by Michael Walzer
How much is too much in war?
Post Date January 08, 2009
January 8 2009
Let's talk about proportionality--or, more important, about its
negative form. "Disproportionate" is the favorite critical term in
current discussions of the morality of war. But most of the people
who use it don't know what it means in international law or in just
war theory. Curiously, they don't realize that it has been used far
more often to justify than to criticize what we might think of as
excessive violence. It is a dangerous idea.
Proportionality doesn't mean "tit for tat," as in the family feud.
The Hatfields kill three McCoys, so the McCoys must kill three
Hatfields. More than three, and they are breaking the rules of the
feud, where proportionality means symmetry. The use of the term is
different with regard to war, because war isn't an act of
retribution; it isn't a backward-looking activity, and the law of
even-Steven doesn't apply.
Like it or not, war is always purposive in character; it has a goal,
an end-in-view. The end is often misconceived, but not always: to
defeat the Nazis, to stop the dominos from falling, to rescue Kuwait,
to destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Proportionality
implies a measure, and the measure here is the value of the end-in-
view. How many civilian deaths are "not disproportionate to" the
value of defeating the Nazis? Answer that question, put that way, and
you are likely to justify too much--and that is the way
proportionality arguments have worked over most of their history.
The case is the same with arguments focused on particular acts of
war. Consider the example of an American air raid on a German tank
factory in World War Two that kills a number of civilians living
nearby. The justification goes like this: The number of civilians
killed is "not disproportionate to" the damage those tanks would do
in days and months to come if they continued to roll off the assembly
line. That is a good argument, and it does indeed justify some number
of the unintended civilian deaths. But what number? How do you set an
upper limit, given that there could be many tanks and much damage?
Because proportionality arguments are forward-looking, and because we
don't have positive, but only speculative, knowledge about the
future, we need to be very cautious in using this justification. The
commentators and critics using it today, however, are not being
cautious at all; they are not making any kind of measured judgment,
not even a speculative kind. "Disproportionate" violence for them is
simply violence they don't like, or it is violence committed by
people they don't like.
So Israel's Gaza war was called "disproportionate" on day one, before
anyone knew very much about how many people had been killed or who
they were. The standard proportionality argument, looking ahead as
these arguments rightly do, would come from the other side. Before
the six months of cease-fire (when the fire never ceased), Hamas had
only primitive and home-made rockets that could hit nearby small
towns in Israel. By the end of the six months, they had far more
advanced rockets, no longer home-made, that can hit cities 30 or 40
kilometers away. Another six months of the same kind of cease-fire,
which is what many nations at the UN demanded, and Hamas would have
rockets capable of hitting Tel Aviv. And this is an organization
explicitly committed to the destruction of Israel. How many civilian
casualties are "not disproportionate to" the value of avoiding the
rocketing of Tel Aviv? How many civilian casualties would America's
leaders think were "not disproportionate to" the value of avoiding
the rocketing of New York?
The answer, again, is too many. We have to make proportionality
calculations, but those calculations won't provide the most important
moral limits on warfare.
These are the questions that point us toward the important limits.
First, before the war begins: Are there other ways of achieving the
end-in-view? In the Israeli case, this question has shaped the
intense political arguments that have been going on since the
withdrawal from Gaza: What is the right way to stop the rocket
attacks? How do you guarantee that Hamas won't acquire more and more
advanced rocketry? Many policies have been advocated, and many have
Second, once the fighting begins, who is responsible for putting
civilians in the line of fire? It is worth recalling that in the
Lebanon war of 2006, Kofi Annan, then the Secretary-General of the
UN, though he criticized Israel for a "disproportionate" response to
Hezbollah's raid, also criticized Hezbollah--not just for firing
rockets at civilians, but also for firing them from heavily populated
civilian areas, so that any response would inevitably kill or injure
civilians. I don't think that the new Secretary General has made the
same criticism of Hamas, but Hamas clearly has a similar policy.
The third question: Is the attacking army acting in concrete ways to
minimize the risks they impose on civilians? Are they taking risks
themselves for that purpose? Armies choose tactics that are more or
less protective of the civilian population, and we judge them by
their choices. I haven't heard this question asked about the Gaza war
by commentators and critics in the Western media; it is a hard
question, since any answer would have to take into account the
tactical choices of Hamas.
In fact, all three are hard questions, but they are the ones that
have to be asked and answered if we are to make serious moral
judgments about Gaza--or any other war. The question "Is it
disproportionate?" isn't hard at all for people eager to say yes, but
asked honestly, the answer will often be no, and that answer may
justify more than we ought to justify. Asking the hard questions and
worrying about the right answers--these are the moral obligations of
commentators and critics, who are supposed to enlighten us about the
moral obligations of soldiers. There hasn't been much enlightenment
these last days.
Michael Walzer is a contributing editor at The New Republic. This
piece also appears on the website for Dissent Magazine.
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