Wednesday, July 29, 2009

No-One Really Cares About the Laws of War

The Guardian is an antisemitic bastion; the Mondoweiss people are beyond rational discussion. One reason why I return again and again to the Economist is that if they aren't rational, no-one is; if they can't get a story right, who will?

This week they've got two articles on the Pakistani war against the Taliban (in Pakistan). One, an editorial, mostly crows about how the Pakistani army seems to have won a round and must continue; the other, a descriptive article, is, well, descriptive.

Both tell how the army won, but in a most revealing way. Take the opening paragraph of the leader, for example:
LONG reviled for their reluctance to fight the Islamist militancy that they themselves helped unleash, Pakistan’s generals have a rare victory to boast of.
In a three-month offensive against the Taliban in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the army has regained control of the lofty Malakand region, killing hundreds of militants. This has done less damage to civilian life and property than two previous, failed offensives in Malakand. The local Pushtuns, over 2m of whom were displaced by the fighting, are now returning home. They mostly support the army’s efforts. (My italics, of course).

This observation is then fleshed out, just a wee bit, in the second article:
SULTANWAS, a once-prosperous village in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is now a bomb site. Its white concrete houses, gaudily decorated thanks to migrant wages sent back from Dubai, lie in heaps. Debris that had billowed in great clouds after army jets bombed the village in early May litters the surrounding fields. The Taliban, who had occupied Sultanwas a few weeks before, had no chance; 80 allegedly died in the rubble.
Involving some 40,000 troops, the army’s action has been devastating. Over
2m have been displaced, in what may be the biggest unplanned movement of people
since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Hundreds are reported to have been killed. Yet the army, which has received unprecedented public support for its attack on the Taliban, is claiming a great success.
Should we take a closer look? The Pakistani army bombed its own towns, millions of its own civilians became refugees, but no worry. There were fewer civilians killed than last time. How many fewer? Why dwell on such things. Were many towns pulverized - well, probably, since the article tells that billions will be needed for reconstruction efforts, but why allow such minutiae to bother us when a glorious victory over the Very Bad Guys has just been had.

The theory of Just War distinguishes between waging a just war (this one certainly is), and waging a war justly. Yet the more I follow the way we report to ourselves on the wars of the world, the more I become convinced this distinction is meaningless in the real world. Wars are judged bythe first criteria only. When going to war is justified, no-one cares about the way it's waged, if carefully or barbarically. When the decision to be at war is unjustified, no-one cares how careful the warriors are; they'll be damned. Though there's then a second twist, which is that if it's our country at war, we won't report on the full impact it's having; this would explain why to this very day it's basically impossible to find an honest reckoning of the two battles of Faluga, say, even tho most of the media really didn't like that war. But the "home team" effect over-rode their distatse.

If we're honest about it we must recongnize that Israel's wars are unacceptable to most of the rest of the world irrespective of the way they're waged, which is why no-matter what the reality is the reports about it are automatically the opposite from reports such as these about Pakistan (or Afghanistan, or Iraq, or have your pick). And the reason for this is profound and fundamental. It's not - as I used to think - that Israel insists on using military force in a post-military world. The world isn't post military. Just look at how the Economist eggs the pakistanis on: more! Keep on Going!

Where are the exhortations for peaceful engagement and seeking dialogue with the enemy since only that can ever succeed?


Anonymous said...


It goes without saying - if the Jews were involved, there would be a general strike, worldwide.

Anonymous said...

First, I've found that no one is rational regarding Israel. The PLO's post-1970 framing is dominant to the point that anyone who disagrees with it, anyone citing opposing facts or history from before that framing was invented, is immediately dismissed as "racist" and ostracized from the discussion.

As for the laws for war, it is not only that no one cares when non-Western governments break them, but that there are special legal interpretations for the Jews. Israel has not broken the laws of war except for a few misdemeanors that are nothing to crow about. The legal interpretations used to condemn Israel seem to have been invented recently at the time that they were needed to condemn Israel. There is no pre-2000 precedent for calling a closed border "collective punishment", calling surrendered and abandoned territory "occupied", or finding any fault in the targeting of enemy positions in an urban area.

rashkov said...

Anon, is the "phased strategy" or "people's war" what you're referring to? As a quote:

"In view of this new situation, it is necessary to reevaluate the basic assumptions of Israel's policy. The fact that Israel faces a people's war means that there is no "peace process" in the generally accepted meaning of the term, nor is a genuine settlement in prospect. There is no deal to be done. Instead, there is a condition of a protracted, decades-long war whose purpose is to weaken the Jewish state in order to destroy it. Negotiations and occasional pauses take place mainly as a tactic subordinated to the enemy's greater goal and to enable it to take territory without a struggle.78 As David Makovsky wrote, the consequences of this type of encounter, as in the case of the Taba negotiations, have been to raise the cost to Israel of a settlement in a future negotiation. This is called "moving the concessionary baseline."79 Such negotiations also provide the other side the opportunity to consolidate gains and the legitimacy of being in the company of respectable partners."

Joel S. Fishman

Anonymous said...

"The theory of Just War distinguishes between waging a just war (this one certainly is), and waging a war justly. Yet the more I follow the way we report to ourselves on the wars of the world, the more I become convinced this distinction is meaningless in the real world. Wars are judged bythe first criteria only."

A smart insight, though one that needs a major footnote: What people see as a just war owes little or nothing to legal theory or international law. It is entirely subjective and strongly shaped by the loudest voices in the public sphere (or the ones most able to wrap their opinion in ideologically fashionable clothing).

Pakistan still has popular goodwill; for Israel today no war will be deemed just, regardless of what the theory says.

Kung Fu Jew 18 said...

I think we need to acknowledge that warfare is indeed changing since Israel's inception. But all I'm sensing here is disgruntled complaints about how it's not fair that Israel can't play by the older, more barbaric set of rules. Or how other countries can get away with it, but Israel can't. Suggesting that we lower the bar for Israel, not raise it for other countries, strikes me as wrong.

There is a necessary adaptation to a new contemporary understanding of war that the world must make. Changing our international laws of war to account for guerrilla terrorism is part of that. But at least America's public voted down Bush's version of the answer. (And largely Israel's answer, by similarity.)

I also think it's fair to say that Israel can't be sympathized with for trying to fight an unjust war justly. Having done work in the territories, I can say that I don't need the majority voices to tell me that what goes on there is unacceptable. I have eyes, it's pretty plain to me that settlement expansion and a majority of the security barrier are not for security at all. There is no just war Israel can fight until the occupation is over. And I feel comfortable with that.

Yaacov said...

Well, kung fu, I responded here