Below is the transcript and slides for my public lecture, ‘Humanism and the Dilemmas of Contemporary Warfare’, hosted by the B.C. Humanists, on 3 October 2011, at the Burnaby Public Library, McGill Branch.
War permeates the public consciousness. It features frequently on the news and in discussions of foreign or defence policy. It even forms a huge part of our entertainment industry. War – that is, a state of intentional and widespread armed conflict between political communities – is thus a constant and important subject of social discourse. One reason for this is that war is among the most contentious and difficult subjects of moral debate. War causes immense suffering, and leads to mass killings, destroyed families, shattered communities, and years of future instability.
As long as war continues to be a social phenomenon, thinking about how to minimise the harm it causes is thus something that a morally conscious and politically interested person is likely to spend at least some time doing.
Broadly speaking, one’s position on war is likely to fall into one of three categories: realist, pacifist, or what I call ‘ethicist’. Realists are sceptical of the value in trying to offer any kind of moral prescriptions in considering international affairs. Once a war has begun, says the realist, one should do whatever it takes to win it as efficiently as possible. Pacifists reject most or all wars as inherently wrong. War, says the pacifist, is never justifiable and perhaps even never excusable. Ethicists on war think that some wars can be justified, or at least permissible, so long as they fulfill some set of criteria.
My sense is that most humanists are not likely to be realists, as abandoning morality during a period when one’s actions could have the worst effects imaginable seems anathema to the principle of compassion or the pursuit of universal human well-being. My sense is also that most humanists are not pacifists in the absolute sense of believing that no war is ever justified. While I think that most humanists view most proposed justifications for war with considerable scepticism if not prima facie dismissal, I think that most humanists are willing to view self-defence and perhaps the defence of others as, theoretically, a just cause for war. Yet to be an ethicist when it comes to war – to engage in ethical calculations that may or may not justify the use of military force – is obviously a difficult task.
If we do think that a war could potentially be justified morally, but that those at war should still hold themselves to some set of moral obligations, we must find answers to a long set of ethical questions. When is it permissible or justified to go to war? Is it only acceptable to go to war for anything other than an existential threat to one’s own community? Is it acceptable to go to war to defend the populations of other countries? How can we practically measure the thresholds past which war is justified? How should force be used during war? What considerations should be given to the welfare of both combatants and noncombatants, if indeed these are useful categories? Any one of these questions could occupy a lifetime of contemplation, and the answers any two persons might offer could differ vastly based on their meta-ethical starting points, even if they remained within the general sphere of humanism.
I am not going to offer my answers to these questions, such as I have any to give. Instead, I will simply introduce very briefly the current frameworks for analysis and general conclusions present in most contemporary thought on the ethics of war, and then discuss five contemporary cases which are particularly challenging to them: intervention, terrorism, torture, assassination, and collective punishment. My hope is that in doing so, I will at least stimulate discussion over the right issues, shatter a few myths and bypass a few common red herrings, and move people to consider seriously the ramifications of their views.
2. Just War Theory
Just War Theory has served as the basis for most international laws and conventions pertaining to armed conflict today. Essentially, Just War theory offers a set of criteria for determining when going to war is justified, and specifies limitations on how force may permissibly be used during. It is divided into the categories of jus ad bellum, which discusses the justice of any decision to initiate war, and jus in bello, which discusses the justice of conduct in war. Basically, this theory states that one may not go to war except under the following six conditions:
- Just cause, conventionally considered to be an invasion of the sovereignty of one’s own territory or that of an ally
- Right authority, conventionally considered to be the government of a state, but increasingly also thought to include UN approval or some standard of domestic legitimacy
- Right intention, conventionally considered to be the defence of sovereignty
- Reasonable chance of success, such that the war is not a futile effort.
- Proportionality, such that the gains of going to war don’t outstrip the harm it causes.
- Last resort, such that all other options for resolving the crisis have been reasonably exhausted
Once at war, any use of force must be sufficiently proportionate to the military value of a successful action and discriminate between combatant and noncombatant. A word of caution, though: discrimination in this case only requires that the direct target of force be military in nature. The ‘doctrine of double-effect’ is typically interpreted to allow for noncombatants casualties, so long as their deaths are not the immediate intention or goal of military action. While some philosophers such as Michael Walzer argue in favour of a ‘doctrine of double-intention’ in which military force be specifically intended to minimise noncombatant casualties, that view is contentious for many more traditional thinkers in the field. Conventional thought on jus in bello is that a combatant who follows its criteria has committed no transgression, even if the conditions of jus ad bellum do not obtain for the party on whose behalf he or she fights. As Walzer puts it, the two are ‘logically independent’. However, thinkers such as Jeff McMahan have challenged this ontological separation, arguing that if a party initiates an unjust war, no use of military force in that war by its servants can be just, regardless of how discriminating or proportionate it appears to be.
Just War Theory isn’t so much a ‘theory’ in the explanatory, scientific sense, but a framework for assessing wars and the use of military force. Its principles can be subject to wide interpretation, and it is only through formal institutional processes that the international community has even a minimal sense of how to apply it universally and realistically. Those processes owe to the efforts of dedicated politicians and brilliant moral and legal thinkers. While Just War Theory remains a powerful tool of ethical analysis, the challenges offered to it by humanitarian intervention, terrorism, torture, assassination, and collective punishment force us to consider ways to apply our standards of assessment innovatively.
Humanitarian military intervention is a contentious but emerging international norm. Proponents are likely to be encouraged by the so-far positive outcome of the NATO intervention in Libya. Certainly from a humanist standpoint, it seems obvious and essential that those with power to help alleviate the suffering of human beings should do so, including in situations of tyranny or predation. If we are justified in going to war to protect ourselves, then we must also in some cases be justified in going to war to protect others. Yet intervention may require that we compromise on certain principles which are deeply embedded within our current understandings of liberal rights: it could mean violating the sovereignty of another state, it could mean choosing one side of a civil war, it could mean going where we’re not wanted by any party because we think we can help anyway, and it could mean occupying another territory for the foreseeable future. An intervention may cost the lives of our own personnel, particularly given the risk of ‘mission creep’, whereby an intervening force becomes mired in increasingly complex and long-term commitments. These possibilities do not, I think, make intervention essentially unjustifiable from a humanist perspective, but they do mean that we must be particularly careful in deciding to stage one.
One is likely to encounter troubling questions in trying to apply the framework of Just War theory to the subject of intervention. Just cause can be adapted to refer not to the invasion of our own territory or that of an ally but to some transgression upon the rights of another group. But should we intervene only to avert ongoing atrocities of an extraordinarily repugnant character, such as genocide, or should we also intervene to aid secessionist movements or a population suffering under an oppressive government? We may prefer that ‘right authority’ lie with a supernational entity such as the UN, and that it require the consent of those whom we propose to help through our actions, but what if it seems that the only way to build the will for an intervention is to ‘go it alone’ or through a narrow and independent coalition? The criterion of ‘reasonable chance of success’ is particularly difficult to fill. Intervening to avert a genocide may only serve to delay it or to prompt another, and intervening to support a secessionist movement or one side of a civil war may lead to the establishment of a tyranny or the commission of atrocities by the very group whose victory we helped secure. While there are many politicians, scholars, and lobbyists working to find a satisfactory answer to these questions, we should not take it for granted that there are good answers.
I also suggest that intervention enthusiasts not be too quick to view the Libyan case as vindication for their views. First of all, we have yet to see what the fate of that country will be. It seems difficult to imagine that it will be worse than it was during the long rule of Qaddafi, but such an eventuality is not impossible. The ongoing attacks against black African migrant workers, driven by hatred for Qaddafi’s sub-Saharan mercenaries, is one example of a very worrying and tragic human rights abuse. I don’t imagine civil war is an orderly affair, and revolutions seem likely to include retributory persecution, but it is nevertheless an early black mark. More importantly, the Libyan case was an unusual example of an intervention. It is probably rare that we will be presented with a diplomatically isolated, geographically open country embroiled in an ongoing civil war with one side credibly threatening a massacre and the other asking only for air support for its soldiers. This is a case that had no risk of dead American soldiers or of ugly images of blue-helmeted peacekeepers failing to stop knife-wielding mobs from murdering cowering villagers. Though we may see that the intervention in Libya achieved great good, and the National Transitional Council has shown an encouraging commitment to developing good post-war governance, we should be very careful about generalising many aspects of it into lessons for the future.
In short, while I think it is certainly in keeping with humanistic morality to explore ways to make interventions effective, I urge scepticism and sensitivity to the possibility of great unforeseen harm.
Terrorism as a word is for many people as likely to evoke images of manipulative politicians as it is of 9/11 or of bombs in cafes and clubs. It certainly could qualify as one of the most ‘loaded’ terms in the English language today. Nobody accepts it as a label for their own actions, and many are quick to deploy it against the actions of their opponents. Yet when we talk about terrorism, we do have some ideas in mind. We think about suicide bombings in places of leisure or in government offices. We think of killing sprees on the streets of Mumbai, and of the London or Madrid attacks. And of course, we think of jetliners flying into buildings. I think most of us consider such violence morally unjustifiable in most if not all situations, but if we want to contrast it to other kinds of political violence, we need a more rigorous sense of what terrorism is.
The definition I encourage people to start with comes from strategic theory, and conceives of terrorism as a way of connecting a certain set of means to a certain set of ends. Terrorism is, generally, the deliberate generation of fear, usually through violence or the threat of it, within a political community in order to change its behaviour. Terrorists and terrorist groups are thus people and organisations that actively use terrorism as a strategy of activism. I think this definition lends itself best to talking about non-state actors, but could conceivably be used to discuss the actions of formal governments as well. The terror bombings carried out by the Allies during the Second World War might be a good example of this. The advantage to this definition is that it doesn’t specify any particular means. It might be possible to generate fear by attacking uniformed soldiers on duty. It might be possible to generate fear by using non-lethal violence. It might be possible to generate fear by threatening material interests, which could fit under some broader definitions of ‘violence’. From a humanist perspective, the anxiety and stress that fear produces is concerning, but if terrorism can take other forms that don’t harm noncombatants, it may be difficult to condemn it categorically.
We can, of course, look to history for some clues as to how terrorism works, politically and psychologically. To quote one of the better discussions of it, by M.L.R. Smith and Peter Neumann, people or groups using a terrorist strategy generally seek to (1) disorientate people from their government, (2) provoke a certain response, and (3) based on that response transfer legitimacy from the government to their own agenda. One very effective way to disorientate people from their government is to attack them in their homes, schools, or places of leisure. Another might be to simply get very good at planting roadside bombs, and ensure that images of the destruction caused makes their way into the media. We live in a ‘post-heroic’ age of war, wherein every time we hear about one of our soldiers dying we feel greater discomfort and sceptisim for our government’s policies. Terrorism can be used to intimidate a group into making concessions, or it can be used to provoke an indiscriminate response from the target that drives those who suffer from it towards supporting the ideology of the terrorists. Whether one is trying for the former or the latter is likely to affect decisions on the level of brutality or focus of terrorist means. On might even apply this model to the strategy of ‘sit-ins’ or of political street theatre, insofar as it disorients, provokes, and transfers legitimacy. My point is that the label ‘terrorism’ should, according to the definition I’m giving, apply to actions based on their intended consequences rather than their tactics.
Despite our current conception of terrorists as paranoid lone-wolves or cells of revolutionary radicals, militaries have often used terrorism. One good example can be found in stories I’ve heard of the Rhodesian military using terrorism during the Rhodesian Bush War. The Selous Scouts – an elite combat reconnaissance unit capable of long-term excursions into the jungle – would ambush guerrilla encampments at night, silently moving into tents and cutting the throats of ZANU and ZAPU fighters as they slept. Killing in this way doesn’t merely inflict enemy casualties, but generates massive fear amongst enemy ranks. Imagine what might have happened when guerrilla HQ sent troops to find out why their encampment had suddenly gone silent. Ten men head out, but only eight return, with stories of their comrades found dead in their beds, their bodies booby-trapped. During the Vietnam War, the Vietcong used similar methods against U.S. forces, prompting indiscriminate and savage reprisals that turned the local population against the American presence. The effect that such stories can have on the moral of a military force is devastating. What if it could shatter the will to continue fighting, and end a war?
While I think it that terrorism should not be condemned categorically, I encourage scepticism of some particularly common defences of it. Michael Walzer once wrote an article entitled ‘Terrorism: a Critique of Excuses’. In it he identifies four commonly offered excuses for the sort of terrorism we probably don’t like – that is, attacks on ‘innocents’. The first is that it is a last resort. He suggests, and I agree, that he many examples of successful ‘nonviolent resistance’ comprise real alternatives to, say, guerrilla warfare or suicide bombing, so long as one’s cause has sufficient popular support. Related to this is the excuse that terrorism is the only resort available to liberation movements struggling against powerful regimes. Yet, as Walzer also argued, if those movements truly represent their constituencies then I think they should be capable of mobilising the numbers necessary to use nonviolent methods, even if doing so is more difficult or dangerous in the short term. The third excuse Walzer attacks is that terrorism is excusable on the grounds that it is effective, and that it achieves emancipation for the oppressed without requiring their participation. Walzer counters that efficacy alone does not justify an action unless other conditions obtain – such as those already discussed – but I think we might respond to his critique by saying that it is not necessary for terrorism to be a last or only resort, so long as it harms only combatants. The fourth excuse Walzer attacks is that it is hypocritical to condemn terrorism, as all politics is essentially terrorism. Walzer points out that this cynicism may not be justified in considering the activities presumably legitimate governments. I would simply encourage a focus on condemning certain terrorist tactics, rather than terrorist strategies as a whole, which may, as I have already said, not transgress upon our humanistic principles.
Finally, I want to make one further remark on the difficulties of assessing target legitimacy in using terrorism. Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who hosts an enormously popular programme on al-Jazeera. offers fatawa – Islamic legal judgements – on a wide array of issues facing Muslims today, including those of conflict and war. He has argued that attacks upon any Israeli, at any place and time, are justified acts of Palestinian resistance. Israeli men and women are both subject to conscription, and may be called upon for reserve duty throughout much of their life. They are all legitimate targets. Israeli children will grow up to be soldiers, and thus they too may be targeted to pre-empt this eventuality. These arguments are not essentially theological, and therefore dismissible by any non-adherent, but rely upon a rationale and framework contained within Just War theory. If we do not accept them, we need to clearly delineate the standards of that rejection, and apply them consistently to other uses of force.
Most of us are familiar with the ‘ticking time-bomb scenario’: a hypothetical case in which a captured bomber refuses to divulge the location of his attack, and his interrogators have almost no time to use any special techniques other than, perhaps, torture. We can thank John Stuart Mill for this thought-experiment, and certainly it has given us the entertaining antics of Jack Bauer and Dick Cheney. Alan Dershowitz, a well-known Harvard law professor and libertarian legal philosopher, has often supported the case for torture in this scenario. Conversely,there are some people who will say that torture is essentially unjustifiable. Forget any practical question as to its efficacy, no amount of lives saved can make acceptable it to torture another human being. But I think most people will agree that, theoretically, there is some point at which torturing one person can be justified if it will save many others. We can make that point absurdly extreme- torture one person to avert global thermonuclear war! – but once we’ve agreed to this, we’ve opened the door to a very important debate over the extent to which our security services should be permitted to abuse a prisoner in an effort to get information.
Of course, like ‘terrorism’ the word ‘torture’ is a hugely politicised term. There are many who insist that water-boarding is not torture (they may or may not be aware that it was used by the Khmer Rouge and by the Spanish Inquisition). There are many who insist that solitary confinement and sleep deprivation are not torture. The U.N. Convention Against Torture basically defines it as the inflicting of severe mental or physical pain and suffering in order to solicit information, punish, or intimidate, carried out by a public official and excluding the effects of lawful sanctions. Even setting aside this huge exception for ‘lawful sanctions’, this is a vague definition. While it would seem unreasonable to label all situations that cause any discomfort at all to a prisoner as torture, finding a threshold of severity is very difficult.
All I will say on this is that I think torture is best defined positively and negatively. We can, through empirical enquiry, say that such things as physical beatings, prolongued solitary confinement, and water-boarding cause severe and acute distress not from some crisis of conscience but because they directly wreck havoc on the human body. We can expand this list as necessary, and rule out these actions. We could also try to say what torture is not, in order to better regulate interrogations. We can say that torture is not shouting questions at someone from a distance greater than, say, one foot. We could say that torture is not insulting a person or criticising their intellectual and moral character. We might reach a point where the boundaries are vague, but I am confident that we can categorise sufficiently well through ongoing deliberation and oversight.
In the ‘ticking time-bomb scenario’ we’re usually accepting that at a certain point, any abuse is justified. And when we accept that, we prompt many key questions. Most importantly, what is the threshold? How do we decide to torture in an accountable way? Should we use a system of ‘torture warrants’, as Dershowitz has argued, or should we leave it up to the interrogator’s discretion? Should our security services have people specially trained in torture? Should we prefer torture that leaves no lasting physical damage, as Dershowitz suggests? How should we treat someone once we’ve tortured them, in terms of allowing their story to ‘get out’ and potentially cause great harm? One might simply prefer to bypass these difficult questions and categorically condemn torture because it is impractical to do otherwise, to punish anyone who uses torture regardless of outcome, and to argue that an interrogator who wants to abuse his prisoner in order to save lives can join his charge in martyrdom.
Except this entire discussion is a red herring. Even if you accept in theory that torture could be justified, it it is likely to be less effective (or counterproductive) compared to other methods. This appears to be a consensus view of professional interrogators themselves. Studies from the fields of neuroscience and psychology back this up: extreme pain and stress can actually impair one’s ability to tell the truth, and people can become accustomed to a certain level of pain very quickly. Perhaps if a certain set of conditions obtain, where any piece of information given during interrogation can be immediately checked for veracity, such that false information offers no reprieve from the pain, then torture might work well. But those conditions are absurdly specific and unlikely. They require a comprehensive existing intelligence picture and mechanisms for assessing information so efficient that I honestly can’t imagine them existing outside of laboratory conditions. In short, the ‘ticking time-bomb scenario’ should be dismissed as unworthy of serious discussion, except perhaps as a manipulative way of forcing someone to endorse the abstract validity of consequentialism.
There is one case in which the morality of torture is not at all a red herring, however. What if the only way to educe information from a person is through a secondary medium, and that medium is almost certain to use torture? The option of choosing a non-violent interrogation method does not exist. Furthermore, in many cases there is a good chance that the detained individual will be tortured anyway. Imagine that you’re an intelligence professional, and word comes to you from a colleague in a country where torture is common: we have a prisoner and she has information you’re likely to want. If you send your colleague some questions to ask, or even accept unsolicited information from her, you are conceivably complicit in torture. When your only options are either ‘information+torture’ or ‘no information’, almost all of those difficult questions we try to avoid come back into the picture.
But I think that it is important enough to establish that when we’re the ones doing interrogating, torture never the best option.
Assassination – the premeditated killing of a specific individual to realise political objectives - has become an increasingly prevalent way for states to use military force. The ‘drone strikes’ carried out by the U.S. – bombings of militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and elsewhere by U.S.-operated Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – and the killings of Palestinian activists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by the Israel Defence Force, are two prominent examples. These assassinations – often referred to as ‘targeted killings’ – are acknowledged by their perpetrators and debated morally and strategically in the public and political spheres. In other words, the notion that state-sponsored assassination can be a legitimate and prudent security action has become widespread.
Assassination is both essentially and incidentally morally troubling for many people. As a use of force, it contains ambiguities missing in the classic idea of killing that takes place on a battlefield. Is hunting down and killing a specific person an act of execution? Should a target only be killed while engaged in active hostilities, or are pre-emptive or preventive strikes justifiable? Should we restrict assassination only to those geographic areas where an armed conflict is taking place or kill our enemies wherever is convenient? Is the assassination of combatants a moral slippery slope towards noncombatant activists, such as political leaders, given that the people we kill in this way are often members of organisations that lack formal distinctions between the two? How can a target surrender? What if a target is also a citizen of the country responsible for killing him? One example of this would be the recent killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen, by the armed forces of his own government. Does that not edge too close to the killing of dissidents by oppressive regimes, such as in the case of the assassinations of Ruth First, by Apartheid South Africa, and of Leon Trotsky, by Stalin’s Soviet Union? Given that assassinations require enormous amounts of secret intelligence, which when used often costs the lives of sources, can governments be held accountable for the harm to its own employees caused by its use or misuse?
One might simply respond to these questions by suggesting that assassination stay ‘off the table’ as a tactic of war. Yet this attitude ignores some of the ways in which assassination might be a more compassionate option in today’s armed conflicts. In cases where distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant becomes more difficult, the high level of discrimination assassination allows may be a desirable alternative to less discriminatory acts of force which harm entire populations. In a war where combatants hide amidst a large noncombatant populations, and emerge only to mount surprise attacks which themselves may even specifically target noncombatants, the options available to a military are to wait for the enemy to make contact – a difficult thing to ask of any soldier – a targeted raid, or something as brutal as collective punishment or population transfer. It goes without saying that the first two options seem considerably less harmful than the last. But when it comes to the conventions of war, ‘harm’ has long-term connotations which may not be apparent in the short-term. And it goes without saying that assassination may not be most efficient military action, even if it seems like an easy answer to the difficulties in targeting an elusive foe.
Much of my own research has looked at the way the State of Israel has used assassination. My masters thesis focused on the period between 2000-2005, usually known as the Second, or Aqsa, Intifada, during which time Israel assassinated large numbers of Palestinian activists thought to be involved in violence. In candid interviews the security professionals responsible for designing and implementing Israel’s ‘assassination policy’ justified their choices not only in pragmatic terms but also in moral ones, particularly regarding decisions on the time, place, and ordinance used in an operation. For example, in defending his decision to use a smaller bomb in an assassination attempt on the collected leadership of Hamas in 2003, the notably hawkish Chief of Staff at the time, Shaul Mofaz, cited the risk a larger bomb would present to surrounding residents and claimed ‘it is against our norms to kill innocent people.’ In defending the assassination of Salah Shehadah, which resulted in thirteen bystander deaths, former Defence Minister Giora Eiland referred to the operation as a ‘fuck-up’ which he wouldn’t have approved had he not been given faulty intelligence that Shehadeh was alone but for his wife. While one could very easily be cynical of the extent to which moral considerations drive Israeli security policies, the discourse on assassination is clearly not limited to utilitarian justifications.
Even if we think that assassination is potentially justifiable, we must ask whether it is practically justifiable. Even if it fulfills the two conditions of jus in bello – it is sufficiently discriminating and proportionate – there is still a robust debate over its efficacy: whether or not it actually can succeed strategically. If it does not, it fails to satisfy the criterion of necessity, and merely contributes to the death toll – an outcome unlikely to meet with humanist approval.
7. Collective Punishment
The last dilemma of contemporary warfare I want to discuss is the issue of collective punishment. The logic is simple: punishing a group for the misbehaviour of some of its individuals will make that misbehaviour far less likely, either through general social pressure or particular guilt. Today it is broadly seen as unjust. The convention against it is one of the most essential parts of modern international humanitarian law. And at first glance, it seems utterly counter to humanist principles of individual moral autonomy and compassion. Historically it has been a common method for an occupying force or a tyrannical regime to maintain social order and obedience, with the entire family or even the entire settlement of the transgressor subject to abuse or execution. The mass bombings of London, Tokyo, and Dresden, during the Second World War, are modern examples that immediately come to mind. One might even view economic sanctions as collective punishment, as their effects cause entire populations to suffer for the objectionable policies of their governments. But if collective punishment deters misbehaviour, could it not be justified on utilitarian grounds? And if a liberal and democratic state is one in which the people are ultimately responsible for the actions of its government, can all people be legitimate targets for punishment? Or perhaps even a more fundamental moral question: if people can influence the behaviour of others but choose not to do so, to what extent are they responsible for that behaviour? These questions can complicate a blanket condemnation of collective punishment.
Returning to my own research, I want to present an interesting case which will tie together several other themes I’ve discussed besides that of collective punishment. I am aware that some facts of this case are contested, and so while I have tried to offer a balanced and careful presentation, I suggest that any contentious aspects of my presentation be accepted for the sake of my argument. In the interests of time and focus, I am deliberately avoiding a larger engagement with the context of this case, but I am acutely aware that its precipitants and consequences have moral bearing. My goal is illustrative rather than persuasive.
In January 2009 the Israeli government invaded the Gaza Strip and waged a month-long war with Hamas, the government of that territory. The case for the war, allegedly, is the constant barrage of unguided, short range, rockets launched from the Strip by Hamas and its allies, which harassed and occasionally maimed or killed residents of surrounding Israeli towns. The IDF killed 709 fighters from Hamas and its affiliates -according to both the Israeli government and Hamas – and between 450 to 740 Palestinian civilians. Ten Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians also died. While the munitions Israel used were, for the most part, among the most technologically precise in existence, the scale of infrastuctural destruction and noncombatant casualties they caused has led many people to condemn Israel’s use of force as excessive.The headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was hit, as was the territory’s sewage treatment plant and flour mill. The IDF used shells containing white phosphorus, banned by international convention as a weapon for the horrible burns it can cause but permitted for use in battle as a smoke-screen producer, in a way deemed ‘reckless’ by a later UN investigation. At first glance many people are likely to view Israel’s use of force as grossly disproportionate and indiscriminate, regardless of whether going to war in the first place was justified.
There may circumstances which may mitigate at least to some degree the condemnation one might offer for Israel’s tactics. There is substantial photographic and video evidence indicating that Hamas fights wore civilian clothing, moved amidst groups of civilians serving as willing or unwilling shields, and fought from particularly densely populated areas. IDF and Gazan witnesses report that Hamas fighters at times wore medical uniforms and used medical vehicles for military purpose, and used hospitals as interrogation centres and even as execution grounds for the punishment of suspected collaborators with Israel. The IDF has defended its tactics on the grounds that they took sufficient account of the need to protect civilians, despite the high number of noncombatant deaths that those tactics caused. Colonal Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, stated that, ‘During Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces [sic] did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare. Israel did so while facing an enemy that deliberately positioned its military capability behind the human shield of the civilian population.’ Certainly there is some evidence of this: the IDF dropped leaflets, made phone calls, and sent text messages to the inhabitants of buildings and areas it intended to bomb, giving both civilians and fighters the chance to escape to safety. Yet the extent to which all these things excuse or justify Israel’s use of force is still much debated.
Entirely aside from Israel’s tactics, though, is its overall strategy. That strategy is doubtlessly multifaceted, but in examining Israeli action and the justifications offered by its security establishment, it appears as though one facet was to inflict suffering on the population of the Gaza Strip. I do not think this was to be achieved by killing – I think the evidence strongly sugggests that Israeli forces tried to minimise civilian deaths – but I do think that it was to be achieved by instilling a pervasive sense of insecurity and a certain level of material misery. The loss of one’s home might not be fatal, but it is still traumatic. In considering the blockade of the Strip that Israel has since mounted and only recently relented slightly upon, I see further evidence of this strategy. There is a message to it: ‘as long as Hamas launches its rockets and refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the State of Israel, you will all suffer because your are Hamas’ constituency.’
Since January 2009 Hamas and Israel have had no major confrontations, and there have been only a handful of minor and short escalations. Generally, Hamas has avoided launching rockets into Israel, and has stopped any other group from doing so. Is this a deterrence brought on by the war? It’s hard to say. It seems that several attacks by Hamas cells in the West Bank have been recently averted by Israeli security forces, so it seems unlikely that the group is avoiding violence entirely. But if Hamas is deterred, at least from launching rockets, is that because of the bloody nose that Israel gave them, or is it because of the hostility that their constituency feels towards any strategy of contention with Israel that is likely to increase their suffering once more? And if it is the latter, does that justify collective punishment?
I realise that, in my discussion of the dilemmas in applying a humanist perspective to war, I’ve asked many questions but offered few answers. At best, I’ve refuted one or two myths. I do hope that I’ve demonstrated what a challenge war poses for ethicists and political philosophers. Beware of anyone who claims that they have a simple solution. But I am not a pessimist. Quite the contrary, I am optimistic that we will find ways to wage war that balance the inevitability of violent conflict against our desire to minimise its occurrence and limit the suffering it causes. I think that we can certainly progress towards this goal by developing more precise weapons technology, or means of coercion which are nonviolent or at least nonlethal. Above all, though, I think we will progress towards this goal by maintaining an open, sceptical, and self-critical discourse on war, and by constantly demanding rigorous justification for any real or proposed act of political violence.
I also encourage greater support for academics involved in studying the strategy, norms, and ethics of war, though I admit some self-interest in doing so.