Is “Humanitarian Intervention” a Good Idea? Tom Woods Show Episode 569

In this 37 minute interview, Tom Woods and Laurie Calhoun discuss a relatively new phenomenon in the history of warfare, what has been christened “humanitarian intervention” by its advocates.

With the advent of lethal drones, the political costs of waging war abroad have diminished because soldiers’ lives need not be sacrificed in wielding military force. At the same time, the power of the executive to wage wars has been augmented. This suggests that interventions such as the one carried out in Libya in 2011 will become more frequent in the Drone Age. The bombing of Libya, like NATO’s 1999 bombing of Kosovo, was characterized by its proponents as an instance of “humanitarian intervention”, the use of military force to prevent an imminent “genocide”.

Self-styled humanitarian interventionists are deft at making emotional appeals for the use of military force. They often succeed at persuading people ordinarily disposed to oppose war to support bombing abroad. Setting aside purely emotional appeals, what is the intellectual substance of the humanitarian interventionist position? What are the principles in play?



Interview transcript (courtesy of The Tom Woods Show):

WOODS: We generate a lot of controversy when you and I talk, and last time we talked about just war theory, and boy, did we make some people angry. We said that just war theory has been a failure, and people were very, very unhappy with that, kind of along the lines of telling people — and I don’t want to implicate you in this view, but my own view — that the Constitution has been a failure. People say, oh no, no, no. Why, Woods, you are being impertinent to say that. The problem is that people have interpreted it wrong. Okay, but if it can be so easily misinterpreted, then it ain’t so good. If we’re resting our liberties on people’s interpretations, those interpretations are going to be tendentious, and it’s not going to work out.

Whereas, as I was mentioning to you before we went on, chess has not been a failure. The rules of chess are set in stone. You don’t have 12 different schools of thought on it. You don’t have major challenges to it. You don’t have people who say, well, I think you should be able to move the pieces according to whatever you think is best for the general welfare, and whatever’s best for the general welfare winds up being whatever’s good for the white player. You know, it doesn’t work that way. People just obey the rules of chess, and they’re constant and consistent. So I would not say chess has failed, but I would say these other things haven’t worked out particularly well.

Before we get into our topic for today, is there anything you want to say on that subject that you feel was maybe unsaid or that might be a response to some of these critics? Let me give you a chance to do that.

CALHOUN: Sure. One thing I would say is that the burden of proof about killing I think lies with the person who is going to kill. So if you want to say that just war theory is a sound framework, the burden is on you to explain why that is the case. And I don’t see where that comes from. I mean, we talked about this at length before.

And I also believe that the premises that were held by Augustine and Aquinas and the other fathers of just war theory are no longer valid in the modern world. I respect those thinkers very much. I think they were excellent intellectuals for their day. I actually believe that they might agree with me if they were alive today, given the changes in the world and the way warfare is carried out. So I don’t think — I think some of the people were angry because they thought we were disrespecting these honorable thinkers from history, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think that given — if I believed what those men believed, I might have agreed with them, but I don’t believe what those men believed, and I don’t believe that most modern people do.

So that’s one thing I would say to hopefully respond to some of the anger. I also think that it’s natural to be angry when someone steps forward and criticizes a framework which has dominated normative thought about war for centuries. It’s a natural response. You yourself had that response when you first heard about my —

WOODS: Oh yeah, I wanted to throw it on the floor. I was so angry. I just couldn’t believe — the nerve of some people, was the way I thought at that time.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: All right, let’s talk about humanitarian intervention. As soon as you suggested this, without even reading your article I said yes, and then I read it, so we’ll talk about it, and we’re going to link to it at I wanted to talk about this, because this is of course probably the case of the hard cases. This is the issue that I think people who are inclined to be against war have to address. It’s easy to say you shouldn’t fight a war for oil or you shouldn’t fight a war for this or that imperial advantage. But when there are people being killed under some terrible circumstances, it’s much harder to make the case that we shouldn’t do it, because you find yourself saying, well, you know, it could become worse if we get involved, and a lot of these arguments seem not that persuasive, so we have to face this head on.

Let’s start from the very beginning. When we deal with humanitarian intervention, what are the different — basically I’m not sure there is a well thought out — if there is a book or a school of thought that just takes a flat out, opposing view. I mean, libertarians take an opposing view of it, but I don’t see like a full-scale moral evaluation of why it’s good to stay out, even when there are cases — you cite the Rwanda case as an example — of just horrifying human carnage. Whereas I can think of schools of thought that say you do need to intervene. Utilitarians might say that, for example. I can think of people who would say that whatever losses you and your people might suffer in trying to intervene are surely pale in comparison to the good that we might be able to bring to a terrible situation.

CALHOUN: Well, that’s the line of the humanitarian interventionist. But the first point I would like to make is that the very expression “humanitarian intervention” is misleading, because it sounds as though what you want to do is intervene in a humane manner. In reality, as it’s been carried out so far in history, and it is a new development in the history of warfare, it means military bombing carried out on behalf of people who appear to be victimized.

So why don’t we just call it humanitarian bombing? Well, that sounds like a contradiction in terms, because bombing harms the people under bombing. It terrorizes them even if they’re not going to be killed, but it also can exacerbate an already bad situation, galvanizing the enemy soldiers to fight even more viciously than they were fighting before, as it did in 1999, when more Kosovars were killed by Serbian soldiers after the NATO bombing had commenced than before.

So it’s, as I said, a new development in history. There are people, such as Samantha Power, who call themselves humanitarian hawks, and in a way they’re acknowledging that what they advocate is bombing, but it’s new in that we’re not defending war on the grounds that we need to protect ourselves, as you said, and so it’s very seductive to liberals in particular. So many people who opposed the 1991 Gulf War because they thought, oh, you know, it’s blood for oil, actually lined up behind Clinton to support the 1999 bombing of NATO.

WOODS: Yeah, let’s talk about the Kosovo case for a minute. And for listeners, FYI, I have a chapter on the Kosovo matter in my 33 Questions book, so I’ll link to that also at But there was a case in which — well, first of all, Bill Clinton is president, so he’s a Democrat, that made it easier for liberals to support that intervention. And oddly, there were some conservatives who were against it on the grounds that it wasn’t part of our national interest. I mean, you do still have conservatives who talk that way. Even Sean Hannity to my recollection was against that intervention. I don’t look for consistency in the thought of Sean Hannity, but I’m just saying that’s an interesting point.


WOODS: But there were certainly — I would be willing to stake my reputation on the idea that John McCain favored it, because, can I even say the words, “John McCain opposed the bombing of X?” I don’t think those words fit together. It’s like oil and water. So there certainly were — and there were neoconservatives who favored that intervention. And in that case, you had, unlike Rwanda, where the reality was just appallingly bad, here the reality was bad, but it was grossly exaggerated by propaganda, and only afterward did we find out, oh, the situation was not nearly as bad and was much more complicated than we were led to believe, but now we’ve already destroyed all their infrastructure and we’re on to the next thing now.

CALHOUN: That’s right. In fact, in all of these cases, the scenarios are much more complex than they’re painted to be. The calls for humanitarian intervention invariably involve contexts where it’s really false and misleading to suggest that these are Manichaean battles between good and evil. But what happens is humanitarian interventionists and warmongers more generally play the Hitler card, and so then suddenly it seems like it’s a battle between good and evil. So Slobodan Milošević is compared to Hitler; therefore, we have to save the people whom he is victimizing.

In reality, these conflicts are always a part of lengthy chronologies through which all sides have been victimizing all sides, and to pretend that time begins at the moment of the latest atrocity is to wrong the people previously wronged, who, albeit misguided in their tactics, are often acting in what they take to be just retribution. So it’s very complicated. We could compare the case in Syria as well. Super complicated. I mean, that’s basically the definition of a quagmire. Or in Libya, also.

WOODS: But in some cases — okay, but let’s take the Rwanda case, because there you have just — because it’s such a hard case. And you see it, by the way — did you see that movie, Hotel Rwanda? Did you see that movie?

CALHOUN: I did, yes.

WOODS: I mean, that’s a very interesting movie. It’s very interesting the way that hotel manager is basically trying to hang on to some semblance of normal, you know, human interaction while this horrifying situation is unfolding. But there was a case where, in that movie, the main character is holding out hope that there will be some international intervention that will put a stop to that. Couldn’t people say to you, okay, you’re a moral philosopher of war, and it’s wonderful that we have people who think through the moral implications of all this stuff, but let’s face squarely the fact that you had mass slaughter going on, and it seems highly unlikely that military intervention would make that worse. At the very least, there’s at least a chance, a roll of the dice, that it could improve things, given that sitting back and doing nothing is not improving things, so how can you sit back and say let’s not even try, because in the past military solutions haven’t always been effective. Well, sitting here obviously isn’t effective, so why not try?

CALHOUN: Well, I think that in the case of Rwanda, bombing would not have improved the situation. It probably would have exacerbated the situation as much as it could have been exacerbated, I suppose. But the — you know, they were killing people with machetes. They were individual people out there slaughtering people one-on-one, and it was a very complicated situation. You’re right that in Hotel Rwanda they depict some of the dilemmas. One thing that happened is that the white people were escorted out of the country, and the black Africans, begging to be taken along, were left behind. So that’s one way where intervention could have involved transporting these people out of harm’s way, and that was not done. I would have favored something like that. I would not have favored the bombing, because I don’t think it would have been effective. I mean, you can’t bomb every single person with a machete, and when you do, you’re going to kill their prospective victims anyway. So I don’t think bombing would have been effective.

But Rwanda was definitely the case that led to the momentum for the whole “responsibility to protect” movement. They even abbreviated this as R2P, which I guess is hashtag ready now. So the idea was that we have a responsibility to protect, and these people, the humanitarian interventionists, very popular among academics, wanted to say that the UN Charter is somewhat faulty in its focus on the power of authority of war making belonging only to sovereign leaders. So they wanted to say that we need to have a system where states are actually required to intervene when people are being victimized by their own leader. So they wanted to actually expand the horizons for war, rather than just being limited by the UN Charter and the provision of the right to wage war to leaders. They wanted to say there are cases where we need to intervene on behalf of these people who are being victimized.

WOODS: Let’s take a — I’m going to give you an example that you use in the article, the case of Truman’s dropping of the atomic bombs. Now, I would prefer to just do a whole episode on that with somebody at some point, and every August I mean to do it, and then the date creeps up on me, and I don’t get it done. But I want to cover that, because it’s the classic case of utilitarian theorizing, because — and let’s not even go into is it really true that he saved a million lives and whatever, because that number has been disputed. But what people say is that it ended the war, and we all know the war was a terrible thing, and he ended the war by doing this. And if you say but all these children died in horrific ways, people look at you like you’re a moral reprobate. Look, it ended the war, and so far more children would have died. “What, do you want more children or fewer to die?” would be the way they would put it. And it’s not like that’s not at all compelling, so how do you wrestle with that?

CALHOUN: Well, I think that utilitarianism is very relevant to the issue of humanitarian intervention, because just war theory alone does not suffice for what the humanitarian interventionists want. They want to say that we have a duty to intervene. Just war theory specifies conditions on the permissibility to wage war. So the humanitarian intervention position is actually much more hawkish than the just war theory position, and it needs something else, and that other thing is a utilitarian idea.

Utilitarianism, as you know, was authored by Jeremy Bentham and developed further by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, and it specifies that the right action is the one which maximizes the utility of the greatest number. It’s a very demanding normative theory, because only one action can maximize the outcomes. So according to utilitarianism, there’s only one right action. All of the rest are wrong. This means that going to war is either prohibited or it’s obligatory, and that’s exactly what the humanitarian interventionists want to say. They want to say that war is obligatory. It’s not a choice. You actually must go to war, according to them.

But at the same time, the interventionists want to embrace the just war theorists’ view on intention. Intentions matter, according to just war theory, one of the requirements of which is that war be waged with right intention and for a just cause. Presumably, for example, waging a war to distract attention from a domestic political scandal would not qualify as right intention. But the humanitarian interventionists were standing by Clinton with a ready-made cause, a noble intention to save people from their evil dictator.

What is really curious about humanitarian interventionists is that they only seem intent on the obligatory and very demanding prescriptions of utilitarianism in the build up to a bombing campaign. Once the bombing has come to an end, they go back to whatever they were doing and forget all about the mess left behind. So a very good recent example of this was the 2011 bombing of Libya. Okay, Obama was persuaded to hit Libya with hundreds of missiles by a group of, I suppose it was three or four women — Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, possibly Anne-Marie Slaughter — who claimed that if he failed to bomb Libya, then there would be a genocide — so a utilitarian argument. So all that it took was whipping out the “g” word for Obama to sign off on military action, while claiming at the same time to the public that it was not really a war since he was not sending any soldiers into harm’s way, and so he did not need the permission of Congress.

So the results were, as we know, Muammar Gaddafi was dead; Libya was in disarray. And what did the humanitarian interventionists say about the hundreds of refugees who drowned while attempting to escape the chaos and insecurity directly caused by the U.S. intervention and removal of the Libyan leader? Nothing. Remarkably, once the bombs have been dropped, these self-styled humanitarians go back to what they were doing and basically adduce the tried and true Rumsfeldian response: “Stuff happens.” So they don’t take any responsibility for what happens after the intervention. They drop all of their apparent commitment to the high-minded utilitarian principles after the bombing. So I find this all very suspicious. I mean, you can’t say, both, I’m a utilitarian and I’m not a utilitarian. I’m only a utilitarian in the run up to the war, and then afterwards I’m just going to forget about what happened.

WOODS: All right, that leads me to — I do want to ask the genocide question in general, because that comes up all the time.


WOODS: The way genocide is used to justify intervention, or just to make a generic moral case for humanitarian intervention, genocide is mentioned. Let’s just pause for a quick message, and then we’re going to ask you that question.

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All right, so the genocide question comes up a lot. It certainly comes up in my circles, and I get emails all the time of people saying what would you say about intervening. We all know that it’s dumb to intervene to overthrow Middle Eastern dictators. Every single time we do it, it winds up terrible. We get a worse guy or the situation is worse or whatever. And they’ll say, look, we know the U.S. government lies about genocide. They use this word constantly, and it always turns out to be phony-baloney, but let’s just imagine just for the sake of argument that one time in their lives they’re telling us the truth, that there really is an ongoing case of genocide. How could you possibly say that intervening to at least try to stop a genocide would be worse than the genocide itself? How could it be worse?

CALHOUN: Well, that’s how it’s always painted. It’s always doom and gloom. Things are going to be worse if you don’t do something. You will have blood on your hands if you don’t go stop this dictator. In fact, this position violates all sorts of principles we cling to in civil society.

One of those is killing versus letting die. We uphold this distinction in civil society. In consistency, we should uphold the same distinction abroad, which implies that we are never responsible for the acts of murder committed by other agents. We are, however, responsible for the direct consequences of our own actions. It does not matter if our military intends only to kill bad guys. They are equally responsible for the innocent people whom they kill whenever and wherever they fire deadly weapons. But what happens during the run up to a war is people want to just relax this and say suddenly, oh, we don’t hold on to this principle anymore, killing versus letting die; we now think letting die is just as bad as killing.

And closely related to that is the distinction between negative versus positive rights. Again, this is a distinction we uphold within civil society. We deem it wrong to directly cause harm to another person. We do not, however, hold ourselves responsible for the misery of other people caused by themselves or by other agents. Humanitarian interventionists want to say we have a duty to intervene, which arises out of a positive right of the victims to be saved. But such a duty and correlative right cannot be generalized, because, in a phrase — and this is the most fundamental principle of all — ought implies can. It cannot be the case that we are morally required to do what it is impossible to do. It would be impossible for us to save all of the people of the world currently being victimized, so it cannot be the case that we are morally obligated to do so.

And I believe that when humanitarian interventionists start talking in terms of genocide, it’s very persuasive, because people are easily swayed to believe that they must join the war effort; otherwise they will somehow be responsible for what happens. In fact, it’s not true. Even if you accept the just war theorists’ doctrine of double effect, you are never obligated to go kill people to prevent them from being killed by other people.

And the best way of understanding this I’ve found is that if you think about the intention of the war opponent or the pacifist, the intention of the pacifist who says I will not support bombing is to not kill people. The intention of the pacifist is not to allow a murderous dictator to kill people; it’s to not kill people. So the very framework that these people base their calls to war on, usually just war theory amalgamated with some temporary principle of utilitarianism, implies that you do not have a moral obligation to carry out war or to bomb other lands. It doesn’t matter what’s happening on the ground, because it conflicts with all these other principles that we uphold within civil society.

WOODS: Well, they say that when they are — okay, so in other words, with double effect they would say it’s true that civilians are going to die in these campaigns, but we have a good moral intention, and we are not directly intending this unfortunate outcome, so the morality of what we’re doing is thereby vindicated. And so in other words, you’re saying that there is an analog to this on the anti-war side, which is that I’m not intending any bad thing either.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: I’m simply intending the not direct killing of anybody and my involvement in the direct killing of anybody.

CALHOUN: That’s correct, and I think if you want to gauge the sincerity of these various calls to war, for example, the 1999 bombing of NATO, you have to look at the bombers’ views on other matters — for example, weapons exports. So if you really are concerned to prevent the murder of people in these countries, then what you really should support is withholding weapons from them. So don’t provide them with weapons. Don’t arm dictators.

But of course the same people who call for bombing in these cases are the ones who are ready and willing to arm everyone. John McCain’s a good example. Let’s just give them all weapons, even though we know from cases such as Saddam Hussein that there’s a really good chance that once these people are in power, they’re going to become murderous dictators. But the weapons keep flowing out to these places, which do not have the industrial capacity in most cases to produce their own weapons of war.

And then what happens is predictably they use the weapons. They have the weapons, then they use the weapons, and then suddenly the humanitarian interventionists clamor for war again. They say we have to stop these people from using the weapons which were provided to them by the international community. My answer is stop spreading these weapons around. You know, if you want to have weapons to defend your own borders, fine, but shipping weapons to Bahrain, where the people are trying to democratize their land, shipping weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is now laying to waste Yemen, that’s where the humanitarian interventionists, if genuinely concerned with humanity, should be working in my view.

WOODS: You have a section at the very end of the paper called “War Opponents as Long-Range Utilitarians.” Can you elaborate on that?

CALHOUN: Sure. Every time you bomb some place you are saying that bombing is a sound means to resolve conflict. Every time you intervene militarily you are serving as an example for smaller groups and other nations to do the same.

Good example here, again, is Libya. You may have noticed that the situation in Syria became much, much worse after the 2011 intervention in Libya, and one reason for that may have been that the rebels on the ground said, hey, maybe we can get the United States to help us out here too, just as they did in Libya. So what happens is you get all sorts of reactions whenever you bomb, of people who are motivated to kill more people faster, because they don’t know what the future will bring, and also to play this sort of game where you provoke intervention.

So it’s arguable that the KLA in 1999 provoked — must have been 1998 — provoked intervention by acting in a way that caused Slobodan Milošević to clamp down and look like this evil dictator at that moment in time, and of course the international community responded.

Some people have argued that the same thing happened in Syria, that it’s possible that the chemical weapons were used by some of the rebels who were hoping that the United States would come to their rescue. More detailed investigations into what happened in the chemical bombing suggest that both sides may have used chemical weapons, but in any event, this situation has worked many times throughout history.

It also worked in Britain, when the IRA provoked the Black and Tans to go on a killing spree, and the reaction was — well, they killed innocent people then, and that galvanized support for the IRA cause. So this provocation strategy works all the time.

In terms of the long-range utilitarian argument, once again, it’s just that once you start bombing you are saying that this is a way to resolve conflict, and we see this with the United States all the time. I mean, Obama expresses concern about these mass shootings in the homeland. I want to say that some of these people are probably following his example. He is saying with his drone campaign, for example, that this is how you resolve conflict: you go out and kill people. And so from the perspective of long-range utilitarianism, it actually would be much better for humanity for us to stop these interventions, because then other countries and other groups and other factions would not follow our example.

WOODS: Before I let you go, what did I not get to that’s central to the argument? This isn’t a riddle, by the way; maybe we did cover everything.

CALHOUN: Uh, let’s see. I do think that the Libyan example involved Hillary Clinton’s support for intervention, and her husband was probably the first one to have supported humanitarian intervention in 1999, so I find that a little bit interesting, and I also think that it gives us some grounds for hypothesizing what another Clinton administration would be like, especially since she is very fond of saying that you get two for the price of one if you elect me, so we may have more intervention if Clinton is elected as president.

WOODS: Yeah, it’s a very unfortunate situation that’s unfolding before us, but on the other hand — and by the way, even if we had Bernie Sanders, he’s been in favor of humanitarian intervention. He voted for the intervention back in 1999. I just saw some polling data for Hillary that is very, very bad in both New Hampshire and Iowa, and as a matter of fact, nationally her numbers are way down and his are shooting up.

CALHOUN: Mm hmm.

WOODS: I think she’ll still hold onto it, but I think she’s going to be really battered. At the same time, it’s hard to know — it’s just hard to predict these things. But even a battered Hillary, gosh, she and her husband, they are a vicious team, and even if I had a really, really strong platform and candidate, I would be intimidated going up against them.

CALHOUN: Yeah, they are a political force to be reckoned with, no doubt about it. I’m glad you brought up Bernie Sanders, because he’s an example of one of these people who opposed the 1991 Gulf War but supported the 1999 NATO bombing, because, you know, they played the Hitler card. Oh, Hitler must be stopped. And so all of these liberals came forward. Bernie Sanders I think is gaining favor now because he seems to be more principled than Hillary. Hillary looks like a flip-flopper. She’s changing her view on everything depending on the opinion polls. But you’re right, people are afraid of something worse than Hillary (laughing), so she’s very strengthened by the weak slate on the Republican side.

I did recently read that in Hillary’s emails, there’s some indication that there were these ulterior motives for bombing in Libya having to do with currency, and I haven’t looked into that more deeply yet, but it’s an interesting case, because it just illustrates what we all know, that when people go to war, there are many different reasons for going to war and many different parties are involved and many different rationales. Only some of them look to be morally upright.

And what happens is whenever there’s a group of humanitarian interventionists ready to support the war cause, that’s the pretext that’s offered to the populace. Okay, this is why we’re really going to war. It’s not because NATO needs to have a reason for continuing to exist after the Cold War. It’s not because Bill Clinton wants to divert attention from his sex scandal. No, the reason why we’re going to war is this noble reason to save these people from their evil Hitlerian dictator.

So it’s a very, very seductive line, and people find it nearly irresistible. Of course, some people find it resistible, because they believe in the UN Charter position on the authority of war being accorded only sovereign leaders of nations. But to liberals it’s super seductive, and that’s why you see people who ordinarily oppose war stepping forward to support efforts, such as the 1999 bombing of Kosovo by NATO.

WOODS: All right, well as I said, I’m going to link to the article on which this conversation has been based, “Killing, Letting Die, and the Alleged Necessity of Military Intervention.” That’ll be linked at, as will all your stuff, your Twitter and blog, but for people who are going to break my heart by not visiting, why don’t you tell them the address of your blog?

CALHOUN: Sure, the blog is about the drone book, and it’s Also, I should say that the article that you’re citing is found in an edited version in my book War and Delusion; it’s Chapter [Four]; it’s called “Bombs and Charity.”

WOODS: Okay, we’ll make note of that too. Well, as always, thanks for your time. It’s great fun talking to you and always enlightening.

CALHOUN: Thank you so much, Tom.


a comprehensive critique of the "just war" paradigm which has dominated normative discourse about War for centuries.
First published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. Paperback edition with a new foreword to be published in the fall of 2016.

The Failure of Just War Theory: Tom Woods Show Episode 553

In this 30-minute interview, conducted on December 9, 2015, Tom Woods and Laurie Calhoun discuss her book-length critique of the “just war” paradigm, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination (Palgrave Macmillan 2013).

The emptiness of the jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria parroted for centuries by political leaders in rhetorical efforts to engage their groups in war is underscored by the fact that US President Barack Obama has repeatedly invoked the paradigm in support of his drone wars, claiming that they are for a “just cause”, “proportional”, and the “last resort”. Obama also used his Nobel Peace Prize speech as an opportunity to promote US military intervention abroad, again, making repeated reference to the just war tradition.

In lethal drone campaigns carried out in places where war was never formally waged, and there are no US troops on the ground to protect, the US government’s refusal to grant tracked suspects the opportunity to surrender before they are dispatched is rationalized by defining the targets as “unlawful combatants” and, therefore, protected by neither the laws of civil society nor international protocols such as the Geneva Conventions, which arose out of the very just war tradition so often adduced by Obama.

The Appendix of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, “Drone Killing and Just War Theory,” offers a detailed critique of two of the most fundamental–and slippery–planks of just war theory: “legitimate authority” and “the doctrine of double of effect”.


Interview transcript (courtesy of The Tom Woods Show):

WOODS: I decided when I — I knew you had a book called War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, so I thought in the back of my mind that you were a good candidate to be a repeat guest on the show, and then I started reading the book, and that’s when I remembered where I first heard of you, and I guess I had filed your name away in the back of my mind, and I hadn’t made the connection the last time you were on. You wrote an article for The Independent Review, which I guess that time was probably being edited by Bob Higgs, in which you challenged the idea that the just war theory really does anybody any good whatsoever. To the contrary, just war theory is basically used to justify war. And I remember at the time — I didn’t study the article carefully, but I remember being really upset that anyone would say that, because I had made good use of just war theory, and I couldn’t believe that somebody would say something like that. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I think, oh doggone it, Laurie Calhoun was right. So that was you writing that article.

CALHOUN: That’s correct (laughing).

WOODS: Well, how about that? So tell us about the connection between the thesis in that article and your book, War and Delusion. Now, what year did this book come out?

CALHOUN: 2013.

WOODS: Oh okay, so it’s still fairly recent.

CALHOUN: It’s fairly recent. It’s the culmination of about 10 years of my investigation into what I consider to be a puzzle, which is why it should be the case that a man in civilian dress who kills another man commits a crime but a man in a uniform who kills, say, the same man but has been ordered to do so by another human being does not commit a crime. So that was a real puzzle to me from the very beginning, and I decided I really needed to dive into just war theory and find out what exactly the justification was supposed to be. And so I read everything. I began with Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, which is considered sort of the bible of just war theory, and I read just about everything I could find.

And what I determined through my investigation was that the emperor’s theory really has no content. So it sounds really nice, and it’s really appealing, and it’s very handy for leaders. They can put their little just war requirements on a 3 x 5 card, but what I discovered is that, in fact, on examination the theory is vacuous. It sounds extreme to say such a thing, but in fact, if you examine it, rather than just reading off all the bullet points of the theory of the jus ad bellum conditions on waging war and the jus in bello conditions on executing a war, you find that in fact they tend to be platitudinous, and they’re used rhetorically by leaders to support their calls for war.

So for example, one of the conditions is just cause. A just war must be waged for a just cause. Well, that’s a platitude. It doesn’t mean anything. It has no content. It just means that the leader has decided that he wants to wage war, and he thinks he has a good reason for it.

WOODS: I think the aspect of your thesis — I mean, I must have at least skimmed that article, because the aspect of your thesis that really stuck with me and that I couldn’t quite shake was that basically it’s impossible to think of a case in which somebody was supporting a war and then became acquainted with just war principles and then abandoned support for the war. That to the contrary, what people do with these principles is what they do with all kinds of principles that stand in the way of something they want. They twist them to yield whatever outcome they need them to yield.

CALHOUN: That’s exactly right, and the best example of this is last resort. The last resort “requirement” on just wars really doesn’t preclude anyone from doing anything. And in fact, just war theorists themselves have interpreted last resort metaphorically so that it doesn’t really mean last resort anymore. It means we think war is a good idea, or it means we think war is feasible, or it means we can’t think of any other better way to adjudicate this conflict. It doesn’t mean it’s a last resort. There’s always something else that can be done. So it’s really a metaphor.

But it’s very powerful when leaders come forth and say this is a last resort. Barack Obama’s someone who really likes just war theory. George H. W. Bush also really liked just war theory. Even Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush, called the invasion of Iraq in 2003 a last resort. So these little principles and concepts, they tend to be persuasive to people because they figure, oh, there’s this whole tradition and these really smart people since the Middle Ages have been talking about this, and so of course we have to defer to these experts. So when George H. W. Bush invoked the authority of Augustine in defending, for example, defending the 1991 Gulf War, this all sounded really impressive. And in fact, Princeton University gave him an honorary PhD right after the Gulf War, to my horror, since I was a graduate student in philosophy there at the time (laughing).

WOODS: That is shocking. I wasn’t aware that happened. Even in the Ivy League everybody was on — well, let’s just say certain people in the Ivy League were on board for that war. That’s amazing.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: And in terms of intelligence, I get that George H. W. Bush is smarter than his sons. Okay. That’s a pretty low bar. And you don’t get an honorary PhD just for being smart, anyway. All right, let’s talk about — and by the way, you’re right. Obviously that last resort requirement. Obviously how could there be an objective way to determine whether something’s a last resort? Of course there’s no way. For a neocon, just waving and saying hello is a last resort. Like, everything is a last resort. When they say, “We’ve tried everything,” it means, “We’ve barked some orders at them and they haven’t complied.” So what else do you expect us to do? Of course we have to go to war. So that is obviously a requirement that’s extremely slippery.

Let’s go to, in your first chapter of the book, you’re sort of clearing the decks so that you can go into the just war analysis, and in doing so, you want to answer the claim that war is or at least can be a form of self-defense and that this is why people are inclined to think that the wars waged by their own countries are just, because they comply with this basic moral intuition we have that it’s all right to defend yourself.

CALHOUN: That’s right. Many people conflate self-defense and defense more generally, so this is why you see the populace supporting every single initiative that is claimed to be a form of defense, because the appeal of legitimate self-defense is intuitive. It means that you can defend yourself against harm by an aggressor who is wrongly attempting to take your life away from you.

The problem is that when groups start doing this, then depending on the circumstances it may or may not constitute an instance of legitimate self-defense. And groups and nations and states are not moral persons. They are groups of moral persons, but the fact that an individual moral person has the right to defend himself from an aggressor does not imply that a group has that same right, because that would be to commit what is called the fallacy of composition, to ascribe to the conglomerate the properties of the individual thing making up the conglomerate. So states and nations and groups are not sentient beings. They’re not rational beings. They’re not conscious beings. They are artifacts. So to ascribe the properties of the individual, who has a right to defend him or herself, to the group is to commit a fallacy, actually.

I do believe that some war — if your neighborhood is invaded or if your home is invaded, you have the right to defend yourself, but what has happened is war is now being waged abroad, and if it’s analogous to self-defense, it would be like the individual who creeps into his neighbor’s house in the middle of the night and kills him because he may try to harm him later on. So that’s what it really is analogous to, which of course is a crime in civil society.

WOODS: Well, that’s one of the themes of the whole show, is that a lot of things that would be crimes in civil society are perpetrated by the state, but it always has some cute-little-sounding reason why it’s okay for them, or they use language — the way they abuse language is just beyond belief, and especially and in nowhere is there a better example than how language is abused in war to cover over things that, as you say, we would rightly describe as crimes.

In this chapter — again, the book is War and Delusion; we’ll be linking to it at; that’s today’s show notes page — what you’re trying to do is show the difference between what we think of as legitimate self-defense by an individual and what is sometimes thoughtlessly or carelessly described as self-defense by this collective. And you’re showing, first of all, a collective is not a moral agent anyway.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: But secondly, one of the ways in which the two situations are different is that if I’m making a determination that I’m in danger — there’s an imminent threat, there’s a gun to my head or whatever — that’s my judgment based on my assessment of the circumstances. But that’s almost never the case in the military. We don’t have soldiers who say — I mean, there’s basically almost nobody in the U.S. who on September 11th, 2001 said, “We are under a terrible threat from Saddam Hussein.” Nobody — only a lunatic would have thought that on September 11th, 2001. And yet somehow, a lot of people were persuaded that that is an imminent threat and you have to go and fight against that. So that was not a case of people rendering their own independent judgments. They’re listening to whatever fairytale their ruler is spinning.

CALHOUN: That’s exactly right, and it all is grounded in just war theory, in the just war paradigm. I realize that just war theorists think that their theory limits war and imposes restraints on leaders. I have a very contrarian view on this. I believe exactly the opposite. I believe that just war theory is the bellicose leader’s most dangerous weapon. Hitler used it. Saddam Hussein used it. Basically go down the list of every war, and you find that every leader talked in these terms. Osama bin Laden talked in this sort of rhetoric. They all do. And so then the question is how do you determine whether to believe these people or not when they’re all using it, and why should you go kill someone on their order when you have this entire history of people who have ordered their soldiers to commit atrocities. And they have done so, why? Because they all clung to the just war paradigm, according to which a soldier’s role is to follow unflinchingly the orders of their leader, who is a legitimate authority.

WOODS: And that legitimate authority idea, it’s only just this minute sitting here with you that I realize how that obviously plays into the hands of the warmongers, because the legitimate authority so-called will tell you to go and do something crazy, like invade Iraq, which is not something that anyone would have spontaneously thought of, but however, it is the decree of the legitimate authority.

CALHOUN: That’s right. And the problem with just war theory is that the entire framework arose in a completely different milieu. Okay, so Augustine and Aquinas, these were religious scholars and scholars of religion who believed that everything on earth was in its place by virtue of God’s grace, including leaders. Okay, so leaders were divinely enlightened, and basically accepted advice, I suppose you could say — I mean, George W. Bush thought this too, apparently — but in medieval times people really thought there was a connection between political leaders and God. Well, since then we’ve had the Protestant Reformation; now we know that our leaders are fallible human beings who are elected by a bunch of other fallible human beings. They are not divinely enlightened any more than is the man walking down the street.

And so this is the basis of the entire framework, and it has been overturned. I mean, we don’t believe that God appoints our leaders anymore, right? We all know that we elect them, or if they’re tyrants, they appoint themselves. But the point is that the whole concept of a legitimate authority falls apart once you remove the religious metaphysics that was held by the fathers of just war theory. But strangely, we continue to see people parroting this view and trotting it out every time there’s an opportunity for war because it’s so persuasive.

WOODS: What about the aspect of just war that has to do with targeting civilians? It seems like that ought to be one that really restrains them, because you can’t deliberately target civilians. Now, is it that they play with the word “deliberately”? Is that it?

CALHOUN: Well, they certainly do that, but the other thing that has emerged in modern times is the concept of collateral damage, which did not exist in medieval times. Augustine never talked about collateral damage. Collateral damage was coined by war makers to basically produce an anodyne way of talking about civilian casualties. So, there will be civilian casualties; we’ll call them collateral damage. And this arises also from a very powerful tenet of just war theory, which is called the doctrine of double effect. Are you familiar with that?

WOODS: Oh sure, that you can do — well basically, if something bad happens in the course of your doing something good and you had a pure intention in doing the good thing and you didn’t intend to bring about the bad, then it’s morally okay. Is it something like that?

CALHOUN: That’s right. That’s the doctrine of double effect. And so people trot out the doctrine of double effect to say, okay, so when we kill civilians we’re not really committing a crime, because we intended only to kill the bad guys. But when they kill civilians, then they have committed a moral atrocity, of course. The problem with the doctrine of double effect is that it doesn’t really distinguish the cases. What does distinguish the cases is a prior premise, which is that we are good and they are evil. So they have intrinsically evil intentions, and we have intrinsically good intentions, and that’s why everything we do is not a crime.

So Vietnam, for example, we killed millions of people, but we didn’t intend to kill civilians, even though we did. In contrast, the intention of, say, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks was to kill civilians, according to the received view. So the problem with this doctrine of double effect also ends up being a rhetorical weapon, because it’s not the doctrine itself which tells you — you don’t have access actually to anyone’s intentions, so what you do is you say the intentions are good if they’re our allies and people of whom we approve, and the intentions are bad or evil if they are adversaries. So it doesn’t actually distinguish anything.

I mean, scholars love to talk about the doctrine of double effect, and they devise all these trolley problems and things, but the prior assumption is always that they have evil intentions. You don’t look into the possibility that, oh, maybe they had some other kind of intention and they did this to realize a different sort of aim. No, the assumption is they attacked us; therefore, their intentions are evil.

WOODS: All right, I want to ask you a really good devil’s advocate question. What do you say to people — and there are many of them, and they’re not just neocons — who would say that war, you’re lucky you even have the just war theory; you’re lucky you have even that, because in war, sometimes the very existence of a people is at stake, and it’s important for us to do what we need to do to preserve ourselves, and if we are fighting against a people that is absolutely ruthless, whereas our society is sitting here engaged in all this moral introspection, it’s not difficult to see who’s going to win?

CALHOUN: Okay, so you’re saying this is an argument for abandoning the —

WOODS: Yeah, even the pretense of just war theory. I mean, your view is that it’s not doing any good, and it may actually be doing harm. I’m talking about the neocon who feels constrained even by just war theory, as lame as it may be, saying that the very fact that we’re sitting here trying to render moral judgments on soldiers and states is just crazy. When war happens, you have to just fight and fight and fight, and the philosophers are going to get us all killed.

CALHOUN: Okay, well, that’s the statement of realism, according to which there is no real justice in war. So war is — all is fair in war, as they say. The interesting aspect of that argument is that the people who make up the war — the leaders, the soldiers, the people who do the killing — those people are all moral persons. So the question arises, how can it be that their individual actions cannot be judged. That’s another kind of fallacy, where you say the state is not a moral person, and so when the state acts you can’t judge its activities at all. It’s not a subject of morality. Granted. But the people who actually drop the bombs and order soldiers into war, those are moral persons, and their individual decisions can be judged. So that’s also a type of fallacy when you say that, because a state isn’t a moral person, therefore during wartime none of these people are subject to judgment.

WOODS: But I think that they’re talking about the practicality of engaging in moral judgment about war. If the very existence of your people is at stake, which is the way they think of practically all wars — I mean, we were told that a mushroom cloud would be how we would find out about Saddam’s secret weapons program.


WOODS: They always portray it this way, and if we’re sitting here thinking about different ways we can tie our own hands and feel good about ourselves because of our great moral virtue when we’re dealing with savage barbarians on the other side who can’t even conceive of the very idea of moral evaluation, then we’re going to lose, and maybe that’ll make you philosophers satisfied. Do you see what I’m saying?

CALHOUN: Well, sure, it’s related to the ubiquitous question, “What about Hitler?” So everyone says, “What about Hitler?” That’s supposed to be some sort of slam-dunk argument for every intervention that ever arose. But the problem is that Hitler used the very same apparatus to achieve power and to commit mass atrocities. So my answer to the question, “What about Hitler?”, is “What about Hitler?” I mean, it doesn’t really have any implication for anything. It’s not an argument for going into Iraq. It’s not an argument for lobbing missiles on Libya. It’s not an argument for doing anything. It’s basically just a rhetorical trope and a way of frightening people into thinking they should support war.

In reality when you look at the various scenarios in which the “What about Hitler?” question is asked, they involve people who generally bear very little resemblance to Hitler. So Osama bin Laden didn’t have a state; he didn’t have a formal army. Saddam Hussein, when he invaded Kuwait, disputed Kuwait’s what he called siphoning off of oil from Iraq, so that was a factual dispute, which could have been investigated. And it certainly didn’t imply the permissibility of killing hundreds of thousands of children and burying conscripted soldiers alive in their trenches. Nothing follows from the question, “What about Hitler?” So my answer is you have to look at the cases individually, and if you believe every person who tells you you need to go to war, then you are committing the same mistake that the Germans did under Hitler.

WOODS: Let’s talk about some of the other requirements of just war theory, and of course not all of these were present in Augustine. We get more of them under Aquinas; we get still more of them in the 16th century and beyond, and still more of them in the modern period or in the 20th century. But today we’ve come to associate certain principles with it, and one of them is — well, proportionality. We’ve got proportionality. We’ve got the cause has to be just. Well, it’s pretty to see how they get around that one. They just declare it to be just. And there has to be some prospect of victory. You can’t launch a campaign that’s totally hopeless. Well again, I don’t know of any leader who’s said, all right everybody, this campaign is totally hopeless, so let’s go ahead and fight it. That’s not generally how it’s done. So when you look at some of these other ideas, what’s your evaluation? How are they being used also as a way in fact to bolster, rather than retard the case for war?

CALHOUN: Well, they’re being used because the leaders trot them out. So for example, Obama in defending his drone campaigns, he one time said, oh, this is a just war waged in last resort; it’s proportional. And so supposedly drone killing of people in Yemen and Pakistan and Somalia and wherever else is just because he has satisfied — he has gone through the little list of bullet pointed requirements and said, check, check, check, this war — what I’m calling a war — is also just. So they’re all used that way. You’re right that no leader calls his troops to war if he believes that they’re going to fail. It’s almost embedded in the very notion that he has decided to go to war. He’s already decided it’s a good idea, and everything is already contained within it. He’s already decided that whatever costs will be paid will be proportional to the outcome.

So one example would be, again, 1991 Gulf War, which was considered by many Americans and still is considered to have been a great success story. In reality, the means used to defeat Saddam Hussein in 1991 were rather extreme. Among other things, they bombed the water treatment facilities of Iraq, so in the aftermath of the war, many children suffered and died as a result of the sanctions that were then applied and made it impossible to purify the water. So something like — the estimates vary, but something like 500,000 children died as a result of the 1991 Gulf War. And when Madeleine Albright was asked about this, she said, oh, we think that it was worth it. So this just illustrates that proportionality is just someone’s opinion, someone’s opinion that my aim is more important than the lives of all of those people. So it is always vacuously satisfied by every war waged according to the legitimate authority himself, whose prerogative it is to interpret all of the other requirements.

WOODS: By the way, that answer just blows me away, that it’s always vacuously interpreted. Even proportionality, where you would think maybe there’s a hint of mathematical analysis here, that surely we can pin them down with proportionality. If some offense is committed against us, then the response has to be proportional to that offense. But if the response can include atrocities of the kind that you just mentioned that are vastly, by any normal person’s moral calculus, out of proportion to the original offense, then again, this principle means and accomplishes nothing.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: So what are the other ones — what have we missed? Which ones have I missed?

CALHOUN: Well, there’s public declaration. You’re supposed to provide the enemy with the ability to resolve the dispute in some peaceful manner.

WOODS: Oh, that sounds like exactly what the U.S. government is always looking to do.

CALHOUN: (laughing) That’s right, except for Obama now has decided that he doesn’t have to declare any of these wars. He does them all covertly, and then after the fact we discover them from people like Snowden or Manning and find out he’s been doing all these things. So public declaration has kind of fallen by the wayside. And what’s another one? Oh, another one is prisoners — or soldiers are to be respected as human beings. Okay, so that also seems to have fallen apart under Obama, although the logic that they use is that the people they’re killing with drones are unlawful combatants, so they’re not protected by the laws of war, which is another sneaky way of just getting to do whatever you want to do basically.

WOODS: So what — in light of all this, in light of the failure of the just war theory to accomplish what we all think it is intended to accomplish, where does that leave us?

CALHOUN: Well, that leaves us with getting back to the moral basis of the use of violence, and I think that if people are genuinely defending themselves from an aggressor, they have the right to defend themselves. One of the reasons why I wrote the first chapter of this book, “Self-Defense and War,” was because I wanted to dispel this really negative caricature of war opponents as somehow irrational hippies or something. So a lot of people think, oh, if you’re against war, you’re somehow irrational. I think exactly the opposite. I think that there’s no necessary connection between an affirmation of the right to self-defense and an opposition to war when war means sending people thousands of miles away to kill other people who do, in fact, have a right to defend themselves.

WOODS: Well, the book is War and Delusion: A Critical Examination. I’m going to link to it at And as last time, I’ll link to various ways to reach you: your Twitter — do you have a website or a blog?

CALHOUN: I do. It’s called The Drone Age.

WOODS: And how can people reach it?

CALHOUN: It’s at WordPress — So that’s really a blog that’s dedicated to the drone book and the latest developments in the drone wars.

WOODS: Okay, so I’ll link also to our previous episode when we talked about that book, so that’s also So if you’re interested in what we talked about, that’s the page to visit. Laurie, thanks for your time today.


a comprehensive critique of the "just war" paradigm which has dominated normative discourse about War for centuries.
First published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013. Paperback edition with a new foreword to be published in the fall of 2016.

The Bipartisan Mainstreaming of Drone Warfare: Tom Woods Show Episode 538

Interview by Tom Woods of Laurie Calhoun about We Kill Because We Can

(conducted on November 10, 2015)


Complete Interview Transcript (courtesy of The Tom Woods Show):

WOODS: Quite a provocative and in-your-face title. I love in-your-face titles. Just get to the point. We Kill Because We Can is the main title, and the subtitle is From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. This thing is provocative from page one, so I almost don’t — there’s so much that I would like to ask you, and I want to make sure we do justice to the book. Of course we’re going to link to it on the show notes page, which today is, but let’s start off with just talking about the phenomenon of the use of drones, and how they have gone from a peculiar oddball thing that was a curiosity in 2002 to being a very, very common instrument of U.S. foreign policy today.

CALHOUN: Yes, it’s a little bit shocking in my view, what has happened. Essentially the lethal drones were used initially in covert operations, and what happened is they were used over and over and over again over about a 10-year period when the government did not acknowledge the use of lethal drones or targeted killing publicly. And by the time that 10-year period had elapsed, it had really become a standard operating procedure, so everyone in the administration thinks it’s just a tool you reach for, and this is how you deal with terrorism. You probably heard the Leon Panetta quote, “It’s the only game in town,” when he came into the directorship of the CIA.

WOODS: Yeah.

CALHOUN: But the fact is we never debated any of this. We never had the debate, because they were covert for so long, and by the time Obama finally said in January of 2012, yeah, we’re doing this; we’re killing people using lethal drones, everyone had already kind of accepted it and shrugged and just went on with whatever they were doing — with a few notable exceptions; for example, Rand Paul. But in terms of like a public debate among politicians, we never had it.

WOODS: Yeah, and now, as you say, people don’t even really — it’s hardly even mentioned by anybody. And that’s a bipartisan thing. I don’t hear Democrats talking about drones.

CALHOUN: No, you don’t and people have just accepted something like the New York Times headlines’ version of the story, which always says “Four suspected militants killed,” and people are so used to reading that kind of headline, I think they actually elide the word “suspect” from their reading, and they just assume, oh good, we got some more terrorists. But the reality is all of these people being killed are suspects, and so it’s actually a very disturbing development in the history of warfare and in the history of, I would say, criminal justice as well. It’s really an amalgamated attempt to deal with terrorism and to, on the one hand, say these people are suspects, and on the other hand, they’re soldiers, but we’re just going to kill them without any due process, without warning them, without providing them with opportunity to surrender. We’re just going to kill them. Why? Because we can.

WOODS: Well, let me say what, of course, you know is the standard response to that, which is that we’re dealing today with an especially wily, non-state enemy. There is no headquarters that we can bomb and then the regime will surrender and hostilities will end. We’re dealing with individuals, very shady, every-changing organizations, and so unfortunately it’s going to be a little bit messy, and we have to do this. And if we weren’t doing this, we would be doing something that you would find even more objectionable than drones, so shut up and accept it.

CALHOUN: Yeah, that is the standard line, well articulated. And my response is, first of all, the choices aren’t a) lethal drones or b) Tomahawk missiles. That’s how it’s always set up. We either have to have a full scale invasion, take over Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, take over all of them with our Army, or we have to go in with drones. This is a false dichotomy, first of all. It’s not the case that we would be going into any of these places beyond Iraq and Afghanistan with troops on the ground, because the people are not posing a huge threat to the United States. They’re small factions in tribal regions, and basically they’re suspected of complicity in terrorism, but it’s — I’m glad you raised the word “shady,” because the evidence for these people’s supposed guilt of plotting to destroy the United States is based on information provided by bribed locals.

And we know from Guantanamo Bay when we used bribery to pull in all these men and incarcerate them without charges for many years that it turned out that 86% of those men were innocent. They had no actual connection to terrorist networks; they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What’s happening with the lethal drones is that, because we “kill don’t capture” and take no prisoners, people want to assume that all these people are guilty. The reality is very different, I believe, based on the stats at Guantanamo Bay and the fact that the very same types of intelligence are used for drone strikes as was used for rounding up suspects for detention.

WOODS: All right, so we have to extrapolate from a case like Guantanamo — is that because we really don’t have any way — once people have been basically obliterated by a drone strike, there’s no way to go in and assess who’s who and what really happened, so we can’t really form accurate percentages in terms of are we really getting terrorists? Are we able to assess those numbers?

CALHOUN: Well, that’s an excellent question. And what has happened is the administration in one way acknowledges the difficulty of getting the truth, but their solution is not to be skeptical or agnostic about the identity of some of these people killed; instead, what they have done is to define all men of military age who are killed in drone strikes as unlawful combatants and fair game for targeting. In other words, if you are an able-bodied male in one of these tribal regions over which lethal drones hover and you are killed, whether or not your name is known, whether or not you have any known association with al Qaeda, they write you into history as an enemy combatant killed in action.

And they offer this kind of bizarre explanation that, well, we assume that they are combatants unless we’re given some reason not to believe that they’re combatants, but of course that never happens, and it couldn’t happen, because the people are killed on the basis of suspicious activities — namely, being where they are among other people who have already been killed or are related in some way to al Qaeda or some other group — so there’s no way for these people to be exonerated posthumously. They can’t exonerate themselves pre-posthumously, because they don’t know that they’re being hunted down to be killed, and many of them are not even on target lists, but they end up getting killed, because they’re looking for someone else. They want to kill someone, and they end up killing a cluster of other people, and then if the people actually killed happen to be men of military age, they’re written off as unlawful combatants.

WOODS: The very first one of these strikes apparently was in Yemen back in 2002, and I hadn’t known the details of that until I read them in your book, about the complicity of the president of Yemen, who no doubt like a lot of rulers around the world doesn’t want to be on the bad side of the U.S. and is willing to go to extremes in some cases to keep the U.S. happy. And he apparently gave his consent to the strike on the condition that some kind of cover story would be devised to account for what happened to the people, and then Wolfowitz went and blew the whole cover. Flesh that out for us.

CALHOUN: That’s exactly what happened. Saleh collaborated with the United States throughout his presidency in Yemen and basically gave them free rein to kill whoever they wanted to on Yemen sovereign soil. At the time of the November 3rd, 2002 strike, the agreement was this is a covert operation; there’s going to be some sort of cover story; it’s going to be accidental. But then Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz decided to vaunt the strike as a sort of victory in the War on Terror. And it was a huge political success. I mean, everyone thought, oh, this is so wonderful; we can get rid of these evil terrorists without harming our soldiers, without sacrificing our soldiers, and everyone thought it was a great idea.

Saleh was, I believe, perturbed about the revelation, because of course it was not favored by his constituents. I mean, he basically was acting as a monarch and allowing the United States to kill anyone they wanted to on Yemen soil. And so yeah, it was a little bit tricky. But Saleh actually continued to collaborate with the United States and lots of drone strikes were carried out in Yemen up until the recent coup, which I believe was precipitated by the drone campaign, because there was just so much unrest and so much anger over the central authorities’ provision to the United States of the permission to kill all these people.

But yeah, exactly. It was covert. So in Chapter Two I talk about “From Black Ops to Standard Operating Procedure,” no one talked about these drone strikes between that strike, November 3rd, 2002, which was discussed openly by Paul Wolfowitz, and then everyone else talked about it, but then up until January 2012, no one talked about them. If you asked the administration, they all said, oh, we can’t talk about it; you know, state secret’s privilege; we won’t talk about it; we can’t talk about it; we can neither deny nor confirm that these people have been killed — you know, when people brought forth data about collateral damage, etc., they just consistently denied it.

And it was ironically President Obama himself in a Google talk chat in January 2012 in advance of the presidential election that he started talking about it. And so they said, oh, I guess — people were like, oh wow, I guess it’s not really covert anymore; I guess it’s overt. But of course he used this to paint himself as strong on defense: look what I’m doing to keep you safe. And since then, people have just accepted it. Everyone in the administration accepts it. Certainly anyone who remained in the administration has been a lethal drone advocate from 2002 on. A lot of people left the CIA, but the people who have come in are all enthusiasts, and so now it’s just considered standard operating procedure.

WOODS: Naturally somebody’s going to ask you what do you recommend instead. We’ve got a lot of bad guys out there; it’s not always easy to apprehend them, and some of them do wish us ill, and it’s quite clear in what they say that they wish us ill, so we have to do something.

CALHOUN: Yeah, I’m not so sure that most of these people are so close to Osama bin Laden. The problem is we’re conflating all of these groups. There are militants; there are dissidents; there are terrorists; there are all these different types of people who are angry out there. A lot of the people being killed are actually militants whose aspirations are very local, and the central government authority in a case such as Yemen is using his collaboration with the United States to eliminate political enemies. These are people who would never make it to U.S. shores, most of them. Even if they hate the United States, as some of them may very well, because of our ongoing interventions, they don’t have the means to harm the United States. They’re not, as the politicians always want to say, an existential threat. It’s just preposterous to claim that they are. These people are not Osama bin Laden, but unfortunately they’ve all been conflated into a single group of evil terrorists.

And look at the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq. A lot of those people perceived themselves to be defending themselves against the occupiers — and they were. Now, they ended up joining ranks with al Qaeda terrorists, some of them, but in fact a lot of the men killed really perceived themselves to be defending their own homeland. And what has happened since then is that everyone is just sort of thrown into the same barrel. They’re all evil terrorists akin to Osama bin Laden. I reject that premise. I think it’s false. I think it’s politically palatable, because politicians can say, oh, look at all these people we’ve killed; we’re keeping you safe. When in fact, the blowback is going to come later down the line, and we, the taxpaying citizens, are the ones who are going to suffer as a result of these programs.

WOODS: Now, you point out here what a number of people have said, which is that we have examples of people who have taken up arms in one way or another as a result of a drone strike and the loss of a relative or some close person, and they cite that expressly. And these are people who hadn’t been involved in anything before.

CALHOUN: That’s right.

WOODS: So there is the concern that are you in fact — you kill one person, and you radicalize two.

CALHOUN: There’s a huge amount of data for this. I mean, lots of NGO groups and human rights groups have gone into these territories and interviewed people. A very recent study by Alkarama based in Switzerland found in Yemen the fall of 2014 that among the people living under lethal drones, there were forms of collateral damage which are really not acknowledged by the administration. The administration likes to say that collateral damage is body count, and if you consider that collateral damage is exhausted by civilian body count, it looks like drones are a great idea, because the body count is very low relative to full-scale wars. It’s somewhere between several hundred and several thousand. People differ on the stats, and it also depends on whether you exclude the possibility of a military-aged male as a civilian. But even the worst stats, even if lots of these people have been civilians, the body count is in the thousands. It’s not hundreds of thousands, and so people say, what are you talking about? Of course drones are the answer.

But they’re completely ignoring these other facets of collateral damage, which I refer to as second-order collateral damage or even third-order collateral damage. And second-order collateral damage is the harm done to people who are not killed in the strikes, but they’re left bereft of their loved ones, their community members, their homes, their vehicles, etc., those people have been harmed by the drones but they survive, and they’re in many cases traumatized; they are afraid for the future. What Alkarama found in their very insightful study is that both bereft survivors and people who have not lost anyone are equally afflicted by psychological ailments, such as fear, anxiety, paranoia, and above all anger. And what they found is that among these people in the communities where lethal drones hover, young boys in particular, whether they have lost a family member or not, tend to become very angry about this, and they are prime candidates for signing up to join forces to undertake jihad in collaboration with some of these terrorist factions.

So absolutely, there’s the question are we creating more terrorists than we’re eliminating, and we have an abundance of evidence for this. And it actually seems just to be a matter of common sense. If you think about how you would feel if your own neighborhood were being, I don’t know, hit by missiles periodically, every now and then some house just disappears, and you’re living there, well, what Alkarama found and other organizations have corroborated this is that the people have difficulty planning for the future, because they’re not sure that they’ll be here tomorrow. They have difficulty experiencing former sources of joy. They basically live in a sort of paranoid state, because they never know if they’re going to be next in line.

And as a result of this, some of the people are just traumatized; they’re just psychological wrecks. Others become very angry and take up arms and vow to retaliate against this. Lots of the people, lots of the jihadists from the Bush era have said explicitly, as you noted, that they are retaliating to the drone strikes and that they will not stop until the drone strikes stop.

WOODS: All right, I’m going to play devil’s advocate. What I’ve heard in response to this from time to time is for people who are worried about the so-called blowback effects of U.S. intervention around the world, the answer is we didn’t worry about that when we were fighting the Nazi regime in Germany. We didn’t say, well, if we bomb them they’re going to get even angrier at us. We just leveled them, and you don’t hear anymore Nazis anymore. That would be what they would say.

CALHOUN: Well, if you want to undertake full on genocide and kill all brown-skinned people in these areas, yeah, you will eliminate the problem of jihadist terrorists. But we have to step back and ask what exactly we are doing, because in addition to killing the worst of the worst, the people who would if they could grow up to be Osama bin Laden, we’re also eliminating simultaneously the best of the best, because we’re eliminating people who are standing up against their central government authority, often which are very tyrannical and oppressive. So we’re actually eliminating the possibility of democracy arising in these places where we collaborate with central government authorities who allow us to kill whomever we like, and they are using it for their part to cement their position of power. So it actually, the story is very different when you look at it from a longer-range perspective.

Let’s take a case such as Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the South African government when he was thrown in prison, where he stayed for 27 years. When he emerged, he was one of the greatest forces for peace in all of human history. Now, if lethal drones had existed when Nelson Mandela was pegged as a terrorist by the South African government, he would have been destroyed, and what I believe is happening now is we’re destroying people who actually want to change their societies for the better, because we’re lumping them all together in the same category as Osama bin Laden-like terrorists.

In fact, there have been lots of terrorists throughout history who have had positive programs. I mean, if you want to talk about World War II, who were the Partisans in France if not a group of civilian-clothed dissidents, right? And you have to look at each particular case. It’s not the case that anyone who opposes the central government of their land is automatically wrong and automatically evil. That’s just a false premise.

WOODS: But it is a premise that we’re taught to absorb, because we are taught from American history that of course anybody who has ever stood up to the U.S. government for any reason has obviously always been crazy and always deserved what they got, is the narrative that everybody gets in school, and we stand up and salute and we pledge and so on and on. Now, what I like about this book is that it’s not just — although it would be great to have a book that is just specifically about drones and the moral questions connected to it — but you take some very radical positions in here in your discussions of the military itself as an institution, the culture of the military, the suicide and drug problems that we see with the servicemen, the difficulty of because of the nature of the military having an opposing view and just following orders and so on. Can you tell us something about what you’re driving at in that discussion in your book?

CALHOUN: Yeah, when I talk about the drug use and the suicides I am expressing concern that in part the rampant prescription of drugs to both soldiers and veterans is having the effect of suppressing dissent among the troops themselves. So when you have someone like Brandon Bryant, who’s an apostate drone operator, going around the world and saying, look, this is a mistake, we shouldn’t be doing this, we’re killing people, we don’t know who they are, we’re killing women and children, he’s standing alone. Like, there are no other drone operators, as far as I know, who are doing this. And most of the people who are troubled by what they’re doing in the military, whether they’re drone operators or whether they’re regular soldiers, what happens when they’re diagnosed with PTSD now in the 21st century is that they’re doled out a whole bunch of drugs. And tons of these soldiers have tragically taken their own lives. No one’s really looking into the interactive effects or the contributions made by the drugs to the soldiers’ decisions to take their own lives.

But what I want to say is that this new use of drugs has the effect of not only making it easier for soldiers to kill but also suppressing the pangs of conscience which may emerge in them, as a result of which some veterans always become opposed to war.

WOODS: Yeah, now that’s — gosh, there’s so much left to talk about, and I feel like I’m trespassing on your time here. I was really, really blown away by that video excerpt that we all saw several years ago that became known as — it was called “Collateral Murder” —


WOODS: And this was Private Manning, helped to get that to us. And you know, anytime you see something like that, where the people who are engaged in the killing are just moral monsters — there’s no way to excuse their behavior, their speech, their obvious desire to kill these people, it’s astonishing. But anytime you point out a case like this, you get told, well, there are always going to be a few bad apples. It’s a shame that we have a few bad apples like this.

CALHOUN: They say that, but in the case you cite, “Collateral Murder,” the event was investigated by the powers that be, and they concluded that the soldiers had acted in conformity with their ROE, with their rules of engagement. So it’s not a case of bad apples. They don’t think that those people were bad apples, as appalling —

WOODS: I’m sorry, I didn’t even realize that. Somehow I forgot about that.

CALHOUN: Oh no, that’s what’s even more appalling, that the people —

WOODS: So they’re not even considered bad apples. They’re perfectly good apples.

CALHOUN: Exactly. Those are the good apples. So if those are good apples, what in the world are the bad apples?

WOODS: Well, can you describe — in case people have forgotten this, can you describe exactly what these good apples did?

CALHOUN: Sure. Yeah, it’s shocking; I have to say the first time I saw it, I really felt sick to my stomach. What happened was there were some Reuters journalists and civilians walking in, I believe, it was the New Baghdad neighborhood of Baghdad. And some soldiers above in an Apache helicopter, they interpreted the camera equipment which these guys were carrying as guns. They were AK-47s, they were RPGs; they were sure these were insurgents, terrorists, whatever you want to call them. So they decided to take them out. They got the go ahead, and they shot these people.

And some of them were only wounded in the first round, and so one of them was reaching — was crawling, obviously severely injured, dragging himself along the ground, and one of the soldiers in the helicopter was cheering him on saying, “Come on buddy, all you’ve got to do is touch a weapon.” So he was waiting for him to reach for his camera tripod thinking that it was a rifle so that he could finish him off in conformity with his rules of engagement. So if you’re reaching for a weapon, that means that you’re still an active combatant, and you can just, you know, whack the guy.

So it was so disturbing, because the guy exhibited this thirst to kill an already wounded man, and I take this as indicative of a whole culture of killing, which I label lethal centrism, the focus on killing more and more people as quickly and efficiently as possible and also the use of body count as your sole measure of success. And so the collateral damage just illustrates all of these facets in the drone age. That wasn’t a drone killing, but it exhibits the same sort of quest to kill that you find among “well adjusted” drone operators. That’s what they do. That’s their profession. Their profession is to hunt down and kill people. They even say that they’re hunting. So it’s no longer a case that the military is trying to defend themselves, because these drone operators are not in any physical danger. They’re thousands of miles away working behind screens and pushing buttons on joysticks to kill people who do not threaten them personally with any physical harm.

WOODS: It radically changes things that the person who’s involved in this has no risk to himself whatsoever. It changes the whole balance of the way war has been conducted in the past.

CALHOUN: I absolutely agree with you. It’s a paradigm shift, without question. These “soldiers,” the drone operators, cannot in any reasonable sense construe what they do as acts of literal self-defense. Now, of course people who support the drone program say, well, yes, they are defending themselves and they are defending you, because they’re taking out these people who would kill us if they could. Okay, that’s the Obama line and the line of all the administrators. But the reality is that if you want to redefine self-defense that broadly, then what you’re saying is that basically anyone can kill anyone by simply saying, oh, I’m afraid he might harm me in the future. I mean, this is a sort of rationalization which could be used by just paranoid people who take out their local enemies because they look at them suspiciously, right?

WOODS: So it’s like preemptive war, but on an individual level.

CALHOUN: It’s absolutely preemptive war, which makes it all the more shocking because Obama so harshly denounced Bush’s preemptive war on Iraq. In reality, Obama has carried out preemptive war missile by missile with his drone program, killing people in at least six — probably more — countries, without waging war, without declaring war, without consulting with Congress, and killing these people one missile at a time. It’s a strange situation, where on the one hand they’re saying it’s war, on the other hand they’re saying it’s not war. So the reason he doesn’t have to go to Congress, for example, in Libya he said was because we’re not endangering any troops, so therefore it’s not really war. But it is war. And they say that it’s war when it comes to collateral damage. So you kill innocent people, and the answer’s supposed to be, oh, fog of war, collateral damage is inevitable. But it’s only war because they’re using missiles instead of pistols or strangulation wires or poisons to kill these people. So it’s a very strange case of sleight of hand, sleight of linguistic hand, you might say, where you talk about it as war when that’s convenient, and then it’s not really war when it’s inconvenient.

WOODS: Yeah. Well, this is how the regime operates in so many areas. Whatever it needs, whether it was in the ’30s, whatever program we need to pass, we’ll call it this as long as that gets it through the Supreme Court, and once it does, then we’ll call it the opposite. You can’t trust anything they say on anything. I want to do two more things before I let you go. First is I want to read the very last paragraph before your postface part, the very last paragraph of your book because it’s so arresting:

“Supporters of the Predator drone program effectively affirm that war is the conjunction of thousands of summary executions carried out by the decree of the commander in chief. War makers choose to wield deadly force while claiming that it is a last resort. When all of the measures under consideration are lethal, drones may be selected as the seemingly lesser of a variety of evils. But drone operators themselves earn handsome salaries for suppressing their own conscience and dispatching human beings whom they have never met, and who never threatened them with death. Remote control killers situated far from the battlefield know deep down inside that no one would have died on that day at that place had they declined to fire on what became their victims. The brutal and merciless extermination of unwitting suspects denied the right to surrender or appeal because they are assumed to be vermin destroys the bodies of the victims while corroding the souls of their killers.”

Whoa. That’s a paragraph. That right there is a paragraph. I would like — well, I think in a way our whole conversation has been a reflection on that paragraph, but I want to close with this, what may be a difficult question for you. You point out — and forgive me; I have an addled middle-aged brain, but I feel like at some point in this I read that you sent some writing of yours to, at that time, Senator Obama, because he seemed to be on board with a more peaceful foreign policy. And then you’re horrified to discover that he turns around and engages in this sort of drone program. I want to ask you point blank: were you an Obama supporter, and what kind of evolution has taken place in your mind since his election?

CALHOUN: Well, yes, you’re right; you did correctly recall, I wrote in the preface that I had sent Obama an essay called “The Strange Case of Summary Execution by Predator Drone,” which I wrote right after the November 3rd, 2002 annihilation of six men driving down a road in Yemen by the CIA. I sent it to the newly placed president; I sent it at the very beginning of January 2009.

WOODS: Okay.

CALHOUN: Obviously it never made it to his desk (laughing). And I did vote for him. At that point, the reason why I sent it to him is because I had been seduced by this whole slogan of “Hope and Change,” and I was like, great, we’re going to turn the corner on this Bush nightmare. And then as the years went on and went on, it became clear that Obama in fact was continuing much of the Bush program, although not quite as brazenly. He wasn’t as open about it; he was more secretive about the things that he did.

So yes, I did vote for Obama, and I was really appalled when I learned that he was a part of the “Kill Committee” that met on Terror Tuesdays to consider “flashcards” about nominees to the kill list. That was really shocking. That was as sickening to me as the “Collateral Murder” video, and I really felt that I didn’t understand what had happened. You know, it was just incomprehensible to me that he had transformed in this way. But I think what happened, in retrospect, is that he retained a lot of the Bush administration officials, and so when he asked him for advice, they told him, oh, you should do these things, which were of course the things they had already been doing, including drone killing.

So my answer is that he’s not the man I thought he was when I voted for him. There’s no disputing the fact that he’s a completely different creature. I thought that he was going to be a strong leader who would stand on principle. I now believe that he really doesn’t have a kind of inner critic, and that he’s easily swayed by stronger willed advisors, and that’s how we have ended up with a president who in some ways seems to be contradicting himself left and right.

WOODS: Yeah.

CALHOUN: He’ll say he’s opposed to this —

WOODS: I think he’s conflicted. I think in his own mind he’s conflicted.

CALHOUN: Well, he’s accepted the advice of people whom he should have never listened to, beginning with John Brennan, who was the drone killing czar, whom he gave apparently an office in the White House. And then later, you know that Brennan advocated torture under Bush, so Brennan not only was not prosecuted for his part in the torture, but he was promoted to the head of the CIA. So of course since he was the drone killing czar, then drone killing became literally the only game in town. That’s what these guys do now. And so I feel like Obama’s huge mistake was to accept those sorts of figures as his top advisors, because of course they have a range of ideas about what is feasible and what’s doable and what’s good to do, and of course they want to promote what they have already been doing. I talk about this in the book as institutional homogenization, which results because in part there’s a psychological need for these people to convince themselves that what they’re doing is right, and so they do it more and more. And then after a while, what happens, as did happen in the case of drone killing, is it becomes standard operating procedure. Now that’s what we do, even though we’ve never really examined it.

WOODS: I don’t know if you’re familiar with a writer named Diana Johnstone. She writes for CounterPunch quite a bit, and she has a book out called Queen of Chaos: The Misadventures of Hillary Clinton, and she’s attacking Hillary Clinton, not because she wants to raise taxes or something, but she’s criticizing her for being an interventionist on foreign policy, for being a hawk on foreign policy.  And I had her on and we talked about Obama, and she agreed with me; she felt like if you compared him to Bush, he does seem less inclined to go to war, and he does seem like he wants to negotiate and so on and so forth, but she said that she did feel like he’s easily swayed, and he gets, as you say, swept away by people who are stronger willed than he is.

And I said to her — and it almost sounded like she was trying to excuse it, and I said I can think of people who would have had a strong enough will, who no matter what the establishment is telling them or whoever’s pulling the strings or whatever, they would have gone in there and said I’m not bombing or I’m not doing this. I think Dennis Kucinich would not have done it. I think Ron Paul would not have done it.

And she agreed and she said, but people who have that level of fortitude wouldn’t have been allowed to get the nomination in the first place. And that just left my jaw on the floor. I thought, well, you know, I don’t really know how people get nominations around here, but it always winds up being Bill Clinton or Bob Dole, and that’s just what you’re stuck with. It doesn’t matter. It’s going to be Bill Clinton; it’s going to be Mitt Romney, and you’re going to sit there and like it. And I don’t know why it comes out that way, but it seems like it always does.

CALHOUN: Well, that is true, and I agree with your other speaker about Hillary Clinton. I mean, Hillary’s a hawk. That’s been established. You know, she was threatening Iran way back in 2008, but even in — I don’t know if you watched the first Democratic presidential debate. She actually characterized the intervention in Libya as “smart power at its best.”

WOODS: Unbelievable.

CALHOUN: Unbelievable! Because it’s true, no soldiers were killed, but four State Department employees were killed. And then she went on to, in a way, blame the victims. She said, oh well, when you have these jobs they’re dangerous. (laughing) I couldn’t believe it.

WOODS: Oh, not only that, but look at what happened to Libya in the wake of it all. Like nobody even cares about that. I don’t know what — see, that’s to me, that was Bernie Sanders, one of his 8,000 opportunities to basically decapitate Hillary right there and then. And for whatever reason, he just won’t do it.

CALHOUN: I know. But Bernie also, you know, although we may have hoped that he would be a different candidate, he’s come out openly and said that he thinks Obama’s doing a good job on foreign policy and basically would follow the Obama approach. And in fact, he used the expression “drone assassination.” He didn’t say targeted killing. So you mentioned this earlier, how we redefine a term and then things just kind of slide together. So you don’t even have to call it targeted killing. He said I’m going to continue the drone assassination program. Bernie Sanders said this. He’s the so-called progressive candidate. And the reason, I believe, is he gets his knowledge of what is going on from the New York Times headlines, so he sees “suspected militants killed”; he doesn’t know any of what’s going on on the ground, probably hasn’t looked into Libya recently, as you said. Libya’s like a nightmare. Talk about terrorist training camp waiting to explode.

WOODS: Yeah, exactly. And these are supposed to be in theory the best and brightest we have.


WOODS: And I remember in 2008 John McCain was asked about the fact that he had, by his own admission, really not much knowledge of the economy, and said, well, you know, I have Alan Greenspan’s book. And like that was his answer. That was supposed to make us feel good. That was the best guy they could come up with? And anyway, it just frustrates me to no end thinking back on those years, that somehow because of ineptitude or what, it’s not very well known, but John McCain in New Hampshire beat Ron Paul among anti-war people.

CALHOUN: Oh my gosh.

WOODS: Now, that is a message problem on McCain’s part and on the Ron Paul team’s part. Listen, I want to urge people to check out this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was recommended to me by Robert Higgs, who’s been a guest on this show a couple of times and who is very much admired by my listeners. The book is We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age. We’re going to link to it at Well, Laurie, I really, really appreciate your time. I kept you a little longer than I said I would, but I couldn’t help myself. It was a great conversation.

CALHOUN: Thank you, Tom. I really appreciate it.