Misunderstanding “proportionate force”

In a recent post Jay Tea of Wizbang criticizes those who are in turn criticizing Israel’s conduct of its war against Hezbollah. In his criticism he uses the example which has become conventional in such critiques, Sean Connery’s monologue from the movie, The Untouchables:

The first is to say “well, duh.” When someone hits you, you don’t carefully measure how hard you hit them back. You respond to aggression with DISproportionate force. You make it more painful for them than their own blows to drive the point home: attacking will cost you, and cost you dearly. As Sean Connery spelled it out in “The Untouchables:” “You wanna know how you do it? Here’s how, they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way.”

I think there’s some misunderstanding or misrepresentation of what’s meant by the term “proportionate force”.

Of course when you conduct a war you fight to win. You don’t fight for a draw. Of course you apply a level of force suitable for achieving your objectives. But it is emphatically neither moral nor legitimate to apply a level of force that dramatically exceeds that level. Consider, for example, the Russians’ conduct in Chechnya. You don’t level a city to eliminate a handful of terrorists holed up in the city or reduce a region’s civil infrastructure to make it harder for the terrorists to operate.

This moral decision-making is precisely what has made the situation in Iraq difficult. We could have avoided the problems we’ve been having for the last three years by leveling all the Iraqi cities and killing all the Iraqis. It would have been completley inconsistent with our values or our objectives but “Chicago way”, eh?

The reason I’ve been harping on this subject is in the hope of giving people some tools for thinking about the situation. Check this post of mine, for example, for a number of recent posts on the subject by others significantly more learned on it than I. Please, go to the links and read them. This post of mine provides some resources for understanding just war theory. Again, please go to the links and read them. This post of mine attempts to apply the theory to the present situation.

My own position on the hostilities is that I think that Israel’s actions have largely been justified but that we honestly don’t have the information to arrive at a conclusion. Most especially we need to treat the narratives both of Israel and those who oppose Israel with a little more skepticism. The truth is out there but it’s probably somewhere between Israel’s portrayal of solely attacking legitimate targets with precision weapons and the pictures of dead or injured Arab children that are the prevailing images of the conflict in the Arab press.

What are Israel’s objectives? What have they actually been doing? Is is a punitive expedition gone wrong? A fourth generation warfare attempt to intervene directly in the decision-making cycle of the enemy? Israel’s final push to root out Hezbollah once and for all?

If it’s the first, they’ve achieved the objective and further destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure is unwarranted. If it’s the second, it’s gone horribly awry: they’ve achieved nearly the opposite. Hezbollah’s support within Lebanon is probably stronger than ever before. Also note that in various Arab countries there’s a divide between the government position and the popular position. While the governments may be coming out against Hezbollah, its popular support seems to be rising.

Is the last objective even achievable? At least without leveling a good deal of Lebanon? Hezbollah’s three-fold role as a terrorist organization, political party, and primary relief agency means that it has bases of operation all over Lebanon in the hearts of Lebanese cities.

Like al-Qaeda Hezbollah is as much an idea as anything else and the idea won’t be eliminated by removing its leaders or destroying its bases alone.

If, as I suspect, Israel will end up accepting a deal it could have gotten at the very outset of the hostilities, then there will have been a lot of death and destruction to no particularly good end. That’s something I think we should be very cautious about putting our support behind.

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