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Saint Augustine
Just War Over Cyber Networks - Just War Over Cyber Networks
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How is it possible to justly wage war over cyber networks? The conduct of war must always be ethically and morally judged, for it involves the entire realm of human endeavor. Just War morality is a comprehensive ethical guide for the virtuous warrior working in extremis.

Civil and military leaders alike must not become mesmerized by the apparent moral “free fire” zone that Cyberwarfare offers. During the conduct of hostilities (jus in bello), Cyberwar like all other means of warfare must be conducted morally. Familiar and time-tested Just War categories of discrimination, proportionality, military necessity and responsibility still apply. Human actions, no matter how far removed by layers of automation, have eternal consequences. We are responsible to God for all that we do.

Unauthorized taking of property by commercial, ideological, criminal or other non-governmental entities is simply theft. There is no need to refer to Just War principle for the sanctity of property, since it is a well-established Biblical ethical principle (Exodus 20:13; Romans 13:9). Theft is also legally forbidden (even if the laws are not enforced) by every nation on the planet. It is nonsense to pretend that theft of property, intellectual or otherwise, is somehow legitimated by the necessities of the marketplace, ideology, religion, or avarice— no matter how pragmatically satisfying the results may be to the thief.

A case for the application of Just War ethics can be made for espionage as practiced by legitimate authorities. Espionage is both an action of prevention and the prosecution of war. How does this differ from simple theft discussed above? There is a fine line here that rests upon the concept of legitimate authority. The Church Father, Augustine, expanded the teaching of the Greek Philosopher Cicero, and placed it firmly within the Christian faith. A Just War must have both Just Cause and Legitimate Authority. In International Law, “Legitimate Authority” has been identified since 1648 (the Treaty of Westphalia) as residing solely with sovereign nations. However, conflicts are rarely this simple, it usually doesn’t matter how the various sides originate when they are at war.43 The United Nations has accorded a measure of legitimacy to insurgent and revolutionary movements by internationally recognizing their right to self-determination.44

Historically, when one nation is considerably stronger than its neighbors, it is inevitably lured toward conquest and empire. Espionage of national secrets has long been safety valve for nations—preventing one nation from attaining such a great advantage that it is tempted to launch a conflict. Espionage levels the playing field. For example, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s perfidy of divulging U.S. atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets actually had the result of militarily balancing the two superpowers for more than 40 years.

Just war ethics are deontological, that is, the ends do not justify the means—the morality of an action is not dependent on the consequences alone. So consequentialist imperative45 “safety valve” reasoning is insufficient to make this a just war rationale. The relative anonymity, ease and safety of a cyber-penetration are pragmatic, not deontological, notions. The practicality and end results of an action are always significant, but of higher importance is the question, “is it moral?”46

Espionage accomplished at any time prior to hostilities is pre-emptive in nature, but may arguably be construed as a defensive action. Just War ethics recognizes the God-ordained role of government to order and defend its society (Matthew 22:21, Romans 13:1). Considering actions accomplished Jus ad Bellum, the Just War ethic identifies a legitimate authority’s role in preserving justice in the world under the rule of Just Cause and Right Intention. Jesus related a brief illustration about a strong man (Luke 11:21-22) and how no one would dare rob him unless there was someone stronger. In the cause of preserving justice, there is much to be gained by the international balance of powers, which has historically served as a preventative to war. So espionage done by a legitimate authority with the right intention (to maintain an equitable balance of power) for a just cause (preserving the peace) is an acceptably moral action.

Is it permissible in Just War ethics to retaliate for Cyber Attacks with conventional weapons and subsequently wage a conventional war? As noted above, the policy of the United States is to respond to certain cyber-attacks as if there were “a use of force” by another party. U.S. policy is both a warning about limitations and a notice that unspecified offensive actions would follow a cyber-attack. Can such a policy be just?

Just War morality is not a suicide pact. Serious provocations by another nation or entity may justly be met with proportionate force exercised across any or all of the five domains of war. Every nation has the moral obligation to defend its people against aggression. In the case of a cyber-attack, it is even more clear cut when the aggressor has broken either International Law or transgressed a previously announced boundary.47 A just response may demand creativity and much thoughtful consideration, especially if the cyber-attack was aimed principally at non-combatants. A just nation would not respond simply for the need to retaliate, but responding deliberately, purposefully, and in a manner aimed at the goal of restoring a just peace.48

For instance, a cyber-attack on a nation’s power generation capabilities in the dead of winter would obviously be directed against the non-combatant population. But it would only marginally affect the government or military, which would have secondary, dedicated sources of power generation. Civilian lives would be in direct jeopardy, and perhaps scores of deaths would result. Thus a just response might be cyber-retaliation against the attacking nation’s banks to destabilize the national currency or a conventional military strike against governmental and military installations. The first suggested response would not place the populace in immediate physical danger, but it would certainly destabilize the government. The second possibility is a more conventional solution to the provocation and would surely result in both enemy and friendly casualties.

Such a response would satisfy the requirements for self-defense, discrimination, proportionality, military necessity and responsibility. The offended nation has a moral obligation to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. We realize that this is not a perfect world, and there may be some non-combatants tragically intermingled with combatants— such as a baker delivering bread. However, the response is not aimed at the baker who circumstantially happened to be present but at the military node. The Just nation must deliberately choose targets based upon their military and governmental value to the enemy. Finally, the offended nation must take care to act responsibly in all of its actions, carefully weighing intent, actions and consequences.


CW is a newly developing field that may be the real revolution in military affairs. Yet, war will still consist of the fundamentals of attack and defense. As Clausewitz noted, it is simple and yet very difficult. Entry into the fifth dimension of conflict complicates decision making and actions by adding layers of complexity that may effectively distract our attention from more significant issues.

Humans remain morally accountable for their actions regardless if they pulled a trigger, launched a missile, or set a computer program into operation. The entire cyber domain is a field of human endeavor that expresses the value placed upon the moral character of all who enter there. Every action in the conduct of hostilities in any and all of the five domains of warfare must be carefully weighed as to the justness of intent, action and consequences.

Finally, Just War morality is not a checklist of good things, nor a set of legal limits, but moral principles that encompass the conduct of warfare. To live and fight justly requires Virtuous Warriors who are dedicated to justice on the contemporary frontiers of human existence.

Reverend Wylie W. Johnson serves as the Senior Pastor of Springfield Baptist Church, Springfield, Pennsylvania. Until his retirement in June 2012, he was the first Command Chaplain for the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Readiness Command.

Last Updated on Saturday, 01 December 2012 22:23