What is morally justified in War? What is not justified? How does all of this apply to the conflict between Israel and Hamas?
American Senator Lindsey Graham said Israel is justified in doing whatever it wants to do in response to the surprise attack by Hamas. That is an extreme view. He is an extremist. Such views though are common in Israel and the United States. Most of us would say there are limits to what the defending state can do, even in war, and even in a justified war. What are those limits? Unlimited war may unleash unlimited consequences that just are not justified in the combat. War is nothing if it is not complex. War is never simple. And that is why war requires careful thinking, at least when one had time to do the thinking this requires. I acknowledge that there are moments in the heat of battle where this might not be possible.
John Rawls, one of the greatest of America’s political philosophers was given a very difficult task. Fifty years after the event, he was asked to evaluate whether or not the United States was morally justified in dropping an atomic bomb in World II against Japan after it had been attacked by Japan. Such a bomb would cause massive civilian deaths. But it might prevent massive death on his side. And he had to be impartial. He could not be blinded by bias or hatred or a desire for revenge. What means did the ends justify? That was the difficult question Rawls tried to answer. Just like it is a difficult question to say what is Israel justified in doing after a horrific surprise attack by Hamas. I just don’t think Lindsay Graham could be right.
Rawls had some interesting things to say on this complicated subject. To begin, he had the benefit of hind sight. He wrote about it 50 years after the fact in 1995. This is what he said: “I believe that both the fire-bombing of Japanese cities beginning in the spring of 1945 and the later atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6 were very great wrongs, and rightly seen as such.”
Why did he say that? He began by pointing out the obvious—namely, that democracies are different from totalitarian states such as Russia, or Nazi Germany. He did not get to experience Hamas or ISIS. The authoritarian countries don’t go by the rules of war. Anything goes. Like Lindsey Graham on steroids.
Rawls pointed out this:
“These peoples have different ends of war than nondemocratic, especially totalitarian, states, such as Germany and Japan, which sought the domination and exploitation of subjected peoples, and in Germany’s case, their enslavement if not extermination.”
And that is quite important. The democratic governments have entirely different goals. They don’t seek enslavement or extermination. So democracies can’t go where the totalitarian states go. They would ruin themselves in the process.
The goals of democratic states are different so their goals must be achieved by different methods. Here Rawls made another very important point: “The aim of a just war waged by a decent democratic society is a just and lasting peace between peoples, especially with its present enemy.” You can’t ruin your enemy, even if you think he deserves it because of what he did to you, because after the war is over, you want to have a lasting peace with him. In my view, both Hamas and Israel have forgotten this. Hamas probably does not care. It is not a democratic state, so it may not have this goal. Israel, if it is a democracy, must have this goal. If it doesn’t Israel is not a democratic state either. That I think would be Rawls’ view.
Rawls was talking about Japan when he wrote this, but I would submit it would be just as relevant to Hamas which is much farther away from a democracy than Hamas is:
“In the conduct of war, a democratic society must carefully distinguish three groups: the state’s leaders and officials, its soldiers, and its civilian population. The reason for these distinctions rests on the principle of responsibility: since the state fought against is not democratic, the civilian members of the society cannot be those who organized and brought on the war. This was done by its leaders and officials assisted by other elites who control and staff the state apparatus. They are responsible, they willed the war, and for doing that, they are criminals. But civilians, often kept in ignorance and swayed by state propaganda, are not. And this is so even if some civilians knew better and were enthusiastic for the war. In a nation’s conduct of war many such marginal cases may exist, but they are irrelevant. As for soldiers, they, just as civilians, and leaving aside the upper ranks of an officer class, are not responsible for the war, but are conscripted or in other ways forced into it, their patriotism often cruelly and cynically exploited. The grounds on which they may be attacked directly are not that they are responsible for the war but that a democratic people cannot defend itself in any other way, and defend itself it must do. About this there is no choice.”
Here, Israel has a tough job. Some would say it has an impossible task. It is fighting an enemy—Hamas—which uses civilians to protect itself. It builds tunnels underneath or next to hospitals to make it difficult or rather, impossible, for Israel to eliminate it without eliminating massive numbers of civilians and hence losing a lot of its support from other nations. But, as Rawls said, we must always recognize and then remember, that the leaders are not the same as the foot soldiers or civilians. That burden is then thrown on the victim of the aggression.
I will continue this analysis in the next post.