We read in the second chapter of Helaman:
6 And it came to pass as [Kiskumen] went forth towards the judgment-seat to destroy Helaman, behold one of the servants of Helaman, having been out by night, and having obtained, through disguise, a knowledge of those plans which had been laid by this band to destroy Helaman—
7 And it came to pass that he met Kishkumen, and he gave unto him a sign; therefore Kishkumen made known unto him the object of his desire, desiring that he would conduct him to the judgment-seat that he might murder Helaman.
8 And when the servant of Helaman had known all the heart of Kishkumen, and how that it was his object to murder, and also that it was the object of all those who belonged to his band to murder, and to rob, and to gain power, (and this was their secret plan, and their combination) the servant of Helaman said unto Kishkumen: Let us go forth unto the judgment-seat.
9 Now this did please Kishkumen exceedingly, for he did suppose that he should accomplish his design; but behold, the servant of Helaman, as they were going forth unto the judgment-seat, did stab Kishkumen even to the heart, that he fell dead without a groan.
When Helaman’s servant killed Kishkumen this seemed like a divinely ordained protection of Helaman(2). Kishkumen’s guilt is established by the narration in verse 8. Curiously, the Book of Mormon says that Nephite law didn’t punish a person’s belief Alma 30:7,9; a person was only punished after committing murder or robbery (Alma 30:10). Kishkumen did murder the preceding chief judge (Helaman 1:9) but hadn’t yet committed this crime. Yet there is no record of the servant’s punishment over his preemptive murder or taking justice into his own hands over Kishkumen’s previous murder, and no editorial critique from Mormon, except a warning that the Gadianton Robbers would overthrow the people of Nephi (Helaman 2:13-14). The text simply shows that Helaman was a prophet and good leader whose servant righteously defended him.
Various thoughtful theorists from hundreds of years in the past have explained why that can remain a just action. Except none of that thought has been applied to LDS scripture. Patrick Mason summarizes many Latter Day Saints when he calls just war theory “neither broad nor comprehensive enough.” Even National Security professionals feel the need to defend the use of just war for members of Christ’s church to resolve modern problems.
But there is rich material that applies. The theorist, Samuel Pufendorf, writing around the time of the 30 Years War compared the right of preemptive or even preventive action to a person that sees a “charging assailant with sword in hand.” The modern theorist Michael Walzer suggests that someone being hunted has a right to ambush his attacker. In both instances the basic premise is than an individual who sees an attack in progress doesn’t have to wait for the first blow to defend themselves.
The early modern theorist Hugo Grotius explained those underlying principles when he wrote that if the state faced a danger that was facing “immediate and certain” danger or an attack that “commenced but not carried through” the state could take preemptive action. Commenced but not carried through might sound odd, but you’ve already read several examples like that in this post. It would be like the individual has drawn the sword, sworn an oath to kill you, but has only raised and not swung the sword yet. Or maybe it would be like a would-be assassin that has sworn an oath to kill the chief judge and has arrived on the scene with a dagger to do the deed, and that assassin killed a previous judge (Helaman2:3). A modern example would be that a nation has launched its bombers in a nuclear strike, but they haven’t hit their target yet. Even though President Eisenhower is often quoted as an opponent of preemptive war, he admitted during the Berlin crisis that if placed in that situation he would launch a preemptive nuclear first strike.
The modern conception of just preemptive war is referred to as the Caroline standard. In stopping an arms shipment to Canadian separatists the US navy took preemptive action to destroy the Caroline. Daniel Webster argued that the “instant and overwhelming need for self-defense, leaving no choice and no moment for deliberation” justified the attack.
In short, the main criteria summarized from theorists as far back as the 16th century suggests that preemptive warfare is justified when a threat must have intent, means, and imminence. Applied to the case of Helaman’s servant, the servant knew they had intent. A previous chief judge had been killed, and the servant attended the meeting of conspirators planning the murder of Helaman. Kishkumen had the weapon we would use to perform the killing and thought he had been granted access to the chief judge. An assassination would happen within moments. This seems to meet all of the requirements but there are still questions about the theory itself and its modern application.
The major problem with this standard is the rather subjective nature of “imminent.” Grotius for example, used the example of a plot formed by robbers to argue for a more restrained and patient approached led by law enforcement approach instead of a preemptive strike. He wrote, if they “formed a plot, prepar[ed] an ambuscade, poisoning, or readied a false accusation [the planner] cannot lawfully be killed either if danger can in any other way be avoided, or if [the ruler] thought delays could afford remedies.”
Justified self-defense within the criminal law is founded upon the principle of defending yourself against an immediate attack. Not a preemptive attack because the two parties have been threatening each other, or a long-awaited revenge killing in retaliation. Going back to Webster and the Caroline case again, the preemptive attack must be in the moment when the threat of deadly force creates and “overwhelming need” for force and the attack must be made when there is “no moment for deliberation.”
But other theorists took a rather expansive view. A contemporary theorist of Grotius named Alberico Gentili argued that “at the first signs trouble are perceived, it is easy to find a solution, but if one lets trouble develop medicine will be too late.” This is the exact same argument that the classical Chinese theorist Shizi made. Even a tree so big that it shields the sky was, at its beginning, only as thick as the base of a tree sprout: easy to get rid of. But once it has fully manifested itself, a hundred people using hatchets and axes are unable to fell it!
The enlightenment writer Emil Vattel wrote that a state can attack “as soon as [its neighbors] has been given evidence of injustice, greed, pride, ambition, or desire of dominating over its neighbors.”
The problem with the reasoning of the above theorists is that just about any change or perceived change can justify those conditions, and anything can be spun by a ruler seeking expansive war to justify those requirements.
In short, there is significant debate over how immediate something must be and how important that qualification is with answers ranging from very to none. To better understand the differences we might return to the preemptive attack from Helaman’s servant. At first glance it seems like Helaman’s servant was justified, but he many not have been. The text says that he received this information the night before. Thus, the servant of Helaman didn’t have to resort to killing. He could have notified Helaman so the latter wasn’t on the judgement seat when Kishkumen came. The servant could have called for additional guards to arrest Kishkumen when the latter arrived on the scene. The key point is that unlike the Webster’s reasoning in the Caroline case, the servant had time to deliberate. But the servant resorted to killing, when he had been out by night (Helaman 2:6) and had thus had time to arrange a non-lethal way to end the approaching attack.
But the problem of judging immediacy is even tougher in the modern era. For example, if the US waited until the 9/11 attacks were “commenced but not carried out” as Grotius said, “left no moment for deliberation” from the Caroline case, or were clearly imminent as the standard demands, then the planes would have already been on their way to the twin towers. America would have been forced to kill several hundred innocent passengers to stop the terrorist attacks.
The answer to the problem of immediacy then, is to examine the danger and its magnitude combined with the other two criteria, intent and means. Terrorists have been attacking America for years, so like the Gadianton Robbers, they have shown intent. But unlike Kishkumen’s dagger, terrorists armed with nuclear weapons have much stronger means. With a nuclear weapon they could kill millions in a single attack. Sounding very similar to my writings:
John F. Kennedy wrote said, “We no longer live in a world where only the actual firing of weapons represents a sufficient challenge to a nations security to constitute maximum peril. Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in deployment may well be regarded as a threat to peace.
Or as I wrote using my good instincts about the dangers of nuclear weapons:
During the Cold War the United States could nominally count on the international order to restrain the actions of the enemy. Now, the United States faces regimes that explicitly reject that world order…But unlike ancient times, strategic surprise in the modern age may not simply represent the destruction of a small ancient city, but could take the form of a nuclear attack in a highly populated metropolis. The power of nuclear weapons increases the ability of an opponent to end the war at a stroke.
Thus, if a terrorist group fulfilled the first two criteria, means and intent, but the timing of the attack remained unclear, it would be incredibly dangerous to wait and accept a single blow (let alone three,) or wait until the attack was commenced but not carried out. Instead, as a justified self-defense America would launch a preemptive and even preventive strike.
Many Latter-Day Saints wrongly presume that scriptures like section 98 are a strict guide to foreign policy and argue the neighbor should receive three attacks. (As Duane Boyce pointed out, even that is confusing. Do you count three bullets, three magazines, or three battles?) But a person has a basic right to life, and a right to defend it. Reason, natural law as theorists would say, or some common sense regarding nuclear weapons suggests waiting to receive even a single attack is foolish and even wicked because it will be fatal.
That doesn’t mean a person or nation should go to the extreme and launch an attack at the mere hint of attack. (Though there are some theorists that go that far.) Instead, there are many options in between a destructive strike at the first provocation and waiting to receive the likely fatal first blow. A besieged neighbor might intercept the weapons shipments, which means the neighboring enemy would have far less ability, or means, to attack you at all. (Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Having nuclear weapons 90 miles from America was a grave threat and justified a military response to remove them, but part of the concern of the Kennedy administration was a proportional response, hence the blockade.) Though the principle is clear, modern crises aren’t quit as simple.
Thus, Americans should be aware of terrorist ideology (intent.) They must continue to take steps to prevent them from obtaining means like weapons, and especially any WMDs. But they don’t have to for imminent attacks before striking, as that would often be too late. Instead, to protect lives they should launch devastating strikes against terrorists before the threats materialize.
Helaman chapter two is not simply a short cloak and dagger tale, or introduction to the Gadianton Robbers that eventually dominate the text. But become an important case study about the just and righteous principles behind first strikes. If an enemy shows intent, means, and imminency (however sometimes vague the last might be), like Helaman’s servant, they have a right to strike first with preemptive and even preventive war. They might thoughtfully consider other options less of force, but the right remains and often there is no time for those other options.
I work as a free lance author. If you found value in this work please consider donating using the paypal button below, or buy one of my books linked in the top left.
 Hereafter all references refer to Helaman the younger.
 Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher, Proclaim Peace: The Restoration Answers to the Age of Conflict, (Deseret Book, Maxwell Institute, 2021), 135. See also Connor Boyack who dismisses the applicability of all the war chapters: Connor Boyack, “Preventive War and the Book of Mormon,” Connors Conundrums, September 13th, 2009 https://www.connorboyack.com/blog/preventive-war-and-the-book-of-mormon (Accessed, August 26, 2022.)
 John Maddox, “The Book of Mormon as a Touchstone for Evaluating the Theory of Just War,” in Wielding the Sword While Proclaiming Peace: Views from the LDS Community on Reconciling the Demands of National Security with the Imperatives of Revelated Truth, Kerry Kartchner and Valerie Hudson eds., (Brigham Young University, 2004,) 57.
 Totten, Mark, First Strike: America, Terrorism, and Moral Tradition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 129-146.
 Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, (Basic Books, New York: 2006,) 88.
 See Connor Boyacks piece, for example, in fn 2.
 Totten, First Strike, 2.
 Hugo Grotius, On the Law of War and Peace, Stephen Neff trans., (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 83-84.
 Shizi: China’s First Syncretist, Paul Fischer trans., (Columbia University Press, 2012,) 67-68.
 Totten, First Strike, 136.
 Totten, First strike, 71.
 Morgan Deane, “The Lord Forbid? Offensive Warfare in the Book of Mormon and a Defense of the Bush Doctrine,” in War and Peace in Our Times: Mormon Perspectives, Richard Bushman, Patrick Mason, David Pulsipher eds., (Greg Kofford books, 2012), 9-19.
 But even this balance of power produced the Cuban Missile Crisis, with Krushchev threatening to “swat [America's] ass” with the nuclear weapons he inserted there. See Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 428.
 Clausewitz, On War, 363.
 Duane Boyce, Even Unto Bloodshed (West Jordan UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 156-157: The matter of definition is especially important when we consider the trespass of one state against another. … When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the assault occurred in two waves and involved six aircraft carriers and more than three hundred fifty planes. During the attack the Japanese damaged or sank sixteen U.S. ships, destroyed some one hundred ninety planes, killed twenty-four hundred Americans, and wounded twelve hundred more. Now, which of these numbers is most pertinent to the commandment that an aggressed party (the United States in this case) must suffer “trespass” three times [as explained in section 98] before responding? Would this assault on Pearl Harbor fall short of that threshold altogether since it was only a single attack and occurred in only two waves? If we saw the matter this way, then it would seem that the United States was obligated to suffer two more attacks from the Japanese before being justified in declaring war in response.