Tag Archives: just war theory

Committing Suicide out of Fear of Death: The Possibility of Preventive War on the Korean Peninsula

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of Prussia and Germany once noted that “preventive war is like committing suicide out of fear of death.” Sadly, most Americans, do not seem to understand this, nor the distinctions of what is and is not permissible and how preventive war is different from the concept of pre-emptive actions.

While in Korea this week Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, most likely acting on behest of President Trump spoke of the real possibility that the United States could embark on a preventive war against North Korea. Tillerson said: “Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” and “We’re exploring a new range of diplomatic, security and economic measures. All options are on the table.” He also said “If they elevate the threat of their weapons program to a level that we believe requires action, that option is on the table.” 

Now let me be clear, the military option is always on the table when dealing with North Korea, but that military option has always been focused on deterrence and the ability to deter, defend, and respond to any North Korean military action, not by the open threat of preventive war. The latter is something that could well push the paranoid regime of Kim Jung Un into actual military action, rather than the provocative actions they make in defiance of the United Nations most of the world. However, that threshold, which successive American administrations have not crossed since the Korean Armistice of 1954 has been crossed.

That being said the North Korean nuclear threat and ability to strike distant targets is growing and may reach a point that it could hit the United States. The question is, when, or if, the North Korean threat justifies either a pre-emptive military strike or launching a preventive war. In the run up to the invasion of Iraq the United States used the supposed threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al Qaeda to justify a preventive war against Iraq to eliminate the threat and overthrow Saddam Hussein. That war has been shown to be both in violation of the standards of the Just War Theory and international law concerning preventive war.

Michael Walzer, the foremost expert on Just War Theory today wrote in his book Just and Unjust Wars:

Now, what acts are to count, what acts do count as threats sufficiently serious to justify war? It is not possible to put together a list, because state action, like human action generally, takes on significance from its context. But there are some negative points worth making. The boastful ranting to which political leaders are often prone isn’t in itself threatening; injury must be “offered” in some material sense as well. Nor does the kind of military preparation that is a feature of the classic arms race count as a threat, unless it violates some formally or tacitly agreed-upon limit. What the lawyers call “hostile acts short of war,” even if these involve violence, are not too quickly to be taken as signs of an intent to make war; they may represent an essay in restraint, an offer to quarrel within limits. Finally, provocations are not the same as threats. “Injury and provocation” are commonly linked by Scholastic writers as the two causes of just war. But the Schoolmen were too accepting of contemporary notions about the honor of states and, more importantly, of sovereigns. The moral significance of such ideas is dubious at best. Insults are not occasions for wars, any more than they are (these days) occasions for duels.

For the rest, military alliances, mobilizations, troop movements, border incursions, naval blockade~-all these, with or without verbal menace, sometimes count and sometimes do not count as sufficient indications of hostile intent. But it is, at least, these sorts of actions with which we are concerned. We move along the anticipation spectrum in search, as it were, of enemies: not possible or potential enemies, not merely present ill-wishers, but states and nations that are already, to use a phrase I shall use again with reference to the distinction of combatants and noncombatants, engaged in harming us (and who have already harmed us, by their threats, even if they have not yet inflicted any physical injury). And this search, though it carries us beyond preventive war, clearly brings us up short of Webster’s pre-emption. The line between legitimate and illegitimate first strikes is not going to be drawn at the point of imminent attack but at the point of sufficient threat. That phrase is necessarily vague. I mean it to cover three things: a manifest intent to injure, a degree of active preparation that makes that intent a positive danger, and a general situation in which waiting, or doing anything other than fighting, greatly magnifies the risk. The argument may be made more clear if I compare these criteria to Vattel’s. Instead of previous signs of rapacity and ambition, current and particular signs are required; instead of an “augmentation of power,” actual preparation for war; instead of the refusal of future securities, the intensification of present dangers. Preventive war looks to the past and future, Webster’s reflex action to the immediate moment, while the idea of being under a threat focuses on what we had best call simply the present. I cannot specify a time span; it is a span within which one can still make choices, and within which it is possible to feel straitened.

I know that is a lot to digest, but the fact of the matter it takes a lot to justify pre-emptive military strikes, or a preventive war, and that in doing so we have not simply to look to the present moment but to the past and the as yet unwritten future. President Dwight D. Eisenhower noted that “Preventive war was an invention of Hitler. I would not even listen to anyone seriously that came and talked about such a thing.” But now, it is being talked about, and as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, Kim Jong Un will raise the ante, and then question will be, then what?


Padre Steve+



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