9/11 + 17: Lessons

I post this every year around 9/11, so here it is again. Though it isn’t up yet, Chris Sciabarra’s annual 9/11 series is always worth reading and should be up soon. And feel free to take a look at my recent apologetic essay here in defense of terrorism, eventually slated for publication in Reason Papers as part of a symposium on Vicente Medina’s Terrorism Unjustified. 

We’re just a few days away from the seventeenth anniversary of 9/11. Here are a few of the lessons I’ve learned from the last decade and a half of perpetual warfare. I offer them somewhat dogmatically, as a mere laundry list (mostly) minus examples, but I have a feeling that the lessons will ring true enough for many people, and that most readers can supply appropriate examples of their own. 

(1) The inevitable gap between normative theorizing and political practice
A war can be justified in principle as a proportionate response to unprovoked aggression, have a rational object, have clear and publicly stated conditions for victory, and still not be worth fighting because there is no guarantee that the war will be fought on the grounds that were publicly given for fighting it. Even if a war seems perfectly justified on every conceivable matter of principle, it’s worth remembering that wars are fought in the real world, not ex hypothesi in thought-experiments, and that every theoretical simplification you make in thinking about a war will be more than matched by some unforeseeable complication that arises in the fog of war. Those complications may well be significant enough to nullify everything else you managed to think of, and destroy the best theoretical case for “going.”

(2) The perpetual opacity of post bellum considerations
It’s always easier to grasp the immediate and supposedly urgent reasons for going to war than to conceive, in detail, of the post bellum conditions that the war is supposed to bring about–much less to predict those conditions. But in confronting any suggestion that “we need to go to war,” try to imagine and predict how things will go in the end game, starting with the best-case scenarios and moving to the worst. I predict that you’ll find it hard even to imagine how to bring about the best-case scenarios (at least in any fine-grained way). The harder you find this, the better the case for not going.

(2a) One notable but easily-overlooked post bellum consideration: refugees. If you decide to fight a war, expect a refugee crisis, and figure out what you intend to do about it ahead of time.

(3) The crudeness of just war theory
The conceptual apparatus that philosophers apply to war consists of a set of extremely crude tools for dealing with the actual conduct of warfare. Given that, we face the following dilemma: either we should go to war in the knowledge that our best tools for dealing with it are so pathetically crude, or we should, if possible, avoid going to war in the knowledge that our best tools for dealing with it are that crude. I think it’s obvious that the latter fork provides the better way out of the dilemma.

Some examples of the conceptual crudity of some commonly-invoked ‘principles’:

  • The so-called non-initiation of force principle merely tells us that for any x, if x is an instance of force, x ought not to be initiated. It doesn’t give us any indication of the permissible range of values for x, and doesn’t tell us what to do if we face an instance of initiated force.
  • The so-called ‘last resort’ principle is, on its own, merely a directive to appeal to war (or ‘force’) as a last resort; it gives no criterion of ‘lastness’ in resorts, and gives no criterion to determine what counts as a ‘use of force’ (often conflating ‘force’ with ‘warfare’ in confusing ways).
  • The so-called principle of proportionality appeals to a quasi-mathematical metaphor that is in practice very hard to make literal or apply in any determinate way.
  • The so-called principle of discrimination tells us to target combatants but not non-combatants; it doesn’t define ‘combatant’ or ‘non-combatant,” much less apply that distinction to hard cases, or tell us what to do when non-combatants are innocent shields of combatants. Nor does it deal with the obvious but little discussed fact that ex post facto reports of ‘civilian’ fatalities in battlefield conditions are extremely imprecise, and more easily fabricated than reported with accuracy.

(4) The inevitable unreliability of allies, both moral and strategic
Either you go to war alone or you go with a coalition. If you go alone, you fight the war isolated from the rest of the world, so that your adversary can count on active or passive allies throughout the world. If you go with a coalition, the problem becomes that you can’t control what your coalition partners do, no matter how insane or immoral they turn out to be. To this day, it’s unclear whether we should have allied as closely as we did with the Soviet Union during World War II; it’s also unclear whether we should have allied so closely with right-wing dictatorships during the Cold War to fight the Soviet Union, Communist China, and their proxies. The same unclarity extends to the alliances we’ve more recently formed to fight Islamist terrorism (Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan) as well as the alliances we’ve resisted or fought for the same purpose (Russia, Syria, Iran).

(5) The inadvisability of ‘reconstructing’ another country, whether for your good, theirs, or both
A country that still suffers race riots over its own legacy of slavery and racial discrimination probably can’t be relied on to reconstruct other countries that suffer from their problematic historical legacies—especially when those engaged in reconstruction are hated as imperialist interlopers, don’t know the history of the countries they’re reconstructing, lack the resources to engage in reconstruction, are confined for security reasons to well-fortified barracks, don’t speak the native language, and are politically hostage to a public back home that is totally uninterested in what they’re doing. It tends not to help that the problematic legacies of countries that are candidates for ‘reconstruction’ arise in large part from ill-conceived prior attempts at reconstruction produced by centuries of imperialism.

(6) Truth as the first casualty of war
Truth really is the first casualty of war, in large ways as well as small. Once war begins, wait for the lies and half-truths to proliferate—from all sides, about all things. And don’t assume that you’ll have the luxury of sifting truth from falsehood during wartime, either. The informational imperatives of wartime are simplicity, digestibility, and coherence with one’s own war effort. If reality doesn’t fit that template, reality will be sacrificed to wartime imperatives, and it will be decades (if that) before anything like a more rational or objective equilibrium is restored. (If you’re interested in ‘getting involved’ in the efforts behind a genuinely justified war, ditch the idea of a military draft or compulsory national service and try an anti-rumor campaign: induce people to stop believing rumors, to stop spreading them, and to criticize any rumors that come their way. You’d be amazed how much harm is done by rumors, and how hard it is to counteract them.)

Incidentally, one casualty of war on the side of those who don’t want war is truth about the nature of foreign aggression. Dogmatic pacifists have a problematic tendency to pretend that foreign aggressors either don’t exist, or are not really aggressing because they’re responding to legitimate grievances. That attitude is too obviously false to be usefully employed in any successful anti-war effort. So don’t.

(7) Domestic liberty as the next casualty of war
The next casualty of war is domestic liberty, along with the ever-present temptation to declare ongoing states of ‘emergency’ demanding ‘emergency measures’—in part by expanding the scope of the concept of ‘emergency’ to cover anything and everything, at whim. Try coming up with a serviceable definition of “emergency,” and try to stick with it.

(8) Civil defense as an alternative to war
If you really want to avoid being attacked by foreign aggressors, seriously consider the possibility of coming up with a civil defense policy that (a) blunts the force of any aggression, (b) costs fewer lives than a war would, (c) gets the whole population involved in the “war” effort, but (d) doesn’t sacrifice domestic liberty in the process. It’s a tall but not necessarily impossible order–no more impossible than the proverbial war that leads smoothly to victory. Your civil defense policy will inevitably have to apply at the borders of your country and be integrated with your border/immigration policy. If you confront dogmatists who insist on ‘open borders,’ ask them whether open borders as they conceive of them require a nation to allow foreign aggressors into the country without challenge. Then ask them how respect for rights would be served by such a policy.

(9) Speak up, speak out
If you oppose the idea of going to war on a given occasion, say so–a lot, to everyone, including your political representatives. People may well regard you as a monomaniac, but in this case, that’s a good thing. Better to be regarded a monomaniac than a cipher.

A proviso: if you’re going to speak out against war, try not to trespass, vandalize, assault people, or blow things up in the process (unless you intend to go to war, or are literally acting in self-defense). It makes you look stupid and hypocritical, and it won’t help.

(10) Patriotism
If you regrettably find yourself in a war, don’t bother to show your patriotic spirit by flying a flag or putting some bellicose bumper sticker on your car. Find a support organization for injured or debilitated veterans, and support it—financially or otherwise. Nothing clarifies the nature of warfare more powerfully than time spent with combat veterans. And nothing makes it clearer that even the ‘best’ wars are an enormous waste of lives, limbs, blood, effort, time, materiel, and money. If saying that doesn’t count as ‘patriotism’ where you live, say it anyway. Or find somewhere else to live.

4 thoughts on “9/11 + 17: Lessons

  1. Pingback: Nightcap | Notes On Liberty

  2. I haven’t really had the time to surf around much today, but three 9/11-related items caught my eye, as much for what each said, as for the comparisons and contrasts with what I said in “9/11 + 17.” Like my post, the first two of them are re-posts.

    This piece by Roderick Long (originally published 2008) reads like a kind of companion piece to mine. My own views on 9/11 and warfare have evolved from a cautious form of centrist warmongery in the immediate wake of 9/11 to the cautious sort of just-left-of-center anti-warmongery you see above, but Roderick has consistently taken an anti-war line from a left-libertarian perspective for the entire duration, and never wavered. I didn’t quite accept or reject his views when I first encountered them, and still don’t, but have found myself adopting more and more of them as time passes:


    My one objection to Roderick’s view is that it still doesn’t tell us what to do about the genuine threats we face. That said, he’s right to say that we wouldn’t face those threats if we didn’t have the policies we have.

    If there is such a thing as an anti-companion piece to my post (and Roderick’s), this essay by Vinay Kolhatkar is it (2016):


    I would re-title it, “How to Commit Civilizational Suicide While Killing Lots of Other People Along the Way.” It strikes me as the “Western Culture” equivalent of Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to the Americans.” I can’t think of worse advice, a more egregious set of double standards, and more intense obliviousness to the last several decades of history than the contents of this essay–a combination of the factually challenged (1, 2), the highly dubious (6), the strategically irrelevant (1-3, 5), and the outright crazy (4). I find it sad that anyone can take such prescriptions seriously, and seriously want to put them into practice, but obviously, plenty of people do.

    Few people have done as much as Chris Sciabarra to call attention to, and remember, the lived experience of September 11, 2001. Sciabarra’s annual 9/11 series is a labor of love, and one of the best chronicles of experiences of the day around:


    From his 2001 entry, on seeing the WTC site from the Brooklyn Promenade: “And I wept… not merely for what had happened, but in fear of what may still happen.” Prescient words and prescient tears: I have a hunch that half of what he feared has come to pass. And then some.


  3. I criticized Vinay Kolkhatkar’s hawkish “policy proposals” above, but this interview with Cynthia Nixon strikes me expressing the other problematic extreme–the politically correct candidate who wants to treat security as a non-issue. This is from an NPR interview with Brian Lehrer, starting at 28:46 of “Primarily New York: Cynthia Nixon”:


    Lehrer asks the question in a slightly tendentious way, but Nixon’s response fails to respond to the legitimate part of the question. Her answer strikes a series of politically correct notes, but suggests that she doesn’t appear to have given a moment’s thought to the state’s responsibility for producing a terrorism policy. The non-answer she gives plays right into the hands of the hawks who claim, with some plausibility, that leftists like her are soft on terrorism.

    That was the point I was making in item (8) above. I’m not a New Yorker, but if I were, Nixon’s answer would be a strike against her in tomorrow’s Democratic primary. Cuomo, at least, has this going for him:


    If something beats nothing, Cuomo wins.


  4. Pingback: War with Iran? | Policy of Truth

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