The axiom that armies must use restraint in military operations is neither new nor controversial. Only the most reckless of our species wants war without limits. The Christian just war tradition, like the secular just war tradition and international law more broadly, demands that states refrain from unnecessary battles, avoid civilian targets, apply proportionate force, and limit human suffering as much as possible.
As a broad set of ethical principles, the just war outlook is vital to civilized society. However, errors come—and they can be dangerous ones—when proponents of just war take their categories too narrowly and apply their axioms without historical context.
Case in point: The summer 2016 issue of Providence features an article by Contributing Editor Nigel Biggar entitled “In Defence of Just War.” Near the end of the piece, Biggar spends a few paragraphs looking at Israel’s 2014 conflict with Hamas through the lens of proportionality, one of the key pillars of just war thinking. While “it is clear,” Biggar agrees, that Israel was justified in defending its citizens against indiscriminate killings by Hamas, he nevertheless concludes that Israel’s military response was intrinsically disproportionate and therefore immoral:
[I]f the end is to uproot the cause of the attacks on Israel, then military means alone do not suffice…. While the bombardment of Gaza did weaken Hamas’s military power, it did not uproot it. Without a political solution, Hamas will simply revive to fight again.
Believing that Israel’s proper goal in Operation Protective Edge should have extended beyond simply eliminating “the harmful effects” of Hamas aggression and “uprooted” the cause of the aggression, Biggar insists the Israelis were derelict in their handling of the conflict.
It was within Israel’s power to take diplomatic, confidence-building initiatives. Unilaterally, she could have stopped and reversed the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Since she didn’t do so, her military assaults on Gaza were inapt and disproportionate.
What precisely is Biggar suggesting here? Understood in its worst possible light, such a conclusory analysis could induce laughter—or horror. If Biggar presumes that Hamas’ “indiscriminate killing” of Jewish civilians was, in fact, caused by the Jews themselves, and would have ceased if only the Israelis had addressed certain grievances, then either response would be appropriate. To suggest that “diplomatic, confidence-building initiatives” and unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank would convince Hamas to end its indiscriminate killing is absurd. Hamas, according to its own charter, is committed to the destruction of Israel. Why its leaders would stop attacking Jews just because Israel evacuated from the West Bank is unclear. What is clear is that Hamas didn’t stop its aggression after Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza—it ramped up.
But even if we are meant to read Biggar’s confidence-building prescription as aimed not at Hamas but at the Palestinian people more generally, it remains dangerously without grounds. Not all animosity can be eliminated through diplomacy or concessions to the other side; a plain reading of the world demonstrates that some people just don’t like other people and refuse to live in peace. The just war tradition mustn’t be understood to insist that the only righteous fight against violent Islamists is one that uproots them and erases their motivations. But by making the moral legitimacy of Israeli action dependent on their having pursued more than military means to uproot the cause of attacks (which he assumes are Jewish settlements in the West Bank), Biggar appears to be doing just that. History, meanwhile, shows that large swathes of Palestinian support for terrorism are not sated by “political solutions,” no matter how well-intentioned or creative.
While Biggar admits that proportionality is an “elastic and permissive” concept and that his analysis “depends on a certain reading of the political and diplomatic facts,” he nevertheless feels confident enough to conclude that Israel’s prosecution of its war against Hamas was unjust. This, then, appears to be just war reasoning at its worst: only an analysis moored in the narrow world of axioms and theological formulae could produce such a context-less conclusion unmoored from the larger world around us.
Biggar is not alone in making such errors. Too often, many fail to remember that war is not formulaic. It is sudden, explosive, chaotic, and close. War in the twenty-first century doesn’t move with the ponderous bulk of twentieth-century great power conflict. It is waged by irrational combatants who send rockets raining down on playgrounds; who emerge from tunnels into family backyards; who detonate themselves on buses full of day-laborers and students. Today’s world is a bad neighborhood; today’s war is a street fight.
There is no question that states should wage war justly and proportionately. But proportionality works best when generals have maximum time, complete information, and a rational enemy that respects the other side’s restraint. Today’s battlespace is marked by minimum time, partial information, and an enemy that sees restraint as a mark of weakness. What happens in cases where restraint actually emboldens evil and guarantees more war?
Proportionality is an approach, not a formula. Let’s put aside the abundant evidence that Israel exercised tremendous care in protecting civilians during Operation Protective Edge—civilians who were being used as human shields by the enemy. The conflict still cannot be adjudicated after the fact by a simple effects-based analysis with no reference to tactical, historical, or ideological context.
And it certainly cannot be labeled “unjust” based on a specious and subjective reading of the region’s political history.
Robert Nicholson is the executive director of The Philos Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote positive Christian engagement in the Middle East. He holds a BA in Hebrew Studies from Binghamton University, and a JD and MA (Middle Eastern History) from Syracuse University. A formerly enlisted Marine and a 2012- 2013 Tikvah Fellow, Robert lives in New York City with his wife and two children.
Photo Credit: Israel Defense Forces paratroopers brigade operate within the Gaza Strip to find and disable Hamas’ network tunnels during Operation Protective Edge on July 20, 2014. By Israel Defense Forces, via Flickr.