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'Enthusiasts of Nuance'

In an essay now available on our homepage, Gordon Marino argues that the asymmetry of modern warfare complicates the moral analysis of just-war theory:

Just-war theory first began to develop at a time when war was reasonably expected to involve a reciprocal risk. In asymmetrical conflicts, the combatants of the weaker side can be so out-matched as to be virtually defenseless. In such cases, battles become outright massacres....

One of the most basic rules of just-war theory requires warring parties to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. This was easier in ancient times than it is today. Nevertheless, rigorous efforts must be made to shield noncombatants from harm. For example, when one side can either destroy an enemy without peril to itself but with a high risk of “collateral damage” or can achieve the same objective in an action that puts more of their troops in harm’s way but minimizes the peril to noncombatants, the just-war tradition prescribes taking the path of greater risk to one’s own side. Though Israelis usually warn Palestinians when their homes are about to be bombed—as if there were some safe place for them to escape to—it is far from clear that they have made enough effort, or taken enough risks, to avoid harming noncombatant Palestinians.

Marino's essay concentrates on what just-war theory calls jus in bello, justice in the conduct of war. He argues that the kind of tactics that involve the least risk for combatants are unlikely to satisfy the requirements of justice for noncombatants. In other words, the right thing for soldiers and their commanders to do will often be the riskier thing to do. (In this respect, war is no different from the rest of life.) This should come as a surprise to no one; by now, we should all understand that war without risk is an illusion. The question is always: Who should bear the risks? Some say: the enemy, whether they're soldiers or civilians. Others, following traditional just-war theory, say that the soldiers on both sides of an armed conflict should bear as much of the risk as possible so that the civilians of both sides can bear as little as possible.

But the hostilities in Gaza raise another moral question, which Marino's article does not directly addressWhen the government of one country is in control of another people's destiny, and deliberately frustrates their ordinary human desire for dignity and self-determination, then that government bears some responsibility for whatever acts of desperation this policy provokes. Israel's government still says it is in favor of a two-state solution but has shown no serious interest in removing the obstacles to that solution. Its attitude to a just political settlement with the Palestinians reminds me of Augustine's famous prayer for chastity: Lord, make me chaste, but not yet. Sure, let the Palestinians have their own state some day, but not yet. Not while we're in office. Let some future government make the necessary sacrifices—stand up to the settlers, withdraw the troops.

I hasten to add that if the Israeli government bears some responsibility for Palestinian acts of desperation (in this case, mostly ineffectual rocket attacks), the attackers themselves bear the main responsibility. Desperation may explain indiscriminate violence; it doesn't excuse it.

As Marino notes in his essay, Tablet magazine's Leil Leibovitz calls those who criticize Israel for not doing a better job of protecting Palestinian civilians "enthusiasts of nuance." As insults go, it's not an especially ugly one, but the condescension is hard to miss. Leibovitz instructs the Israeli government's critics to remember that wars "crush so much of the ambiguity and nuance that permeates everyday life in times of peace. They’re so awful because often they force us to make stark choices that are scary and absolute, and annihilate so much of the space that exists in between polar opposites.” But who would deny that wars force us to make "stark choices"? The debate is about the proper criteria for those choices. If Leibovitz does not quite say that all is fair in war, he at least suggests that the life of one Israeli soldier is worth the lives of any number of Palestinian civilians. War, after all, is always a dirty business, and if you're going to fight at all, you fight to protect your own side, not the other. According to Leibovitz, war doesn't yield to the niceties of any moral theory; it leaves no room for hesitation and forces us to disregard hobbling ambiguities. Precisely because war is life-or-death, it has to be all-or-nothing. Fits of conscience lead to irresolution, which leads to defeat. There may be time for the self-indulgence of regret after the victory, but not before it.

Some people call this kind of talk "realism" and find it bracing. I find it hard to stomach. It looks to me like pitilessness disguised as tragic wisdom.

About the Author

Matthew Boudway is an associate editor of Commonweal.



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Gordon Marino points to one troubling aspect of the war between Israel and Gaza, that is the conduct of war. Another troubling aspect is the justifications for the war in the first instance.

The Israeli press has raised questions about PM Netanyahu's justifications, i.e., Hamas started it by their rocket attacks on Israel. But as news stories over several week have reported, Netanyahu had the Israeli Defense Forces attacking and rounding up Hamas members in the West Bank. The grounds, he claimed: Hamas was responsible for kidnapping three Israeli young men. That charge has proved to be wrong, and the claims are that Netanyahu and cabinet officials knew it.

They knew the young men were dead and not just missing. The killers have now been arrested and are reported to have acted on their own. In the meantime, many Palestinians were arrested, homes were searched, etc. Netanyahu's goal, it is said in these reports, was to break up the unity agreement between the PLO and Hamas, and the potential for some agreement on establishing an independent state.

That Hamas responded with rockets gave Netanyahu his immediate justification for bombing and shelling Gaza. But who really started this war, or maybe engineered is a better word? And for what reason? There will be many efforts to explain and justify, but it is difficult to conjure Israel as the victim in this case.

Thank you for the houghtful article, Mr. Boudway.  I don’t know of any wars where Christian ethics are not severely violated.  Certainly not WWII with the allies’ terror bombings of German cities, the firebombing of Tokyo, the nuclear holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the mass suicides of petrified Germans as the Red Army swept across Eastern Germany.  Moral theologians John Ford S.J. and Germain Grisez (who were just about the only minority members on Paul VI’s Birth Control Commission) have argued that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were indisputably and absolutely immoral and that no argument about saving American lives can change that fact.  The Civil War after Gettysburg was essentially a war of attrition with Sherman maintaining that sufficient numbers of the enemy had to be killed in order to bring about the war’s end.  Can we say that saving the Union and ending slavery justified the North’s scorched earth policy?  Technological advantages have always existed in the history of warfare -- think of the English longbow at Agincourt (of course, over and above that advantage, the slaughtering of the French wounded was despicable).  

Whatever we think of Israel’s moral culpability in the recent Gaza fighting or in its protracted conflict with the Palestinians, it has not waged war as mercilessly as ISIS.  This is no comfort for the Palestinians who have been killed and wounded by the IDF.  But even in war, there are gradations of immorality and evil.

I can't help thinking that just war theory is a joke from a Christian perspective.  The early church, not to mention Jesus, seemed very pacifist, and I think (?) it was Augustine, living at a time of "barbarian" ivasions, who came up with the idea that it was ok to wage war.

But even if we do take the theory seriously, this post at Oxford University's Practical Ethocs blog about applying just war theory to the Israeli/Palestinina conflict explains why it won't work  ...

"the Just war theory is not designed to deal with a conflict such as this one. It is not two states at war. One particular problem with the theory is precisely this: it addresses proper authorities, institutions, such as a system of states ....

A bigger problem is perhaps that the application of the theory seems to transfer us who wish to think about the ethical issues into the equivalent of the spiral of violence. There seems to be so much, such an abundance of, ethically condemnable activities on both sides (in particular if we accept the relevance of the recent past) so that any assessment will be blurred at best, and strongly biased at worst. Furthermore, it enables both sides to, as far as they combine it with any form of retributivist sentiments (and this, if anything, seems beyond doubt), find it very easy to justify further aggressions.

Just war theory, in this context, allows us to point fingers, to condemn and to accuse according to our biases, hunches, prejudices and self-interests. This is not particularly constructive. The theory does not enable us to make an ethical assessment that is univocal enough to allow for constructive dialogue, conflict-improvement, and impartiality .... "

The aspects of war that Mr. Boudway and the commenters discuss center on the consequenes of combat (not grand strategy or geopolitical implications or such).   In my experience, combat is not a reflective undertaking, not a time for analysis, moral or otherwse.  Combat itself is not well associated with independent agency; "free will" may exist (I believe so) in terms of the decision to go to war, but in an actual combat situation the abstract analyses of free will that we might undertake from afar simply do not apply.   "We do not live up to our expectations of ourselves, but rather down to our training," as it was expressed to me long ago.   And so we trained.

It is well also, to bear in mind that combat is borne largely by very young men, often enough of an age at which modern neuroscience tells us the human brain has not yet reached its full physiological maturity, and certainly before many sophisticated arguments and analyses have been presented for critical evaluation. 

I believe that these matters - the lack of personal agency and the basic immaturity of many/most combattants -  are central to understanding what we now call PTSD - the divisions of the mind arising from the peculiar conditions of combat, internal and external.  Trying to reconcile the experience of combat with a mature, reflective understanding of justice or moral goodness is a lifetime's work.

Consider, for example, Wilfred Owen's decision to return to combat, and the manner of his death: "The old Lie..."; yet he died a military hero (MC, post.), manning a captured machne gun in close-quarter otl combat. 25 years old.

Perhaps it is best to keep the discussion at an elevated leel, so that one day the lion may lie don wih the lamb.  That will be the only way to end the damage: yes - certainly!- to civilians, but also to combattants.  

Mark L


Good points but then what if any framework do we use to think about this situation. You are certainly on the mark about biases and pointing fingers. Maybe JW is amiss in that it enables the fantasy that we can ponder the like of this harrowing machine with cool unbiased reason. Thanks for your insights.

Dear Gordon,

Thank you.  You have seen my central point.  I worry a good deal that in many situations we argue too often from top-down principles, and never step back to say, But what does this look like at the level of the squad or platoon [Owen was a Second Lieutenant, a platoon leader].  Not that some overarching answer will appear from ordinary troopers, but simply to see what that viewpoint sees and has to say.  Reason inductively, if you will, rather than deductively. 

Full disclosue: I am Protestant, not a Catholic, so my orientation on authority, and style of argument may be quite different.  I am all for moral agument direted to Power.  Just thought that some reflection fro an old man who once was young and had certain experiences that I had not seen reflected in this thread might be useful.


Thanks for your comments, Mark L. 

How many of the people commenting on the column by Leil Leibowitz agree with it and think that it's obvious! Why obvious? I think that they believe that it's always better to end up alive, no matter the costs, that one's own life trumps everything else, that it's never better to be murdered than to be a murderer.

Say there is a stream of a hundred people coming to attack you. Old and young, children, pregnant women, they all hate you and will stab you to death if they can get their hands on you. Say that you have a machine gun and can easily kill them all. Then, do you? Those people commenting would say, yes of course, obviously you have to kill them all, because it's them or you. It's a no-brainer.

And so Israel acts in self-defense: kills many in order to prevent a few deaths in its ranks.


It is well, I think, to be careful of applying the dynamics of an individual crisis with the dynamics of a nation's position as if they were stricly analgoous.  The problem is we don't have many examples of how a nation might act in such circumstances, so we choose the individual case as an heuristc and do not exmine whether this really is what we should be doing.  Kahenman discusses this in his book Thinking: Fast and Slow.

If you have not read it, Ari Shavit's recent book My Promised Land may be helpful to all of us.  It certainly was for me (a Gentile).  Israel, the country, is the political result of 20th Century Zionism.   And that was defined essentially by Ashkenazim, with their centuries-long experience of pogroms.  And of course accellerated by the Shoah.   For these people, your image of being attacked by a bloodthirsty mob is pretty much how they came to see the World.  And they have a clear historical picture of what happens to their community if that mob is allowed its will.  [How tis relates to the manner in which Israel and Israelis have acted toward the Arabs who lived /live there is central to Shalit's account.]

There are good, evolutionary reasons why in your image of mob attck on a single person, almost 100% of us would either flee or fight to the end.  Being modern, educated people, we might appy a moral gloss of self defense or"Just War".  But you are right: the reason is that we wish to live.  But countries have other choices available and do not, necessarily, have to act as would an individual.   Whether and how we make a social decision to behave differently, well that is a complex matter.


Mark L.

Thanks for the reference. Shavit's book is on my reading list. I heard it is intensely controversial in Israel, not least because it is (I am told) well informed and factually accurate.



I hope you enjoy it.  I am sure it is controversial In Israel.   Shavit is a well-known Leftist and supporter of the Israeli peace movement, a columnist for Harretz.  Interestingly, he has many connections across the spectrum of Israei thought, and also in the Palestinian communities.

Mark L.


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