Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Pacifism Disguised as Morality

In today's Los Angeles Times, Adam Shatz, the literary editor for The Nation has an article about the immorality of the Israeli campaign in Lebanon. The gist of the article is a response to the claims that, by virtue of basing itself in civilian areas and hiding weapons in homes, Hezbollah, and not Israel, bears the moral responsibility for the deaths of Lebanese civilians.

Shatz takes issue with this position, asking:

If Israeli assertions are true that these killings of scores of civilians were unintentional, does that mean that Israel can claim the high ground in its battle with Hezbollah and Hamas? Is Israel's "accidental" violence against civilians somehow better, or more morally acceptable, than that of a Hamas suicide bomber who steps into a pizzeria seeking to kill civilians? Or a Hezbollah guerrilla firing a Katyusha in the direction of a Haifa residential neighborhood? In short, do Israel's declared intentions make a difference?
The answer, according to Shatz, is no. He goes on to argue that:

The argument Israel and its supporters make to this audience is that Hezbollah and Hamas deliberately target civilians, whereas Israel only accidentally kills them in the noble cause of antiterrorism. Israel may be guilty of manslaughter, but not of murder.

But this distinction is meaningful only up to a point, and Israel, consistent with its history of violent raids in refugee camps and crowded cities, passed this point almost as soon as the offensive began.

Rather than limiting its strikes to key Hezbollah positions and pursuing all available diplomatic channels, as might be expected of a mature regional power with nuclear weapons, Israel launched a vengeful war on Lebanon, which, it has since been reported, was planned over a year in advance. It has displayed a callous disregard for human life, for Lebanon's infrastructure (which only in recent years had begun to recover from Israel's 1982 invasion), for the stability of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's fragile government and for the country's natural environment, now facing an ecological catastrophe from an oil spill caused by the bombing. An estimated 750 Lebanese, overwhelmingly civilians and many of them children, have died, a dozen times more than the 50-plus Israelis (more than half of them soldiers) killed by Hezbollah.
The last paragraph is so poorly argued as to be laughable. First, by pointing out that the Lebanese invastion was planned "over a year ago," Shatz seems to be trying to refute the claim that the invasion was taken out of self-defense in retaliation for the killing of 8 Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two others. Does Shatz know anything about how national military planning works? Planners are continually preparing for contingencies of all kinds; when I worked for SAIC, we developed wargames dealing with invasions of several fictional countries that closely resembled potential enemies (the names were changed to prevent charges like that leveled by Shatz and to allow for plausible deniability but anyone with even a tenth of a brain would have recognized the targets). Would Hezbollah have been considered a likely military opponent by an Israeli military planner? Of course. And if so, then why wouldn't Israel prepare for any potential use of force against Lebanon and Hezbollah? A defense minister who did not prepare and plan for various military contingencies would be lax, at best, in his duties.

Next, Shatz writes that Israel has displayed a callous disregard for "the stability of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's fragile government." A government that is unable to prevent an armed militia from occupying large portions of the country is not a real government. A government that does not enjoy a monopoly of force within its own borders is not a government. Unfortunately, no matter how much Shatz wishes it to be so, the Lebanese government barely meets the criteria for sovereignty. It has refused to implement UN resolutions demanding it crack down on Hezbollah, and has made no moves to rein in the militia. Such a government demands no respect. It is a failed state.

Finally, Shatz points to the casualty disparities, noting that "an estimated 750 Lebanese, overwhelmingly civilians and many of them children, have died, a dozen times more than the 50-plus Israelis (more than half of them soldiers) killed by Hezbollah." What ratio is appropriate? Should Israel only kill as many Hezbollah fighters as Israeli losses? Shatz makes no argument, but simply claims that it's too many deaths on the Lebanese side (or is it too few dead Israelis?).

Shatz goes on to excoriate Michael Walzer, one of the pre-eminent scholars of just war theory. Shatz writes that:

Michael Walzer, the influential Princeton moral philosopher and author of "Just and Unjust Wars," recently opined in the New Republic that when Arab guerrillas "launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible — and no one else is — for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counterfire." One expects this rationalization of collective punishment from a defense minister; coming from a "just war" theorist it is most odd. (By this criterion, the French Resistance would have been "responsible" if the Nazis had destroyed a village sheltering anti-Fascist partisans.)

In fact, Walzer's logic is explicitly repudiated by human rights groups. They weren't persuaded by this argument in 1996; in its damning report on the first Qana attack, Human Rights Watch concluded that the use in Qana of "deadly anti-personnel shells designed to maximize injuries on the ground — and the sustained firing of such shells, without warning, in close proximity to a large concentration of civilians — violated a key principle of international humanitarian law." And Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, has rejected it again this time: The most recent strike on Qana "suggests that the Israeli military is treating southern Lebanon as a free-fire zone."
This last point of Shatz's make his true argument clear: war of all kinds is bad. Shatz, along with Kenneth Roth, are opposed to the use of force for any reason. However, using just war theory to claim that this or that use of force is immoral is a much better strategy for Shatz than admitting his outright opposition to war. As Walzer notes in the article Shatz refers to above, "It is an important principle of just war theory that justice, though it rules out many ways of fighting, cannot rule out fighting itself -- since fighting is sometimes morally and politically necessary." Shatz's argument attempts to do just what Walzer says can't be done: rule out fighting itself. If states cannot plan military operations in advance, if they cannot hold other governments responsible , if they cannot kill more people than the losses they have themselves suffered, then states cannot go to war. As Walzer correctly argues:

...since Hamas and Hezbollah describes the captures [of the Israeli soldiers] as legitimate militart operations -- acts of war [and, as Walzer does not mention, are both party to their respective governments] -- they can hardly claim that further acts of war, in response, are illegitimate. The further acts have to be proportional, but Israel's goal is to prevent future raids, as well as to rescue the soldiers, so proportionality must be measured not only against what Hamas and Hezbollah have already done, but also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do.
Walzer goes on:
When Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible--and no one else is--for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counterfire. But (the dialectical argument continues) Israeli soldiers are required to aim as precisely as they can at the militants, to take risks in order to do that, and to call off counterattacks that would kill large numbers of civilians. That last requirement means that, sometimes, the Palestinian use of civilian shields, though it is a cruel and immoral way of fighting, is also an effective way of fighting. It works, because it is both morally right and politically intelligent for the Israelis to minimize--and to be seen trying to minimize--civilian casualties. Still, minimizing does not mean avoiding entirely: Civilians will suffer so long as no one on the Palestinian side (or the Lebanese side) takes action to stop rocket attacks. From that side, though not from the Israeli side, what needs to be done could probably be done without harm to civilians.
So, perhaps the attack on Qana was immoral. But one action does not, as Shatz would do, discredit the entire military operation or the very nature of fighting itself. States must be able to defend themselves; note the absence of serious protest against Israel, even from the Europeans, the Russians, and other Arab states. One can quibble about whether Israel should have dropped this bomb, or launched that missile. And of course one can grieve for the innocent lives lost. But using just war theory to claim that Israel's operation is immoral or illegal is disingenous at best. The blame for the deaths of Lebanese civilians lies firstly with Hezbollah, which started this war and secondly with the Lebanese government, which has allowed Hezbollah to operate with impunity. Israel may not be blameless, but Israel neither wanted nor started this war. War is a nasty, hideous, death-filled business. But it is, unfortunately, sometimes necessary. Shatz's attempt to moralize it away, along with much of the discussion of "proportionality" that has surrounded the current violence in Lebanon, is little more than a pipe dream to do away with all war.


Chris said...

Excellent essay. War is deplorable, but if governments were to avoid civilian casualties at all costs they will have already lost the war.

It is much easier to put yourself amidst civilians risking their lives than it is to avoid hurting them.

Anonymous said...

I don't remember which Israeli commentator/journalist it was, but he was on NPR talking with a pretty hostile interlocutor who kept pressing on the injustice of Israel's killing of Lebanese civilians. Eventually, by way of demonstrating that Israel was really at fault, the radio host said, "but the Israelis have killed hundreds of civilians, and Hezbollah only a handful." The guest said, "we don't have to suffer more to be right." A truly great line.

Martin said...

You find reasons to dislike Adam Shatz' argument, but you skirt around the central point he is making: Hezbollah's immorality in hiding in populated areas does not excuse the immorality of Israel's callous disregard for those civilians in its response to Hezbollah's attacks.

Two wrongs, in other words, do not make a right.

The normal response to this is pragmatism - hence your accusation that Shatz is a pacifist.

It's no good equivocating over the morality of one missile (Qana) or another, since they form a pattern. Israel is clearly taking no account of the civilian consequences of its actions. Come right out and say it: Israel can commit no crime if it acts to secure the safety of its own citizens.

Or rather, face the fact that this conclusion is incorrect, and Israel must bear responsibility for the deaths it causes, just as Hezbollah must for it's missiles. From this point there is the compassionate logic of "least harm" rather than the evil logic of "ends justify means."

Seth Weinberger said...


If I wasn't clear, I apologize. I wasn't skirting around Shatz's argument; I was destroying it head on. The morality of Israel's operation cannot be judged by any one act, bomb, or missile. Qana may have been a violation of the laws of war, but it does not invalidate the rationale or the justification for the operation as a whole.

Hezbollah directly, and the Lebanses government indirectly, are responsible for this war, and thus for the deaths of the Lebanese civilians. Plain and simple.