Preventive War

Harold Brown
May 7, 2004

Is it ever possible to justify waging war? Unless war can be justified under some circumstances, it is pointless to talk about the special case of preventive wars.

The most common case in which war is found to be justifiable is that of a defensive war against an unprovoked act of aggression, provided of course that the defense has some chance of succeeding and that the means chosen are proportionate to the end to be achieved. Unfortunately, many of the actual war situations that arise in history will not fit precisely into any category. Hitler’s invasion of Poland was an unprovoked act of aggression which ignited World War 2. However, Hitler was joined in his aggression by the Soviet Union, which later became the ally of Poland’s defender, Great Britain, when Hitler invaded Russia. At the end of the war, Stalin insisted on keeping and even enlarging the conquests in Poland that he had originally made in his alliance with Hitler. Thus a war that was begun as a war to defend Poland against aggression wound up in a sense as a war of aggression, at least on the part of the Soviet Union.

If we observe how hard it is to apply the carefully workedout categories and criteria of a just war to the situations that develop in the course of an actual war, we may be inclined to look on consistent pacifism – the willingness to suffer rather than to do harm – as the only halfway consistent solution to the problem of war. On the other hand, in view of the atrocious and enduring nature of the oppression that can be suffered when one fails to resist a tyrannical enemy, pacifism in turn may seem to be the cause of greater evils than it cures.

If we are not pacifists, but instead agree in principle that there are some circumstances in which we will go to war, we immediately run into a problem. Shall we confine our willingness to go to war to the absolutely classic case of resistance to unprovoked aggression? If so, we may find either that on the one hand we must acquiesce perpetually to evils already committed or on the other that through unwillingness to anticipate an enemy, we consign ourselves to the futile defense of an already forfeited cause. If not, how shall we define the circumstances in which it is possible, or even morally preferable, to go to war when one has not been attacked? Are there cases when the principle of legitimate defense can be extended to cover situations in which there has not yet been any act of outright aggression?

The Preventive War

Prior to World War 2, Japan certainly was not looking for a conflict with the United States. Because of continuing American interference, however, the Japanese government decided to go to war when it wanted to, rather than waiting for us. This is an example of what Francis Bacon had in mind when he sought to justify the concept of a preventive war against the doctrine of the medieval scholastics, who held that war could be justified only in response to an act of aggression: “There is no question, but a just fear of an imminent danger, though no blow be given, is a lawful cause of war.”

If self-defense is legitimate at all, then it must be legitimate to anticipate a deadly or crippling first blow. No one would expect to wait until a gun?brandishing pursuer had fired the first shot and perhaps scored a hit before shooting at him. Severely menacing behavior, depending on its circumstances and extent, is generally accepted as a legitimate basis for initiating an act of self?defense. The difficulty, of course, lies in judging the extent and imminency of the danger. As Michael Walzer writes, “Preventive war presupposes some standard against which danger is to be measured.” There is always a danger of reacting too soon, as well as of waiting too long. The United States would probably never have gone to war with Japan in the 1940s if the Japanese had not attacked, or so it seems in retrospect. Of course that could not have been guaranteed; the United States declared war on Germany in 1917 when there was no substantial causus belli other than that caused by our material support of the Allies. The attitude and record of the United States were not reassuring to Japan.

The most striking preventive war of recent times is the Six Days’ War of 1967. Faced with mounting menaces from the surrounding Arab states, culminating in an Iraqi decision to place its army under Egyptian command, Israel suddenly struck out at Egypt. The fact that the combined Arab forces were so much greater than those of Israel made any hesitation that might allow Egypt to attack at their convenience seem terribly dangerous. In 1973, Israel suffered somewhat from the onus of having struck first in 1967 and no doubt felt somewhat more secure in consequence of her 1967 victory and the territorial gains it brought. As a result, Israel, allowed herself to be surprised in the Yom Kippur War and paid a high price for it, although there too Israel was successful. Did Israel measure the danger accurately in 1967 and 1973? There may have been some miscalculation, but it is hard to argue that Israel did not have reason for a “just fear of imminent danger.”

Two important lessons can be learned from the Six Days’ War. First, for the sake of peace, it is important not to threaten someone who is very vulnerable, as that is likely to provoke a preventive attack. Second, for the sake of peace, a state that is determined to defend itself should seek to maintain a defense force that is strong enough not to be stampeded into war at the first sign of a substantial foreign menace. In this respect a weak defense is probably worse than no defense, for no defense can at worst lead to a bloodless conquest while a weak defense will lead to a bloody one.

Practical Principles

If self-defense is justifiable – and we are assuming in this argument that it is – then under some circumstances a preventive or pre?emptive strike must also be justifiable. The difficulty, as Walzer points out, lies in the standard for judging the danger. There is a Latin proverb: If you desire peace, prepare for war. In principle one might urge that the best way of preventing war is to be well and fully armed as is Switzerland. Switzerland is surrounded by more powerful neighbors. To none of these except Austria could Switzerland pose a serious threat. In addition, the Swiss have developed a very credible record of being determined to remain neutral, something no major power can claim. No doubt any one of Switzerland’s three major neighbors-Germany, France, and Italy-could overwhelm the Alpine republic. But the Swiss assure all and sundry – and believably so – that the conquest would be at tremendous cost and the victory of little value.

An unarmed neutrality may provoke attack. Norway sought to remain neutral in World War 2, as in World War 1, but its weakness prompted both Britain and Germany to Invade her for their own purposes. Sweden, somewhat less strategically situated and much better armed than Norway, was left alone.

If the lessons of history mean anything, it seems that on the whole it is good to be well armed if one wishes to avoid war. And, if at all possible, one should contrive not to appear threatening to anyone – which is easier for a small country than a large one.

If one truly desires to avoid war, rather than merely avoiding the appearance of militarism, it seems that the exercise of diplomatic and military prudence is of considerable value. However, that same diplomatic and military prudence may incite one to engage in a preventive war under certain circumstances. If one’s primary motive is to avoid injustice, then perhaps one will never consider a preventive war. On the other hand, the same zeal for justice may appear to call for a crusade if it should happen to be in one’s power to stop terrible acts of injustice.

It may be objected that we are appealing here to considerations of prudence and human wisdom, not to absolute ethical principles. Once it has been conceded that war may be justified, it is important to recognize that the categories that permit war to be just – such as unprovoked aggression – are themselves concepts developed by human reason. War – violent, generalized armed conflict – is a primary reality and cannot be submitted totally to a theory.

A responsible soldier might refuse to take part in a w he considered unjust, but it would be very hard for a responsible statesman to refuse to launch a preventive war if he were honestly convinced that it offered the only chance for the preservation of his people. The determination of “danger” and the “only chance” is, of course, a matter of prudence. By taking this line of argument, we are in effect giving practical considerations the last word in deciding on whether to go to war or not. At this point it may be useful to break down our consideration of the morality of preventive wars into two parts: individual responsibility and governmental obligations.

Individual Responsibility

Defenders of the just war theory accept the right, or even the duty, of the Christian citizen to go to the defense of the state when it has been unjustly attacked. The difficulty is that the individual seldom has the opportunity to know which is really the aggressor. In 1939, the German government claimed that Polish units crossed the German border to provoke World War 2; in 1967 Israel at first alleged that Egypt had attacked first in the Six Days’ War. Both the Six Days’ War and the Polish campaign were effectively over before the average soldier could clarify what was actually happening.

Walzer argues that an individual who knows a war to be unjust has the right to refuse to participate, but it is impossible to require each citizen to know the facts that will enable him to judge the justness of a particular war. In the period when he might possibly influence the decision whether to go to war, he has too little information. Later, when the war has broken out, the information may not do him any good-“military necessity” will override all other considerations. An individual is morally obliged to refuse to participate in individual acts that he knows to be wrong, but he cannot be held responsible for knowing that the war itself is wrong. If he does know it and acts upon that knowledge by refusing to fight, he deserves praise. But if he obeys his orders and fights, it is very hard to condemn him. Individual responsibility means not making the decision to launch a wrong war, when the citizen has the right to participate in decision making, and not performing wrong acts in war. However, if a wrong decision has been made by the government, it is hard to hold the individual responsible to resist it.

One example from recent American history will illustrate the predicament in which the citizen will find himself. In 1965 Congress passed the Tonkin Bay Resolution, which gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to wage war in Indochina. Although Congress could have revoked the resolution at any time, in fact no such action was taken until after the United States had withdrawn on the basis of the Paris peace accords. If even the most outspoken Congressional critics of the war could not bring Congress to revoke the war powers they themselves had granted, how can the ordinary citizen with much less information and with no comparable power be held accountable for assessing the justice of the war and determining whether or not to take part?

There are two simple decisions individual citizens could make. On the one hand, they could choose consistent pacifism. On the other hand, they could determine to give unquestioning obedience to their superiors. Both decisions represent an abdication of moral responsibility. Of the two decisions, pacifism is unquestionably morally superior, in that the pacifist does not perpetrate evil, but only endures or fails to resist it. The Nuremberg war crimes trials sought to destroy the argument that obedience to orders relieves a subordinate of personal responsibility. Total obedience to superiors is not an adequate moral position, but neither is pacifism, from my perspective. In consequence, individual citizens are likely to be placed in situations where as a practical matter they cannot make a sound decision because they lack either knowledge or power or both. Therefore, it is all the more necessary for governments, or more specifically, for the individuals who act as rulers and make collectively binding decisions, to make the greatest possible effort not to usurp or abuse the moral integrity of the citizens by compelling them to perform actions that, if fully understood, they would reject.

Governmental Obligations

Because individual soldiers and other citizens thus effectively transfer a part of their moral responsibility to their leaders, a heavy moral burden rests on those leaders, not only for what they themselves do but for what their subordinates do in obedience to them. The biblical concept that rulers should shun the wine and strong drink that are licit for ordinary people (Prov. 31:4-5) is explicitly based on the conviction that their greater responsibilities oblige them to maintain the greatest possible clarity of judgment. Biblically speaking, then, rulers should be held to the opposite of the privileges of rank – an exemplary servant mentality and conduct like that exhibited by Jesus himself (Jn. 13:2-17).

Practically, it seems highly desirable to have in leadership positions men and women who are personally committed to obedience to God and to biblical standards of justice. President Carter’s promise of “a government as good as its people” should be raised to “a government better than its people.” In contemporary American life, we have a horror of the Puritan, the moralist, in power. We extol the pragmatist, the practical man or woman of decision and action. But it is precisely the pragmatist who will ignore the moral dimensions of social problems – including war – and confront the individual citizen with a moral dilemma he or she can hardly resolve. And it is probably only the Christian in public office who can lay claim to the authority and strength to make, on the grounds of principle rather than pragmatism, a decision affecting the nation.

Individual Christians – as well as any other ethically responsible citizens – who are not willing to accept absolute pacifism as their standard find themselves in a situation in which they fulfill their duty to obey God and to act ethically only if they make the effort to create and preserve governmental structures that will respect their ethical integrity. If moral decisions are important to the individual, he or she must seek to elect leaders for whom moral decisions are also important. An individual concerned about the morality, for example, of mass bombing will not want to be led by rulers who are interested only in pragmatic considerations. The mentality of our age unfortunately, tells us that we want “practical” men in office – precisely the ones who can be counted on to make the kind of decision about war and peace that will place individuals in terrible moral dilemmas.

If war cannot be abolished in this fallen world, then there will be times for preventive action. The individual generally will not be asked his or her opinion. This fact of the human condition means that individuals cannot be satisfied with merely seeking to live by biblical principles, as individuals, but must seek to place in positions of authority those who themselves seek to act in accordance with the same principles. In the case at hand, this will not guarantee protection from ever being asked to go to war, nor from being asked to engage in a preventive war. But it at least means that individuals will only have to acquiesce to decisions made on an acceptable moral basis. They will not have to give in to decisions based on opportunistic or pragmatic grounds.