[Reader-list] Disproportion and the Justification of War

aasim khan aasim27 at yahoo.co.in
Sun Aug 6 21:09:58 IST 2006

Dear Shudbrat,Jamie, Mansour, Iram and all...

Your mails have opened up my mind to many new thoughts
.Maybe its for the first time that I have actually got
beyond my ususal hyper-passionate support for
Palestinians and actually got down to think about how
to think about it.

And yes I do admire both S. and J. when they present
their cases on the question of disproportionate.And
the banality of combat jargon.But thats that and I
have some responses...I guess I shall now begin my

If numbers ( casualties) form the premise for Israel's
war being disproportionate as J. suggests in the post.

Then we should maybe leave aside the basic number of
casualties and try and see them in the
perspective...of percentages.

Afterall Israel with a population of less then 10
million is fighting a war against the Arab world and
in that way the casualties per hundred citizens should
throw up a new figure(the percentage).Like if the Arab
population is ten times more and then to fight a
propotional(percentag-wise)war Israel should kill ten
times more people .

This cruel thought is simply to make a point that S.
made in his post.All this talk about proportion and
disproportion is just anive attempts to smoke out the
real mechanics of war and its brutality.

Or bakaul Arundhati roy its the Algebra of Injustice
that War essentially is.

S. has really cut through all the talk that surrounds
violence in our times and he writes accurately ,in my
view , about why wars make no 'human' sense.And that
is why I feel when S. says Pragmatism being the basis
of his otherwise 'human' aprroach I feel he might have
fallen for an instictive faith in one's understanding
of the self.

Maybe I should qoute someone who is considered by many
as an influential man in Israel's last one century of
existence;Moshe Dayan...

"I must ask: Are [we justified] in opening fire on the
[Palestinian] Arabs who cross [the border] to reap the
crops they planted in our territory; they, their
women, and their children? Will this stand up to moral
scrutiny . . .? We shoot at those from among the
200,000 hungry [Palestinian] Arabs who cross the line
[to graze their flocks]---- will this stand up to
moral review? Arabs cross to collect the grain that
they left in the abandoned [term often used by
Israelis to describe the ethnically cleansed] villages
and we set mines for them and they go back without an
arm or a leg. . . . [It may be that this] cannot pass
review, but I know no other method of guarding the
borders. then tomorrow the State of Israel will have
no borders."

I see Pragmatism in this guys voice...To base an
active ( I actually want to say passionate) stake in
opinion formation pragmatism is ,I believe, not the
way.Somehow I always feel genuine activism has to have
that idealistic tweak.And that ideal should not care
much about  dialectics between the ( exalted)
individual and the (blighted)State.Ideals or Utopias
may not ever exist but they atleast offer space for
some concepts to develop. Anti-War thoughts I guess
are all essentially based on the Utopia of Peace.And
npo matter what we base our judgement of war (
Pragmatism et al) we will miss the reall thing if we
don't believe in that Utopia.

Moshe Dayan understanding is chillingly as accurate as
ours about the whole talk about state and indivduals.
See how he refers to Palestinians as individuasl(...to
graze their flocks...) and to himself  as a Us (as
Israel,herself)...the thing is the people who war and
people who don't war, they are only different in the
sense that the first have no faith in Utopia( the
Peace) while the latter live( or rather die) by it.

Moshe Dayan charcterises that first group,with his
'arrogant pragmatism'...while S. and others on this
list here personify the 'reluctant idealists'.

Guess that all that comes to my mind right now on  the
feuds of the world ...


Jamie Dow <jamie.dow at pobox.com> wrote:

    Yes, this is good.

There is a widespread misunderstanding of what is
meant by"disproportionate" that you highlight. And I
think I'd not really hadthis clear in my own mind
before your post. You've raised it well.

Certainly in the tradition of ethical thinking from
which this kind ofprotest originates, the demand that
any use of violence be"proportionate" is not really
about exacting revenge - so it's not aquestion of what
would be a proportionate response *to the kidnappingof
2 soldiers*.

The point, I think, is that any use of violence (and
the traditioninsists it is only permissible as a last
resort) be proportionate tothe good that it is
designed to achieve. So, in a widely-publicisedlegal
case in the UK recently, it was deemed - correctly, I
think -that although some use of force could be
permitted in defending yourproperty against trespass
and theft, shooting the intruder with ashotgun to
prevent him fleeing was "disproportionate". The point
hereis that shotgun injuries are not proportionate to
the benefit ofpreventing theft (the householder's life
was not in danger).

In WWII, supposing that other means had been
exhausted, the questionwould be what level violence is
proportionate to the gain of stoppingHitler's
extermination of the Jews and others. Whatever level
thatturns out to be marks the limit of permissible
violence in bringingabout that end. When the lives of
millions were at stake, it isgenerally thought that
some substantial parts of the allies' campaignwere
permissible, even if this kind of reasoning might
plausiblyconclude that other parts (Dresden,
Hiroshima, etc.) were not. Whetheror not this gets the
details right in this specific situation,
itillustrates with a practical example how
proportionality helps clearthinking about the morality
of extreme situations, where -occasionally, so it is
thought - peaceful means will not do the trick.

Actually, I think that here the case against the
Israeli action becomesabundantly clear:
- there is actually no clear prospect of achieving any
good by theirmilitary action: this IMMEDIATELY makes
their violencedisproportionate, since there is no
prospect of any good to be achievedfor the violence to
be proportional to. Any violence isdisproportionate to
nil good achieved.
- even if they could recover their two soldiers by
this action, thathardly merits the deaths of 1000 or
so Lebanese, indeed, it doesn'twarrant the deaths of
any Lebanese.
- even if they could prevent rocket attacks or future
kidnappings bythis action (which they certainly won't
- indeed their actions areunbelievably short-sighted
if this is their aim), the damage and deaththey have
wreaked on Lebanon far outstrips what this benefit

And when we get to the actual aims of the Israeli
action, which seem tohave more to do with showing its
military muscle to the region, andparticularly to
their own population, it is obvious that these
gains(whatever they are supposed to be) do not merit
the deaths even ofenemy combatants.

Add to that the rather obvious fact that peaceful
means would have beenfar more effective, even from the
narrow perspective of Israel's ownends, considered in
isolation ... let alone, from the wider perspectiveof
what is best for all the people of the region.

Some of the other interesting views you espouse will
need to await theleisure of another time, or someone
else's post!

Thanks again,


Jamie Dow
Tel: +44 131 467 2115
Mob: +44 7801 033499
Email: jamie.dow at pobox.com
Web: www.jamiedow.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

-------- Original Message  --------
Subject: Re:[Reader-list] Disproportion and the
Justification of War
From: Shuddhabrata Sengupta <shuddha at sarai.net>
To: Mansour Aziz <aziz.mansour at gmail.com>
Cc: Monica Mody
<monica.mody at gmail.com>,reader-list at sarai.net
Date: 04 August 2006 21:30:32
Dear Jamie, Mansour, Iram, Aasim and othersOn 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
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