A Proportionately Disproportionate Response



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?


Should 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?


Admiral Fitzwallace:

I’m sorry?



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.

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12 Comments to “A Proportionately Disproportionate Response”

  1. [heave]

    mounting up to an uncertain future for the whole world. Small fights start big wars..

  2. Oh. My. God. You are smoking. And so right.

    Right now, the powers that be are trying so much to silence the voices questioning the rationality of their MO.

    We hate Kony to bits but, like your Admiral, there are some actions we just cannot afford to try. The DRC is suffering now for sins they never committed.

  3. i know this is really sad, but first i have to say that i have missed you… in a normal-not-in-any i like girls in-that-kind-way thing…

    i still love your writing… :)

    a wrong done because a wrong was done before never does make things better in any way… but that’s the way men work most of the time…

  4. This was interesting. I just did a paper which covered the proportionate and necessary response to attacks..and I agree with you. I can’t believe Uganda has a seat in the Security Council after what is clearly a serious breach of human rights etc….

  5. The bible says if some one slaps you on the left chick you turn the right one right? well, the Holy QURAN says different.
    That war will never end, atleast not any time soon.
    watever the israelites ar doing to those innocent parastinians today, they’ll pay, yes they will some day.

    we missed you tumwi.
    happy new year

  6. Hey you!
    Happy new year(s) an yadi yadi yaagh!
    how are the nephews??

    how are you doing!

    Er, yeah, missed you too….

    hoping the writing stays just as candidly lovely (wrong superlatives)!!

  7. What else can we do with Kony? We have to just keep shooting at him. That’s the only plan.

  8. Proportionate response is a totally new phenomena to me. Probably has something to do with the fact that it is not common in Uganda. That is my opinion anyhow. If there was proportionate response in Uganda, would it take the Government this long to get rid of the LRA? Mind you, they still have not succeeded. And they conveniently follow him into foreign lands after 20 some years of co-existence? No. Uganda displays cowardly response.

  9. Good stuff. Check out my book on the LRA, First Kill Your Family: Child Soldiers of Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army, on Amazon.com or at http://www.firstkillyourfamily.com Also my blog at http://www.petereichstaedt.blogspot.com

  10. I feel like the UPDF/coalition attack on the LRA bases may have been more effective if there hadn’t been basically full pages spreads in all the regional newspapers for a MONTH announcing that it was coming. I mean, *I* knew that the coalition was about the attack the LRA bases. Isn’t it reasonable to assume then, that Kony knew, too??? And if so, WHAT was the POINT of it??? Other than to, as you put it, stir up the nest. Oh, it makes me so sick.

    Not that I’m necessarily against assassinating Kony, himself. But just — why can’t they just do it in a way that (1) will actually GET him and (2) will not build up his mythology more (and thus make it easier for another crazy to take up his mantel). (Build up his mythology, like with all those New Vision and Red Pepper headlines: KONY DISAPPEARS!)

  11. Dominoes — a wrong is done so a wrong is done so a wrong is done so a…

  12. Proportionate response is a new word to me. But i think Israelites are taking this whole ‘God’s chosen people’ thing too far.
    And Kaza i agree with you. We have such a cowardly army that i wonder what we are doing in that security council. They use the media to make it look like they are doing something and they have done that for the last 20 years.
    When Kony was in Uganda why did’nt they attack his bases? Why do they first let him get into another country and then get serious getting help from that country in the process. The DRC already has too many problems to deal without our army forcing their army to help us fight our battles by transfering our battle field there.
    For as long as we contiue sending our soldiers to questionable peace keeping missions yet we have our own issues and giving the media too much information, Kony is going to continue killing Ugandans and non Ugandans.

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