[Reader-list] Disproportion and the Justification of War

Shuddhabrata Sengupta shuddha at sarai.net
Sat Aug 5 02:00:32 IST 2006

Dear Jamie, Mansour, Iram, Aasim and others

On the eve of the day when a demonstration that I hope will happen as 
close as possible to the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi, I think it is 
very worthwhile that we are having this debate on the reader list. I 
would like to thank all of you for the very thoughtful points that you 
have raised. I have learnt a lot from all of them.

I am not doubting for a moment that there is something obscene in the 
spectacle of the most powerful military force in the Middle East, (the 
Israeli Defence Forces) targetting civilians and non combatants in 
Lebanon (or for that matter in the Gaza Strip, or on the West Bank). I 
have also no doubt that they are aided in this obscenity by many 
commentators in the US media who pretend that the conflict is one 
between equal parties. So I agree with Mansour and what he says in his 
posting. I also, like Iram, do not at all doubt the sincerity and good 
faith of those who have drafted and circulated the petition. I also 
believe that to unleash hostilities on to a civilian population, to bomb 
airports, houses and roads, because two soldiers have been kidnapped is 
a gross moral wrong. But, the question remains, is it 
'disproportionate'. What would have been proportionate? How can one 
measure the magnitude of suffering in this case, and say this is the cut 
off point where a response by the Israeli Defence Forces would have 
ceased to be proportionate. And this, here is where it would have stayed 
within the respectable bounds of proportionality.

Let me clarify a few points. I am not a pacifist. Generally, my sympathy 
for non-violent opposition stems as much from pragmatic as it does from 
purely ethical grounds. I maintain that armed opposition to oppression 
is not in every instance a morally questionable aim. However, I do have 
a problem with the monopoly over force that the modern nation state has 
claimed, with which comes the relatively new notion of the standing army.

Given the nature of the state, and the fact that in my view a state is 
by definition an organ of the power of a ruling class, I view all 
violence (exercised by all and any state(s) or proto state(s)) as 
objectionable. This includes what statesmen like to call 'defensive 
measures'. Remember, all war ministries are called 'Ministries of Defence'.

I have no fundamental moral objection to a population, or even 
individuals, undertaking acts of violence either in self defence, or in 
pursuit of a specific aim that aims to put an end,reasonably, to a 
condition that itself constitutes unbearable violence. I do not think 
violence is pretty, or beautiful, or redemptive, just that sometimes 
there is no other way. And given a choice between dying or watching 
someone I love die and attacking an aggressor in order to ensure that 
this does not happen, I would unhappily choose the latter. I believe 
that there can be just acts of violence, but no good acts of violence, 
and that these can occur when the perpetrators of such acts do not claim 
to be doing anything other than effecting simple violence in order to 
put an end to a greater violence. Such a perpetrator cannot make the 
claim that their act is somehow above question. They are fully aware of 
the fact that what they do causes pain to someone or the other.

  I do not believe there can be just wars. Because, the perpetrator of a 
war, a state, views itself as an agent who has a monopoly over the 
legitimate claim to force. Once a claim is successfully made with regard 
to legitimacy, the undertaker of that claim need not question or doubt 
their act. The state does not doubt its necessity to make war, It has 
the 'right' to conduct violence, to make war, that is what makes it a 
state in the first place. In fact, the state that cannot make war, is 
hardly justified in being seen as a state, and so, even Japan (with its 
so called 'Pacifist' constitution, continues to maintain one of the most 
powerful military machines in Asia).

In fact there is a crucial difference between an individual, or even 
collective violent act by people who do not see themselves as the state, 
and a state's action. This does not make the first less violent, only 
violent in a different way, and I would argue that this difference has a 
significance. The first (if it attempts to justify itself, or if it can 
be justified) is not the violence that seeks to punish, or make a point, 
or even safeguard a territory, but the violence that has to occur, as a 
last resort, in order to save lives.

In this understanding, only a combatant can be the legitimate target of 
violence. Those who have read my last posting carefully, will note that 
i had qualified every statement I was making by invoking the figure of 
the civilian. The International Laws of War (spelt out in the covenants 
of the Geneva Convention) are instruments that aim to spell out what 
should happen between combatants. Civilians are granted protection in 
the main when they become subject to the actions of an occupying power. 
This means, that if Israel invades Lebanon, or parts of Lebanon, then it 
has the responsibility under International law (the Geneva Convention) 
to ensure that the Lebanese non combatants in the zones that it controls 
are not subjected to arbitrary violence by its armed forces, it is here 
that the question of 'disproportionate' or 'unreasonable' force can 
arise, in a strictly legal sense. Until that time, if an Israeli rocket 
hits a structure that was sheltering non combatants, all that the 
Israeli government needs to do (if it so desires) is to say that it 
regretted the 'collateral damage'. This is the time honoured principle 
that the US Administration has used in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and 
elsewhere. In fact, the princicple of was is to inflict maximum damage 
to a civilian population so that the targetted population understands 
that the only guarantee of its safety lies in the hands of the state 
that enacts the violence upon it. This is why every modern war is also 
simultaneously projected as a war of liberation. A state liberates the 
subjects of another state from that state by bombing it into a situation 
where it is willing to delegitimize one ruling power in favour of 
another. This logic has no room whatsoever for 'proportionate' force in 
relation to civilian populations.

To argue that a state act proportionately violently in relation to the 
subjects of a state that it considers hostile is to miss the point. A 
state need not do so. And the whole point of Guantanamo Bay, for 
instance, lies in this fact. That is why the inmates of the camp are not 
seen as combatants, it is in fact easier for the US governement to deal 
with them outside the limitations of international law precisely because 
they can be represented as non-combatants to the outside world, and held 
in a territory that legally does not fall within the boundaries of the 
United States of America. Prisoners of war, in a US POW camp would have 
to be treated under the Geneva Conventions.

State's do not kill in order to save lives (even if that is what they 
say they do). Because states do not kill combatants alone. The nature of 
war aims today is based on a terrorization of a non combatant 
population. This is why there is no difference between recognized states 
and terrorist organizations. Neither actually is interested in 
targetting combattants, but in making civilians and non combatants scared.

And this is why the language of proportion, in my view is ultimately 
untenable. In the end, it is about whether you believe that a state has 
the moral authority to involve you (as a subject or a citizen) in a 
declared act of aggression against another state and its subjects. I 
refuse to grant my state that moral authority over my person, and 
consequently I refuse to see why any aggressive act of the Israeli (or 
Syrian, or Iranian, or Lebanese, or Indian or Pakistani or any)state 
should be measured by me against some abstract scale of proportional and 
reasonable violence, and found either wanting, or not wanting. I do not 
want to be involved in this measuring game at all. As far as I am 
concerned, the question is not about whether there should or should not 
be a just war. I would personally much rather that there should just not 
be war.

Apologies for a long post,



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