Few thinkers have ever set forth (much less developed) the rather straightforward idea of purely defensive war, i.e., war limited to repelling invaders — and otherwise doing nothing at all. The term “defensivism” would suit the case, but since philosopher Eric Mack put it (in my view) to different and rather conventional use almost forty years ago (“Permissible Defense,” Reason, July 1977), we shall speak here of Wars of Pure Defense (WPD).
While the critical writings of Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466–1536) and Étienne de la Boétie (1530–1563) on war and peace perhaps readied the ground for WPD, the earliest “pure-defensivist” (that I have found) wrote two centuries later. In his Seventh Essay (New York Journal, January 3, 1788), the Anti-Federalist “Brutus” (who was possibly Robert Yates [1738–1801] of New York, who had walked out of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia) took up some arguments made in Federalist No. 23. There, Alexander Hamilton defended the proposed Constitution’s grant of indefinite federal power to raise revenue, arguing there could be no foreseeable limit to the necessities of military defense.
Brutus countered that without a clear division of revenue (taxing power) between the federal center and the states, the Constitution would fail; either it would be too weak to do any good or it would in time subjugate the states completely. The plan of having the federal center “provide for the protection and defense of the community against foreign attacks” was reasonable in itself, but “brilliant martial achievements” were not essential to public happiness. If law and justice prevailed internally, the people “would be ready to repel any invasion that might be made…. And more than this, I would not wish from them — A defensive war is the only one I think justifiable.” In any case, defense was “not the most important, much less the only object of [governmental] care.”
In Europe, by contrast, wars arose from petty dynastic quarrels or pursuit of glory, and “merely” destroyed men’s lives. The people’s economic well-being was a worthier end, and its regulation would remain (overall) with the states. What good came of undermining the states’ capacity for self-defense by vesting the central government with an unlimited claim on revenue? The costs of American defense were not beyond reasonable calculation; the states themselves could probably estimate them. Neither tribal Indians nor European colonies on U.S. frontiers constituted an existential threat. European aggression would require an imperial power to send men, arms, and supplies across a vast ocean, while Americans fighting on their own ground would have every advantage, including the morale of people defending their homes. Actual American defense costs could be shared between the governments and be defrayed, at the federal level, by modest (and presumably limited) taxes on foreign trade, on imports and exports.
1793: William Godwin
English liberal William Godwin (1756–1836) was a near-utilitarian, strongly influenced by Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Taking a step that Thomas Paine resisted, Godwin became the first modern anarchist. In his Political Justice (1793), he wrote, “As defense is the only legitimate cause, the object pursued, reasoning from this principle, will be circumscribed within very narrow limits. It can extend no further than the repelling the enemy from our borders.” In themselves, perceived threats did not justify war, and “wars undertaken to maintain the balance of power [were] universally unjust.”
Turning to the conduct of war, he wrote that “it is never allowable to make an expedition into the provinces of the enemy, unless for the purpose of assisting its oppressed inhabitants.” (This last clause is a bit troubling.) Since, in a WPD, everyone will oppose the invaders, and thus even deceit became unnecessary, “Why should war be made the science of disingenuousness and mystery, when the plain principles of good sense would answer all its legitimate purposes?” The point was to keep wartime operations from producing more evils “than defence inevitably requires.” This standard ruled out “levying military contributions, and the capture of mercantile vessels.” Neither should defenders be subjected to “implicit faith and military obedience, as they are now understood…. Soldiers will cease to be machines.”
Godwin took the fact that overseas possessions complicated the analysis of war as an argument against having them. He saw as doubtful “the propriety of cultivating, under any form, the system of military discipline in time of peace.” He saw standing armies as “altogether indefensible” and asserted that “a universal militia is a more formidable defence….” Battle was “not the object” in a war of real defense, whose “very essence is protraction” (compare Thomas Paine’s discussion of guerrilla strategy), nor were ironbound discipline and military punctilio necessary, since defenders would learn their jobs and develop working structures as they went. Finally, treaties of alliance were “nugatory, or worse.” In actual danger, parties having the same enemies would coalesce naturally. (We can merely note here the underlying Calvinism shared by Godwin and Robert Dabney [see below].)
1847: Veritatis Amans
Some ten years after Godwin’s death, an American writing as Veritatis Amans (“Lover of Truth”) asked, “Can war, under any circumstances, be justified on the principles of the Christian Religion?” (Christian Review, September 1847). His tentative answer was “yes,” provided the war was truly defensive, i.e., “when its object is to repel an invasion; when there is no alternative but to submit to bondage and death, or to resist.” If “a hostile army landed on our shores,” attempts to expel it amounted to justifiable self-defense. Developing some analogies with law enforcement (including capital punishment), the writer urged that since society could not exist without a right of defense, it had the right to “repel an invasion or suppress a domestic tumult.” (That last phrase became, for some, a very useful loophole in 1861. See below.) Unfortunately the writer did not address the scope of defensive war — e.g., would a British invasion of St. Augustine permit (or require) American bombing of London if that were possible?
1897: Robert Dabney
The Virginian theologian Robert Lewis Dabney (1820–1898) was a prolific polemicist in the Presbyterian tradition. He taught at Union Theological Seminary before and after the War of 1861–1865, and served on the staff of Confederate Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson in 1862. His writings included A Defence of Virginia (1867) and The Sensualistic Philosophy of the Nineteenth Century (1875). Late in life he taught moral philosophy at the University of Texas in Austin.
In his last book, The Practical Philosophy (1897), Dabney agreed that “the horrors of war … are enormous.” Reasoning from the magistrate’s right and duty to punish, he found war justifiable: “But war should be only defensive. As soon as the invader is disarmed, his life should be spared,” especially since as a “private subject” the individual invader had had “little option” (italics added).
Aggressive war was, by contrast, “wholesale murder,” and Dabney attacked the inconsistency of “those Americans who repealed capital penalties and yet launched eagerly into aggressive war against their own brothers.” He noted that the American Peace Society, based in Boston, which had long denounced all war as criminal, met “just before the War Between the States began” and decided that “against a war of this complexion their principles did not apply, urged its vindictive prosecution, and then adjourned sine die.” (Bostonian peaceniks soon reinvented themselves as a Northern war committee, under the loophole noted earlier.)
1917, 1940: Jeanette Rankin
Republican Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin (1880–1973) of Montana famously voted against U.S. entry into both world wars. She aligned herself with Western progressives on matters of war and peace and with Eastern progressives on social issues. Rankin did not write much in the way of theory and we must deduce her views from speeches, actions, and occasional writings. In the 1930s she called for coastal defenses and a unified military command structure. After Pearl Harbor, she argued that the president’s constitutional duty to repel attacks on U.S. soil already allowed him to do all the repelling he liked: around Hawaii. He did not need a declaration of war.
1963: Murray Rothbard
Economist Murray Rothbard (1926–1995) was greatly influenced by Old Right publicist Frank Chodorov (1887–1966), whose “isolationist” writings left no room for overseas military operations. In “War, Peace and the State” (1963) (reprinted in Egalitarianism as a Revolt against Nature and Other Essays, 1974), Rothbard sought to ground nonintervention on individuals’ rights of self-defense against actual invaders. He suggested that Smith “has no right to repel [Jones] by bombing a building and murdering innocent people.” He reasoned that it is impossible to use modern weapons morally, because they cannot be pin-pointed against actual aggressors. Rejecting rationalizations about “collateral damage,” Rothbard saw aerial bombing and nuclear weapons as the criminal heart of modern war.
Adding in some practical considerations on the nature of states, he concluded that, since modern weaponry could not be wished or reformed away any time soon, the best plan was for each state to pursue a policy of peaceful coexistence = “isolationism” = nonintervention. Even Rothbard’s own “deviation” in For a New Liberty (1973) (allowing voluntarily funded defense organizations to have a few Polaris submarines) was a pragmatic concession, pending nuclear disarmament. (Rothbard re-stated his arguments in The Ethics of Liberty [1998 (1982)].)
How would pure defense work?
Eric Mack’s 1977 critique defined “isolationism” in terms that answer in detail to our WPD. His treatment very usefully highlighted its implications and imposed a kind of consistency from which actual “isolationists” or noninterventionists would benefit.
WPD would meet actual attacks on national territory while declining to devastate the invaders’ home territory and society. It would therefore undertake no colossal overseas operations, invasions, surrenders, occupations, and the rest. Nor does WPD require granting semi-magical war powers to state bureaucracies while rationalizing the damage done to law and liberty. We could quit agonizing over the “laws” of war, except perhaps to exceed them on the side of humanity. The world-striding U.S. unitary executive, stripped of his mercenary companies, could shrink into a glorified sewer commissioner. Alliances would be the exception, never the rule. Agreements whereby an attack on Micro-Magnesia is fictitiously seen as an attack on U.S. soil would not arise.
With invaders repelled, there would be little to do except to arrange prisoner exchanges and discuss damages, perhaps in a real peace treaty (out of fashion since 1945).
Where mere money is concerned, pure-defense planning would surely be cheaper than constant preparation to invade and bomb the world. With respect to a pure-defense budget, libertarian realists have made useful suggestions (despite the lack of commitment to strict nonintervention). Earl Ravenal’s “Case for Adjustment” (Foreign Policy, 81, Winter 1990–1991) outlined a massive reduction of U.S. defense spending simply by assuming withdrawal from Europe, protection of sea lanes and essential allies, and a minimal nuclear deterrent.
In WPD, air power would defend. Militia on a Swiss or early American model might prove essential and WPD might incorporate civilian defense and resistance as theorized by pacifists such as Gene Sharp.
Some other advantages
Pure defense would make it easier to apply the criteria of Just War Theory, while forgoing the supposed need to punish enemy rulers for their misdeeds (even when genuine). WPD therefore might bridge much of the oft-noted gap between rigorous Just War Theory and pacifism.
Since the difference between the “collateral damage” attendant to shooting down invading planes over one’s own territory and that attendant to blowing up entire cities abroad seems rather stark, high-flown arguments over foresight, “intentions,” and “double-effects” could grind to a near-halt. Genuine pin-pointing might come into play.
We have heard much of the heroics of the Battle of Britain. Those stories are true enough. British defenses permanently destroyed the Luftwaffe (never designed for area bombing) as an effective force. But think how much better that defense might have been had the massive resources committed to leveling and burning German cities instead been allocated to aerial defense.
Perhaps, as philosopher David Gordon suggested to me, “the best defense is a good defense.”
This article was originally posted in the December 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.