In accepting his Nobel Prize for Peace on Thursday, December 10, 2010, US President Barack Obama defended (text of speech here from Nobel website) the morality of a military seeking to bring peace to a conflict-torn land and the theory that some wars are just:
Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers, clerics, and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when it meets certain preconditions: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the forced used is proportional, and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.
He went on to talk of terrorism, the changing nature of war in the 21st century, and the implacable warmongering of al-Qaeda. Yet he returned to the nature of how to conduct war:
To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism – it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason….
Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.
It is in the approach even to participation in a just war that separates the moral from the immoral, as Donniel Hartman wrote in early 2009 during Israel’s short war in Gaza:
In a war against a terrorist regime such as Hamas, there is great moral clarity…. Having initiated years of ongoing missile attacks against the citizens of southern Israel, killing and injuring, both physically and mentally, hundreds of individuals, and making the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens untenable, it was a clear moral responsibility to defend our citizens and to attempt to create a new situation under which attacks would no longer occur. It was also necessary to act today to preempt further attacks that would only be more deadly, as Hamas continues to smuggle longer-range and more powerful missiles into Gaza. While no one is certain that the war will achieve the desired outcome, this debate has no effect on the morality of the attempt.
Yet Donniel also recognized that steps must be taken – even in the heat of battle – to prosecute that war in a moral fashion:
Asking these questions and engaging in moral self-evaluation, even in the middle of war, is not a sign of weakness. Rather, what we in Israel have learned is that our strength as a country and the fortitude of our army and soldiers are grounded in a significant way on our moral fiber and our soldiers’ recognition that they are part of a just cause and a just army.
Donniel Hartman also addressed the “proportional” force argument:
The measure of moral ambiguity that may exist in the eyes of some is grounded on the disparity of military capability between Israel and Hamas, a disparity which may question the legitimacy of the premise of self-defense. Hamas as a terrorist organization aims to terrorize, and as such has a limited ability to endanger Israel’s basic existence. While it may harm individual citizens, Hamas does not endanger the state as a whole.
It is under the cloud of this moral ambiguity that much of the criticism against Israel finds shelter. The justification of self defense dissipates when one compares Kassam rockets and mortar shells and their casualty toll with the might of the Israeli army and the consequences of its actions. Furthermore, it is also this reality which fuels the calls for proportionality in which the use of force on Israel’s side, it is claimed, must match that of the enemy it attacks. A “disproportionate” response is classified as unjust, for it is no longer contained or justified under the rubric of self-defense.
The moral difficulty, if not corruption, entailed within the above argument lies in the fact that it essentially allows terrorist organizations to terrorize with impunity, and morally handcuffs a society’s legitimate right to defend itself not merely when its existence is threatened, but when the lives of some of its citizens are in danger and many more are subjected to the effects of terror.
President Obama did not go into the nuances of “proportional response” theory in his speech, yet it is just that issue of proportionality which is haunting Israel in international forums today.
I would recommend that the President not only read Donniel Hartman’s article, but also take the time to review the lengthy piece on “Just War Theory” on the fascinating website, “The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,” which says (in part): “The second principle of just conduct is that any offensive action should remain strictly proportional to the objective desired.”
This would not seem to limit the actors in a just war to a “tit for tat” response, that is, you shot one bullet at me, so I am limited to one bullet. It does suggest that using nuclear weapons for a limited goal, such as ending border interdictions and kidnappings, for example, would not be moral. But it does not seem to limit a responding party:
Proportionality…requires tempering the extent and violence of warfare to minimize destruction and casualties. It is broadly utilitarian in that it seeks to minimize overall suffering….
There’s a great deal more that can be said about this. Hillel’s famous dictum, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you, that’s the whole Torah,” is followed by a second part: “Now go and study.”