'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.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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