In March 1946, the American philosopher and economist Henry Hazlitt published Economics in One Lesson. Expounding on what Frédéric Bastiat called the “seen vs unseen principle,” Hazlitt argued that the field of economics can be succinctly summarized as “looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act of policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.An observation of lasting import in economics, Hazlitt’s analysis has also proven insightful toward military ethics. In such a context, decisions must be made considering not only the seen, immediately obvious consequences of an act, but also the less immediately evident yet still significant unseen consequences across all groups.

Military ethics has been the subject of much popular discussion of late with Israel’s just war against Hamas. One of the most common topics among media outlets is the need for Israel to protect innocents by adhering to the principle of “noncombatant immunity.” It is well known that Hamas hides its members and armaments amid civilian homes and buildings, utilizing women and children as human shields, thereby posing a serious moral conundrum. Some commentators, based on a strict and rigid understanding of noncombatant immunity, believe that Israel is obligated to refrain from any military action that would knowingly harm innocents, noting that it is always wrong to intentionally harm innocent civilians. In 2003, for example, Israel’s internal security service Shin Bet received intelligence that eight major Hamas leaders would soon convene in Gaza. Israeli leaders, worried that the size of ordinance necessary to ensure the elimination of all eight senior terrorists would also kill innocent bystanders, instead utilized a much smaller bomb. In the end, none of the senior Hamas figures were harmed.

Applying Hazlitt’s framework, what are the seen and unseen effects of this decision? What were the consequences of Israel’s policies to all groups? By deciding against using the necessary means to kill the intended targets in order to spare civilian lives, Israel could claim the moral high ground. In a world where barbaric actors like Hamas pay no attention to innocents, Israel can ask itself Churchill’s question of “are we beasts?” and answer with a definitive “no.” In a world where Israel is perpetually demonized as an oppressor, that is an important and noble seen consequence. 

The unseen consequences, however, warrant consideration. By failing to employ the necessary means to kill those Hamas leaders in the name of the moral high ground, Israel allowed for the perpetuation of evil and bloodshed. By applying a moral standard in relation to its enemy, Israeli leaders subjected its own citizenry, to whom they are ultimately responsible, to the immoral, murderous actions of Hamas. Numerous Israeli lives have been lost because those eight men escaped in 2003, including Mohammed Deif and Ismail Haniyeh, two of the masterminds behind the 10/7 attack. 

It is important to recognize that this is a regular occurrence in Israel’s wars against terror: in the name of being seen as moral and ethical towards the enemy, Israel allows for evil to spread and metastasize against her own citizens. The Israeli terrorism scholar Boaz Ganor has shown that Israeli restraint in 2012 during Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza came at a significant price. According to Ganor, 

“Israel’s desire to minimize harm in the Gaza Strip dictated large margins of security, which enabled the IDF to strike only those military compounds and rocket launching sites farthest from civilian centers and protected facilities. It spared those command centers, weapons caches, and launching sites located in densely populated civilian areas or near civilian structures, thereby preserving Hamas’s strategic capability.” 

Israel realized just how intact Hamas’ capability was when another brutal war began just two years later in the summer of 2014. 

It is a fundamental truth about the nature of war that the enemy always gets a say. That is just as true within military ethics as with military doctrine and planning. Historian David Lonsdale, commenting on the military strategy of Philip II and Alexander the Great, notes that “if one treats cultural and moral concerns as the prime consideration in war, then one may cede the advantage and initiative to an enemy who is in harmony with the true nature of war.” Similarly, Carl Von Clausewitz, the greatest military theorist of all time, recognized this truth that “if one side uses force without compunction, undeterred by the bloodshed it involves, while the other side refrains, the first will gain the upper hand.”

 Hamas and other terrorist groups thrive off of the ethical concerns of liberal statesmen. While we laud the seen reality of adhering to such ethical standards, we should also be aware of the unseen effects, where opting against some violence today really amounts to choosing more violence tomorrow. Moral philosophers who insist that leaders adhere to “absolute” moral truths congratulate themselves for pressing for peace when they are merely kicking the can down the road for the next generation.

Ethical considerations in war are tragically paradoxical: the more ethically constrained military campaigns and operations are, the longer evil reigns. The opposite is likely true as well: the more brutal war is, the longer peace can prevail. The decisive victory at Chaeronea and at Carthage, and the failure to maintain the peace after WWI serve as a small sampling of this paradox. The prolific British strategist Colin Gray noted that, “among history’s many ironies, it would seem indisputable that efforts to control and limited war, or armaments, both in theory and in practice have tended to have the reverse effect of that principally intended.” It is simply the case, Gray continued, that “awful means need to be threatened or employed for the purpose of advancing desirable end-state policy goals.” 

Of course, strategists, generals and presidents are human actors who, by nature, act with ethical values. But the tragic paradox of military ethics requires military leaders and government officials to adopt a more consequentialist ethic, one that recognizes the Machiavellian principle of virtu, where good men must, in order to protect their people, engage in violent acts. This aspect of political life is undoubtedly a tragedy, but it is a tragedy that all polities must grapple with. 

Jewish sages teach that “he who becomes compassionate to the cruel will ultimately become cruel to the compassionate.” And that is, undoubtedly, a tragedy. We want to do kindness and act ethically. But ethical decisions, especially in war, have far-reaching consequences that bear careful scrutiny. The tragic paradox of military ethics describes a state of affairs where military leaders and government officials are forced to make heartrending decisions on matters of life and death for many people; some their constituents, some not. 

But, if B.H. Liddel Hart was correct when he stated that “the object of war is a better state of peace,” we must recognize that peace follows governments and militaries acting with an eye towards winning a durable, total victory. The periods of greatest peace almost all followed fierce, brutal wars. Gray was fond of noting “history does not record major cases wherein a distinctively ethical, as contrasted with a bluntly prudential, reasoning shaped statecraft and strategy.” Commentators should keep in mind that, for all the wonders of the 21st century, we still live in a world defined primarily by power politics, a reality we must work through instead of denouncing.