“Fighting the Good Fight: Military Ethics and the Kree-Skrull War”

The next essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is “Fighting the Good Fight:  Military Ethics and the Kree-Skrull War” by Christopher Robichaud.  The basic idea here is to examine what makes for a “good” or “justified” war, and the big example from “The Avengers” is Ronan the Accuser’s plan to remove Earth from being a threat in the future by de-evolving humanity so that they could never gain enough of a technological level to steal the Kree’s technology and turn it against them.  Robichaud’s definition of a justified war is basically one where there is no other choice but to enter into the war and the war is prosecuted only to the degree necessary and no further.  So a war of self-defense, for him, would always be justified as long as the defending nation only fought as long as necessary to remove the threat the other nation presented to them.  We could also imagine that a situation like the Holocaust could also be a justified war if there was no other way to stop that heinous situation and it was, again, only fought as long as necessary to stop that sort of genocide.  But then Robichaud raises the question of a preventative war.  Could a nation be justified in starting a war to prevent a war from starting in the future?

At first glance, this seems somewhat ridiculous, as starting a war could never actually prevent a war from starting, since by definition it would start a war.  So you could justify a preventative strike, perhaps, but not a preventative war since it seems like an oxymoron.  Sure, a preventative strike would always be an act of war, but if the other side doesn’t declare war on the first nation then it really doesn’t look like there’d be any way at all, and so it wouldn’t be a preventative war.  Thus, it looks like we might have to consider Ronan’s plan to be more of a preventative strike than a preventative war, especially given that he was acting outside of the political and military structure of his nation at the time and if he had succeeded humanity would be in no position to declare war on him.  And it looks like we could use Robichaud’s definition above to determine when a preventative strike is justified:  when there is no other way to avoid the war and when the attack is the minimum necessary to avoid a war starting.  So if, for example, two sides were evenly balanced but one side was going to acquire a new superweapon or a new cache of weapons that would encourage them to start a war, a preventative strike eliminating those weapons and those weapons only might well count as a justified preventative strike, as long as it does indeed restore that balance that means that neither side is willing to declare a war that they cannot win.

Could we then justify Ronan’s plan as a preventative strike?  Probably not.  For one thing, it does seem like he could prevent a far-in-the-future war with humans by other means, including diplomacy.  For another, his only justification for a war starting is that he believes that the humans will do what the Kree — his own race — did and so are a threat to the Kree that way, but he has no reason at this time to think that this is what will happen.  So it doesn’t seem like there is no other way to avoid the war and it seems like there are other options than to devolve all of humanity to avoid that war anyway.  So Ronan’s plan is not a justified preventative strike.

But is a preventative war truly an oxymoron?  Or, at least, are there cases where we could justify one?  While it would still be a war and so wouldn’t count as a preventative war in and of itself, it seems like we could have a justified premature war, where one nation knows that another nation is preparing for a war and will almost certainly start one one their preparations are complete, and so the first nation starts the war early so that they can win the war and bring about a peace and eliminate their capacity to start that war.  The most obvious case of this is one where a neighbouring nation has a huge advantage in productivity and while they are starting from almost no military hardware they will be able to quickly catch up and, after that, will continue to outproduce their neighbour and so would be able to win any war they start after that point.  Of course, for this to work it would have to be clear that they will attack their neighbour as soon as they are strong enough, but if that was clear — like it was, for example, with Nazi Germany — then that nation that could win now but will lose later might well be justified in starting the war early, especially if their goal is not to dominate but to, say, change the government that would start the war or to take territory that would at least even the odds productivity-wise or else create a boundary that would make invasion difficult if not impossible even with the productivity advantage.  Or, if none of this is possible long-term, to buy time to even up the odds in terms of productivity.

So a preemptive strike seems like something that can be justified.  A preemptive war is an oxymoron.  But a premature war seems like something that could exist and could be justified.  Ronan’s actions, of course, fit none of these categories.


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