War and the State

by William Vanwagenen

One significant reason Mormons should seek to abolish government and capitalism is the fact that States continually wage war in foreign lands for the sake of economic gain. As capital in industrialized nations accumulates and production exceeds what can be consumed domestically, the capitalist classes seek new markets abroad for direct capital investment and for the sale of excess production. Also important is the acquisition of cheap natural resources from abroad to drive industrialized production to begin with. At the behest of the capitalist classes, governments employ armies to force open these foreign markets, and compel foreign governments to provide concessions for investment and the exploitation of natural resources. Armies must then be utilized to protect these concessions and advantages, often in the face of popular resistance. This can be done by direct occupation of a foreign country by a capitalist state’s own army, or by employing indigenous armies run by native collaborators. Competition between industrialized powers for “economic access” to the third world leads to further militarization and conflict between the industrialized powers themselves. An example of this is the competition among European powers to colonize Africa and Asia, followed by World War I in which the Europeans brought the competition (and the accompanying slaughter) home to their own continent.1

Though not as overt as during the height of European colonization, waging war for the sake of economic gain is still inherent in the behavior of states, given they have the ability to do so. Below are several examples illustrating the connection between economics and military aggression in the minds of those concerned with US foreign policy, showing that economics is what drives policy, despite the near universally accepted notion among Americans that US foreign policy is primarily driven by concern for promoting freedom and the protection of human rights.

Writing about the importance of Africa in the US Army War College Quarterly, Dan Henk explains the role of the US military in securing economic benefits abroad: “The instruments used in the conduct of foreign policy are simply means to an end, the end in this case being the advancement of national interests. The effectiveness of a specific instrument, such as military power, can be evaluated only in the context of the ways in which it might be applied to attain the desired end.” Among the ends military power is meant to accomplish, “is economic access, involving the ability of US commercial enterprises to enter African markets, participate in African economic development, and compete for fair profit. African mineral and oil resources are also of interest. The real issue here is access to local and regional economic decision-makers, whether in government and business communities or as consumers of goods and services. Openness of African media to messages from the United States is important if we are to influence African political and economic choices.”2 This desire to gain or maintain economic access to foreign markets has led to countless US military interventions abroad, as well as to U.S. support, both military and diplomatic, for a long list of brutal, but American investor friendly, dictators.

So the “real issue” concerning the US military is economic gain, not defending the American homeland, or protecting the human rights of others through “humanitarian” intervention. Comments and official statements by the top civilian leadership of the United States government continually echo the above-mentioned economic concerns. For example, US Secretary of State George Kennan wrote in 1948 that:

“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3 % of its population. . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. . . .We should dispense with the aspiration to “‘be liked’. . . We should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”3

President Jimmy Carter endorsed the use of “straight power concepts” for the sake of obtaining economic objectives in his 1980 state of the union address. In it he declares that, “An attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Carter goes on to state that this region is integral to the vital interests of the United States because “It contains more than two thirds of the world’s exportable oil.” It is obvious that attempts by internal forces to gain control of such vital resources would merit a military response as well, as illustrated by the CIA overthrow of the populist Mossadeq regime in Iran in 1953. The US toppled the democratically elected government after the Iranian parliament nationalized the Iranian oil industry in an attempt to seize control of its country’s own energy resources from the western colonial powers. The US then installed the Shah as dictator, who allowed US companies to take control of Iran’s oil, while the CIA trained Iranian intelligence in torture techniques to be used in the interrogation of regime dissidents.4

One of President George H. W. Bush’s main stated reasons for going to war with Iraq in 1991 was that the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait threatened American economic independence. He commented in a nationally televised speech that, “The stakes are high. Iraq is already a rich and powerful country that possesses the world’s second-largest reserves of oil, and over 1 million men under arms. It’s the fourth largest military in the world. Our country now imports nearly half the oil it consumes, and could face a major threat to its economic independence.”5 In the subsequent war, the United States went far beyond expelling Iraq’s army from Kuwait, killing some 100,000 Iraqi troops and deliberately destroying Iraq’s civilian infrastructure, leading to 50,000 further civilian deaths.6

More recently, the 1996 National Security Strategy authored by the Clinton administration states that America’s vital national interests include “the defense of U.S. territory, citizens, and allies and our economic well-being” and that “We will do whatever it takes to defend these interests, including—when necessary—the unilateral and decisive use of military power. This was demonstrated clearly in the Persian Gulf through Desert Storm.”7 William Cohen, US Secretary of State under Clinton, elaborated on this position in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review. Cohen stated that, “When the interests at stake are vital – that is, they are of broad, overriding importance to the survival, security, and vitality of the United States – we should do whatever it takes to defend them, including, when necessary, the unilateral use of military power. U.S. vital national interests include, but are not limited to . . . ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources.”8

Though there are many examples of such sentiment which could be cited, these few show that using military force to obtain economic objectives occurs so consistently it must be considered inherent to the behavior of states. Mormon scripture strongly condemns the concept of using violence or killing for the sake of gain. The Book of Moses in The Pearl of Great Price recounts the story of Cain and Abel, and is more specific than the biblical account regarding Cain’s motivation to kill his brother. The Book of Moses states:

And Cain said: truly I am Mahan, the master of this great secret, that I may murder and get gain. Wherefore Cain was called Master Mahan, and he gloried in his wickedness. And Cain went into the field, and Cain talked with Abel, his brother. And it came to pass that while they were in the field, Cain rose up against Abel, his brother, and slew him. And Cain gloried in that which he had done, saying: I am free; surely the flocks of my brother falleth into my hands (Moses 5:31-33).

According to this account, killing for gain may have been one of the first recorded sins in human history. Though this passage refers to the act of an individual, the principle also holds true for states. Armies and navies unleash violence for the same purpose, but on a much more massive scale. For example, on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a pentagon official, speaking of the impending “Shock and Awe” bombing, boasted, “There will not be a safe place in Baghdad . . . the sheer size of this has never been seen before, never been contemplated before.”9 This massive, government-orchestrated assault on another country resulted in the deaths of some 20,000 to 100,000 Iraqis, a feat of which no non-state terror group could come close to accomplishing. Adam Garfinkle, writing in the conservative journal The National Interest writes, “To inadvertently get lots of people killed generally takes a government or two,” though one wonders how inadvertent it can really be.10 One brutal murderer may kill a handful of people over a life-time, while a smooth speaking politician may kill tens, if not hundreds of thousands, by unleashing an army and beginning only one conflict.

But while capitalists and their stooges in government are the real winners in war, it is the poor, on both sides, who lose, as they are the ones called upon to fight and die. Unfortunately, it is quite difficult for ordinary citizens to perceive that a state is launching a war for the economic benefit of an small elite, given the predictably massive amounts of government propaganda, which accompany each act of aggression. Few people want to kill and die to make money for someone else, meaning such motivations must be concealed or combined with more noble sounding slogans.

The current Iraq war is a case in point. Paul Wolfowitz, one of the main executors of the current war, articulated the doctrine providing the rationale for the 2003 invasion of Iraq over a decade ago. The Defense Policy Guidance report he issued in 1992 stated that the US must “preclude any hostile power from dominating a region critical to our interests. . . In the Middle East and Persian Gulf, we seek to foster regional stability, deter aggression against our friends and interests in the region, protect U.S. nationals and property, and safeguard our access to international air and seaways and to the region’s oil.”11 Wolfowitz further commented in the summer of 2003 that, “economically, we just had no choice [to invade] Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil.”12

When the public case for war was made however, attention focused on the fictional threat of Iraq attacking the US homeland with weapons of mass destruction, either directly or by proxy, as well as on assigning at least partial responsibility for 9/11 to Saddam Hussein. Thus a war of choice for economic and strategic benefit was transformed into a war of survival in the minds of the American people. The Bush administration appealed to the patriotic sentiments of those Americans who wanted to defend their country, sending them off to die yet again in a foreign land on the other side of the world. The Anarchist writer Alexander Berkman described the activities of politicians who wage war as “Coining human flesh and blood into profits in the name of patriotism.”13

Even without an understanding of why wars are generally fought, Mormons should nevertheless express strong skepticism any time their government issues the call to arms. Perhaps first to consider is the original Mosaic commandment “you shall not kill (Exodus 13:29).” In the New Testament, statements attributed to Jesus elaborate on this commandment, admonishing his followers to love their enemies and bless those who persecute them (Mathew 5:44). Jesus states that peacemakers are to be blessed (Mathew 5:9), while in response to Peter’s attempts to defend him with the sword, Jesus teaches, that he who takes the sword will perish by the sword (Mathew 26:52). The importance of the command that Mormons love their enemies is underscored by the fact that Jesus repeated it in the Book of Mormon while preaching to the inhabitants of the Americas after his resurrection (3 Nephi 12: 44).

Also instructive is the revelation to Joseph Smith known as section 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants, where the general New Testament condemnation of war is reiterated. The revelation admonishes Mormons to “renounce war and proclaim peace,” and then qualifies that statement by indicating that Mormons are only allowed to go to war if God commands them to do so, or if others commit numerous acts of aggression against them. If the Mormons sue for peace multiple times, they are then justified in defending themselves (D&C 98: 32-37). Even after the Mormons have suffered multiple injustices, God goes on to indicate that if they will then spare their enemies, they will be “rewarded for [their] righteousness (D&C 98: 30).” This suggests an ethic of non-violence is what Mormons should strive for, though it is apparently not required.

The Book of Mormon provides an inspiring example of non-violence, when the people known as the Anti-Nephi-Lehies exhibit their new found belief in Christ by “covenanting with God, that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives; and rather than take away from a brother, they would give unto him.” After disposing of their weapons by burying them in the ground, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies are attacked by a neighboring people. Rather than fight, they stay true to their promise to God by prostrating themselves before their attackers, allowing themselves to be slaughtered (Alma 24: 12-26).

It is instructive to compare such restrictions on war to the standard for the use of violence officially espoused by the current Bush administration. In the 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS), the White House advocates fighting preventive wars to stop states from developing the capability to threaten America, rather than fighting to stop others from actually attacking us, as would be the case if we were to fight only in self-defense. The NSS states:

The United States has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction— and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively.14

This statement is the basis for the rationale behind current calls for attacking Iran due to its nuclear activities. The “Bush Doctrine” is in clear opposition to the restrictions on violence elaborated in the New Testament and Doctrine and Covenants, which when interpreted in the most liberal sense possible, allow only for self-defense after numerous acts of aggression by one’s enemy.

Also significant to consider are the effects of modern war on civilian populations. Civilians are often targeted directly through indiscriminate bombing (allied fire bombing during WWII) or through the destruction of basic infrastructure essential to the survival of the civilian population, such as water and power (US bombing of Iraq in the first Gulf War). Mormon scripture does not even begin to deal with questions of non-combatant immunity and double effect, but anyone familiar with the effects of modern war on civilian populations will undoubtedly agree that such considerations would serve to further restrict the conditions needed to legitimate the waging of war, rather than loosen them.

Another reason Mormons must be weary of continually preparing for and going to war is the temptation to put one’s trust in “the arm of the flesh,” rather than in God, for security and prosperity. Highly militarized societies feel that missiles, tanks and submarines will protect them, rather than their own righteous living. Former Mormon prophet and President of the Church, Spencer W. Kimball, elaborated this point, stating in the height of the Cold War that: “We are a warlike people…When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel – ships, planes, missiles, fortifications – and depend on them for protection and deliverance. When threatened, we become anti-enemy instead of pro-kingdom of God; we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: “Love your enemies . . .”15

These condemnations of war suggest that great efforts should be made to avoid violence, and that therefore any Mormon contemplating participation in a government-waged war should scrutinize claims of its necessity closely, as well as be ready to refuse military service if such claims cannot be substantiated. Sadly, most Mormons consider fighting for one’s government virtually a sacred duty, and are happy to relinquish their agency to military superiors and politicians. Good-hearted Mormons who would normally never think to kill anyone, suddenly find themselves donning a uniform and participating in hideous atrocities, thinking it is somehow their obligation to follow orders.

The idea that Mormons should or could refuse to obey the government’s calls to arms is contrary to the views of most Mormons. Such an attitude seems strange, given that many Mormons often speak of the importance of defending freedom, and (rightly) rail against communism because it seeks to take away individual agency. Since this is the case, it would seem inconsistent to relinquish our agency to a capitalist government each time it calls on us to participate in its wars for economic gain. Instead we as Mormons would do well to use our agency to determine when or if we will use violence against others of God’s children, acknowledging what God has commanded concerning war, and knowing that it is to him we owe our only allegiance.

  1. For a more detailed description of how capitalism leads to imperialism and war, see Lenin, V. I. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. London : Junius ; London ; Chicago, Ill. : Pluto, 1996.
  2. Parameters, US Army War College Quarterly, Winter 1997 to 98. US National Interests in Sub-Saharan Africa, by Dan Henk, pg. 92 to 107. http://carlisle-www.army.mil/usawc/Parameters/97winter/henk.htm
  3. Policy Planning Study 23. Foreign Relations, 1948, Volume I, February 24, 1948, p. 524-29. The relevant excerpts can be found at http://perso.infonie.be/le.feu/ms/histdoc/kennaag.htm.
  4. The New York Times reported on September 26th, 1980 that: “Kermit Roosevelt [son of FDR], the C.I.A. official who engineered the successful coup, has said (quoted in The Times, Nov. 26, 1979) that his agency helped “organize and give guidance” to the Iranian security force Savak, whose crimes were such that Amnesty International stated in 1975 that the Shah’s regime had the worst record on human rights of any country in the world. In a Jan. 7, 1979, interview published in The Times, former C.I.A. officer Jesse J. Leaf told of how the C.I.A. had conducted “torture seminars” for the instruction of Savak.”
  5. Financial Times (London) August 9, 1990.
  6. Leon Eisenberg of Harvard Medical School, writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, commented that: “An international group supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) carried out a more comprehensive study five months later by interviewing members of households selected to represent the Iraqi population. The age-adjusted relative mortality rate among children in the eight months after the war, as compared with the five years before the war, was 3.2. There were approximately 47,000 excess deaths among children under five years of age during the first eight months of 1991. The deaths resulted from infectious diseases, the decreased quality and availability of food and water, and an enfeebled medical care system hampered by the lack of drugs and supplies.” Ascherio A, Chase R, Cote T, et al. Effect of the Gulf War on Infant and Child Mortality in Iraq. N Engl J Med 1992;327:931-6. [Erratum, N Engl J Med 992;327:1768.]).
  7. 1996 National Security Strategy, section II: Advancing our Interests Through Engagement and Enlargement, http://www.fas.org/spp/military/docops/national/1996stra.htm.
  8. Cohen, William. 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, section III (Defense Strategy). http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/qdr/sec3.html.
  9. “Iraq Faces Massive U.S. Missile Barrage,” CBS News Online, January 24th, 2003. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/01/24/eveningnews/main537928.shtml
  10. Garfinkle, Adam. The American Interest, Vol. 1 number 1, Autumn 2005, pg. 119.
  11. New York Times, May 24, 1992, Pentagon Drops Goal of Blocking New Superpowers.
  12. George Wright, “Wolfowitz: Iraq War Was About Oil,” Guardian, 4 June 2003.
  13. Berkman, What is Anarchism, p. 24.
  14. 2002 U. S. National Security Strategy, chapter 5. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/wh/c7889.htm.
  15. Spencer W. Kimball, “The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign (June 1976): 4.