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Why "Preventive War" is Immoral
By Fr. Juan Carlos Iscara
Originally printed in the May 2003 issue of The Angelus

Perhaps when this article is published, the war against Iraq may be over. Or God forbid it may have just sparked off a wider conflict. Whatever the case, these few lines will not attempt to deal with the geopolitical or military aspects of the Iraqi war, which are beyond the author’s expertise, but will only examine its moral justification.

As it has been said in a former article,1 to state the conditions in which a just war is morally licit is an ethical judgment, whereas to decide that, here and now, a war should be fought is a judgment of political prudence. In other words, to know the conditions in which a just war may be fought is one thing; to establish whether those conditions are or are not realized in a particular case is a different and far more difficult matter. We must be guided to concrete decisions by a body of principles of justice, previous to any conflict, grounded in the Eternal Reason of God; but our prudential judgment depends on the knowledge of all the relevant facts in the concrete case. Moreover, we must be acutely aware of the danger of error through the manipulation of propaganda and the easy slogans of sentimental patriotism.

Many have spoken, as a justification for the war against Iraq, of "pre-emptive strikes" and of "preventive war." Upon reflection, it would seem that such moral

that it is the personal opinion of the author of this article that, on the basis of the facts that are of public knowledge, the conditions for a "just war" do not seem to have been fulfilled in the present war.2

As difficult as it seems for some people to understand it, to be against this war does not mean to be against the American troops, or to be for Saddam Hussein, or to hate America.

People of good will may differ on how to apply the just war norms in particular cases. Nevertheless, there is always a serious obligation for all…to justify their own conclusions as measured against the moral norms of Catholic teaching.3

"Just Cause" For War

The Catholic "just-war theory" acknowledges the right of nations to self-defense: war is licit when there is a question of defending the common good against an unjust aggression.4 This is simply an application of the natural law just as it is obvious that every man has the right to preserve his own existence, so too does the state have the natural right to employ force in legitimate defense against a threat to its very existence that is real, immediate and grave.

But the term "defense" has been understood by Catholic theologians in a wider sense. Hence, military force may be rightfully employed either as self-defense against an unjust attack; or for the restoration or recuperation of what was unjustly taken; or for the punishment of unjust aggressors.5

Among private individuals, the time for defense is limited to the time of the unjust aggression. However, for the public authority, not only defense against an actual attack, but also retaliation against a past aggression may be still legitimately called a matter of defense because the injury continues being inflicted (and so violence is still being exercised) throughout the entire time that the aggressor refuses to return what he has taken or to amend the violation he has made. The use of force to recover what was lost thereby becomes legitimate, if force is the only means to do so.

The public authority also has the right, and sometimes even the duty, to punish evildoers to take "vengeance." As the goal of war is the restoration of peace that is, of the just order justice demands more than simply rendering the aggressor incapable of doing further damage and despoiling him of what he had unjustly taken. Justice requires that the criminal also make satisfaction for his evildoing, and this is the object of vengeance. As long as such satisfaction has not been made, it can be said that the order of justice continues to be violated, that an injury continues to be inflicted against which a nation can defend itself.

This is not "getting even," but an act of vindictive justice from which will result manifold benefits. The culpable party makes amends for his crime, or he is at least kept from doing further damage. The authority maintains public order by repressing evils as they appear. It is a safeguard for future justice since others will be deterred from similar crimes by fear of similar retribution. And it upholds the honor of God, the Just Judge, whom men are called to imitate.

"Pre-emptive Strike"

Thus the first use of force in any given conflict is always morally suspect, as it appears to be aggression. The second use, as it is reaction to the attack, is not so suspect, in principle, and is considered purely defensive. But in certain complex circumstances the first use of force may be in reality defensive, although it cannot be easily perceived as such. It is in these cases that the terms "pre-emptive strike" and "preventive war" are likely to be used. They must be clearly defined, if we are to understand their moral status. Therefore, let it be understood that the "use of pre-emptive force" (or a "pre-emptive strike") means that we attack our adversary, although he has not yet actually attacked us.

Moral Argument

Such a course of action may be allowed only when it constitutes self-defense in the wider sense stated above. That is, it is morally permissible only when there is, on the part of the adversary, 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.6

If the "pre-emptive" force is to be used either as a means of obtaining satisfaction for damage previously inflicted or to punish evildoers, it has to be proven beyond any reasonable doubt (because of the evils that war will unleash upon him) that it is defensive that is, that the adversary is the cause of such damage, or that he has efficaciously cooperated in inflicting it.

It is an acknowledged legal principle that the burden of proof rests on him who affirms or accuses. In our case, the burden of proof either that there is such "manifest intent," or that the threat of the adversary’s attack is impending, "overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation,"7 or that the adversary is the cause of the damage inflicted, rests on the government that decides to launch the pre-emptive strike.

It may be argued that, given the complexities of the contemporary international situation, the dangers of "asymmetrical warfare" and the existence of clandestine networks of terrorism, only the public authorities are "close to the facts of the case and…privy to highly restricted intelligence,"8 and, therefore, they are not obliged to disclose their evidence when doing so may endanger their sources or jeopardize the outcome of the war. Catholic moral doctrine has always made allowances for such a case, stating that the common citizen must, a priori, trust his government and presume the justice of the war.9

But that presumption, while justifiable for the individual citizen, is not appropriate for the international community. Because of today’s increased solidarity and mutual interaction of nations, military conflicts have the capacity to expand and to compromise severely the international order. In consequence, today’s threshold of what constitutes the "common good" must be raised to include, in certain extraordinary cases, the higher common good of that international order.

It is only just, therefore, for the international community before committing itself or giving its sanction to a proposed military action to demand not only assurances but also proofs of a clear case for a war that, one way or another, has the potential to endanger their own common good, for whose protection they are responsible before God and their own peoples, and the international common good in whose pursuit all must collaborate.

During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, justified the American readiness to use military force to confront the specific threats from Russia by presenting photos that unquestionably showed the Russian missile array in Cuba. For the war against Iraq, the present US Administration has not offered such convincing proof to the international community. Consequently, the UN Security Council has remained unconvinced, and unwilling to endorse the American military action against Iraq.

It may be argued that the nation-members of the Security Council have their own political agendas and that perhaps they would have denied such endorsement even with undeniable proof of Iraq’s threat. Perhaps, but the fact remains that a demand of justice has not been satisfied.

"Preventive War"

The notion of "preventive war" has been recently presented to the Catholic world by Michael Novak10 in a lecture given in Rome at the invitation of the US Ambassador to the Holy See, James Nicholson.

This address, although it has drawn impassioned protests from influential American Catholics,11 failed nevertheless to make a coherent argument in favor of the war. It starts by asserting that "preventive war" is not a new theory, but an application of the Catholic just-war doctrine. In the same paragraph, though, it affirms that the present "preventive war" is simply a follow-up of previous UN sanctions, bringing to a close the 1991 Gulf Warthen, one does not see the need to talk of it as "preventive." A few sentences later, the war is nonetheless "preventive" because it removes the odds that, one day, terrorists and Saddam Hussein may collaborate to attack America.

As Novak in his vagueness does not offer a definition of it, we are entitled to extrapolate from his text a definition of "preventive war" as the unilateral attack that neutralizes what is, at present, only the mere possibility of a future attack of a potential adversary. In other words, military force is inflicted upon a country to prevent a threat that such country may or may not pose in the future, but which we fear it may. Thus, the rationale for war is not the adversary’s actual threat, but our own assessment of his possible future intentions. In other words, the debatable conclusions of our own guesswork are the motive for war.

As we have said, a case may be made in support of the moral permissibility of the use of "pre-emptive force," but "preventive war" is indefensible on moral grounds.

Many supporters of the war have spoken, indistinctly, of "pre-emptive strikes" and of "preventive war." On a moral basis, attention must be called to the fact that precisely because the notion of pre-emptive strike may have some moral permissibility in certain circumstances, while the preventive war has no justification at all the moral discourse that ties both notions together and uses them as equivalent is, to say the least, confusing.

To portray a "preventive war" merely as a "pre-emptive strike" is if done deliberately no more than a perverse example of Orwellian "newspeak.

Moral Argument

Why is this portrayal perverse? —Because war is morally permissible only as a means of self-defense. Even the "anticipatory self-defense" or "pre-emptive strike "is a morally permissible action because it is, after all, defense of self against an unjust aggression already underway. In such a case, and at least morally speaking, the attack upon us has started. There are four reasons why "preventive war" is immoral:

1. It is not defense. In a "preventive war," on the other hand, as we have defined it, there is no "defense" in the sense that there is no actual attack underway to defend oneself against. Or, rather, the term "underway" has been so expanded to include also our own assessment of the mere possibility of, or potentiality for, a future attack that is, it is "underway" when we say so.

In a "preventive war" so defined, the dubious conclusions of our conjectures about the adversary’s possible but unproven intentions are taken as certainty of his intent to injure us. Once such spurious "certainty" has taken the place of real proof, it is argued (wrongfully and unlawfully) that the attack is "underway," and one slithers easily (but still wrongfully and unlawfully) into the moral argument of "self-defense."

2. Certainty is required. To act morally, one must have moral certainty of the justice of the war. "Moral" certainty is that which, although as it refers to contingent facts it cannot exclude all possibility of error, nonetheless leaves no reasonable and prudent doubt about the rectitude of the decision to be taken.

Now, certainty is the effect of evidence. As the damage to be inflicted by a war upon the adversary is real, absolutely certain, and much of it irreparable, the decision to wage war must be based upon proportional, morally certain reasons. Presumption in the absence of evidence is not sufficient to justify morally an action with such dreadful consequences.

3. Modern risks do not justify it. It is undeniable, as Novak and George Weigel point out, that the development of new technologies, the increased threat of global terrorism and the consequent new concept of asymmetrical warfare12 have changed the face of war in the modern world. The normal criteria to be looked for in the assessment of a just-war situation may not be present no conventional military movements (as Weigel puts it, no more question "of waiting for the redcoats to crest the hill at dawn"), no visible signs of imminent attack, no authority of a hostile state who assumes responsibility for the attack.13

Even so, the mere ability of a country, even an unfriendly one, to launch a war is not sufficient cause for a just war.14 The just war is a defensive one. The notion of "defense" may be construed so as to cover a wide array of concrete situations, but it is always reaction to an actual attack or to the adversary’s "manifest intent" to injure.

However reasonable may be the fears for the safety of one’s country, however much the risks may have increased in modern times, however tactically expedient and, in the long run, safer it may be to neutralize such odds, the moral principle remains the same: "non faciamus mala ut veniant bona," it is not permissible to inflict an evil to obtain a good result. A government has certainly the duty to protect its citizens, but it also has the higher obligation of submitting to the moral law (which is, in the end, nothing else than the Law of God).

4. It is aggression. Whatever terms we choose to designate such action,

the "preventive war" is a war of aggression, unjustifiable on moral grounds and according to international law. To intervene it is required to have proofs...15

In practice, supporters of the present war have expanded the traditional notion of "anticipatory self-defense" to the point where it includes the first use of force, on the basis of its presumption of the hostile intentions of the adversary. Therefore, it certainly seems aggression, and, thus, unjust.

Might Is Right?

Political analysts speak of a new American strategy, which seems to be focused on the preservation of the unipolarity16 achieved with the end of the Cold War. In practice, it would mean that America is ready to intervene anywhere, any time, to neutralize any serious threat to its global dominance. If this is true, "we may have become the very thing we hated about Communism… an ideology willing to invade and control countries to impose its will." 17 Non-aligned states, by the mere fact of their non-alignment, will be deemed to pose a threat. The mere possession of weapons of mass destruction by an unfriendly government, even without the violation of any existing international law, will be considered as a threat that has to be counteracted.18 "America has extended [this policy] to global dimensions, reserving for itself the authority to determine when sovereignty has been forfeited, and doing so on an anticipatory basis." 19

Many see in the present war against Iraq the "first and paradigmatic application" of this new and fateful strategy.20

Yet Saddam Hussein is not the only dangerous dictator in the world. There are several other countries that possess and unscrupulously market weapons of mass destruction. There are other nations in the "axis of evil," and there are some that are not even mentioned, but should be enrolled there. North Korea has weapons of mass destruction, even nuclear ones, and in the past has shown no qualms about selling them; it has moreover refused UN supervision and actually threatened America. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are considered by political analysts and intelligence services as very likely to have had a hand in the September 11 attacks.21 The disturbing question remains unanswered: why Iraq? The answer proposed by some of those political analysts, who make a remarkably credible case for it,22 is still more disturbing.

May the Lord God of Armies, Dominus Deus Sabaoth, grant to us and to those in authority over us light for our intelligences and strong and serene hearts to walk in righteousness in His sight.

Fr. Juan Carlos Iscara, a native of Argentina, was ordained in 1986 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. For the last ten years he has been teaching Moral Theology and Church History at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Winona, MN.

  1. See Iscara, Just War.

  2. Being an opinion, it does not exclude the possibility of error.

  3. Office for Social Justice, War with Iraq…, 1.

  4. II-II, q. 40, a.2, obj. 1.

  5. For a longer treatment of this question, see Iscara, Just War.

  6. Michael Walzer, quoted in Love, 13.

  7. Love, 13.

  8. Novak, 595.

  9. "Since the processes of diplomacy are so complicated and obscure in our times, soldiers and inferior officials are scarcely able to judge competently concerning this certainty of the rectitude, generally, as of the rest of the conditions of a just war." Zalba, II, 104 (n. 244); Prümmer, II, 123.

  10. Former priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, who, after being a liberal critic of the Church and of Republican administrations, has now "reinvented" himself as a "neo-conservative" Catholic intellectual.

  11. Catholic organizations, religious orders and theologians have protested because of Novak’s open disagreement with the Holy See’s position (see National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 14, 2003, at It has been, at least for the author of this article, a sweet irony to see that those who normally approve of dissent from the teaching authority of the Church have finally found a dissenter they don’t like…

  1. Since the end of the Cold War, as there remains no possible enemy of the United States with the means to resist the full engagement of American military power, military and political analysts consider that only "asymmetrical" attacks would seem to be viable for the adversary in the foreseeable future —terrorism against civilian targets, "cyberwar" against computer systems, etc.

  2. Novak, 595-596; Weigel, 8.

  3. See Lawler, 1.

  4. Archbishop Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, quoted in Cardinali.

  5. "Unipolarity" means that in the world remains only one superpower.

  6. Kavanaugh, 20.

  7. Ikenberry, 52.

  8. Ikenberry, 53.

  9. Christiansen, 7.

  10. See Kavanaugh, 20.

  11. See Klare, Ikenberry.



Author’s N.B.: Most of the texts here mentioned, especially those taken from periodicals, are certainly biased either against conservative politics or against traditional Catholicism. Nonetheless, they are quoted becauseat least for oncethey have hit on the truth. As a foreign wit puts it, "At least twice a day even a broken clock shows the right hour."

Cardinali, Gianni. "Una vera azione preventiva? Evitare la Guerra. Intervista con l’arcivescovo Renato Raffaele Martino." Trenta Giorni, January 2003.

Christiansen, Drew, S.J., "Whither the ‘Just War’?" America, Mar. 24, 2003.

Gregory, Bishop Wilton. Letter to President Bush on the Iraq Situation. Origins, Sept. 26, 2002 (vol. 32, n. 16).

Gregory, Bishop Wilton. "Serious Ethical Questions on War with Iraq," Origins, Mar. 13, 2003 (vol. 32, n. 39).

Hickson, Robert. "Setting Limits to New Weapons of War and Sophistry." Apropos, n. 21 (Lent 2003).

Ikenberry, G. John. "America’s Imperial Ambition." Foreign Affairs, Sept.-Oct. 2002.

Iscara, Juan Carlos SSPX. "Just War:  Catholic Doctrine and Some Modern Problems". The Angelus, July 2002.

Johnson, James Turner. Can modern war be just? New Haven MA: Yale University Press, 1984.

Johnson, James Turner. Morality and Contemporary Warfare. New Haven MA: Yale University Press, 1999.

Kavanaugh, John F., S.J., "A Pro-Choice War." America, April 14, 2003.

Klare, Michael T. "For Oil and Empire? Rethinking War with Iraq." Current History, Mar. 2003 (vol. 102, n.662).

Lawler, Philip F. "A Lost Chance for Moral Leadership." The Catholic World Report, Mar. 2003.

Love, Maryann Cusimano. "Real Prevention: Alternatives to Force." America, Jan. 20-27, 2003.

Novak, Michael. "An Argument that War against Iraq is Just." Origins, Feb. 20, 2003 (vol. 32, n. 36).

Office for Social Justice (Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis). War with Iraq: Is it Just? St. Paul MN: 2003.

Palazzini, Pietro. Dictionarium Morale et Canonicum. Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1962 (vol. 1).

Prümmer, Dominic M., O.P., Manuale Theologiae Moralis. Barcelona: Herder, 1961 (vol. 2).

Rommen, Heinrich A. The State in Catholic Thought. St. Louis MO: Herder, 1955.

Steinfels, Peter. "Beliefs. The Just-War Tradition, its Last Resort Criterion and the Debate on an Invasion of Iraq." The New York Times, Mar. 1, 2003.

Tauran, Archbishop Jean-Louis. "Una guerra di aggressione costituirebbe un crimine contro la pace." Trenta Giorni, Mar. 2003.

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars. A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. S/l.: Basic Books, 1992.

Weigel, George. "The Just War Case for the War." America, March 31, 2003.

Zalba, Marcelino, S.J., Theologiae Moralis Summa. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1957 (vol.2). © 2013                    home                    contact