This has been a week of escalating rhetoric over North Korean nuclear ambitions with President Trump threatening to rain down ‘fire and fury’ on the hermit kingdom, and claiming that a US attack force is “locked and loaded” in language that sounds like something from the Western movies of John Wayne. Christians faced with a moral decision often ask “what would Jesus do?” The cowboy code is not quite such a high bar, but it is worth asking in this situation “what would John Wayne do?”
This is a question George Lucas asked himself in pondering the demise of Greedo, and arriving at his controversial decision to edit the scene in which Han Solo shoots the would-be assassin. Solo is a bit of a rogue, a rule breaker, not especially honorable or prone to altruism. The clue is in the name: he’s looking out for number one. But, over time, he develops a value system associated with attachments and loyalties to people he is eventually prepared to make sacrifices to protect.
So the internet controversy over the “Han shot first” scene is interesting, not because shooting first does violence to the narrative—it seems consistent with Solo’s immature character at the time—but because Lucas worries that his lovable rogue has become something of a folk-hero and, in justifying the edit, he explains that John Wayne would not have done that. The good guys just don’t. This—says Lucas—is “a mythological reality we hope our society pays attention to.” So was this something Lucas just overlooked at the time, a moral glitch he later felt needed correcting? Or did something change in the interim?
One possibility seems worth exploring in light of the current North Korean nuclear standoff: when the original Star Wars trilogy first came out, preventive attacks in war were strongly associated in American public consciousness with outrages like the attack on Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan, and were strongly disapproved of. Lucas could be confident that his audience would not applaud the action. In 1950, Harry Truman stated emphatically, “We do not believe in aggression or preventive war.
Such war is the weapon of dictators, not of free democratic countries like the United States.” Post 9/11 Lucas cannot be so sure his audience views the scene through the same moral lens: preventive warfare, designed not to respond to a grave and imminent threat but to cauterize it before it develops, is becoming normalized in the public consciousness. As George W. Bush put it in 2002, “As a matter of common sense and self-defense, America will act against emerging threats before they are fully formed.”
The traditional distinction made in just war theory allows a pre–emptive first strike in self-defense in response to a “drawn sword” but forbids any preventive attack to eliminate a more speculative, future threat. This distinction has been seriously eroded. In Lucas’s fictional world, if Han shot first he was wrong to do so within the moral code of his creator. We would argue that if our governments do likewise, an option the Trump administration insists remains on the table in response to North Korean nuclear militarization, they do so in violation of the values of our western culture.
What is the basis for this distinction in just war theory? Firstly, the desire to check a rising power does not amount to just cause for war unless an attack has actually happened or is already underway. Secondly, at any point where war is not already inevitable, we cannot reasonably conclude that our decision to wage it is a last resort. We do not know whether smart sanctions, patient diplomacy, signaling military capability, or some combination of the three, might have deterred our adversary, until these options have been seriously explored.
Thirdly, it is not clear how a preventive strike can be said to be proportionate to a theoretical threat that may never materialize. Fourthly, there are hidden costs of a breakdown of trust in international relations inherent in signalling preparedness to disregard norms. This escalates tensions, making the descent into a conflict that nobody really wants much more likely. And fifthly, if we are prepared to crush an unidentified egg for fear of what it may hatch into, how far are we willing to press that logic? After all, wasn’t this Pharaoh’s rationale for infanticide? The Hebrew slaves grew too numerous and might have risen against him. We should be very suspicious of any argument that could be employed as justification for deliberately killing children.
Few ethicists would be prepared to mount a general defense of preventive war, but a consequentialist case for specific instances of such action can be made. Where catastrophic damage could be inflicted by a rogue state or terrorist organization bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, what measures might be rational to neutralize the threat and protect civilians? The case seems stronger in relation to terrorists and state sponsors of terrorism, who by definition have attacked and are plotting to attack civilians, than for isolated rogue states who could have different motivations.
For example, North Korea may have reasons for wishing to develop nuclear ICBMs that fall short of a fixed intention to use them. The historical precedents set in Iraq and Libya may mean that Kim Jong Un reasonably believes possession of such weapons is necessary to regime survival. Also, terrorist organizations are emboldened by advantages of concealment and mobility that a rogue state lacks.
The suicidal risks involved in moving from confrontational rhetoric to actual nuclear conflict with the US cannot be lost on North Korea. So we should be careful to temper the terrible vision of a worst case scenario nuclear attack on New York City with a sober judgment of its chances of being realized, before opting for a preventive strike with a near certainty of very substantial costs.
If we are contemplating action that breaks with civilized norms, on the basis that we are facing what Michael Walzer famously called a “supreme emergency,” we need at least to make a clear-eyed assessment of the likely consequences. This “dark calculus” involves weighing the theoretical risk of a North Korean first strike on the US homeland against the probable outcomes of various preventive strike options.
There are wide discrepancies between defense experts on casualty estimates, reflecting a range of different assessments of the risks of escalation as North Korea responds with conventional, chemical or nuclear retaliation, potentially embroiling allies and adversaries in a wider regional conflict. But even the most optimistic scenarios put thousands of US expats and military personnel—stationed on Guam, Japan, and South Korea—in harm’s way, as well as risking catastrophic loss of civilian life in Seoul, a city with a population of ten million within striking range of artillery that would be difficult to neutralize before it could be deployed.
Given the great evils inevitably unleashed in choosing to go to war, it is important that rational deliberation informs the decision. It would be inappropriate to go to war on a whim, or because we have lost patience with our adversary, or because we find it so unacceptable for a dangerous regime to acquire certain weapons that we are prepared to accept disproportionate costs in order to forestall that eventuality. Within just war theory, going to war can be the right choice, but only if certain criteria are met. Hence although Christian pacifists as well as secular consequentialists are arguing its principles need to be rethought in the light of 21st century military realities, the tradition remains useful in providing a framework to guide us in responsible decision making.
The British evangelical Christian ethicist Oliver O’Donovan laments the opinionated and polarized public conversation typical of our social media age, commenting that this makes us prone to doing the exact opposite of what citizens of a state at war, or contemplating embarking upon one, should do, which is to deliberate with their government and army, providing a sounding-board for the serious exercise of judgment on alternative courses of action, and ensuring their representatives are held to account.
We strongly believe that the basic tools for just war analysis should be accessible to all citizens in order to facilitate such shared deliberation, and would like to see the theory much more widely taught and discussed in schools. We are disturbed at the extent to which mainstream media coverage of current events falls into the trap O’Donovan identifies, failing to attempt any serious analysis of the moral and legal basis for crucial decisions, when our governments are contemplating recourse to war with all its attendant consequences. The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that decisions regarding whether the moral criteria have been satisfied in connection with a particular military action “belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” In a functioning democracy this is a duty we all share.
Briefly, just war analysis requires attention to rules relating to the political decision to go to war, the so called jus ad bellum criteria, and a code of conduct that applies to soldiers fighting wars on our behalf, or jus in bello. Essentially these cover the rules relating to the “right to fight” and “how to fight right” respectively. Recently, scholars have argued for an extension of these traditional categories to cover ius post bellum reconstruction and peace-building “after the smoke clears.”
But even in the absence of this contemporary development, the tradition requires that our ultimate aim must be the restoration of just order and the reconciliation of former adversaries in a future state of peace. Hence the rules of war are formulated in such a way as to attempt to prevent triggering intergenerational grievances that could condemn us to serial or perpetual war and frustrate the desire for lasting peace that is surely the chief aim of any rational military commander.
The questions we need to ask when a fresh conflict is in contemplation include: whether our government has just cause for war; whether—having seriously explored all nonviolent alternatives—we must regretfully conclude that war is necessary as a last resort; whether the intention is ultimately peaceable, not driven by belligerence or other dishonorable motives; whether the enterprise has a reasonable chance of success; and whether the objectives can be expected to be achieved without disproportionate cost.
Once war is underway, every act within it should also satisfy the principle of proportionality, and due care should be taken to discriminate between legitimate military targets and civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals—which should never be directly targeted—so as to achieve military objectives whilst minimizing the suffering inflicted on the general population.
Clearly a North Korean military attack or unequivocally imminent strike on the US or her allies would establish a prima facie just cause for war. The use of cyber terrorism is murkier territory, especially given the difficulty involved in clearly attributing such an attack to a state actor. And as we have said, as Christian ethicists we could not endorse the proposition that an inchoate threat to the US mainland amounts to just cause for a preventive strike.
But the discussion around cassis belli should also consider whether North Korea’s violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty could legitimize a punitive strike against them, especially in the event that they move towards supplying weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organizations, and also whether the brutal treatment of the civilian population under the regime could amount to a humanitarian case for military intervention. But any such argument would need to stand alone and cannot be used as a mere pretext for a war waged with less honorable intentions, and the aims and scope of any military offensive should not go beyond the cause for which we embarked upon it.
A just cause is a necessary but not a sufficient ground for going to war. The other criteria remain to be considered. In this case it is profoundly to be hoped that the US and North Korea can be persuaded to return to the negotiating table to resolve their differences peaceably. There are significant obstacles: It is questionable whether the Kim regime will prove open to denuclearization in principle (in view of their oft-repeated statements to the contrary), although some experts have found more recent formulations of the North Korean position encouraging.
Many are skeptical as to whether the regime is willing to negotiate in good faith, given a long history of double-dealing. In addition, it seems that the Chinese proposal for pre-negotiation conditions, in which North Korea should freeze its weapons development in exchange for a suspension of US-South Korean military exercises in the region, may be unacceptable to Japan as well as the US who insist that such exercises are necessary to maintain military readiness.
Still, even if official face-to-face talks never get off the ground, or fail to deliver an acceptable solution, informal back-channel diplomacy may yet keep the door open to a non-military outcome. New international sanctions—if effectively enforced—may buy time for diplomacy by starving the nuclear weapons development program of funds, although the Trump administration still needs to address the issue of vacancies in key positions at the State Department in order to effectively pursue a diplomatic solution. And robust military signaling could effectively deter the North Koreans, as long as this is not misinterpreted as a military build-up indicative of imminent US aggression in view of rhetoric like “locked and loaded.” Overall, the evidence at this point suggests that military action is not inevitable and a preventive strike would therefore violate the criterion that war should only be waged as a last resort.
Most analysts agree that in an all-out war with North Korea the United States would enjoy a very high probability of success, albeit at staggering cost, unless the conflict escalates to embroil more powerful potential adversaries. However success would be less certain in the case of an attempted surgical strike, which, in addition to risking a confrontation with China, could not guarantee achievement of key aims such as neutralizing North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
On the face of it, Kim Jong Un does not hold a strong hand although he may have a few cards up his sleeve in terms of cyber-sabotage capability. Although war is an inherently uncertain enterprise and some are warning against discounting vulnerabilities, the US has a clear military advantage. The possibility that this could be eroded over time is surely not an irrational fear, as North Korean nuclear capability continues to grow, but fear in the face of a growing menace should not be allowed to distort our moral analysis.
If the best efforts of the Trump administration and the international community prove fruitless, and diplomacy and other options are eventually exhausted without achieving the US aim of preventing Kim’s acquisition of nuclear-armed ICBMs, it seems likely that Washington hawks will push even more strongly for a preventive war. We hope that a broad coalition of Catholics, Evangelicals and other Christians will join us in principled opposition to such a move. In this eventuality, even secular consequentialists should consider carefully whether military objectives can be achieved without disproportionate cost. On our analysis, as we have indicated, victory would be hugely expensive, even in the most optimistic scenario, and the risk of costs spiraling towards catastrophic should not be overlooked.
For Christians too, such calculations are a necessary part of the decision making process, and rational public deliberation requires an unflinching capacity to imagine all possible outcomes. But the moral vision of our Christian culture does not begin and end with a consequentialist analysis. Our fears and our ambitions, however rational, need to be contained within a wider moral framework designed to limit the worst excesses of war should it prove unavoidable and—until it is—to keep open the window of opportunity for a peaceful resolution to this dangerous crisis.
Jackie Turvey Tait is an honorary postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Chester. Tobias Winright holds the Mäder Chair in Health Care Ethics at the Gnaegi Center for Health Care Ethics and is associate professor of Theological Ethics in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. They created and administrate a Facebook page on the Just War Tradition.