What’s wrong with “preemptive” war, exactly? What’s new about it?

All wars are preemptive. Wars cost lives and money, and can only be justified to preempt the presumably worse damage of not going to war. One of the lessons of the 20th century is that a little more preemption would have saved a good deal of cure. How much better off might we be had the Allies stamped out the Russian Bolsheviks in 1918 instead of sending in an inadequate force with instructions to twiddle their thumbs? Or if we had listened to Patton and marched on Moscow in 1945? Wouldn’t it have been nice to wipe out Al-Qaeda before 9/11?

The anti-preemptionists (is that a word?) often speak of proportion and retaliation, as if the purpose of war were to balance the scales of cosmic justice — you killed one of mine, I’ll kill two of yours now. Retaliation has no more place in war than it does in criminal justice. The trouble with waiting to be attacked is that it permits the aggressor to choose when to start the war. If a country is building up its army with belligerent intent, like Germany in the 1930s, it is silly, not to say dangerous, to wait for the actual invasion. A few weeks ago some evidence came to light that the United States may have fired the first shot at Pearl Harbor. But obviously we did not become the belligerents on that account.

War rules, the Geneva convention, such things are beside the point. It is wrong to fight for Saddam Hussein no matter how scrupulously you adhere to the U.N. guidelines, and it is right to fight for the Allies against the Nazis even if you do firebomb Dresden. There are good guys and bad guys. The good guys are the democratic, capitalist countries; the bad guys are everybody else. The good guys have the right to invade the bad guys and take their nasty toys away whenever they see fit. Everything else is just a question of strategy. What makes a war moral or immoral is not how it’s conducted but who’s at which end of the gun.

Aaron Haspel | Posted September 26, 2002 @ 4:44 PM | General

4 Responses to “Preemption”

  1. 1 1. Brian

    Aaron,

    You say:

    “The good guys have the right to invade the bad guys and take their nasty toys away whenever they see fit. Everything else is just a question of strategy. What makes a war moral or immoral is not how it’s conducted but who’s at which end of the gun.The good guys have the right to invade the bad guys and take their nasty toys away whenever they see fit. Everything else is just a question of strategy. What makes a war moral or immoral is not how it’s conducted but who’s at which end of the gun.”

    Well! bleeding heart liberal here! The good guys never have the right to invade the bad guys first. That’s what makes us the good guys.

    Having said that, the good guys, having suffient proof of the intent of the bad guys, one invasion or violation should do it, should make damn sure that the bad guys cannot hurt us any more. Yep I have a quandary here. That’s the benefit of being good!

    I can only add, i wish i could be so sure. but hey, that is what freedom and democracy is all about.


  2. 2 2. cashfan

    ? Or if we had listened to Patton and marched on Moscow in 1945?

    And why the hell would we have wanted to do that? It worked real well for Napolean and Hitler, I’m sure it would have been peachy keen for Patton. Besides we never ended up fighting a war with the Soviet Union. It kept us busy for a few decades being paranoid about it, but nothing happened.

    The reason some are against war with Iraq is not because they think Saddam is a swell guy, its because its going to be extremely hard to get him out of power. He lives for staying in power; he would sacrifice his family and friends to accomplish this feat. He is a good deal more saavy than Hitler. Saddam has said that the day he leaves power is the day that Iraq will be a country without a people. Ostensibly to say that he is his people’s only hope. That without him Iraqis would be subjects to the hegemony of the west. But he has a more sinister meaning buried in that statement: he will leave power only when the only thing left in Iraq is a pile of stinking corpses.

    Oh, and who ever wrote this comment:"The United States has the moral right to invade any Middle Eastern country, except Israel, that it chooses"
    You are an idiot. I don’t generally like to use straight up insults in internet posts, but my god. That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. And there are "Dictators who systematically oppress their own people" all over the world, but our government doesn’t give a good goddamn about them if they don’t have any oil under their country, or if they are extremely powerful, like China.


  3. 3 3. Aaron Haspel

    No doubt our correspondent can produce many Czechs, and Poles, and Hungarians, and Rumanians, and East Germans, not to mention Russians themselves, to back up his accusations of "paranoia" and his assertion that "nothing happened" because of the last fifty years of the Soviet Union’s existence. It must be odd to live in a universe where the only choices are "nothing" and all-out nuclear war.

    "Cashfan" opposes the war in Iraq because he thinks it will be difficult. Bully for him. But that has nothing to do with the question of whether the United States has the right to invade Iraq, or other countries that systematically oppress their own people (including, yes, China); that is, whether preemption is morally justified.

    In the last paragraph it dawns on him that this is, indeed, the topic, and he rises to the occasion by calling me an "idiot" and my thesis "the most ridiculous thing [he has] ever heard." And we close, mercifully, with a few more off-topic remarks about China and oil.

    I was going to complain that "cashfan," in classical troll style, provided neither an email nor a web address. But perhaps we are better off for that.


  4. 4 4. Jim

    I agree with what you say in the post and your comments. I have a piece on my blog ("American Unilateralism: A Vigilantism"). You’re distinguishing between natural law and conventional law. The left is wedded to postmodernism which is wedded to the view that only conventional law is real. There is no world government to protect us, so we have a right to take the law into our own hands. You’re calling a spade a spade.


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