An In-Depth Examination of the Morality of Preemptive War
Author’s note: I voted for George W. Bush twice. I supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and have since felt a sincere need to repent. I have had a change of heart. The propaganda required to motivate nations to war one against another is full of lies and inspires hate. I hope that as you personally explore our situation that you will seek council from the scriptures and from the Lord directly through the Holy Ghost. The spirit of contention is not from God. As it says in Ecclesiastes, there is a time and a season for war. If we get this right it will help us avoid being stained by the blood and sins of this generation.
Captain Moroni and Amalickiah are the salient prototypes for wars and physical dominion from the Book of Mormon. Mormon by far spent more time describing this period of war than any other in the record. Alma chapter 47 reveals that Amalickiah engaged in conspiracy, murder, terrorism and false-flag tactics to gain the Lamanite throne. He then propagandized the Lamanites to go to war against his own people (the Nephites). Moroni did not engage in a preemptive war even though he faced tempting rationale to do so. Hence Mormon called him a man of “perfect understanding”. About four hundred years later, Mormon emulated Captain Moroni by following the same law of non-aggression (found in Alma 48). He “utterly refused” to lead the armies when his Nephite contemporaries sought revenge via offensive and aggressive war. (Mormon 3:11) I’ve written several articles on the details of the war chapters in the book of Alma and how they cannot be used to support preemptive war. They can be found at http://www.chronicleofnations.com/. I hope that you will read them in conjunction with your study of the war chapters.
The questions we face are these. Have times changed and are the technologies so different that the example of the righteous Nephite prophets and generals is not relevant to our day? Should we or should we not act preemptively if we “know” an enemy is about to attack using weapons of mass destruction. What if we are wrong for striking them? What if we get nuked? Let us proceed.
This study is organized into seven articles.
- The Rationale for Preemptive War
- The Fruit of our Actions
- Logical Fallacies
- Is Doing Nothing a Valid Option?
- Modern Weapons, Modern Media & Terrorism
- What God has Done
- Will God Save Us?
Part 1 – The Rationale for Preemptive War
In our modern era that wily old deluder, Lucifer, has succeeded in blurring almost all the lines. With the advent of high profile terrorism and modern media we have been led to believe that age old morals relating to war are no longer applicable. As an American nation, we are faced with great pressure to engage in acts of war against many groups and nations.
The follower of Christ ought to tread lightly. War is the ultimate form of dominion. The holder of the priesthood should take notice.
When we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God. We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. (D&C 121:37-39)
The Doctrine and Covenants warns that offensive war is not moral unless the Lord himself commands it.
And if any nation, tongue, or people should proclaim war against them, they should first lift a standard of peace unto that people, nation, or tongue; And if that people did not accept the offering of peace, neither the second nor the third time, they should bring these testimonies before the Lord; Then I, the Lord, would give unto them a commandment, and justify them in going out to battle against that nation, tongue, or people. And I, the Lord, would fight their battles, and their children’s battles, and their children’s children’s, until they had avenged themselves on all their enemies, to the third and fourth generation. Behold, this is an ensample unto all people, saiththe Lord your God, for justification before me. (D&C 98:34-38)
Hence many are called but few are chosen. We fail to understand that we will not attain the Glory of God or His justification unless we follow His law. Failure to understand these principles can lead us to support unjust wars. In a clear temporal sense our support of unjust wars will defile our souls with the blood of our generation.
Webster’s 1828 Dictionary provides a masterful definition of war. It includes commentary on the morality of various types of war. It reads thus:
War – A contest between nations or states, carried on by force, either for defense, or for revenging insults and redressing wrongs, for the extension of commerce or acquisition of territory, or for obtaining and establishing the superiority and dominion of one over the other. These objects are accomplished by the slaughter or capture of troops, and the capture and destruction of ships, towns and property. Among rude nations, war is often waged and carried on for plunder. As war is the contest of nations or states, it always implies that such contest is authorized by the monarch or the sovereign power of the nation. When war is commenced by attacking a nation in peace, it is called an offensive war, and such attack is aggressive. When war is undertaken to repel invasion or the attacks of an enemy, it is called defensive, and a defensive war is considered as justifiable. Very few of the wars that have desolated nations and deluged the earth with blood, have been justifiable. Happy would it be for mankind, if the prevalence of Christian principles might ultimately extinguish the spirit of war, and if the ambition to be great, might yield to the ambition of being good. Preparation for war is sometimes the best security for peace.
I know what you are thinking. The best defense is a good offense. I would honestly agree, especially in the modern era. However, this oft proffered adage is not relevant to the discussion. Of course once embroiled in a just war, a leader like Captain Moroni would concur with the statement. He found it no sin to engage in such strategy. What we are talking about here is the setup for the war. As to the morality of war, the issue of “Who started it?” is probably the most relevant. Which nation was the aggressor? Which nation posed an imminent threat?
The concept of an imminent threat is vital to this discussion. In fact it is the key to the entire subject. It has long been held among kingdoms and countries as well as among individuals, that one need not wait and absorb a lethal attack to address a threat. Action is justified if a threat is imminent. The common law requirements that determine the imminence or certainty of an attack are ability, opportunity, and jeopardy.
Conditions for Moral Use of Lethal Force
1. You cannot be the aggressor. If you started the fight, deadly force is not justified.
2. You must reasonably fear that you or others will be killed or suffer serious injury.
3. The threat must be imminent (or certain and immediate). Three criteria must be satisfiedsimultaneously for a threat to be imminent.
a. Ability – The attacker must have the means or ability to cause death or serious bodily harm.
b. Opportunity – The attacker must be in range and proximity at the right time and place. They must simultaneously demonstrate ability in order to have opportunity to cause death or serious bodily harm.
c. Jeopardy – You must witness aggressive behavior from the attacker. The attacker must threaten and intimidate. You must reasonably believe that you or others will suffer death or serious bodily harm if you do not take action. The condition of jeopardy necessarily requires ability and opportunity to also be demonstrated simultaneously. You cannot justify lethal force by coupling ability and opportunity with past threats (either verbal or behavioral). The threat must be immediate.
For behold, I am God; and I am a God of miracles; and I will show unto the world that I am the same yesterday, today, and forever; and I work not among the children of men save it be according to their faith. (2 Nephi 27:23)
We changed our principles after September 11th, 2001.
Here is part of the document entitled The National Security Strategy of the United States, released September 2002. (Referenced as NSSUS below):
The enemy is terrorism — premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against innocents… We will disrupt and destroy terrorist organizations by: direct and continuous action using all the elements of national and international power. Our immediate focus will be those terrorist organizations of global reach and any terrorist or state sponsor of terrorism which attempts to gain or use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or their precursors; defending The United States, the American people, and our interests at home and abroad by identifying and destroying the threat before it reaches our borders. While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country….Given the goals of rogue states and terrorists, the United States can no longer solely rely on a reactive posture as we have in the past. The inability to deter a potential attacker, the immediacy of today’s threats, and the magnitude of potential harm that could be caused by our adversaries’ choice of weapons, do not permit that option. We cannot let our enemies strike first….For centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack. Legal scholars and international jurists often conditioned the legitimacy of pre-emption on the existence of an imminent threat—most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack. We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries….The United States has long maintained the option of pre-emptive 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 pre-emptively.
The Bush Whitehouse made a compelling argument. In summary they first define the enemy: terrorism. We are at war with a concept, not a nation. They also concede that for the previous 57 years (from the first use of nuclear weapons in 1945 to 2002) it had generally been accepted that preemptive war was not justifiable on the basis that a country simply possessed nuclear weapons and might use them. It makes the claim that times have changed and thus our principles should also. The critical point is the question of what constitutes an imminent threat.
The claim that times have changed is based on the idea that “rogue” states will use WMD to “level the playing field.” They assert that smaller groups or nations are more likely to use them than larger states such as the Soviet Union or China. They superimpose the mindset of a suicide bomber upon the “rogue” nation / terrorist group and invoke the most radical Islamic stereotypes. They claim they do not value their own lives. They simultaneously paint the picture a despot who cares little for the lives of the people of his nation and their basic human rights. I admit that at first glance it is very convincing. What luck for the rulers that men do not think. (Adolph Hitler) Or rather what luck that we have such a short memory. All these menacing attributes were not so long ago (even currently) affixed to the Soviet Union (Russia) and China and their leadership. Stalin and Mao alone compete for the top spot among mass murderers and human rights abuse in all of history. Their evil fruits were verifiably demonstrated in spades, yet we restrained from preemptive war.
I cannot emphasize it enough. The question is this. Are we the aggressor or the defender relative to Webster’s terms? That determines the morality of the cause. It determines if we have blood on our hands.
- For centuries we held the stance that we would not attack without an imminent threat. “—most often a visible mobilization of armies, navies, and air forces preparing to attack.”(NSSUS 2002) Our stance was held for 57 years in the face of the threats posed by the agitated and volatile NUCLEAR nations of the Soviet Union and China.
- Now we are told “We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s adversaries.” (NSSUS 2002)
- When war is commenced by attacking a nation in peace, it is called an offensive war, and such attack is aggressive. (Webster 1828)
- When war is undertaken to repel invasion or the attacks of an enemy, it is called defensive, and a defensive war is considered as justifiable. (Webster 1828)
Changing the definition of “imminent threat” does not constitute moral justification for preemption. Imminence connotes certainty. The Bush administration argued that determining imminence should be relative to the capabilities and objectives of a potential adversary. It implies that one has perfect global vision. Capabilities can be observed to some extent, but when relating to nations, capabilities are not always clear. They are always purposefully obscured in all directions. Capabilities are one thing. Understanding objectives is another. It requires global omniscience. The US has neither perfect global vision nor perfect global knowledge. Our redefinition of “imminence” also abandons the concept of jeopardy. The argument is that we must act before we are in jeopardy. We are engaged in fighting “pre-crime,” a risky proposition at best if we wish to keep our garments unstained by the blood and sins of our generation.
But we were attacked on 9/11!!
Captain Moroni demonstrated the ultimate example. In the battle against the Zoramite, Zerahemnah and the Lamanite armies, Moroni and his armies consulted the prophet Alma to determine where to go to mount a defense. They defensively engaged the Lamanite armies in Nephite territory. They sued for peace twice during the battle, and then allowed the Lamanites to depart in peace. Moroni did not follow them into their own lands. The imminent threat was over (Alma 43-44).
Less than two years later Captain Moroni again showed restraint (Alma 46-48). After defeating Amalickiah in the public media of his time he perceived an immediate threat when Amalickiah was about to take a portion of the Nephite armies to the Lamanites. Having been given control of the Nephite armies by the voice of the people, he headed the defecting armies. Amalickiah escaped but Moroni DID NOT pursue. He could have easily argued that Amalickiah, or the nation that “harbored” him, was an imminent or certain threat. However, being a man of perfect understanding, he knew this was not the case. He fortified the Nephite nation’s defenses and waited. Amalickiah attacked and was handily repelled by the prepared Nephites. Moroni DID NOT pursue. Four years later Amalickiah again came against the Nephites, this time successfully taking many cities. Yet never during the war, nor after its conclusion, did the Nephites follow the Lamanites into their lands even though the record indicates that many prisoners were carried off by the Lamanites (Alma58:30-31).
About 10 years after the end of the Amalickiah war, Moroni’s son Moronihah showed similar restraint. Tubaloth, the Lamanite king (again a Nephite dissenter of Zormite descent; he was Ammoron’s son) sent Coriantumr, a mighty warrior at the head of his armies, against the heart of the Nephite nation – the city of Zarahemla. The Lamanites successfully took the city, but Moronihah conquered and captured the invaders with forces from the surrounding cities. Rather than expanding his war into the lands of the Lamanites, Moronihah simply “took possession of the city of Zarahemla again, and caused that the Lamanites who had been taken prisoners should depart out of the land in peace” (Helaman 1:32-33).
Mormon was also a man of perfect understanding. If all men were to emulate Mormon the very powers of hell would be shaken forever (Alma 48:17). At one point in his day, the Nephites had lost all their lands south of the narrow neck near Desolation. Even though the Lamanites had taken practically everything from the Nephites, Mormon “utterly refused” to lead the Nephite armies (Mormon 3:11). The reason is that there was no imminent threat. The damage had been done. The Nephites wanted to go to war for the wrong reasons.
And it came to pass that I, Mormon, did utterly refuse from this time forth to be a commander and a leader of this people, because of their wickedness and abomination. (Mormon 3:11)
Immediately following 9/11/2001, no nation posed an imminent threat to the United States of America. Our response was disproportionate. 9/11 was a horrific crime, but two wrongs don’t make a right.
Vengeance is mine, and I will repay (Mormon 3:15).
Please prayerfully consider these examples as well as the Savior’s words as you ponder the concept of imminent threats and preemptive war. I hope that you will also read and ponder the remaining articles in this series.
Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matthew 5:44).