Monday, August 07, 2006

More on the Justness (Or Not) of the Israeli War

Let's go back to the Catechism, which looks at the precise conditions under which a war can be just:

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must
be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily
in evaluating this condition.These are the traditional elements enumerated in
what is called the "just war" doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

And now let's go step by step in the context of the current conflict, focusing on the different principles enunciated in the Catechism.

(1) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain.

Score one for Israel. Hezbollah's actions against civilians were and are unjustifiable, and should be considered war crimes. Even Juan Cole, whose sympathies lean in the Arab direction, argued that Nasrallah should be dragged before the Hague for ordering attacks on non-combatants.

(2) All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.

For a start, Israel did not even bother to seek a diplomatic solution. But a counter argument would be that the very nature of Hezbollah-- including its glorification of violence and so-called martyrdom, its fundamentalist eschatology, its disdain for life (especially Israeli life), and its general lack of respect for Lebanese civil life and democracy-- renders a diplomatic solution useless, given that it would merely postpone and not solve the problem. But remember the point made by moralist Germain Grizes (see earlier post) that terrorism cannot be defeated by military means alone. You must address the root cause of the problem. Bush and Cheney seem to have learned this lesson the hard way (actually, whether they have learned anything at all after six disastrous years is very much open to question). The cowboy mentality is destined to fail.

(3) There must be serious prospects of success.

What is the aim of Israel in this war? Israel seems intent on eliminating Hezbollah, a political party supported by half the Lebanese population. Given this support, and deeply embedded Hezbollah is with the Shia population, the elimination seems pretty impossible. Again, you cannot defeat terrorism by military means alone.

(4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Now we come to the crux of the matter, the proportionality condition. Straight away, the Catechism cautions us that the decks are already stacked against the pro-war position when it comes to modern weaponry. What is the evil to be eliminated? It is not just the threat from Hezbollah rockets today, but as Michael Walzer noted in the New Republic, "also against what they are (and what they say they are) trying to do." Proportionality is not just stacking up bodies on either side. We need to look at the totality of "evils and disorders" created by Israel's response. I think there are at least four.

First, the bombing of civilian areas. The words of Israel's military strategists are quite damning in this regard. General Dan Halutz basically said that retaliation is the name of the game, giving "the order to the air force destroy 10 multi-storey buildings in the Dahaya district (of Beirut) in response to every rocket fired on Haifa". He also declared that since the aim is to win, "nothing is safe." And don't forget the threat made during the early stages of the war to turn the clock back to the days of the civil war. And remember that the southern suburbs of Beirut, basically densely-populated Shia slums, have reduced to rubble.

Second, Israel has destroyed the Lebanese economy and infrastructure, punishing an entire nation for the crimes of one militia. Note also that Israeli sources threatened that "if Tel Aviv is attacked, Lebanese national infrastructure will be destroyed." More recently, the Israeli army announced it would "hit strategic civilian infrastructure". Here, the war party seem to indict the Lebanese government for allowing Hezbollah such a free reign. In fact, The cedar coalition (Christian-Sunni-Druze) would like nothing better than to disarm Hezbollah, especially after their cynical backing of Syria after Hariri's murder. But they are also fully aware that Hezbollah has the support of the Shia (remember their huge pro-Syrian demonstration in Beirut last year), and any move to disarm them could re-ignite the civil war. Indeed, all sides recognized that the way forward was to "normalize" Hezbollah by integrating them into Lebanese government and civil life. Even Maronite politician Michel Aoun, the author of the extremely costly "war of liberation" against Syria in the last phases of the civil war, did a deal with Hezbollah.

Third, Israel has threatened a democracy that has finally thrown out the Syrian occupiers (after almost 30 years), and is creating the conditions for a return to full-scale civil war. What often gets lots in the equation is that Lebanon is a full democracy, no longer under occupation. Sure, it has some confessional quirks, and lots of gerrymandering, but it is a democracy nonetheless. And, like it or not, Hezbollah plays a major role in that democracy. The nature of a long civil war means that many current players have less-than-perfect histories. Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, regarded as a brave statesman for facing down Syrian death threats, was trying to ethnically cleanse the Chouf mountains in the 1980s. And the Christians were also no stranger to atrocities: the extremely popular Samir Geagea was recently released from prison for killing numerous rivals (plus their entire families) during the war. Compared with this cast of characters, Nasrallah does not seem so out of place!

Fourth, Israel's actions have boosted the popularity and strength of Hezbollah (and by extension, Iran and Syria) at a time when were being integrated into the normal political process (not not doing too well, for that matter). This has implications not only for Lebanon, bit the entire Middle East, and beyond.

But where is the Catholic voice in the United States? Week after week, Pope Benedict calls for a ceasefire, and it gets basically ignored by the Bush-worshipping Catholics on the American right, the same group who were driven into a frenzy by the death of Terry Schiavo (were the issues were every bit as complicated and nuanced as they are in the current conditions), but seem unmoved by the suffering of the Lebanese people.


kalle anka said...

This whole debate about just wars is starting to get old, and I'm particular concerned about christians trying to come up with some sort of a rationalization of when it is just to murder people. Doesn't sound like much progress over the "eye for an eye" of the old testament. Just when exactly did the sermon on the mount get forgotten?

And maybe more worrisome, whatever happened to the peace movement. All those wonderful demonstrations to make the world a better place. Who knows whether they did any good, but they certainly didn't do much harm, and raised awareness.

There seems to have been a break with the traditional roles of warmongers and peaceniks somewhere in the Balkans. Watching innocent people being slaughtered was too much, even for most advocates of non-violence. And all of a sudden, military intervention and killing was acceptable because it had the ultimate goal of reducing suffering. That was the day the peace movement died. And it was also the day that the warmonger faction got a serious boost for justifying their actions.

It's time to go back and ponder the fundamental question whether it is ever (!) right to take another life. Of course, it's easy to think of some specific circumstances where almost everybody would say "yes," think killing an evil dictator. But maybe this is where it needs to stop!?

It would be nice if we could get such a simple instruction, and then live happily ever after. No such luck. But, in cases where the vicious cycle of violence and counter-violence is clearly leading nowhere, it may just be time to try something completely different and opt for non-violence. For now, the Lebanese government has done just that, though probably not necessarily out of choice. Time for Israel and Hezbollah to consider what would happen if they decided to unilateraly stop the killing. And time for the people in Israel, Lebanon, and the rest of the world for that matter, to make their voices heard for a time of non-violence, and ultimately peace. Yes, there is mistrust, but every single life lost does nothing but nurture that mistrust.

Peace Now!

Morning's Minion said...

Kalle Anke,

You note yourself that there are no "simple instructions". It's complicated and nuanced. The best we can do is to apply the traditional just war principles (ad bellum and in bello) to the circumstances at hand. You also admit that there are indeed certain circumstance when war can be justified. What we need to do is to keep the universal norms of justice in mind, as will happen when we frame the debate along just war teaching lines, and not get swayed by some form of moral relativism. For a start, the just war principles rule out the "eye for an eye" thinking, or the lex talionis. Also, they rule out various forms of consequentialist reasoning (end justifies the means). The logic behind the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was based on such reasoning-- and it was 100 percent wrong.

kalle anka said...

the problem with the just war reasoning is that it provides for the possibility that there could be such a thing. but, that is not the case. there is no such thing as a just war! sometimes, there is such a thing as a killing that we can understand. better to think in terms of just peace. and, while we're at it, consider the possibility that an unjust peace may be better than a just war.

John Lowell said...

kalle anka,

You say:

"The problem with the just war reasoning is that it provides for the possibility that there could be such a thing. but, that is not the case. there is no such thing as a just war!"

You would seem to be in very good company here although the agreement between you and Benedict XVI does not entirely correspond. Speaking of John Paul II's evaluation of the justice involved in the Iraq aggression, he said:

"The Holy Father's judgment is also convincing from the rational point of view: There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a "just war."

John Lowell

shadhu said...

Going beyond the academic arguments of just war, one needs to recognize the reality that mankind presently has the tradition, motivation, and means to pursue war, and hence will likely continue to do so in our lifetime and thereafter. Hence the practical question is how to reduce the propensity of war, and in case war does break out, how to minimize atrocities and other fallouts from the engagement. International treaties, institutions, and practices come in to address these questions. Hence the importance of the UN and the International Court, although we love to bash them at every opportunity.