Monday, January 2, 2012

Spaceknights and Just Wars

One of my favourite comic book writers is Bill Mantlo. Bill started writing in the late 70s and was prolific: having fantastic runs with The Incredible Hulk, Spectacular Spider-Man, Alpha Flight, The Micronauts and one of my favourites, ROM Spaceknight. And while I’m not going to talk about what happened to Bill right now, I invite you to read his story here and do whatever you can to support him at this time.   
This comic is 30 years old this month. Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #26, January 1982
Recently, I went back to Bill’s enjoyable run on ROM and found myself absorbed in the 30 year old #26 and #27, a story called 'Galactus on Galador'. Like most of Bill’s work, I found this short story both enjoyable and provocative, raising some interesting ethical and legal issues with regard to the conflict the Spaceknights have with Galactus and their old enemies the Dire Wraiths. 
Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #27, February 1982
It begins with what one might call a borrowed story from Lee/Kirby's Fantastic Four ‘Galactus Trilogy’, but quickly evolves into something else. When Galactus and his herald arrive on Galador, (home world of the Spaceknight's people), the Spaceknights understand the looming threat and do their best to repulse Terrax. Meanwhile, ROM heads to Galactus’ ship to attempt a negotiation. During that parley a deal is struck: 
From Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #26, January 1982
Splash from Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #27, February 1982
From Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #27, February 1982
'Give up on this world and we will give you another' is ROM's proposal. Of course, this world is Wraithworld, home of the Dire Wraiths.
From Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #27, February 1982
Which provoked me: is this is a moral or legal bridge too far by the Spaceknights? In both this and earlier ROM comics, we learn of the Galadorians just and long-standing grievance with the Dire Wraiths, and I would say they have an absolute right and duty to defend themselves. This is the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of the Spaceknights to begin with.
From Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #27, February 1982
But by manipulating Galactus into obliterating the Dire Wraith home world, has ROM crossed the line into the illegal or immoral? The Dire Wraiths are unquestionably evil, but do they also not have a right to live? This is what got me thinking about Just Wars and how we humans have come to determine what is legal and illegal in war.
From Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #27, February 1982
While the idea of a 'Just War' goes back to Classical times, it was in 1625 that Dutch philosopher Hugo Grotius wrote De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace) which summed up the evolved Western thinking about just war, itself an idea descended from ancient and medieval thinkers including Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas. Grotius’ list was fivefold:

1) There must be a just cause
2) There must be a right authority or legitimate sovereign initiating the war.
3) There must be right intention on the part of the parties using force
4) The response must be proportional
5) The force must be last resort

In the conflict between Galactus and the Spaceknights, it seems they are doing what is needed to protect themselves. But once they make an ally of Galactus and decide to use his overwhelming power against their enemy, have they crossed the line? No one would doubt the Dire Wraiths are evil and the cause against them is a just one. Moreover, the Spaceknights derive their authority from a legitimate sovereign and their battle is (mostly) fought with good intentions and is one of last resort. But by enlisting Galactus to annihilate the Dire Wraiths, are they being proportionate as per number four (and possibly number three) of the Grotius criteria? 

To determine this let's look at proportionality, a very important and pervasive concept in almost every legal system in the western world. Just like you might say in criminal law, the punishment should fit the crime, so too in warfare you might say that any just war would not include the absolute destruction of a nation, even if they initiated the conflict.  

But isn't this what ROM knows will happen if Galactus devours Wraithworld: the destruction of that place and the end of the Dire Wraiths? And is this a proportionate or well intentioned response? Personally, I’m not convinced. I know of Marvel villains, the Dire Wraiths are among the worst, but do they also not have a right to live?  

From Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #27, February 1982
In recent human history we need only look at the Nuremberg trials, themselves the precursors of International Criminal Court in The Hague as examples of proportionality in action. When even as great a leader as Churchill wanted swift, bullet-based retribution against the surviving Nazi leadership, President Roosevelt and later President Truman (thanks to persuasive arguments made by Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the US and eventual Chief Prosecutor at Nuremberg, Robert H. Jackson) decided that even these despicable men should have their day in court. This in turn, led to hastened reconciliation with the German people, who would eventually become an important pillar of the world community. Likewise in Japan, the similar Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal eventually let the Japanese move on and become another important contributor to the world community.   

From Marvel's ROM Spaceknight #27, February 1982
Of course, Galactus fails in devouring Wraithworld and I am now going well beyond the scope of a comic blog. (Nor do I think Marvel will ever publish a comic that has the Dire Wraiths putting the Spaceknights on trial.) But I do believe that ROM, by enlisting Galactus to destroy Wraithworld, went too far. Of course, this is just an opinion, but it's also a reason why Bill Mantlo's writing was so good and why I'd like to thank him again for using comic books to provoke thought. Although ROM Spaceknight #26 and #27 are thirty years old this month, they are just as interesting and enjoyable to read today as they would have been then.  

If you are interested in starting an investigation into just wars and the law, I highly recommend The Nuremberg Legacy: How the Nazi War Crimes Trials Changed the Course of History by California Judge Norbert Ehrenfreund. Ehrenfreund was a US Army journalist for The Stars and Stripes during the war and witnessed the main trial first hand. His book is an accessible primer for anyone interested in Nuremberg and its legacy. Further, as a law student, I do not claim to be an expert on these legal issues so if you think I've missed something important or would just like to offer a comment, please feel free to (respectfully) add one.


  1. i'm a pragmatist so i agree with what ROM did. and it's also why in my most recent slide show video Tribute to ROM & Bill Mantlo i pose the question, "when faced with a moral dilemma or an impossible situation ask your self, what would ROM do?". between Galador and Wraith World it's a no brainer.
    besides, the Wraiths considered banishment to be worse then death and the Galadorians had no problem with seeing to it that every last wraith in the universe was sent to Limbo. of course as of the ending of the first Annihilators mini-series the whole dynamics of that situation has certainly taken on a whole new face. i got a new posting going up today too by the way.

  2. Thanks, David. I'll look for your new posting.

  3. If I recall this story correctly (it IS 30 years old), ROM knew full well that both Galactus and the Wraiths would likely cancel each other out - or at the most... kill one another, thus removing TWO universal threats.

  4. Mark, i just made contact with the editor Bill Rosemann of Avengers Academy this morning. last month Hybrid made a come back in issue 23 so obviously the production team on that book has ROM on the mind. i think i found a quick and easy way for everybody out there to help facilitate ROM's possible return some day please check out today's posting on the ROM blog when you get some free time.

  5. Great blog...I too was a big Bill Mantlo fan....I bought every issue of Rom of the 7-Eleven racks (and later the local bookstore)

  6. Thanks, Anthony for the comments. You've got some great blogs and I look forward to going through them.

    David: Ready Aye!

  7. Man a truly fascinating point of view and thought on the subject at hand! It really makes you wonder was Rom's actions motivated on whether or not he lead Galactus there as part of the bargain or because he knew it would have a loop whole because he knew Galactus couldn't devour it all along! Things that make you say Hmmmmm!

  8. Thanks, zhaanman! I have more legal pieces coming up, so please 'follow' the blog if you can and keep visiting! All the best for 2012!

    1. bad news on the ROM vs. Marvel Comic battle. i posted about it today if you're interested.

    2. I saw your post. Tough one! It's probably sinking in a quagmire of legal issues.

  9. Well the rule of law is a myth to begin with(John Hasnas - McDonough School of Business
    Georgetown University) so going from that Rom did the right thing.
    Sorry, but if Galactus comes to eat your planet never mind the rule of law. The law of reality and certainity just shifted. And it’s not in our favor.

  10. Rahman, 'rule of law be damned' would probably be my thoughts as well. But it was fun to speculate.

    I'll have a look at John Hasnas' work. Thanks for the suggestion.