At the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, Jason Kuznicki provides a concise and in my opinion quite representative piece in the genre of libertarian lament against the post-War on Terror War on Terror.
The claims underlying Kuznicki’s “Catechism of War” can be summarized as follows: Because Al Qaeda, as a non-state actor, is not in a position to surrender, and eventually equates less with a simple organization than with a kind of terrorist potential, we may never be able to declare victory against it, and therefore an end to the compromise of liberties that the war entails. Furthermore, because this war has no recognized interstate borders, it endangers those liberties everywhere:
Again I ask, long will the war continue?
The war will continue forever, if it must.
What of the liberties you say you enjoy?
There are no liberties on the battlefield.
Where is the battlefield?
The battlefield is everywhere, including the entire world, without any exceptions.
What of the liberties contained in the Constitution?
They are frequently revocable, often without notice, owing to the fact that we are on a battlefield.
By Kuznicki’s own argument, this intolerable corruption of constitutional liberties, manifested most dramatically in an unrestrained and peremptory executive power of life and death even against American citizens, has already occurred. Yet the very existence of Kuznicki’s post, and of so many like it, and of the voluminous if not always very useful discussions they inspire, indicates how limited the damage to those liberties is, how tolerable in fact we – the implicitly threatened citizenry in general, not merely a segment of the intelligentsia – seem to find it.
I am not trying to argue that the problems and challenges that concern Kuznicki are unimportant, or inherently uninteresting – to state the obvious, I find them quite interesting and well worth taking seriously – but how many of the “citizens” who read the “catechism” are reasonably in fear of being mistaken for terrorists? How many would have any reason to feel that way under an utterly open-ended continuation of the war as it has developed up to this point? Carried out for another century under current circumstances, the low level “drone campaign” might account for around as many casualties as a single year of covert bombing in Cambodia, a mere moment in Hiroshima, to say nothing of the entire Vietnam War, or the entire Korean War, or all of World War II, or the Civil War, and so on all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Did a single season of any of those wars involve less such compromise than a century or a millennium of the current war or militarized low level conflict would require?
Kuznicki is like an extreme hypochondriac reacting to a viral infection as an “intolerable” corruption of his pristine human body. The analogy can be extended instructively, since treating any compromise, however “low level,” as intolerable would make normal life impossible. The truth is that our political body, like our individual physical bodies, never exists except in compromised form, even apart from armed conflict, though armed conflict brings particular compromises or axes of internal contradiction into stark relief. Every war requires gross compromises of ideal liberty. Lethal violence is always itself a gross violation of someone’s ideal liberty, by definition. The libertarian lament in its pathos points us to death and suffering, to authentic failures of policy and moral imagination, but its stubborn self-insistence makes it difficult for others to speak to the would-be prophets other than as to children.
The ideological libertarian position reveals itself to be implicitly pacifist and essentially anti-political, in a word utopian, in calling for an impossible polity, one that would be inherently incapable of defending itself or its integrity against violent opposition, whether from actual states or from so-called non-state (actually crypto- or proto-state) actors. For the same reason, consistent ideological libertarianism remains inherently incapable of consolidating a political position or effectually advancing its own interests. The pure libertarians are in this sense not just pacifistic, but ultra-pacifistic, more pacifistic than the pacifists: They have always already surrendered. They remain utterly consistently unreal.