Just over 10 days ago, Israel begun its air strikes to seize ground from Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip. According to reports more than 540 Palestinians – both civilians and militants – have been killed in the fighting. On Monday 30 civilians, including children, were killed in an Israeli ground offensive.
A proportionate response.
The Just War theory, first articulated by St. Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century, postulates that the means used to fight a war should not cause greater evil than the evil being fought. It is the principle of macro-proportionality. A state must weigh the universal goods expected to result from it against the universal evils expected to result. Only if the benefits are proportional to, or worth, the costs may the war action proceed.
This is the ideal. The world, as we know it, is less than perfect. The decision to go to war is rarely logical and its consequences cannot be viewed through glasses of rationality.
In the 1950s and 1960s Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and his chief of staff Moshe Dayan formulated the policy of disproportionate response. Surrounded by hostile states, after Israel secured independence, Ben-Gurion and Dayan argued that the size of the new state made it necessary to take the fight to enemy territory by preemption if need be. They said the need to deter initiation of new waves of attacks necessitated that every round of hostilities end with a crushing blow to their adversaries.
There is no virtue in meeting an attack on your territory with anything other than overwhelming, punitive force sufficient to dissuade future attacks.
A proportional cost.
The Just War theory is by no means a pacifist theory. Just War theory recognizes that a nation has the right to defend itself from aggression. Israel must defend itself against threats of terrorism and attack. It however should not use more violence than necessary to achieve that end. Its response to the threat from Hamas must be proportionate to the good Israel is defending, shouldn’t it?
My favorite TV series of all time is Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing”. In episode 3 of the first season, the newly elected President Jed Bartlet is confronted with a dilemma when Syrian operatives blow up a jet carrying his personal doctor and several American passengers. The Pentagon proposes to him a strategy of proportional response to the attack: air strikes on four low-level targets in Syria.
President Bartlet isn’t happy. He wants swift vengeance. He wants Syria to know that anyone who sheds the blood of an American will face the “full wrath of God”. Members of the security team attempt to dissuade him, likening his proposal to “dealing out five thousand dollars worth of punishment for a fifty buck crime.”
President Bartlet responds:
What is the virtue of a proportional response?
What’s the virtue of a proportional response? Why’s it good? They hit an airplane, so we hit a transmitter, right? That’s a proportional response? Then I ask again, what is the virtue of a proportional response?
It isn’t virtuous Mr. President. It’s all there is sir.
Proportionate Response, Uganda style.
Joseph Kony is born. Joseph Kony is mad. Joseph Kony becomes the LRA. The LRA kill and maim thousands. The LRA refuse to sign a peace deal with the Government of Uganda. The government says no more! It air bombs LRA camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. No LRA captured. No LRA killed. LRA kill more than 400 Congolese nationals in Christmas holiday massacre. LRA abduct hundreds more. 30,000 Congolese nationals displaced.
Just wars must have a reasonable chance of success. However in some cases morality requires a state to stand up to hounding forces even if there is little chance of success. For the sake of ‘national pride’, fights could be hopeless may sometimes be rightly undertaken.
Like stirring up a nest of hornets to catch one bee. Or maybe not.