Is Pre-Emptive War Justified?

Is pre-emptive war justified?  There are certainly moral and ethical justifications for such actions, but they come from such sources as Hitler and Machiavelli.  Hardly the bastions of traditional western morality, in my opinion.

I believe in the Just War Theory.  Wars are just if and only if they satisfy several criteria.  First, there must be a right to go to war:

  1. All possible recourses have been completely exhausted (i.e. diplomacy).
  2. A war is based on just criteria (i.e. self-defense, or defense of one’s property) and just intention.
  3. Only legitimate authorities are authorized to wage war.
  4. Arms may not be used in a futile cause or when a disproportionate amount of force is required to achieve success.

Second, there is the issue of how the war is waged:

  1. Acts of war should be directed towards combatants, not towards non-combatants.
  2. Force used must be proportional to the wrong endured.
  3. Force used must be kept to the minimum required to achieve the desired ends.

This is roughly my view of the Just War Theory.  There are many examples in Western history that do not meet this criteria.  Clearly, Germany was not justified in attacking France in WWI or WWII.  But neither were allied bombing runs on German residents justified.  Nor bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Many point out these bombings likely saved hundreds of thousands of Japanese and American lives.  But how many combatant lives are we willing to trade for an intentional death of a civilian?  Sherman’s March in the Civil War is also not justified.  Nor are Napoleonic or Roman conquests of western civilization.

While the powers that be have decided pre-emptive war is necessary and occasionally stoop to try to convince us to believe them, it is an explicit rejection of Just War Theory.  For instance, our efforts in Iraq fail to meet nearly all of the above criteria.  Nor do we meet all of the criteria in our conflict in Afghanistan.  It’s almost certain a pre-emptive attack on Iran, should one be carried out, would also fail to meet the criteria.  In order to justify pre-emptive war, we need an entirely new set of moral and ethical criteria for going to war.  Just War Theory is largely based on defense of one’s life and one’s property.  The justification for pre-emptive war has extremely disturbing implications.

The movie “Minority Report,” while I cannot in good conscience recommend anyone view, admittedly explores these themes.  If you know that an individual is to commit a crime of aggression against you, are you justified in entering his house before he attacks you, and incapicitate or even kill him before he makes an attempt on your life?  Traditional morality, western or eastern, rejects this as a moral possibility.  We are only justified in attacking an aggressor when he is at the verge of his act of aggression.  Imminent danger must be present. 

And of course, in pre-emptive aggression, there is also the question: how do we know his intention to commit an act of aggression will lead to the actual act?  How many acts do we consider which we never accomplish to completion?  A related question is, “How do we know our source (as to the information that an individual will commit some act of aggression against us) is accurate and truthful?”  There are all manner of moral and ethical problems with attacking someone well before they attack us.  The colloquial expression is that we attack them over there so they do not attack us over here.  This turns our public ethics and morals on its head.  If we are justified in intervening in other countries which did not have an immediate attempt underway to attack us, who are we not justified in attacking?  In whose personal lives and for what causes domestic and foreign are we not willing to engage and enlist?

I have not even begun to discuss the logistical issues: is such a policy even feasible?  Do we have the willingness to expend the blood and treasure associated with such a policy?  Do we even have the blood and treasure?  How much are we willing to spend?  What is the limit?  The mainstream answers to these questions (or the ignoring of them altogether) is ominous.  Consider, for instance, John McCain’s near-apologetic insistence that there will be other wars.

In short, the morality needed to justify pre-emptive wars of aggression is a rejection of the Just War Theory, and opens a Pandora’s Box of unending moral questions and quandries which are best answered by a totalitarian ideology.  This is not American!  As Latter-day Saints, we should strongly oppose such a moral framework.



Filed under Austrian Economics, foreign policy, Libertarian, Paleoconservatism, Personal, politics, role of government

8 responses to “Is Pre-Emptive War Justified?

  1. The “Just war theory” has always fascinated me but pushed for time and want to contuine a dialogue.
    If you have no objection here is my link.

  2. hutaodewang

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  3. Agreed. The Book of Mormon makes clear in more than one instance that pre-emptive war is not sanctioned by God.

    I think that the “golden rule” harmonizes quite nicely with the just war theory. If we’re waging pre-emptive war against our “enemies”, it follows that they can do the same towards us, and others. Unilaterally declaring somebody a threat or a member of an “axis of evil” is hardly reason to end lives and waste resources.

    What I find amazing is how far the GOP has turned from principle. When Kosovo was the issue, numerous GOP leaders stood up and decried pre-emptive war, nation building, and foreign aggression. But as soon as they’re in power, they turn around and do the exact same thing on a larger scale. The hypocrisy is saturating.

  4. Pingback: Connor’s Conundrums » 4,000 and Counting

  5. ed42

    “Only legitimate authorities are authorized to wage war.” and only 1) If the people support it and 2) must not force people (anti-nephi-lehis) to participate.

  6. I understand and somewhat agree with your views on preemptive war. However, how do you feel about the argument that WW2 could have been avoided, or made much easier if a country had “taken him out” before he invaded so many countries?

  7. plato04

    Mark N.,

    Interesting article. Brings up some interesting points. I admit I have a hard time with all of Laurence Vance’s perspectives. I believe that some wars can be justified, and have been, as in The Book of Mormon.

    Mormon Heretic,

    The causes of WW2 are much more complex than just the rise of Hitler. An interventionist Wilsonian foreign policy (culminating in the Versailles Treaty at the conclusion of WWI) coupled with hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic led to WW2 led to the rise and domination of Hitler. With Hitler gone, why do we suppose no others would rise up in his place?

    Having a context of pre-emptive war in place means we could take anyone out we wanted to, if we felt they were a threat to us. How would we know which threats are real and which are not? (Iraq is teaching us this lesson.) Knocking out leaders before they become a direct threat to us is a very dangerous and immoral game, and sets a very dangerous precedent. I submit that such a precedent could literally throw the world into chaos, or worse, another world war. The rest of the world could perceive us as a direct threat, and act accordingly.


    The golden rule is a great rule of thumb for foreign policy. I can never figure out why so many believe that countries, which are full of people, are best governed by laws different than how people are best governed. Doesn’t make any sense to me.

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