Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Spring 2002; Volume 8, Number 1

War Laid Bare

9-11 by Noam Chomsky (Seven Stories Press, 2001, 125 pgs.) and Writing in the Dust: After September 11 by Rowan Williams (William B. Eerdmanns Publishing Company, 2002, xii + 78 pgs.)

These two short books supplement each other and are best considered together. Mr. Chomsky is an assiduous collector of facts, many of them highly embarrassing to the U.S. government. Archbishop Williams, an Anglican theologian of great distinction, enables us to place these facts in a useful philosophical perspective.

The horrible events of September 11 have rightly aroused disgust with terrorism, a feeling that Chomsky fully shares. He calls the attack on the World Trade Center “a particularly horrifying terrorist crime” (p. 57). But he raises an uncomfortable question: “The U.S. is officially committed to what is called ‘low-intensity warfare.’ . . . If you read the standard definitions of low-intensity conflict and compare them with official definitions of ‘terrorism’ in army manuals, or the U.S. Code . . . you find they’re almost the same. Terrorism is the use of coercive means aimed at civilian populations in an effort to achieve political, religious, or other aims” (p. 57). 

Chomsky discusses a large number of cases in which the U.S. government has acted in a way that we rightly condemn when done to us. “Or take the destruction of the Al-Shifra pharmaceutical plant in Sudan, one little footnote in the record of state terrorism, quickly forgotten.

What would the reaction have been if the bin Laden network had blown up half the pharmaceutical supplies in the U.S. and the facilities for replenishing them? We can imagine, though the comparison is unfair; the consequences are vastly more severe in Sudan” (p. 45). Other examples include U.S. support for Turkish suppression of the Kurds, and the blockade of Iraq that has helped to cause the death of “maybe half a million children, which is the price the Secretary of State [Madeleine Albright] says we’re willing to pay” (p. 44).

Defenders of the present U.S. war on terrorism might respond that Chomsky’s analogies are irrelevant. They might well lead us to question aspects of past and present American policy; but how does it follow from anything Chomsky has said that we should not now respond as we have done to the attacks of September 11?

To this Chomsky has two responses. First, the ferocious attack we have directed against Afghanistan carries with it dire consequences. “[T]ake the ‘Northern Alliance’ that the U.S. and Russia are now jointly supporting. This is mostly a collection of warlords who carried out such destruction and terror that much of the population welcomed the Taliban. . . . If the U.S. proceeds to join Russia in arming these forces heavily and launching some kind of offensive based on them, the drug flow is likely to increase under the ensuing conditions of chaos and refugee flight” (p. 43). Perhaps even worse, the massive movements of refugees resulting from the war threaten large-scale starvation.

Further, Chomsky inquires, why cannot the U.S. response to September 11 proceed in accord with international law? Would it not have been better for the U.S. to present its evidence against the bin Laden network to an international legal forum, rather than take unilateral action?

I do not think supporters of U.S. policy would be much moved by the latter consideration. Will they not say that Chomsky has an unrealistic, if touching, faith in the World Court? If the U.S. is convinced it “has the goods” on bin Laden and his allies, why should it not respond with overwhelming force?

Chomsky says of himself, quite truly, “I don’t like to generalize” (p. 54); and Archbishop Rowan Williams, a scholar thoroughly familiar with the just-war tradition, offers a framework of principles that enables us to press Chomsky’s case to its logical conclusion for policy. As Williams points out, two key problems with U.S. policy render it morally culpable. 

To be justifiable, force must aim at a definite and realizable end; and American policy fails this test completely. “From the first, it was not at all clear what would count as victory in this engagement. The abolition of terrorism? No doubt; but what possible guarantee could there be that this had been achieved? . . . It is just possible to deplore civilian casualties and retain credibility when an action is clearly focused and its goals on the way to evident achievement. It is not possible when the strategy appears confused and political leaders talk about a ‘war’ that may last years” (Williams, p. 32).

A defensible end does not suffice. A just war also requires the use of proportionate means, and here once more American policy falls short. “[T]here is a fine line between . . . the crippling of military and aircraft installations and the devastating of an infrastructure with the half-formed aim of destroying morale. Combine that with the use of anti-personnel weapons such as cluster bombs . . . and the whole enterprise is tainted” (Williams, pp. 32–33).

When Williams’s analysis is combined with Chomsky’s depiction of the unscrupulous use of force by the United States in many instances, one conclusion is evident. Though a response to September 11 in line with justice was possible, the United States failed to undertake it. Its disproportionate actions, however unfortunate, should come as no surprise to students of the recent past. 

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