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The morality of ending war short of 'total victory'

The morality of ending war short of 'total victory'

'Just and Unjust Wars' author Michael Walzer seems to believe there is a humane way to destroy Hamas in Gaza. That's not true

Analysis | Middle East

United States policy toward Israel’s war in Gaza was neatly summarized by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on November 30: “Israel has one of the most sophisticated militaries in the world. It is capable of neutralizing the threat posed by Hamas while minimizing harm to innocent civilians. And it has an obligation to do so.”

This posture — destroy Hamas but do so in observance of the laws of war — is not that of the administration alone. It has been widely embraced by official Washington.

A key defense of what would emerge as the hallmark of the Biden administration’s Gaza outlook came from Jo-Ann Mort and Michael Walzer in the New Republic on October 18. “A just war requires the defeat of Hamas,” they wrote. “It is a maxim of just war theory that the rules of war cannot make it impossible to fight a just war. There has to be a way to fight.”

In their view, the best way was “to fight with restraint, to reject indiscriminate bombing and shelling, to respect enemy civilians (many, many Gazans are opposed to Hamas), and take necessary risks to reduce their risks, and finally to maintain a clear goal: defeat for Hamas. Nothing more.”

Walzer is the author of Just and Unjust Wars, a hugely influential treatise on morality in war that has gone through successive editions since its publication in 1977. Walzer’s meditation on the just war was especially impressive for taking on a wide range of historical examples, but it was written under the shadow of the war in Vietnam. Walzer condemned that war not only as an unjustified intervention but also as one that was “carried on in so brutal a manner that even had it initially been defensible, it would have to be condemned, not in this or that aspect but generally.”

In his treatise, Walzer closely considered both jus ad bellum (the right of going to war) and jus in bello (the law governing its conduct). As Walzer noted, “considerations of jus ad bellum and jus in bello are logically independent, and the judgments we make in terms of one and the other are not necessarily the same.”

But in the case of Vietnam, he argued, they came together. “The war cannot be won, and it should not be won. It cannot be won, because the only available strategy involves a war against civilians; and it should not be won, because the degree of civilian support that rules out alternative strategies also makes the guerillas the legitimate rulers of the country.”

Do not these strictures apply to Israel’s war in Gaza? Hamas hides behind civilians, or is rather closely intermingled with them, as the Viet Cong once were. It has enjoyed an equal or greater amount of support from the local population. Its acts of assassination and terrorism fall far short, numerically, of those committed by the VC. Walzer was rightly shocked by the civilian toll in Vietnam, which saw a civilian-combatant fatality ratio of approximately two to one. In Gaza, the proportion of civilian-to-combatant deaths is at least five to one and probably much greater. Israeli leaders have made clear that their war is on the whole population. Their criteria for when to bomb, aided by AI, has blown past previous restraints.

Another case taken up by Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars was America’s atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The decision was justified at the time as the only way to avert the far larger casualties likely to ensue were the United States to have attempted an invasion of Japan. Walzer rejected this argument. “It does not have the form: if we don’t do x (bomb cities), they will do y (win the war, establish tyrannical rule, slaughter their opponents).”

Instead, the U.S. government in effect argued that “if we don’t do x, we will do y.” The real problem, Walzer argued, was the policy of unconditional surrender — that is, it had to do with U.S. war aims. Walzer approved the policy of unconditional surrender when applied to Germany — Hitler’s regime represented a “supreme emergency” — but not when applied to Japan.

“Japan’s rulers were engaged in a more ordinary sort of military expansion, and all that was morally required was that they be defeated, not that they be conquered and totally overthrown,” he wrote.

Walzer’s treatment of Vietnam and Hiroshima suggests that there are imperative reasons to stop short of total victory as a war aim, if the result of pursuing it is a moral enormity. If you have to commit wickedness on a titanic scale in order to achieve total victory, you should accept limited war and seek the containment of the enemy, not his obliteration.

This is especially so, one might add, if the enemy one aims to annihilate elicits widespread sympathies elsewhere, making probable some kind of over-the-top retribution in the future. There are 2.2 million Gazans. There are 1.8 billion Muslims. Germany and Japan were friendless in 1945.

It is obvious that Israel’s war in Gaza bears no relationship to the war that Mort and Walzer recommended on October 18. Israel has not fought with restraint, has not rejected indiscriminate bombing and shelling, has not respected enemy civilians. Operation Swords of Iron has been instead the most elaborate and twisted application yet of the Dahiya Doctrine, Israel’s longstanding war plan that makes a virtue out of wildly disproportionate retributions.

That Israel intended to do this was apparent from the outset — 6,000 bombs were dropped in the war’s first six days — but went strangely unnoticed by Mort and Walzer when their piece appeared. The authors stressed the need to get humanitarian aid into Gaza but didn’t mention the Israeli blockade on all things requisite to life, a radical policy totally opposed to laws of war and imposed by Israel on the war’s first day.

In a subsequent interview on October 30, Walzer conceded that there was no justification for Israel’s blockades of Gaza’s electricity, water, and food supply, but also questioned the idea that a humanitarian pause would be justified before Hamas was defeated.

“Acts that shock the moral conscience of mankind” was one of Walzer’s most resonant phrases in Just and Unjust Wars. He meant by that “old-fashioned phrase” not the solipsistic prevarications of political leaders, but “the moral convictions of ordinary men and women, acquired in the course of their everyday activities.”

Clearly, Israel’s war in Gaza has entailed a profound shock to these sensibilities. It is this revulsion, not sympathy for Hamas, that explains world-wide public opposition to what Israel is doing.

From the beginning of the crisis, the Biden administration’s approach to the war ran closely in parallel with the course recommended by Mort and Walzer. Eliminate Hamas. Do so while sparing civilians as much as possible. Then be sweet to the Palestinians and give them an independent state.

Israel was happy to take the first part of this formula and to contemptuously reject the rest. Meanwhile, alongside these homilies to humane war, the United States has undertaken a vast effort to resupply Israel’s stock of bombs.

Confronting the escalating death toll, U.S. policymakers are dazed and confused. They’re still on autopilot in support of Israel’s war aim, while ineffectually shrieking in horror at the cost to Gaza’s civilians.

The truth is that there is no way to destroy Hamas without destroying Gaza. Contrary to Secretary Blinken’s words (and Walzer’s advice), Israel does not know how to destroy Hamas while minimizing harm to innocent civilians. Monumental harm to civilians follows from Israel’s war aim of destroying Hamas, which the Biden administration and Walzer continue to endorse. That war aim stands in urgent need of reconsideration.

Wounded Palestinians were transferred to Al-Najjar Hospital after being targeted by Israeli warplanes, in the city of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on October 13, 2023. (Shutterstock/Anas-Mohammed)

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