presumes to win the debate in quick fashion. What Will conveniently forgets to mention is the fact that the U.S. military’s drone war is not a clear-cut case of bringing justice to alleged terrorists while leaving the innocent in one piece. The central government actively suppresses the number of civilian deaths that are a result of drone bombing. In a recent Stanford Law School and New York University’s School of Law study, it was found that the “number of “high-level” targets killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low” and in the range of about 2%. This abysmal success rate is likely due to the extremely weak sorting criteria of counting “all military-age males in a strike zone” as possible militants. It is likely that this lax standard is to blame for the recent death of three children all under the age of fourteen by a NATO-lead bombing strike. According to Army Lt. Col. Marion Carrington, the U.S. military is now actively looking to slaughter “children with potential hostile intent.”

And this is the type of “targeted killing” which George Will is playing cheerleader to.

Admittedly, it is doubtful that Will would directly lend his support to the deliberate murdering of preteens. But his moral compass takes a sudden nose dive when he resorts to citing Berkley Law Professor John Yoo and his “lucid guide to the legal and moral calculus of combating terrorism by targeting significant enemy individuals.” Attributing the word “moral” to Yoo is an incredible joke. After all, as Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Yoo authored an 81 page memorandum which gave credence to the President’s disregard for legal bans on torture in order to “protect” the nation. The memorandum was endorsed by the George W. Bush administration, namely Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and was passed along to the commander of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib Gen. Geoffrey Miller. The effect was to legitimize torture as both a practice and defensive tactic. As Glenn Greenwald writes

John Yoo’s Memorandum, as intended, directly led to — caused — a whole series of war crimes at both Guantanamo and in Iraq. The reason such a relatively low-level DOJ official was able to issue such influential and extraordinary opinions was because he was working directly with, and at the behest of, the two most important legal officials in the administration: George Bush’s White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and Dick Cheney’s counsel (and current Chief of Staff) David Addington. Together, they deliberately created and authorized a regime of torture and other brutal interrogation methods that are, by all measures, very serious war crimes.

If John Yoo remains a citable legal scholar on the subject of the moral calculus in combating terrorism, then Jesus was a prophet who preached the virtues of maiming and dismembering the innocent.

Ultimately, Will’s premise relies on the separation between a nation at war and a crime committed by an ordinary person. Crime, says Will, is retrospective and is punished after the fact. In theory, war is carried out to prevent further aggressions. But in practice, states which draft their citizens into war are rarely protecting the homeland. Behind almost every instance of state warfare is a conniving band of elite businessmen, financially-connected generals, and licentious politicians eager for power. The more blood is spilled, the more each group is rewarded if they happen to be on the winning side of the conflict.

So to say that a centralized government is justified in going to war to “prevent future injuries” is no better than saying John Q. Public is exonerated when he takes a machine gun to a crowd based on a suspicion that one of the many is plotting his demise.

Reason dictates that man doesn’t belong to the state and that under a monopolized institution of pure coercion, he is in many ways a slave. The conflating of the state with those who live within its jurisdiction has lead to the unnecessary mass murder of millions under the guise of “war.” Yet in the course of human history, this mistake in identification was not always committed. As Murray Rothbard points out,

During the Middle Ages, the scope of wars was far more limited. Before the rise of modern weapons, armaments were so limited that governments could – and often did – strictly confine their violence to the armies of the rival governments. It is true that tax-coercion increased, but at least there was no mass murder of the innocents. Not only was firepower low enough to confine violence to the armies of the contending sides, but in the premodern era there was no central nation-state that spoke inevitably in the name of all inhabitants of a given land area.

The theory of jus ad bellum is based on the notion that the state is infused with a righteous purpose to follow through with war and that the enemy is deserving of onslaught. As St. Thomas Aquinas explains in “The Summa Theologica”

It is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advance of good, or the avoidance of evil.

If war is to be fought, it should be done for the preservation of peace; not to fulfill a sick longing for hegemony. As for the United States, it’s a safe statement to make that no war fought within the past century met this standard. The War on Terror is not an exception to this rule. The CIA is actively intervening in at least five Middle Eastern countries with the unstated objective of territorial control. Why this exercise in imperialism is being pursued is not something the general public is privileged enough to be made aware of. It has to then be asked that if the intentions of the war class are pure and moral, why must they remain hidden from plain sight?

The warmongers in the U.S. government have done a lackluster job making their intentions known throughout the War on Terror. The goal has not been directly addressed outside of platitudes containing the words “freedom,” “safety,” and “democracy.” Innocents are being killed at an increasing rate which is fermenting a hatred toward the U.S. and the rest of the Western world. Therefore, there is no “case” to be made in favor targeted killing. Every death that holds the U.S. government as the perpetrator is unjustified. There is little that differentiates the President of the United States today from that of the absolute monarch from the days of feudalism. Upon his command, citizen and non-citizen alike can be sent to the afterlife with little recourse available. How this accounts for a just state of affairs is never a question in Will’s writing.

For clarity, it must be stated that there is no question that precise murder is better in terms of human cost than carpet bombing an entire village. This takes nothing away from the truth that the ongoing War on Terror has brought with it a large pile of corpses and great deal of misery for the inhabitants of the lands ravaged. Over a trillion dollars has been wasted. Families have been severed and every death has been in vain.

George Will may be an eloquent opponent of central government progressivism, but he reaches into the depths of verbal duplicity to justify the U.S. military’s targeted killing. It is a shame but not at all unforeseeable for a writer infused with the corporate media establishment.

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