War. What is it good for? Well, I’m using it solely as a set-up lede for this article, as I thought we’d talk about the Kree-Skrull War, a conflict that the history books bafflingly omit.
The Kree-Skrull War is a storyline written by Roy Thomas, and drawn by the Buscemas and Neal Adams. The story spanned Avengers #89 – 97.
The Kree-Skrull War brought cosmic and interstellar warfare to the Avengers, but also had deep character moments, like the introduction of the romance between Scarlet Witch and the Vision. The Kree-Skrull War also leaned heavily on metaphor and allegory. It was written during the Vietnam war (1971-1972), for starters. Plus, the Skrulls served as an interesting stand-in for Joseph McCarthy and his communist witch-hunt (“They could be hidden among us!”)
Nearly every comic book critic agrees that the Kree-Skrull War is an absolute highlight of its era.
Military Ethics and the Kree-Skrull War: The Kree
So let’s get a recap of the Kree-Skrull War without spoiling the ending (as you REALLY owe it to yourself to give this story a read).
The Avengers weren’t even aware of the Kree-Skrull War until they were thrust into it via a run-in with Captain Marvel, who was once a renowned Kree soldier called Mar-vell.
Mar-vell was sent to Earth years earlier to serve as a spy for the Kree. His goal was to observe the coming age of superheroes, which concerned the Kree, as they didn’t want another major player in the cosmos.
But Mar-vell had a change of heart after being accepted by the Avengers and refused to follow his Kree orders. He learned to truly love the humans, a story we’ve seen time and again from every good 80s rom-com.
In a thirst for power, Ronan the Accuser was successful in temporarily overthrowing the reign of the Kree Supreme Intelligence. Recognizing the strategic importance of earth, and embracing the worry that humans were advancing too quickly, Ronan decided to make the conquest of Earth a central part of his strategy of maintaining his dominance.
So at the very beginning of the Avenger’s involvement in the Kree-Skrull War, they find themselves dealing with one Kree who wants to protect earth (Mar-Vell) and another who wants to conquer it (Ronan the Accuser). And the Skrulls haven’t even entered the picture yet!
Ronan the Accuser is leading the Kree in a galactic war against the Skrulls, and his plan includes “devolving” humans so Earth can be used as a base for his efforts. If successful, this will kill two birds with one stone: it will eliminate the threat that superpowered humans will supposedly pose to the Kree one day and it will provide a strategic location to use against the Skrulls.
So the Avengers find themselves smack dab in the middle of a galactic conflict they weren’t even aware had been going on for thousands of years. Which side, if any, do the Avengers join?
Let’s pause our story to dig into moral implications of the decision the Avengers were facing. When it comes to actual, real-life military conflicts, rarely is anything ever simple and rarely is anything completely straightforward. Decisions are typically choosing between a rock and a hard place.
Yet nations go to war using moral language that is black and white. We’re the good guys fighting the bad guys; our soldiers are the heroes and theirs are the villains.
Seeing the Kree-Skrull War as complicated can make us appreciate the moral complexity of war in the real world. If nothing else, we learn that our moral assessments of governments, individuals, leaders, and specific actions in wartime need to be more nuanced, careful–and, yes, more complicated–than we might initially expect.
Back to our comic. In order to choose sides, the Avengers must determine if one side (Kree or Skrull) is morally justified in fighting the war. Meanwhile, their primary role is to protect Earth! In just war theory, the strongest justification given by ethicists for entering a conflict is self-defense.
Even it was wrapped in comic book plot lines like “devolving” humans, Ronan initiated an act of aggression that violated the planet’s political sovereignty. So self-defense was justified, provided the response by the Avengers was proportional to the attack.
A disproportional Avengers response, for example, would NOT be to in turn invade Kree territory or attack Kree civilians, just as if Iowa would annex a single Minnesota town, a proper response by Minnesota would not be to annihilate Iowa off of the map.
Just war theory also says we aren’t allowed to use military force if we haven’t exhausted all other options, including diplomacy. But Ronan the Accuser isn’t much for calm and rational negotiations, so to fisticuffs it went.
But here is one final wrinkle to consider before we have the Avengers engage in all out war. We’ve been assuming that Ronan’s effort to devolve humans is an act of aggression, an unjustified act of war against Earth. But what if Earth had it coming? Ronan the Accuser, of course, claimed he hoped to prevent us from becoming a threat to the Kree down the road.
Was Ronan morally justified in starting a preventative war? Well, the obvious problem with preventative wars is that it is often difficult to determine what a nation’s…er, planet’s intentions are. Initiating a preventative war seems unjust and out of line. After all, wars would be waged all the time on nothing but informed hunches (or claims of such) that one country might have it in for another country at some point in the future! Nations would be in a never-ending state of war over unsubstantiated accusations or historical grudges, an unfortunate reality that we see played out all around the present-day Earth.
When it comes to the Kree, it’s clear that they don’t have enough evidence to conclude that Earth intends to be a threat to them down the road, even if the Kree had a hunch that super-powered beings could be a threat.
In fact, it seems like the Kree’s fears about Earth were influenced their own history, not Earth’s. Eons ago, the Skrulls traveled to other planets looking to develop trading partners. When they came to the Kree home planet of Hala, they encountered two races–the Cotani and the Kree–who competed to determine who the Skrulls would trade with.
The Cotati won, but the Kree turned on them! The Kree then stole the Skrulls technology, which they in turn used to launch an offensive against the Skrulls. Hence the Kree-Skrull War began.
Based on their own behavior, the Kree must have suspected that once the Earth developed sufficient power, they would act underhanded and belligerently toward other races, just as they had against the Skrulls. Project much?
By the time the Avengers enter the fray, the Skrulls have been fighting the Kree for thousands of years. And like the Kree, the Skrull see the Earth as a potential strategic locale, going so far as to pose as a cow in order to gain Earth intelligence.
Military Ethics and the Kree-Skrull War: The Skrulls
Unlike Ronan, the Skrulls did not launch a direct attack against us, but let’s spend a few words talking about them anyway. In terms of military ethics, the Skrulls are not a case about when it is morally permissible to start a war but rather about what is morally permissible to do during a war.
The Skrulls trick and deceive using their shape-shifting abilities. Lies upon lies. That’s just how the Skrulls roll. But during wars, lives are at stake, so most of us wouldn’t have a strict prohibition against lying if lives were at stake. But were the Skrulls morally permitted to torture Captain Marvel by threatening to make him watch the death of his friends? Surely, that torture went over the line and also cast the Skrulls as a 2nd set of villains in the Kree-Skrull War, would it not?
Regardless, we can figure that whatever the circumstances that led the Skrulls being dragged into the war, they are no longer innocent participants in it. (This was confirmed more recently when the Skrulls invaded the Earth as part of Secret Invasion.)
So who wins the Kree-Skrull War? Neither side, really.
But let’s not spoil any more of it, as you really do need to read the story for yourself. For now, we’ll just pray to Odin that we can avoid more wars like the Kree-Skrull War. Although they are entertaining to read about in the comics books, when you start to consider them as metaphors for real-world events, you realize you just don’t want any part of it.
The Kree-Skrull war ran in Avengers vol 1 #89-97 in an era where a big event happened in title and not as a part of a confusing crossover. There is an epic trade that collects the whole thing. Find it here.
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