Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Disproportionate Gaza

With the commentary over the fighting in Israel and Gaza over the past few days, I noticed a repeat of something weird from the last round four years ago: the systematic mis-construing of the concept of proportionality in warfare. It's actually a fairly simple concept. Here I quote from the Wikipedia article on Just War Theory:
Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of proportionality. An attack cannot be launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality).
In a military operation to seize a bridge, for example, one civilian casualty can be excused, but the deaths of a million in the seizing of the same bridge would be seen as a war crime. I've read about proportionality for some years now, and I don't think I recall ever having any trouble understanding it. Of course in applying it, things can be difficult. Just where is the line between proportionate losses and disproportionate losses? It's never clear, but the principle itself is not beyond the understanding of children.

Here is Walter Russel Mead, an American pundit, a 'centrist' I figure, giving his definition of proportionality:

One of the criteria for jus in bello (fighting nice as opposed to jus ad bellum which is about whether it is just ) is proportionality. If the other guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife. If he’s got a knife, you can’t pull a gun. If he burned your barn, you can’t nuke his capital. Your use of force must be proportionate to the cause and to the danger.
 Where this comes from, I have no idea. But it's not new. I saw other pundits making the exact same claim during the 2008 fighting. Proportionality has nothing to do with limiting the response to equal the provocation. It's about limiting the damage to non-combatants.

Walter Russel Mead goes on to make some dubious remarks about why Americans aren't swayed by arguments for his own version of proportionality in warfare. For whatever reason, he ignores the fairly scrupulous policies of the US Army when it came to bombing Germany. In the fire bombing of Dresden, for example, the British launched indiscriminate night raids, while the Americans tried to limit damage to German civilians by targeting industrial assets in more dangerous daylight raids. In other words, the Americans showed an intention to practice proportionality. I should note, this only applies to the European theatre, and once the action shifted to Asia, the Army abandoned proportionality, and carried on as the British. Mead actually raises the possibility of racism, and does so very weirdly:

Commentators around the world grasp at straws in seeking to explain what’s going on. Islamophobia and racism, say some. Americans just don’t care about Arab deaths and they are so blinded by their fear of Islam that they can’t see the simple realities of the conflict on the ground. Others allege that a sinister Jewish lobby controls the media and the political system through vast power of Jewish money; the poor ignorant Americans are the helpless pawns of clever Jews. Still others suggest that it is fanatical fundamentalists with their carry on flight bags packed for the Rapture who are behind American blindness to Israel’s crimes.
I have to confess I don't see much of an argument there. There's a lot of muddle and dis-ingenuousness that characterizes  much of the discussion on the conflict. Why Americans are appalled at the killing of children by primitive weapons in the hands of Gazans is never addressed. Anyhow, none of this is new, and it's all more or less a repeat of what came before.

What's new here is the perverse twist Mead gives to this line of reasoning. Again I quote:

the television pictures that drive much of the world away from Israel often have the effect of strengthening the bonds between Americans and the Jewish state
American TV viewers seeing the torn bodies of children killed by Israel actually has the effect of strengthening the ties between their country and Israel. This is perverse, as I've said. But let's say it's true. I don't see how this advances Israel's cause in any meaningful way. Sure, Israel has leave to kill a few more children the next day without fear of being blamed. However, impunity with American TV viewers in killing children is not going to win any war for Israel. Thinking otherwise is just more evidence of Israel's moral and intellectual bankruptcy.

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