(A)Proportionality in Israel-Gaza

Shmuel Rosner writing in Slate:

But such is the tricky nature of modern warfare: How do we measure proportionality without reducing the concept to an impossibly pedantic tit-for-tat? (How would it work? For every rocket launched into an Israeli town, Israel would retaliate by launching a similar rocket? And even then, how could we achieve proportionality without making sure that Palestinians in Gaza have the same alarm systems and comparably effective shelters?) How do we measure “success” in a situation where no side is likely to bring real closure to a volatile situation?

Easy answer: you don’t and can’t.  The doctrine of proportionality (which has its roots in classical just war theory) was announced–as Rosner correctly points out–in the 1907 Hauge Conventions.  That defined the era of Clausewitz’s Trinitarian Theory of Warfare:  government, armies, and populations.  The first two fight the war, the third does not.  In the post-nuclear, post WWII era, of Fourth Generation Guerrilla Insurgencies, propotionality is a meaningless term because what you have is the equivalent of a swarm of bees stinging an elephant.  What would be a proportional response of an elephant to the bees?  It doesn’t make any sense.  Proportionality only works as a guiding principle within the bounds of a nation-state with a professional army built for conventional warfare.  The other side in this conflict does not have that edifice of social organization and therefore is not going to abide by those rules.  Meanwhile for the side that does (Israel in this case), the technological difference is so vast, there is no way (as Rosner himself points out in the article) for there ever to be a proportionate response.  All the elephant can do is step on some bees.  There is no proportionate elephant equivalent to a sting. Rosner is almost there–he keeps seeing how hard it would be to apply this concept but just can’t let it go.

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  1. […] excerpts a nice line from a piece in The Economist and then comments on it (quoting a piece from my earlier post on the […]


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