Michael Walzer and Disproportionality

Disproportion in warfare is sometimes a simple matter of commonsense. As Justice Potter Stewart wrote of hardcore pornography, “I know it when I see it.” We don’t need philosophers and moral theologians to define it for us. When we heard in Vietnam that “We destroyed the village to save it,” we instinctively knew it was wrong. Similarly, when seasoned military officers  learned that a minimum of 300 people and perhaps as many as 3000 had died and a whole neighborhood razed in “Operation Just Cause,”  the 1989 U.S. effort to arrest the drug-running Panamanian president Manuel Noriega for dissing the United States, they needed no precise calculations to know that disproportionate force had been used.

Michael Walzer is one of our distinguished moral philosophers. His Just and Unjust Wars (1977) set the standard for just-war analysis. He showed 20th century Americans, including his fellow philosophers, there was still a place for careful casuistry in thinking about moral problems. He also showed how moral norms need to be re-formulated in light of changing conditions. But in his recent New Republic essay, “On Proportionality” (Jan. 8), he has gone too far in bending his principles to defend Israel against charges of disproportion in its war in Gaza. He would have done well to remember that ethics does better when it stays close to our ordinary moral intuitions, and the further it moves off into abstraction, the more likely it is to go awry, simply providing rationalization for military offenses. Gaza is a case where the guy in the street has sounder moral judgment than the moral philosopher.

Proportionality has generally been linked closely to discrimination, aiming narrowly at the military objective. When civilian casualties exceed military ones, and especially when they exceed them by several orders of magnitude, as in Panama, where it was 30 to 300 to 1 civilian to military deaths, commonsense knows proportionality has been exceeded. In Gaza, as I write, one third of the casualties are children. Assessing the overall number of casualties is compromised because the figures we see only count women and children. Men are excluded, because it is difficult to distinguish between dead civilians and jihadists fighting Israel. Schools, clinics and refuges, whose coordinates were known to the Israel military have been attacked. UN agencies have declared the IDF responsible for war crimes. So has the highly impartial International Committee of the Red Cross.

But outsiders are not necessary to document Israel’s policies or indict its failures. Senior officers of the IDF have made their intentions plain. In an October interview with the Hebrew daily Yedioth Aronoth, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, reports Mark LeVine, revealed the Israel strategy. "We will wield disproportionate power against every village from which shots are fired on Israel, and cause immense damage and destruction. From our perspective these [the villages] are military bases," he said. "This isn’t a suggestion,” he added. “This is a plan that has already been authorised."

In Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer writes that to a point and only to a point, proportionality invites calculations of utility: Will the damage done worth the military advantage gained by a tactic? But, at a point, proportionality meets up with moral rules, “fortifications” he calls them, that “can be stormed only at great moral cost.” While there has been a place for double effect, and so “collateral damage,” the sanitary phrase for violent civilian deaths, in applying just war, war on civilians and deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure is prohibited. While Walzer observes in Arguing about War (2004) that military law has not been scrupulous about holding officers accountable for counter-population warfare. But here popular opinion is ahead of both philosophers and jurists. Inured to propagandistic official protests about the ethical commitments of the military, civilian deaths count more and more in popular judgments about unjust war. Furthermore, nongovernmental and international organizations put increasing weight on the restraining effect of “international humanitarian law.” When philosophy begins to get too wooly and too defensive of troublesome policies, then its time to turn to our spontaneous moral judgments. As Malcolm Gladwell has argued, sometimes first intuitions are a better guide to action than careful arguments.

Drew Christiansen, S. J.

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10 years ago
A very interesting commentary. Personally, I may agree with you that Israel's willingness to accept collateral damage has been ''disproportionate'' to its stated ends. But in defense of the great Michael Waltzer, I am not sure he is actually calling Israel's tactics proportionate; he stops short of that, suggesting instead that the onus is on Israel's critics to answer a few questions before calling them *disproportionate.* I'm not sure you address any of these questions, such as whether Israel can legitimize its fear of what Hamas might be capable of in the future. As Waltzer remarks, one must weigh between present violence and future contingencies, not present violence and past violence...
10 years ago
Clearly, distinguished academics, of which Professor Walzer is one, are by no means immune from what Bernard Lonergan calls "individual and group bias."
10 years ago
The Quaker Ned Rorem asked "Does innocent civilians mean guilty soldiers?"
10 years ago
I have not read Walzer's article but appreciate his past writings. Yet I believe that Drew Christiansen's reliance on that "simple matter of commonsense" has a critical, if nearly impossible to define, space in the moral equation. I only wish that bishops might have had that with their myopia induced by habit, canon law, privilege, and whatever as they thoughout the years accomodated child misuse and abuse with some very questionable equations. While we might recognize "disproportionality" this in this current conflict, the moral theology and history of the Church has not always been exactly marked with "commonsense." As they say, clean up your own house first.
10 years ago
Nicholas Collura's comments are welcome. I hope to take up at least some of Walzer's questions in a future article. As to futuribles, they are notoriously difficult to weigh. One has to consider what Israeli's call the ''existential threat.'' Acting on existential fear, however,can lead to enormous miscalculations; and when that is done repeatedly to the great detriment of others, one must not be surprised that those who sow the wind may reap the whirlwind.
10 years ago
The article's initial claim that disproportionality is sufficiently obvious that we don't need to subject it to philosophical work is belied by the second half of the article, where it becomes obvious that we have to work out exactly what we're talking about and how to apply the idea. Most of Christiansen's examples gives some precedence to children, but focuses on the proportion of civilian to military deaths. Yet as I understand it, that suggests a misleadingly mathematical conception of proportionality. The proportionality in question is generally taken to be that of the foreseeable harm done to the intended good. Yet we cannot, unless we adopt an implausible utilitarian theory, reduce the goods and harms of war to a single metric and then just add things up. To be clear, I am not doubting that Israel's actions are disproportionate; I am simply denying that we can address the question in quite this way. The unfortunate reality is that deciding on the proportionality in cases like these is ultimately a matter of careful, delicate judgment about the relative importance of various goods that cannot be made commensurate on a single scale. Thus we owe people like Walzer a rebuttal, and we can't rest content simply to claim that we're obviously correct. Some theorists take the difficulties associated with determining proportionality in just war theory as an indication that the basic idea is flawed. I disagree, but the case can only be made with the acknowledgment that we aren't going to get the precision of mathematics and escape the difficulties of judging particular cases.


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