Aggression and the American Sniper
by Jacob G. Hornberger
FFF Vice President Sheldon Richman stirred up quite a bit of controversy over his article last week entitled “The American Sniper Was No Hero.” Defenders of Chris Kyle, the U.S. military sniper around which the movie American Sniper revolved, took Sheldon to task for daring to criticize the members of the U.S. military who killed people in Iraq, including Kyle, who set the U.S. record for people killed through sniper fire.
One thing comes through loud and clear throughout all the controversy: While exuding praise for the troops in response to Sheldon’s article, defenders of Kyle and other U.S. soldiers who invaded and occupied Iraq simply cannot come to grips with the central issue that libertarians have raised since even before the Iraq invasion: aggression.
In the Iraq War, it was the U.S. government that was the aggressor nation and it was Iraq that was the defending nation. Defenders of Kyle find themselves unable to confront and address that issue and, therefore, just decide to ignore it, no doubt hoping that it will simply go away and that libertarians will stop raising it.
But the issue isn’t going to go away and libertarians aren’t going to stop raising it. It goes to the heart of the controversy.
Why is the issue of aggression critically important? It’s critically important because the nation that starts a war with a military invasion is killing people wrongfully — that is, killing people who are doing nothing more than defending their nation against an attack by an invading army.
Under international law, nations have the right to defend themselves from an attack initiated by another nation. Under libertarian principles, people have a right to defend themselves from anyone who is initiating force against them. The laws of every state in the Union and also U.S. federal law recognizes the right of self-defense.
That obviously means that Iraq, as the defending power in the war, had the right to defend itself. It also means that the U.S. government, operating through its military forces, had no right to kill the Iraqi people.
Under the law, a person who initiates force against another person is subject to being punished as a wrongdoer, whether he is a murderer, rapist, burglar, or robber.
Even if a bank robber engages in a tremendous act of courage in taking on five security guards in a shoot-out, we don’t call him heroic given the fact that he was robbing a bank and killing security guards in the process. The same holds true for a sniper who is part of the gang that is robbing the bank. We don’t call him a hero for protecting the lives of his fellow bank robbers by shooting the security guards who are shooting at the robbers in the process of defending the bank against the robbers.
If a security guard shoots at a bank robber, can the bank robber fire back in “self-defense”? Not under the law. If the bank robber kills the security guard after being fired upon first, every court in the land will refuse to permit the bank robber to plead self-defense.
What defenders of Kyle and the other U.S. troops who invaded Iraq just don’t get is that the same principle applies in the invasion of other countries. If a nation initiates an unprovoked military attack on another nation, under international law the attacking nation is in no different position from that of the bank robbers.
That’s the principle established at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, with the full support of the U.S. government. At Nuremberg, it was held that any nation that attacks another nation is guilty of the war crime of waging a war of aggression.
President George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney clearly understood this principle. That’s why they were trying desperately to link Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s ruler, to the 9/11 attacks. In that way, they could tell the American people that the United States wasn’t the aggressor power in the Iraq War but rather the defending power. They knew that German officials were punished as war criminals at Nuremberg for waging a war of aggression. They also figured that it would be easier for U.S. troops to kill people in Iraq if the troops were made to believe that they were killing in self-defense rather than as part of a war of aggression.
It’s not just man-made law that condemns the initiation of force by both private citizens and government officials. There are also religious principles to consider.
God’s commandment is clear and unequivocal: Thou shalt not murder. The commandment does not read: Thou shalt not murder except when one’s troops are initiating an unprovoked attack on another nation. It reads: Thou shalt not murder.
An American Catholic bishop named John Michael Botean, the head of the Roman Catholic diocese of St. George in Canton, Ohio, understood this principle in the run up to the Iraq War when he issued a letter to the members of his diocese that contained the following admonition:
….the nation-state is never the final arbiter or authority for the Catholic of
what is moral or for what is good for the salvation of his or her soul. What
is legal can be evil and often has been. Jesus Christ and his Church, not
the state, are the ultimate informers of conscience for the Catholic.
This is why the Church teaches as a norm of conscience the following: “If
rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral
order such arrangements would not be binding in conscience.” (Catechism
1903) She also warns “Blind obedience [to immoral laws] does not suffice to
excuse those who carry them out” (Catechism 2313). When a moral conflict
arises between Church teaching and secular morality, when contradictory
moral demands are made upon a Catholic’s conscience, he or she “must obey
God rather than man” (Acts 5:29)….
Therefore I, by the grace of God and the favor of the Apostolic See Bishop
of the Eparchy of St. George in Canton, must declare to you, my people, for
the sake of your salvation as well as my own, that any direct participation
and support of this war against the people of Iraq is objectively grave
evil, a matter of mortal sin. Beyond a reasonable doubt this war is morally
incompatible with the Person and Way of Jesus Christ. With moral certainty I
say to you it does not meet even the minimal standards of the Catholic just
Thus, any killing associated with it is unjustified and, in consequence,
unequivocally murder. Direct participation in this war is the moral
equivalent of direct participation in an abortion. For the Catholics of the
Eparchy of St. George, I hereby authoritatively state that such direct
participation is intrinsically and gravely evil and therefore absolutely
Botean had it right. As members of the aggressor power, U.S. soldiers had no right under the laws of God (or man) to kill even one single Iraqi.
Throughout the Iraq War, supporters of the war were exhorting people to “support the troops” in Iraq. Such support presupposed the continued occupation of Iraq, an occupation in which the troops were continuing to kill Iraqi people. As we continually pointed out here at FFF, with support like that, the troops certainly didn’t need enemies.
Longtime supporters of The Future of Freedom Foundation will recall that we continually exhorted people to support the troops by bringing them home immediately — that is, before they had to kill any more Iraqis.
As everyone knows, many, if not most, of the troops who served in Iraq came back all screwed up in the head. Alcoholism, violence, family disintegration, drug abuse. Heck, Kyle, who himself came back all screwed up in the head, was himself murdered by an Iraq War veteran who was all screwed up in the head.
What do the defenders of the Iraq War say about all these troops who came back all screwed up in the head? They blame it on PTSD—i.e., the stresses of battle.
Even if that were true, what about the psychological effect on a person who wrongfully kills another human being? After all, the average soldier is not a pathological serial killer, that is, one that seems to have no conscience. The average soldier is like all the rest of us — a person with a conscience, a person who is committed to doing the right thing, a person who subscribes to the same basic moral code that the rest of us subscribe to.
Can a soldier avoid the psychological and religious consequences of wrongfully killing another person by simply telling himself that he was loyally and blindly obeying the orders of his superiors?
No way. Life doesn’t work that way. In this regard, I would recommend one of the most profound essays ever written, entitled “Conscience on the Battlefield” by Leonard E. Read.
In order to heal and recover from the wrongful killing of another human being, the killer must acknowledge the wrong he has committed. In a religious sense, he must confess his sin. He must repent. He must feel genuine remorse for what he has done.
Thus, those who convince the troops who served in Iraq that they were patriots and heroes are doing them a grave disservice, as grave a disservice as they performed for the troops when they failed to support an immediate end to the long, violent occupation of Iraq. By convincing the solders who killed Iraqis that they are heroes, he who claims to be supporting the troops is actually interfering with their recovery.
In a very real sense, it’s not just the troops who must face the truth and the reality regarding the death and destruction that the U.S. national-security state unleashed on Iraq. It’s also the American people who must finally confront the truth about Iraq: The U.S. government had no right, under the laws of man or the laws of God, to invade and occupy Iraq, which means that no U.S. soldier had any right, under the laws of man and the laws of God, to kill even one single Iraqi.
The U.S. national-security state’s use of such bromidic titles as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” cannot alter truth and reality. The truth and reality are that the troops didn’t bring freedom to the Iraqi people. Faithfully following the orders of their superiors, they brought a hell-hole of death, destruction, and loss of liberty, not to mention the damage that the Iraq War has done to our freedom and well-being here at home.