In self-defense

Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder; but if a thief breaks into my house, burns and destroys my property, and kills or threatens to kill me, or those that are in it, and to ‘bind me in all cases whatsoever’ to his absolute will, am I to suffer it? What signifies it to me, whether he who does it is a king or a common man; my countryman or not my countryman; whether it be done by an individual villain, or an army of them?

—Thomas Paine. The American Crisis, December 23, 1776.

Every nation should go to war when attacked, even if its attacker is many times larger and stronger. In 1939, the tiny nation of Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union. The Finns bravely refused to surrender and fought tenaciously, even though the rest of the world did not spring to their assistance as they should have. The Soviets anticipated a two-week campaign but instead were bogged down and routed in battle after battle. The Red Army, which would go on to break the Nazi war machine a few years later, found itself powerless to defeat a free people determined to defend their own homes. After three months of bloody repulses, Stalin was forced to negotiate a peace. The Finns gave the Soviets such a mauling that after World War II they were not invaded by the Soviets, nor anyone else, even though they had allied with Nazi Germany and invaded the Soviet Union! Finland was the only European country adjacent to the Soviet Union in 1939 to remain unoccupied by the Red Army in 1945.

If those behind the Iron Curtain had followed the example of the Finns and fought tenaciously against the Soviet occupation, they could have bled the Red Army dry and avoided forty-five years of communism. The Finnish example also shows that if the French had fought tenaciously against the Nazis, rather than capitulating so easily, they might have brought them to stalemate, as they did in World War I, and so avoided the humiliation of occupation. Even if they had lost mainland France, they could have fought tooth and nail for every inch of their country, and thus:

  • Weakened the German army and so brought forward the day of their liberation;
  • Allowed time for the French and British navies to evacuate large numbers of French men from the south to carry on the fight from abroad;
  • Ensured that in future no one would think of the French as being so contemptible as to not even put up a fight, and so protected future generations from the speculation of aggressors.

The gains made by humanity in its millennia-long climb of up from depths of barbarism are only as permanent as the willingness of all peoples to defend freedom. As Polybius reminds us: I consider that the writers who chronicled the story of the Persian invasion of Greece, and of the defeat of the Gauls at Delphi, have made a great contribution to the struggle of the Greeks in defense of their common liberty. For anyone reflecting on how the abundance of arms and infinite number of the invaders were all vanquished by chance and the cool resolve of those who faced the danger with intelligence, can never be frightened into abandoning hope of being able to defend his country. (Histories)

In response to aggression

War disturbs commerce, destroys the subsistence of mankind, raises the price of all the most necessary articles, spreads just alarms, and obliges all nations to be upon their guard, and to keep up an armed force. He, therefore, who without just cause breaks the general peace, unavoidably does an injury even to those nations which are not the objects of his arms; and by his pernicious example he essentially attacks the happiness and safety of every nation upon earth. He gives them a right to join in a general confederacy for the purpose of repressing and chastising him, and depriving him of a power which he so enormously abuses.

—Emerich de Vattel. The Law of Nations, 1758.

War is justified whenever aggression takes place. The invasions of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland by Germany, of the Falkland Islands by Argentina, and of Kuwait by Iraq, were each triggers for righteous war. Under the natural law every other free nation is obliged to make war on the aggressor. As John Trenchard noted: “It is wickedness not to destroy a destroyer.” (Cato’s Letters No. 42, Considerations on the Nature of Laws, August 26, 1721.)

The inappropriateness of diplomacy in the face of aggression

Some people suggest there should be negotiations. But what is there to negotiate about? You don’t negotiate with someone who marches into another country, devastates it, killing whoever stands in his way. You get him out, make him pay and see that he is never in a position to do these things again.

—Margaret Thatcher. Speech to the Conservative Party conference, Bournemouth, October 12, 1990.

When a criminal pulls a gun in a shopping mall and starts killing hostages, the police do not respond by warning him or bribing him with inducements to keep the killing to a minimum level. Rather, they respond unhesitatingly and shoot him. So it should be when, without justification, one country invades another. The response should never be appeasement or even diplomacy. Military action is called for, and should continue until the tyrant is dead.

Not only is diplomacy in such situations uncalled for, it is an affront to the dignity of humanity which grievously undermines morale in the attacked country and those who come to its rescue. It was therefore poor form for the United States to volunteer to mediate through Secretary of State Haig when Argentina invaded the Falklands. It was entertained out by the British of politeness and wanting to be seen to do the right thing. However, that was false propriety.

The correct approach is to have in place standing ultimatums and treaties that are triggered by invasion. Whether or not to go to war should not be open to debate, any more than legislatures should debate the response to bank robbery in progress; rather the result should be automatic and predefined.

In response to imminent dangers

But among societies, the right of natural defense carries along with it sometimes the necessity of attacking, as for instance, when one nation sees that a longer peace will enable another to destroy it and that to attack that nation instantly is the only way to prevent such destruction.

—Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws, 1748.

If a tyrant has, or will have, weapons which threaten adjacent countries, and the nature of the regime gives reasonable grounds for fear they will be used, then pre-emptive action is not only acceptable, it is an inescapable moral duty to unborn generations. As Emerich de Vattel said:

On occasions where it is impossible or too dangerous to wait for an absolute certainty, we may justly act on a reasonable presumption. If a stranger levels a musket at me in the middle of a forest, I am not yet certain that he intends to kill me: but shall I, in order to be convinced of his design, allow him time to fire? What reasonable casuist will deny me the right to anticipate him? But presumption becomes nearly equivalent to certainty, if the prince who is on the point of rising to an enormous power has already given proofs of imperious pride and insatiable ambition. (The Law of Nations, 1758.)

When a religious fundamentalist state like Iran builds nuclear weapons and, despite being oil rich, claims to need nuclear reactors for civilian energy; when its president publicly declares that another country should be wiped off the map; when it devotes vast resources to developing missile technology when no one threatens it; when it constantly lies about its actions and bedevils negotiations with alternate fits of aggression and feigned indignation—how is the target of its aggression to act? It stands to reason that, in accordance with the natural law of self-defense, Israel, and the rest of the world are entitled to go to war preemptively to disarm that regime.

Many people dismiss Iran’s vitriolic threats of extermination as mere bluster. If they are not provoked, it is claimed, they will never be the first to break the peace. The answer to this is to remember what happened with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. In 1979 that country’s war-mongering, poison-gas-dispensing, aggressive dictator, with French technical assistance, began building a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. In 1981 Israel, fearing an unprovoked attack one day, destroyed the reactor in an air raid. Ten years later, during a dispute with other countries that had nothing to do with Israel, Iraq launched thirty-nine missiles in an unprovoked attack on Israel. Had the Israeli government failed to act back in 1981, the missiles that landed in Israel in 1991 would have carried nuclear warheads.

To punish uncivilized people

If you openly profess yourselves savages, it is high time we should treat you as such, and if nothing but distress can recover you to reason, to punish will become an office of charity.

—Thomas Paine. The American Crisis, October 20, 1778.

Civilization is characterized by a determination to only do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Thus, when Indian war parties set out to raid neighboring tribes and scalp and burn their children, they were unquestionably being uncivilized. When Germany marched, at Hitler’s orders, into Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, France, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Russia and the countries of Eastern Europe, its citizens were unquestionably being uncivilized. When the Japanese murdered, raped and tortured in Nanking, and when they attacked Pearl Harbor, they were unquestionably being uncivilized.

Uncivilized individuals and nations only behave barbarically because they believe they will never be on the receiving end. It follows that sometimes the only way to civilize them is to disabuse them of that notion—this applies to both individuals and nations. Wrongdoers need to be taught the consequences of their actions. The Germans cheered and strewed their streets with flowers at the news that France had been wrongfully invaded by their rampaging armies. It required the same thing to happen to the Germans in order to make them appreciate, once more, the virtues of peace and comity.

Further proof of this is to be found in the fact that the Japanese, who scorned international condemnation of the Rape of Nanking; who disregarded diplomacy and reason in favor of brutal force; who buried Chinese prisoners alive; who used chemical and biological weapons; who bombed Pearl Harbor without warning during diplomatic negotiations; whose Unit 731 vivisected prisoners without anesthesia; who tortured and executed downed pilots; who starved and brutalized prisoners of war—as their very first action in response to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sent a note of protest to the government of the United States, protesting the “inhumanity and unnecessary pain caused to women, children and old people”!

This article is an extract from the book ‘Principles of Good Government’ by Matthew Bransgrove