Thursday, July 20, 2006

Proportionality in the Middle East

I’d like to respond to a sample of letters sent into to the New York Times about the current conflict in the Middle East. The letters are all replies to an article from July 19, “With Israeli Use of Force, Debate Over Proportion”, by STEVEN ERLANGER.

Let me first quote the article’s opening paragraphs.

JERUSALEM, July 18 — The asymmetry in the reported death tolls is marked and growing: some 230 Lebanese dead, most of them civilians, to 25 Israeli dead, 13 of them civilians. In Gaza, one Israel soldier has died from his own army’s fire, and 103 Palestinians have been killed, 70 percent of them militants.

The cold figures, combined with Israeli air attacks on civilian infrastructure like power plants, electricity transformers, airports, bridges, highways and government buildings, have led to accusations by France and the European Union, echoed by some nongovernmental organizations, that Israel is guilty of “disproportionate use of force” in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and of “collective punishment” of the civilian populations.


Now to the letters, all published this morning.


July 20, 2006
Mideast Violence: A Grim Ledger (7 Letters)

To the Editor:

Re “With Israeli Use of Force, Debate Over Proportion” (front page, July 19):

The topic of “disproportionate use of force” is being discussed in relation to Israel’s military action in Lebanon.

The justification for this accusation is that more Lebanese have died than Israelis. This bizarre calculus implies that if only more Israelis had been killed by Hezbollah rockets, there would be no moral quandary.

This argument distorts the real question. Israel should not be punished for having invested in bomb shelters and early-warning systems. These have cost the Israeli public dearly over the years.

The question is whether the goals of the military action are justified.
The goals of the present conflict are for Hezbollah to shoot as many rockets as possible into populated city centers to kill as many civilians as possible; and for Israel to uproot the terrorist infrastructure, missile launching pads and the terrorists themselves by using intelligence gathering and precise bombing.

Israel could easily root out Hezbollah by flattening all of Beirut, Tripoli, Tyre and Sidon, but it has declined to do so because this would clearly entail “excessive force.”

On the other hand, if Hezbollah had the military capability to flatten Tel Aviv, Haifa and Beer Sheva, it would do so without flinching.

Jonathan Weisberg
Jerusalem, July 19, 2006

Mr. Weisberg brings up an excellent question about a difficult issue, which I will address below.

First, though, the matter of intentions. One of the Just War criteria is Proper Intention, and I agree that there’s a place for comparing the intentions of any two combatants. I also agree that Hezbollah’s intention is the worse of the two parties. But that does not automatically make Israel’s intention, or its war as a whole, a just one. The danger in such comparisons is that each party in the war always describes the other party, or its intentions, as being worse – usually far worse. That is the nature of warfare, that each party views the other with enmity.

I cannot emphasize enough that concentrating on someone else’s intention will take away the focus from your own – it will shift your attention, and the attention of others, away from your intentions, which can only lead to unjust wars.

For the sake of argument but also with a genuine sense of common ground, I’ll go with Mr. Weisberg’s one-paragraph summary of the goals, or intentions, of Israel and Hezbollah. I think he is missing Hezbollah’s intent to provoke Israel into a large use of force, but I agree with the intentions he has listed. He asks if the goals are justified, and there is no question that uprooting terrorism is a justifiable goal (not automatically justified, of course, but justifiable).

But we have to ask if there’s a reasonable chance of success (another of the Just War criteria). Can terrorism be defeated by these methods? If the bombing campaign succeeds only in thrashing Hezbollah and temporarily moving it around the map while feeding widespread anger at Israel as well as weakening and radicalizing the moderates in the Arab world, then the campaign is not a success. Nor do I see in the current campaign a reasonable chance of anything but temporary military success.

Mr. Weisberg calls proportionality a “bizarre calculus” because it seems to ask him to be glad when Israelis die, for then he could judge that Israel was fighting a just war. I have noticed in myself a disturbing trait when analyzing wars: I have an emotional attachment to a certain party, to a certain state, and I want not to have to see it as fighting an unjust war, but I have a simultaneous detachment from the individuals dying, since I know them only as numbers. Therefore, when I heard that 8 Israelis had died in a single Hezbollah attack, after so many more deaths on the other side, I felt a momentary grief about lives being lost to bombs, but next to that was also a stronger and disturbing wave of relief. It seems to arrive because my greater concern is not for these individuals (since I do not know them as people), but for Israel’s status in the world. I want to see Israel as using force justly, and my values define that as never causing more suffering than what you suffer yourself.

There are a couple of problems here, and one is my own proclivity to read about wars through intellectual analyses and always to skip over the personal stories. But for that reason, I admire and embrace the criteria of proportionality, which takes the (inevitable) emotional calculus out of it altogether: it gives every single life a value that is equal with all others.

The other problem is nationalism, or any kind of attachment to any country. These sorts of feelings are stronger in all of us than is our typical feeling for nameless casualties. The idea that America fought a just war in World War II, or the idea that it fought an unjust one in Vietman, are deeply meaningful (not just in the positive sense) to a lot of Americans. Reports of nameless casualties just don’t compete with this – and their principal effect on us comes from their place in our emotional narratives about ourselves and the country we live in.

It is those feelings, I suggest, that can make proportionality seem like a bizarre calculus. But those feelings cannot be allowed to overwhelm the only necessary thing, which is to make decisions about war and peace with a calculus in which no life is worth less than another.

To the Editor:

So after so many years of violating international law, humanitarian law and United Nations law, unfortunately with the help of the United States, Ari Shavit, a columnist for Haaretz, feels that Israel should take advantage of the “moral high ground” it now possesses because of the actions of Hezbollah (front page, July 19).

I think Mr. Shavit should examine the extreme treatment that Israel is showing toward the innocent civilians of Gaza and Lebanon before he starts bragging about Israel’s “moral high ground.”

Ahmad Ibrahim
San Diego, July 19, 2006

My response here can be shorter. I refer to Ari Shavit’s claim of Israel’s “moral high ground.” Such a ground is reached when the other party attacks first. Yet who attacks first is far from the only question in deciding the morality of a war. Any strong party, attacked in a limited way by a weaker, faces the temptation of using the moral high ground to mount an unjust campaign.

To the Editor:

Questioning the “proportionality” of the Israeli response to attacks on its citizens mimics the absurd notion echoing in European capitals.

Would it satisfy the Europeans if more Jews were killed or wounded, thus making the casualty count more quantitatively symmetrical?

Have military victories historically been achieved when a country responds to aggression with only the exact measure of force leveled at it and no more?

Finally, if missiles and rockets were landing in your living room, just exactly how much force would you like to see directed at the bad guys to make them stop?

Daniel Adler
New York, July 19, 2006

Mr. Adler defines proportionality, not as casualties, but as the amount of force used. The question of how much force is used is perfectly legitimate, and of course he’s right that the winning party tends to use more force. The Allies of World War II, who suffered far more human losses than did their enemies, also used far more force; that was how they won. That did not make their war unjust. One of the things that made it just was that, when compared to the Axis, they directed much less force at civilians. Where and how you apply force matters greatly.

It is not necessary to ask Israel to use only the kind and the number of rockets that Hezbollah is using, and to respond to attacks, tit for tat, as they arrive. That is not what proportionality means. Such a course is a recipe for endless cycles of violence and retribution. The military, once entrusted with a war, must operate more freely than what Mr. Adler describes. The question is, where are you directing the force? Are civilians dying in great numbers? To what end? What is the result of this force, not just in a narrow military sense but also in the political and moral spheres? (For you can defeat the enemy in close combat, as the U.S. did in Vietnam, and still lose the war politically and morally).

To the Editor:

While proportionality may be a relevant measure in some situations — baseball statistics and model cars come to mind — the appropriateness of Israel’s response to the Hezbollah attacks should not be measured by the number of people who are killed in Lebanon.

Rather than seeking “an eye for an eye” or retribution, Israel is seeking to eliminate the threat of future attacks on its cities.

This response will be successful not if it is proportional, but if it results in the elimination of this threat.

In December 1941, would anyone have suggested that the United States’ response was appropriately “proportional” and complete after the first 2,400 Japanese had been killed?

Jeffrey M. Stein
Atlanta, July 19, 2006

A most interesting letter. Firstly, I do agree that eliminating the threat of a future attack is legitimate, but within limits. What I mean is that if someone points a gun at me, I am within my rights to seek means of self-defense. A policeman in such a situation has been entrusted, by society-wide agreement, with the right to shoot, even to shoot first, in self-defense. Of course, agreements do not exist across borders, which is why armies attempt to protect their own citizens by going to war against, rather than genuinely policing, entire populations. There is no good way to shoot at Hezbollah alone, and particularly at its violent perpetrators. Wars involve civilian casualties, and most of the Lebanese casualties have been civilians – which ultimately strains the comparison in which Israel intends only the destruction of combatants while Israel’s enemies intend to murder civilians (it should be remembered – for what it’s worth and no more – that the first strike of this war, in Gaza, was not against civilians but against an Israeli soldier).

As for Pearl Harbor, it must be remembered that China lost up to 20 million people because of Japan’s invasion. Pearl Harbor, which took about 2,400 lives (almost all among America’s military), was just a part of the larger war. It took place because Japan wanted to wipe out the American navy and win a free hand in conquering East Asia. Long before Pearl Harbor, the United States had opposed Japan’s aggression and taken some steps to curb it.

Japan lost far more people during World War II than the United States did in its campaign against Japan – a few million as opposed to over 100,000. If we kept these numbers but imagined Japan and the U.S. as the only nations at war, I would say that the American war against Japan was unjust – even after Pearl Harbor. All this is fantastical, of course, and it’s very hard to imagine Pearl Harbor taking place if Imperial Japan had not been the kind of nation that subdued East Asia and sought to win a free hand in conquering more.

In the real war, Japan’s enemies lost far more people than Japan did – and that inequality was already in place on the eve of Pearl Harbor. The U.S. was under no obligation to restrict its actions in the manner that Mr. Stein describes. American obligation after Pearl Harbor was to destroy Japan’s power to keep or to regain its aggressive empire.

That being said, proportionality does not allow a party in such a situation a free hand. You cannot look across the ocean at China’s losses and decide that any amount of force short of 20 million Japanese deaths would be justified. The obligation to focus on your own actions, and intentions, still binds.

Hiroshima has often been defended as the consequence of Japan’s unjust sneak attack at Pearl Harbor. I remember first reading about that sentiment as a young teenager, long before I had heard of Just War or proportionality, but the disproportion in numbers already struck me as obvious. The numbers lost at Pearl Harbor and at Hiroshima are famous, and they hardly compare.

Americans did too little, I think, to examine their own intention, their own desire to have retribution and even revenge for the cruel loss of Americans at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere.

Something similar, I think, seems to be happening to Israelis. Israel’s war against Lebanon and the Palestinians looks every day more like an unjust war.

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