Can a Preemptive War Ever Be Justified?

Can a Preemptive War Ever Be Justified?


Okay, let’s begin with a few caveats and conditions (for this post and the ensuing conversation).

First, anyone who knows my writings here and elsewhere, and my teaching and lecturing, knows I’m not a pacifist. I generally believe in just war theory and my basic underpinnings about this subject are the same as Reinhold Niebuhr’s. Some, very few, wars are morally and ethically justified.

Second, I highly respect pacifism and pacifists; I just happened to disagree insofar as they say war is never justified. As I have said here and elsewhere many times and places, I cannot be a pacifist because I know what I would do if killing a person was the only way to stop him or her from kidnapping or seriously harming my wife, one of my children, or one of my grandchildren.

Third, I happen to disagree with “virtue ethics” insofar as it rejects or neglects so-called “quandary ethics.” I think we do need to think “ahead,” so to speak, without sheer casuistry, about what the “right thing to do” might just be in realistic scenarios of moral dilemma.

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

According to most scholars of just war theory it absolutely forbids preemptive war. That is, according to traditional just war theory, a nation-state (or other political entity with military reserves and power) is never, ever, under any circumstances morally or ethically justified in attacking another one with “first strike” force. One of the traditional rules of traditional just war theory is that for a war to be justified it must be defensive. The enemy must strike first.

A few years ago some philosophical and theological ethicists openly questioned this aspect of traditional just war theory and published articles and gave speeches suggesting that, in this nuclear age, and given seemingly insane dictators ruling some nation-states, a preemptive war might be justified. Most of the people who wanted to expand traditional just war theory to justify some preemptive wars surrounded that expansion and exception with many qualifications and conditions.

So, how, as usual, a story. I am old enough to remember—vividly—the “Cuban Missile Crisis” of the 1960s. My family did not usually have television (we were “urban Amish”), but somehow we rented one or something (maybe a neighbor brought one over to us) and I remember sitting in the living room of our tiny house watching the almost round-the-clock news programming about the crisis.

My stepmother was ecstatic about it. She thought it was a precursor to the Return of Christ. She was thoroughly apocalyptic in her eschatology. My father, who was a fundamentalist minister, seemed much more reserved about the crisis; he didn’t celebrate it the way my stepmother (and others like her in our religious form of life) did. I could sense his tenseness and deep concern.

For those of you who don’t remember or know about the Cuban Missile Crisis—we, the United States of America—came very close to going to war with Cuba and Russia. We blockaded Cuba to keep more missiles from being brought there and threatened war if Russia did not remove the already-installed missiles aimed at American cities. Our very act of blockading Cuba was, technically, an act of war. We stopped and boarded and searched ships going to Cuba and turned back, threatening deadly force, many vessels we suspected of carrying missiles or parts for them.

Few Americans in 2017 understand how close we—America and the Soviet Union—came to nuclear war during that early 1960s crisis. Many people believed it was inevitable.

So let’s begin with this question: Was the United States morally and ethically justified in using our navy to blockade a sovereign nation—Cuba? Were we morally and ethically justified in threatening and preparing for war against Cuba (and possibly Russia) if those nuclear missiles were not removed from Cuba?

Of course, some critics will always say no because we had nuclear missiles in Turkey just as close to Soviet cities as Cuba’s missiles (which were really Soviet missiles) were to us! But for purposes of asking and answering the question “Can a preemptive war ever be justified?” let’s set that aside. Suppose we did not have nuclear missiles near Russia aimed at Russian (or Soviet) cities. Then would our act of war (viz., blockading Cuba) have been justified—insofar as we really believed the Soviet Union really intended to use them against us?

Another story. In 1981 Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear facility it suspected of being used eventually to create nuclear weapons to be used against Israel. Was this preemptive act of aggression morally and ethically justified? (Let’s not bring into the picture, here, right now, questions about Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, etc. If you choose to join in this conversation please stick to the main points and don’t nitpick about the details of the examples given.)

As I recall (and I was living in Europe when this happened) most Western countries publicly criticized Israel but less publicly applauded its action. It was as clear violation of traditional just war theory, but what was Israel to do then and in other cases—insofar as it needed to protect itself from destruction?

So, now we come to America’s present situation. According to news reports (I know how unreliable they can be!) one world nation state is claiming to have developed nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States. And its leader has publicly gloated that it has attained this status and ability and might just use it—preemptively. By many accounts, this dictator is mentally and emotionally unstable; it is reported that he has executed everyone he even suspects of being disloyal to him including close relatives. Some knowledgeable people think he just might launch a preemptive nuclear strike against a neighboring country and the U.S.

Now the question on many people’s minds is: If it is true that he is preparing for that and very well may do it, would the U.S. be justified in striking first—against military targets in that country? This is all very reminiscent of the 1960s Cuban Missile Crisis.

My question to you—my thoughtful, reflective, rational and civil readers and potential interlocutors—is this: What do you say about that and why?

In this case I must insist that you not mention any country (other than the U.S.) by name and not mention any world leader by name. Also, pacifists are not welcome into this conversation. It is for believers in just(ified) war only. Finally, rude responses will not be posted here; don’t waste your time if you intend to be rude, thoughtless, merely reactionary, etc. This is an invitation to civil, reflective dialogue and debate.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

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