Monday, January 5, 2009

Proportionality in war and insurgency: a long, technical post

Criticism of Israel as exhibiting a disproportionate response to Hamas rocket attacks have engendered a strong round of counter-criticisms that the entire idea of proportional response is a wimpy, academic, egghead, defeatist idea.

Among my favorites so far (not going to provide links because they are so prevalent):

Should the United States have limited itself to a proportional response to Germany and Japan after Pearl Harbor?

This is war. In war you go do what it takes to win. War is inhuman, and you can't win by following made-up rules.

What did you want Israel to do? Keep letting Hamas rain down rockets on towns? Hamas is a terrorist organization; you wipe them out like the vermin they are.

The fact of the matter is that proportionality in law and war is an ancient concept, documented as far back as the Code of Hammurabi, and well-attested in Pentateuch legal codes (Ex 21;22-25; Lev 24:17-21; Deut 19:6-21; all the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" stuff). The original concept of an "eye for an eye" was to limit reciprocal damage, which is why the saying did not read, "a life for an eye."

Now it is important to note that measure-for-measure retribution (middah k'neged middah) was, in fact, a legal and not a military proscription, and also appears--in context--to have been limited to members of the same culture (cf. Lev 9: 17-18):

17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself.

18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

Here most scholars presume that neighbor refers to other Israelits, not other ethnic groups.

And it is equally important to admit that, at least in terms of mythological history, the Hebrew Bible is full of evidence that the Israelites did not go in for this measured, proportional reciprocation in war: they mostly wiped out their enemies to the last man and sold the women and children into slavery. So there is this dynamic in existence, at least for the Israelis, that is sort of contradictory.

[You might want to ask how well that turns out for them in the Bible. Sure, they get to conquered the Promised Land, but ever after that the Assyrians or the Persians or finally the Romans wanders in and kicks the shit out of them and depopulates the whole area, initiating a new round of Diaspora.]

The whole idea of proportional response--at least in the Western tradition--got grafted onto warfare through Christianity and the concept of the Just War.

[Note: I'm going to use Wikipedia here, not because I consider it authoritative, but because all the material I wanted from other sites is currently in one place, and I vetted it piece by piece--but I'm just not in a multiple linking mood.]

The Catholic Church sets four criteria for a Just War, and even most secular humanists buy something close to this, although they obviously don't attribute it to Divine inspiration:

1) the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

2) all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

3) there must be serious prospects of success;

4) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

Just War doctrine is then broken into jus ad bellum, the right to go to war; and jus in bello, right conduct within war.

Under jus ad bellum, proportionality figures thus:

The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms. This principle is also known as the principle of macro-proportionality, so as to distinguish it from the jus in bello principle of proportionality.

Under jus in bello, it is described thus:

Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of proportionality. The force used must be proportional to the wrong endured, and to the possible good that may come. The more disproportional the number of collateral civilian deaths, the more suspect will be the sincerity of a belligerent nation's claim to justness of a war it fights.

Jus in bello also adds these two qualifications:

Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of distinction. The acts of war should be directed towards enemy combatants, and not towards non-combatants caught in circumstances they did not create. The prohibited acts include bombing civilian residential areas that include no military target and committing acts of terrorism or reprisal against ordinary civilians....

Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of minimum force. An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy, it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. This principle is meant to limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.

It is should be noted that, especially beginning in the 20th Century, the rise of strategic warfare (naval blockades, strategic bombing, WMDs) has steadily eroded both the principles of distinction and minimum force. This is one of the key distinctions between limited war and total war, which have increasingly been blurred or completely lost.

[For example: take the Vietnam War. One of the most persistent memes to come out of that conflict is the idea that the military fought "with one hand tied behind its back" in terms of unusual political limitations on tactics and operations. Despite the demonstrable falseness of this assertion (throughout the last century politicians have always placed restrictions on military operations), it has gained as much acceptance among soldiers and civilians as the infamous "stab in the back" myth in Germany after World War One.]

The reality is it is purpose of the political leadership to define the parameters of victory, the budget, the available means, and constraints on operations and tactics. It is the responsibility of the military to prosecute the war within those parameters.

Another modern reality: since 1945, war and--more importantly--belligerant status has been reserved almost exclusively for nation-states, removing both political legitimacy and universal protections for combatants from virtually all sub-national groups, reducing them to the status of franc-tireurs, guerillas, or terrorists.

Like the enemy combatants at Gitmo, therefore, sub-national groups (including everybody from Irgun, the PLO, Al Qaeda, the Contras, the Huks, the Tibetans, Tito's Yugoslav guerillas, etc etc) both lose guarantees of humane treatment in combat or upon capture, while also losing any reason to extend the niceties of war to their opponents.

This has given rise to the concept of asymmetrical warfare--a conflict in which a nation-state fights a sub-national group, either in an occupation, insurrection, civil war scenario. It is exceptionally similar to counter-insurgency--a form of warfare that Americans neither understand nor fight particularly well. It almost always includes non-State combatants who have at least the tacit support of the community in which they operate, and usually (if they are going to be successful) external logistical support.

Where's all this going with respect to proportionality?

The tradition military/tactical response of the State actor in such situations is to threaten and deliver massive rather than proportionate retaliation against their adversaries: kill one of our soldiers and we'll execute ten, maybe one hundred, of guerillas or civilians that we can catch; if we take fire from a building in your town, on the first offense we'll burn down the building, and on the second we'll burn the town.

This response pattern is a nearly universal pattern by traditional State military forces (the Germans in 1870, 1914-1918, 1939-1945; the Americans in Vietnam; the British in Indonesia; the French in Indochina and Algeria; the Soviets in Afghanistan and Ukraine; the Japanese in China and the Philippines; South Africa against the ANC; and so on....), and it keeps being used despite one very salient fact:

Virtually all serious research in counter-insurgency and/or asymmetrical warfare concludes that it doesn't work.

The reason is simple: neither counter-insurgency nor asymmetrical war is a simple military operation. As long as your opponents have (a) local sympathy and (b) external logistical support, the strategy of massive and indiscriminatory retaliation almost always fails.

[Note that the few unambiguous successes against insurgencies--France in Algeria, Britain in Yemen and Indonesia, and the Nigerian Civil War--have all shared in common the lack of consistent external support for the insurgents.]

So the point that many military historians and strategic theorists would make is proportionality is not only a key component of Just War doctrine, but is also a critical tactic in winning asymmetrical wars.

The primary elements of winning such conflicts revolve around isolating the insurgent/terrorists from the local population while simultaneously degrading their effectiveness through tit for tat responses and a major diplomatic/military effort toward interrupting supplies from external allies.

How would this play out in the current Israel/Hamas confrontation? Over the long term, like this:

1) Israel would commit to not using food or other humanitarian supplies as reprisal tools against the Palestinians as a group. Recent studies in Egypt's counter-terrorism efforts against Islamists that local support for terrorists almost always rises whenever food and/or basic necessities become more expensive or more difficult to acquire, regardless of the reason. Moreover, the honored public commitment not to use such items as weapons undermine the propaganda efforts of the aggressors. Note this is a long-term strategy, not a short-term one.

2) Respond to every single rocket attack by tracking back the location of the launcher and destroying the property at that location. If such retaliation can be done swiftly enough to have a chance of actually hitting the people launching the rockets, then the risk of civilian casualties is acceptable; if not, every effort needs to be made to hit property, nt people.

Note: this is well within existing Israeli technology. Didn't you ever wonder why the IDF doesn't keep a constant attack helicopter on Combat Air Patrol over Sderot, tied into a radar net and capable of responding to rocket fire within 30 seconds to two minutes? Or a constant flight of F-14s tied to ground radar control with trackback capabilities?

3) Concentrate on more intensive strategies to blockade entrance of weapons materials and components from Iran. Tough to comment on specifics since (a) I don't know what the IDF is currently doing; and (b) I don't know the IDF's capabilities in this regard. But I can tell you that, traditionally, military forces tend to focus their efforts on close rather than distant blockade. This is not to say that a solid ring of engineer troops with ground penetrating radar isn't a good tactic, just that it is an incomplete one. Successful blockades generally include a minimum of three levels, and operate viscously--that is, their emphasis at each layer is about 70% to slow infiltration, 30% to catch infiltrators--hopefully creating a 90% chance of catching any given infiltrator with three-level blockades.

I know, I know--the IDF is smarter than I am. Undoubtedly. But the repeated patterns of their behavior and the lessons of military history suggest that brains and technical acumen do not substitute for a willingness (I'm going to hate myself for writing this) to think outside the box.

Military officers are generally trained primarily in tactics and operations--not strategy. And those who are receive primarily--you guessed it--training in the traditional strategy of massive retaliation in almost complete isolation from political theory.

OK--long rambling post that is not definitive and poorly sourced by blog standards (but, frankly, I am a military historian by trade and there are damn few useful sources on the type of warfare I'm discussing, for a lot of reasons--so you can take it for what it's worth), so why did I bother?

Because the current war in Gaza was not the way this had to turn out, because situations like this are always (a) more complex than the sound bites or the one-liners of zealots on both sides; and (b) just like in Vietnam in 1965-1968, the Soviet Union in 1941, or all of Europe in 1914, when we are far enough away from the current fight to have access to more sources and place this one in historical context, military historians and political theorists are going to be able to make that case.

All right, feel free to hit me with the one-liners, the moral arguments, and the assertions (stipulated) that I'm nowhere near as smart as I think I am.

I can take it.


Anonymous said...

Very informative and interesting.

Thanks for posting it!

Hube said...


Anonymous said...

If such retaliation can be done swiftly enough to have a chance of actually hitting the people launching the rockets, then the risk of civilian casualties is acceptable

I find it somewhat disturbing that you're willing to sanction the murder of civilians without offering so much as a single sentence explaining why you find it acceptable.

Steven H. Newton said...

Either you didn't understand my position or we simply disagree.

If Party A fires weapons from a given area, targeting civilians, and Party B can counterfire within a reasonable time directly against the launch site, then yes I find it acceptable.

It is Party A--the original firing party--who has endangered the civilians.