The Jig is Up: Just War Theory Can No Longer Be Used as a Cover for State Policies of Mass Homicide


For more than fifteen years—a sizeable chunk of my adult life—I have been criticizing the just war paradigm which has undergirded calls for war by the leaders of states for centuries. My first essay on the topic was published in 2000: “The Injustice of Just Wars,” but that was only the beginning. I also published essays on “legitimate authority”, the dehumanization of soldiers in the just war framework, the “metaethical paradox” of just war theory, the incompatibility of universal human rights with just war theory, and so-called “humanitarian intervention”, which is even more hawkish than the traditional framework, insisting as it does on the necessity–rather than the permissibility–of going to war (see publications list).

I have also published explicit critiques of the number one just war theory guru since the Vietnam era, Michael Walzer, whose 1977 book, Just and Unjust Wars, has been held up in academic circles as a veritable Holy Book for decades. In an early 2001 issue of Dissent magazine (before 9/11), Walzer and I even sparred over our differences, as he wrote a text in response (without, I hasten to add, answering my critiques!) to my essay “Violence & Hypocrisy”.

You may have noticed the dearth of outspoken war critics in academia. It is no mere coincidence. The unsettling truth is that many an academic has secured tenure by writing footnotes to just war theory—especially Walzer’s reading of it—and this has had a trickle-down and stifling effect on criticism within the academy. That is because homogenization is intrinsic to institutions in general (which are conservative by nature) and to values-based scholarship such as philosophy, in particular (the subject of my first book, Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic’s Critique).

Perhaps you have wondered on occasion whether Noam Chomsky would ever have become a full professor with tenure had he started out writing on foreign policy rather than linguistics. Fortunately for us, Chomsky received tenure before directing his powerful intellect to the highly contentious topic of war.

Stated simply: You cannot mosey about the marketplace of ideas like the barefoot madman with his lantern muttering blasphemies such as “Just war theory is a bunch of bunk.” Well, you can, but if you do, you will never earn the esteem of the people whose esteem is needed to succeed in academia. In addition to Chomsky, there are several other extremely high-caliber thinkers currently writing and speaking out against war—David Swanson, Justin Raimondo, Tom Engelhardt, Nick Turse, Scott Horton, to name but a few—but good luck finding people like them within the hallowed halls of Ivory Tower academia.

Yes, the depressing truth is that the primary reason why the vacuous framework of just war theory continues to hold sway is that for a very, very long time, anyone who wanted to do normative scholarship on war was required, as a matter of survival, to fall in lockstep with the party line. There are plenty of places to add little embellishments and epicyclic curlicues to the theory, so lots of things to make and do, including ample dissertation fodder to be transformed eventually into scholarly volumes assigned in seminars and absorbed by new followers of the creed.

Perhaps the ideas first articulated in the early Middle Ages needed a bit of updating! was the general perspective even of graduate students imbued with a modicum of skepticism about the ends to which just war theory had been put during their lifetime. Why not devise some jus post bellum conditions to supplement the jus ad bellum and jus in bello list of bullet-pointed “Let’s Roll” line items parroted by leaders from Hitler to George H.W. Bush to, yes, the first self-styled “Drone Warrior”, President Barack Obama.

I am delighted to report that the Catholic church appears finally to have come around to the harsh but undeniable truth: that just war theory has indeed served over all of these many centuries primarily as a tool of war-mongering propaganda—just as I have been arguing all along. Here’s a stunning—and most welcome!—recap of a recent Vatican conference on just war theory:

The participants of a first-of-its-kind Vatican conference have bluntly rejected the Catholic church’s long-held teachings on just war theory, saying they have too often been used to justify violent conflicts and the global church must reconsider Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.

Members of a three-day event co-hosted by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace organization Pax Christi have also strongly called on Pope Francis to consider writing an encyclical letter, or some other “major teaching document,” reorienting the church’s teachings on violence.

“There is no ‘just war,'” the some 80 participants of the conference state in an appeal they released Thursday morning.

When I published War and Delusion: A Critical Examination in 2013, I felt that I had basically produced a book’s worth of simple truths. All of what I wrote seemed so obvious to me—like the proverbial Elephant in the Middle of the Room. The Emperor’s Theory had no content, and it was high time for someone to share the news with the untutored masses, so I decided to explain in intricate detail how and why so many apparent platitudes upheld by so many people about war are not at all what they seem to be.

To this day, I believe that much of what I have written on war borders on banality. And yet those nearly trivial truths are not recognized for what they are, just as surely as the prevailing “platitudes” are false. How is it that truth and falsehood about war have been so abysmally confused? Because, sad to say, Western culture has been inextricably mired in the death industry for as long as anyone alive can remember.

It takes a serious inversion of the Necker Cube to see the problems with the just war paradigm. But the people in power have much too much invested in maintaining the status quo. The coopted many include not only political leaders, but the heads of corporations, the mainstream media, and the many, many scholars who receive funding from the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex.

Rest assured that the card-carrying just war theorists out there are not going to accept without protest the Pope’s long overdue encyclical on matters martial any more than they took heed of the “screed” of what have up until now been facilely dismissed as “lunatic fringe cranks”. (That would be any- and everyone who has attempted to advance anything approaching a foundational critique of the war system.) At the very least, however, it will become progressively more difficult for the holders of endowed chairs to persuade their doe-eyed acolytes to write footnotes to their footnotes to Walzer, and for that I am grateful.

In an odd sort of confluence of my life’s work, credit for the Catholic church’s relatively recent recognition of the deficiency—and danger—of a paradigm which started with the venerable thinkers Augustine and Aquinas may well lie with the institutionalized practice (new to the twenty-first century) of executing terrorist suspects using lethal drones. Both President Barack Obama and CIA Director John Brennan have repeatedly—and perversely—claimed that their use of lethal drones to hunt down and premeditatedly kill unarmed persons is permitted under the theory of just war.

Happily, a few good souls at the Vatican have come to see that if this sort of intentional and serial killing of human beings is permitted by just war theory, then, in fact, everything is permitted. Not the sort of view which anyone at the Vatican wants associated with Augustine and Aquinas, one surmises.

War and Delusion will appear in a (hopefully affordable!) paperback edition in September 2016. In the meantime, here are a few of the key points to mull over:

  1. Modern war is not an instance of self-defense because the two practices have nearly nothing in common (the conflation of the two is analyzed in chapter 1). States are insentient, unconscious artifacts. They are not moral persons. To ascribe to states the rights of persons is to commit the fallacy of composition. To annihilate persons in a quest to defend the state is an abomination.
  2. The leaders of states have no more access to the deliverances of God’s will than does anyone else. Modern leaders are successful politicians, no more and no less. From their positions in democratic societies, we know only that political leaders know how to get elected. (See the 2016 US presidential election for more on that.) In nondemocratic societies, they are plain-old, self-appointed tyrants.
  3. In addition to being contingently appointed to their positions of power by arbitrarily assembled groups of people (at the limit, themselves), political leaders govern over conventionally delimited territories. Any group of people could band together to form a nation and confer “legitimate authority” on their leader. A group of one could confer that same “legitimate authority” upon the sole member of the group (himself). But if just war theory implies that the same person both may and may not intentionally kill other human beings—which is a contradiction—then it is rationally untenable.
  4. The word ‘war’ is used today to denote practices which would not be recognized by the fathers of just war theory. Among other stark differences, means of aerial transport did not exist until the twentieth century. Nonetheless, just war theory is used to rationalize the flying of large aircraft over vast distances to drop enormously destructive bombs on other people’s property, even while knowing that scores of innocent persons will be annihilated, terrorized and/or maimed in the process. Applications of “The Doctrine of Double Effect”, so often invoked to absolve military killers for “collateral damage”, rest crucially upon a prior assumption regarding intentions: “We are good (and have intrinsically good intentions), and They are evil (and therefore have intrinsically evil intentions).” (For my most recent thoughts on this topic, see the Appendix of We Kill Because We Can: “Drone Killing and Just War Theory”.)
  5. In the twenty-first century, the concepts of just war theory—last resort, just cause, proportionality, legitimate authority, etc.—have been trotted out by Obama and Brennan in support of their ghastly practice of hunting down and assassinating individual people none of whom can be said to pose an “existential threat” (as the warriors-cum-assassins are so fond of claiming) to the state allegedly being defended. Augustine and Aquinas would, I suspect, shudder at the horror of the practice with which their names have been associated (as the fathers of just war theory) by bureaucratic killers running an industrial killing machine from which many parties stand to profit.
  6. Therein lies perhaps the starkest distinction of all between what the early just war theorists spoke of and what goes on today: in the Modern world (as opposed to when Augustine and Aquinas wrote), industrialized war has become a highly lucrative business venture.

For an introduction to just war theory and some of the most basic problems with the paradigm, these two interviews on the Tom Woods Show might be helpful:



Michael Hayden’s Pro-Drone Propaganda Piece in the Sunday New York Times



I have long been disturbed by the New York Times’ coverage of the drone campaigns. Particularly appalling was the President-as-Godfather feature published on May 29, 2012. Many conservative pundits have complained that the so-called “liberal” newspaper serves as a mouthpiece for the current administration, which is shameful in and of itself. But how and why did the New York Times become an organ of state-funded propaganda? Whatever happened to fact-based, interest-free, objective journalism?

 “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will”

That was the title of the ghastly 2012 feature extolling the virtues of “Terror Tuesdays”, with Obama and his fellow “kill committee” members deciding the fate of human beings located on the other side of the planet. I found the title especially egregious in view of the fact that many readers only scan headlines, automatically digesting them as “news”.

To depict as honorable Obama’s handwringing over whether to order strikes against suspects (better known in nongovernmental organized crime as “hits”) in violation of the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and even the US Constitution, struck me as a very sorry reflection of the state of the mainstream media in the United States.

In yesterday’s Sunday edition, the New York Times published yet another pro-lethal drone piece, this time an op-ed by former CIA director and seasoned killer Michael Hayden. Bear in mind that, while serving as the head of the CIA, Hayden authorized 48 drone strikes resulting in 532 deaths, at least 144 known to be civilians. Those abysmal statistics, like all mass media reports of what transpires in the drone campaigns, ignore altogether the nonlethal harm to the survivors, both the psychological trauma and the physical maiming. The title of the op-ed?

 “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare”

Many Americans may be inclined to sympathize with US administrators who have killed so many people, including obviously innocent civilians, while attempting to keep the homeland safe. Officials such as Michael Hayden certainly have psychological and emotional reasons to convince themselves that what they have done is right—if only in order to be able to sleep at night. But before automatically according interpretive charity to cheerleader-for-assassination Hayden, it is essential for any reader of his propaganda piece to know that he now profits from the drone killing campaigns as a principal or board member of a few different drone program-affiliated companies.

Hayden boldly asserts that we should all support drone killing because it keeps us safe, but he offers absolutely no evidence to substantiate that claim. He briefly alludes to, but then chooses to forget, some of the criticisms aired by book authors, human rights organizations, the United Nations special rapporteurs on extrajudicial execution, former drone operators, and the government’s own commissioned Stimson Center report. Don’t drone strikes create more terrorists than they destroy? What will the world be like when China, Russia, and every other country on the planet begin dispatching their avowed enemies through the use of lethal drones wherever and whenever they please?

Hayden waves aside all of the many very real concerns about the inefficacy of drone warfare in quelling terrorism, insisting instead (and without documentation of any kind) that the strikes are “proportional” and “discriminate”. He chooses those words carefully, talking, as warriors always do, the “just war” talk about their own missions of mass killing. But assassination, the hunting down and killing of specific human beings, did not suddenly become warfare because of the development of unmanned aerial systems. Why should the implement of homicide matter, when the intent is clearly the same? Hayden writes:

 “Targeted killing using drones has become part of the American way of war. To do it legally and effectively requires detailed and accurate intelligence. It also requires some excruciatingly difficult decisions.”

Hayden here simply assumes what the title of the op-ed suggests that the author will set out to prove. In logic, the fallacy is known as “begging the question”, assuming as a premise the conclusion at which one wishes to arrive.

Since he brought up the topic of legality, it’s worth pointing out what Hayden omits, that the experts on extrajudicial execution at the United Nations have repeatedly expressed concern that the US drone campaigns violate international law. But this is not a mere case of “he said, she said.” There are laws, they are written in words, and words have meanings. To redefine “imminent threat” as no longer requiring “immediacy”, as was done in the US Department of Justice White Paper, is to indulge in Orwellian newspeak, no more and no less.

Like many other advocates of drone warfare, Hayden assumes that collateral damage is exhausted by body count. He naturally expresses the requisite regret at the civilians killed but proceeds to conclude his pro-drone manifesto by reiterating, rather than defending, his personal opinion, that drone warfare is effective:

 “Civilians have died, but in my firm opinion, the death toll from terrorist attacks would have been much higher than if we had not taken action.”

Again, no evidence, just personal opinion, from a man who profits financially from the drone program. At the opening of his manifesto, Hayden offers personal “insight” into the kill chain, using a fictional dialogue constructed so as to assuage NYT readers’ fears:

 “We’ve got good Humint. We‘ve been tracking with streaming video. Sigint’s checking in now and confirming it’s them. They’re there.”

Those techno acronyms, HUMINT and SIGINT, may impress the untutored masses, but what do they mean in the vernacular? Bribed hearsay and circumstantial evidence. These forms of intelligence are being used exhaustively and exclusively as the basis for strikes which end human beings’ lives. Oh well, what’s wrong with a little bribery and circumstantial evidence among friends? Especially when the targets in question are suspected of terrorism!

Every educated person alive should know by now that, throughout history, desperate and/or amoral, mercenary people offered generous bribes to surrender “bad guys” have been ready and willing to rat on their personal enemies or even hand over randomly selected and entirely innocent people. In the Drone Age, it suffices for those “suspects” to be located in a “hostile” territory, that is, somewhere which can plausibly be interpreted as a terrorist safe haven.


Recall that 86% of the detainees at Guantánamo Bay prison were found, years after having been locked away without indictment, to be entirely innocent. They were turned over to US officials by mercenary bounty hunters, aka bribed informants. Under Obama’s bloody “kill don’t capture” watch, innocent men just like Shaker Aamer, who was finally released after years of deprivation and torture, are instead summarily executed. All of the military-age men killed under Obama’s authority have been defined as guilty until proven innocent, as though we had not already learned from Guantánamo Bay prison how preposterous and deeply unjust such an assumption can be. Is this mere stupidity? Or is it time to admit that the killing machine is intrinsically evil?

In reply to complaints that unnamed men of military age are indiscriminately targeted, Hayden incomprehensibly replies:

“They were not. Intelligence for signature strikes always had multiple threads and deep history. The data was near encyclopedic.”

What does that even mean? If the people being killed are of unknown identity, then how in the world can knowledge of them be “encyclopedic”?

Pretending to acknowledge, while never truly answering, such criticisms is all part of the marketing blurb not only for Hayden’s forthcoming book, but also for the tools and analysis used in drone killing. We are supposed to conclude on the basis of this “reasoned” defense, that more and more drones and missiles should be produced, and more and more operators trained to fire them. Which means that more and more analysis will be needed to locate suitable targets.

Enter The Cherthoff Group, of which Hayden is a principal. According to Micah Zenko at the Council on Foreign Relations, Hayden also serves on the board of directors at Alion Science and Technology, Motorola Solutions, and Mike Baker International, all of which appear to enjoy Pentagon contracts relating to drone warfare. Zenko rightly points out the deception involved in penning an op-ed using the credential of having served as the director of the CIA, without also acknowledging the financial interests the author has in promoting drone killing.

What Hayden has written is sophistry, pure and simple. Even worse, it is to promote a policy which has never been publicly debated by the people paying for the practice. Any serious consideration of the situation in the Middle East by persons who do not stand to profit from drone killing can only conclude that the range of covert operations instigated under the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have failed miserably, not only morally but also politically.

Americans and other Westerners are not being kept safe by policies which lead to the endless sporing of terrorist groups over ever-greater expanses of land. Who cares if the CIA eliminated most of what they claim to have been the “high value” targets of the Al Qaeda brand of extremist jihadism? Now we have ISIS.


“It’s a hell of a hoot” to drone some people, and lucrative to boot!

Not everyone recalls the day back in February 2005 when Lieutenant General James Mattis told a San Diego audience that “It’s a hell of a hoot. It’s fun to shoot some people.” Those were the words of one of “the nation’s finest”, a decorated military officer. The statement caused a bit of an uproar, as Mattis had broken the solemn soldierly oath never to do anything in a public forum which might tarnish the noble image of the courageous warriors who continually battle for justice and to make the world a safer, more peaceful place… Nothing really happened to Mattis, except that he was apparently asked to avoid speaking engagements for a while. Later he was promoted to General and, in 2010, named the head of US Central Command (CENTCOM).

It was recently reported that General Mattis is among a number of retired officers who are in cahoots with the lethal drone industry and private military companies (PMCs), some of which are now logistics and analysis firms whose role in the drone program is to locate targets for drone operators to dispatch. Is it “targeted killing” or is it the once-upon-a-time taboo “assassination”? Six of one, half a dozen of the other. The people are pegged as posing an imminent threat—though not immediately so—and even when they are not armed, and no one has any idea what their name is, or whether they have ever participated in any act of terrorism, they are added to one of the US government’s hit lists to be eliminated as the opportunity presents itself. That’s because “last resort” in Obamaspeak means “feasible”.

Of course, the more evil terrorists killed, the better! No matter how many “Number 2 Al Qaeda leaders” are extirpated from the face of the earth, there will always be more. Especially when people are profiting from their deaths. In the age of PMCs, men such as James Mattis now have an extra financial incentive to add line items to hit lists in order to line their own pockets. “It’s a hell of a hoot” to drone some people, particularly when one grows rich from doing so.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 10: Death and Taxes

Is ISIS or Al Qaeda the Greater Threat to Peace and Stability? There is a Third Way.

US officials have been debating the all-important question: ISIS or Al Qaeda? I suggest that the policymakers need to take a long hard look in the mirror.

Before the 1991 Gulf War and the establishment of permanent military bases in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, Al Qaeda did not exist. Before the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, ISIS did not exist. Before 2012-13, when the “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria were furnished with 600 tons of weapons covertly by the caustic incompetence agency, President Obama derided ISIS as “JV”, that is, “junior varsity”. One year later, they had taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria. But wait, there’s more.

Before Obama ousted Libyan president Muammar Gaddaffi in 2011, Libya was not democratic, but it was far more stable than it is today. Before Bush ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq was being run by a dictator (empowered by the US govt), but it was far more stable than it is today. But wait, there’s more.

From 2002 to 2012, the US government bribed two successive presidents of Yemen to cede their country’s sovereignty, permitting the assassination of persons whose names had been added to hit lists by US analysts. Today Yemen lies in shambles, with security conditions far worse than before its leaders collaborated with the US “killing machine”.

US leaders denounce the “evil enemy” and then implement policies which create even more of them. Debating who is the most nefarious “bogeyman du jour” is a red herring. The sad truth is that US foreign policy is a disastrous Ponzi scheme, and it went from bad to much worse under both Bush and Obama. US interventions abroad now serve only one purpose: to provide politicians with rhetorical fodder, at the expense of the security of millions of people on the other side of the world.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 9: Death and Politics

Obama administration to allow export of weaponized drones to allies who “promise” to follow “good” US example

The “good example”?  Read on: