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War and murder

November 21, 2016

“War and murder,” the author George Griffith once wrote, “are synonymous terms, differing only as wholesale and retail. It is time the world had done with these miserable sophistries.”  The logic here is unassailable.  If murder is defined as the intentional killing of a human being, and war as an act to compel another person to do your will, than any form of warfare that involves killing as part of its compulsion – which, in practice, encompasses most forms of warfare – is murder.  The difference is one of euphemism only.  Like the custom of hlonipa practiced by the Zulus, where the name of a god or spirit or king is declared taboo and replaced with another word in daily conversation, the habit of referring to mass murders sanctioned by states as “war” is a distinction of labeling, not one of reality.  War is usually murder.  The soldier is usually a murderer.  And the official or ruler who starts or supports a war is guilty, often under his own laws were they to be impartially applied, of conspiracy to commit murder and procuring murder.  Culpability does not stop on the battlefield.

Since the days of Saint Augustine, casuists have spent a great deal of time attempting to evade this logic by developing the concept of “just war”, which posits that, under certain circumstances, war is morally permissible or even morally required.  Consequently, acts of murder committed during such a war are not really murder because they were justified, and thus result in no moral guilt.  This evades the entire issue at hand by shifting the premise of the discussion from logical equivalency to ethics.  Murder may or may not be considered justified in ethical terms, depending on the situation.  That does not change the fact that a murder remains a murder because it fits the definition of a murder, in accordance with the law of identity.  But the just war advocates reject this conclusion because the literal definition, in its stark boldness, carries a great deal of ethical power.  They cannot admit that they are committing justified or legitimate murders; they must call their murders “war” instead.  The term “murder” is laden with too many moral overtones for them to be honest about it.

Historian Chris Calton recently wrote that war is the ultimate form of socialism, since its nature requires that it be conducted by the state and it cannot be privatized.  While the first part of that statement is correct, the latter portion overlooks the example set by the early defensive organization of the United States, which relied on subcontracting warfare out to the militia.  Individuals supplied their own weapons and equipment and elected their own officers.  Units served locally and could only be deployed outside their home states with the consent of their members, and then only for limited periods.  While local government administered the units, their operation was almost entirely reliant on private volunteers, greatly limiting the role of the state in how wars were prosecuted and military forces maintained.

It is this aspect of the militia system that serves to address, at least partially, the ethical aspect of war as murder.  If the responsibility for conducting war is devolved all the way down to the individual level, then it is the individual soldiers, rather than rulers remote from the theatre of operations, who will decide on a personal level whether or not to have murder on their consciences.  The Nuremberg defense – “I was just following orders” – is eliminated as a form of justification or absolution.  No order can override the ethical choice of the individual.  War remains logically murder, but at least those who commit it under these conditions will do so honestly and with full knowledge of their actions, without having to blame their leaders or rely upon the compulsion of orders to provide them with a moral escape.  If it is bad enough to have men making war upon one another, it is infinitely worse to have men making war upon others because their leaders are making war upon them.

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