Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Tough Questions

There are segments of the population -- both of which I probably overstate the importance of, given their over-representation amongst the commenteriat -- who really view situations like the Gaza conflict as simple, cut-and-dry. Either Israel, responding to illegitimate aggression by Hamas, can respond with whatever force it wants, for however long it wants. Or, Israel, being essentially an illegitimate occupying power, cannot respond to any attacks on it by Palestinian terrorists, and accordingly any response is assumed, facially, to be immoral and probably criminal.

Both of these positions are, it should be needless to say, wrong. Israel has a right to respond to terrorist rocket fire, and its response has to be within the bounds of the laws of war.

But what does that entail?

One of the frustrating things about this conflict is that a serious moral evaluation of it required very local and specialized knowledge that few, if any, of the commentators had (and that's true in both directions). The Palestinian death toll for this operation was a little over 1,000 people, with roughly half of those being civilians. This is being decried as far too many. Well, in one sense, that's obviously true -- any amount of death is too many, because our default assumption should always be that people should not have to live in war zones. But within the context of a large-scale counter-insurgency operation in a heavily urbanized area against a foe which uses civilian shields, how does 1,000 dead stack up? I have no idea.

What are the proper rules of engagement for conducting urban counter-insurgency? How does one respond to the large-scale use of human shields, or the more general embedding of military personnel and equipment in civilian areas? These are difficult questions, both from a moral (just war) and technical (military tactics) standpoint. I know the IDF does actually do a lot of work developing rules on both ends of the question. But it is fair to say that the IDF is somewhat of a partisan player in this discussion, and that particularly from the moral side of things it might not be quite right to devolve the rules over to them.

An area I think that could use a good dose of heavy-duty progressive thought is the arena of moral conduction of military counter-insurgency operations -- from large-scale strategic considerations to smaller-scale tactical rules of engagement questions. Without those baseline metrics for evaluation, we really have no way of really warranting a lot of the claims many are making about the justness of Israel's military response on a micro-level. It's precisely that gap, I think, that drives many to the extreme -- they really want to judge Israel (innocent or guilty), a sound judgment would rely heavily on micro-level questions we can't answer (both because the empirical data isn't available and because the metrics by which a judgment could be made haven't been evaluated yet), so we push the debate to the edge of the cliff where those questions fade into the brush in favor of more macro conceptions of who is "right", overall, in the contest.


PG said...

moral conduction of military counter-insurgency operations -- from large-scale strategic considerations to smaller-scale tactical rules of engagement questions

What about the other side of it: moral conduction of insurgency operations -- from large-scale strategic considerations to smaller-scale tactical rules of engagement questions? It seems to me to be a bit morally retarded for people to support Palestinian armed resistance without conditioning that support on the resistance's following some basic rules (like, don't store arms in a hospital). This also might help Westerners think through phases of history in which the side with which we sympathized was in the position of resistance, e.g. the American Revolution, the French resistance during WWII, etc.

Somewhat off-topic: I'd be interested in a post of your thoughts about the (historic?) phenomenon of support for Zionism coupled with personal anti-Semitism. I was reading a bit about the reputed anti-Semitism of JM Keynes and GK Chesterton, both of whom were quite supportive of Zionism. Particularly with Chesterton, there's a dispute between his full-bore worshippers and the skeptics as to whether his being pro-Zionism was simply part of his "localism," or if it was the more typical mild anti-Semite's solution to the Jewish Problem that didn't entail actually killing Jews.

David Schraub said...

On topic: I think that's probably an interesting subject, though on that side much of the literature is focused on non-violent alternatives as a superior form of liberation struggle (King, Gandhi, the ANC for the most part), in part because it is extremely difficult to conduct a modern insurgency campaign in a way consonant with the rules of war. Some folks say that's because the law of war is biased in favor of the big bad state against dashing rebel groups, but as one int'l law blogger (I forget who) pointed out, the law of war isn't designed to make war "fair" or insure the "right" side wins, it's designed to restrict what type of tactics can be used.

Off-topic: I'd imagine much of it was simply a desire to get Jews elsewhere. If you don't like Jews, and find killing them off to be too messy, then having them shipped off elsewhere where they won't bother you has to be appealing. And if they voluntarily want to do it -- so much the better! Now you don't even have to feel guilty about discriminating against the rest.