During WW2 our understanding of a moral war was not a war in which we did not kill any civilians (we killed a lot of civilians), it wasn’t even a war in which we did not kill any civilians on purpose (we killed a lot of civilians on purpose), it was a war in which we did not kill civilians without having a good reason.
We might carry out mass bombings of entire cities to destroy the enemy’s wartime production capabilities and demoralize his population.
Until recently, those were considered good reasons for killing civilians.
The moral context for these actions, snipped away from anti-war works such as Slaughterhouse-Five or Grave of the Fireflies which reduce the American bombings of Dresden or Kobe to the senseless acts of brutal monsters, is that we were fighting Germany and Japan using their own tactics against them.
It was Germany which introduced the bombing of cities to Europe during WW1 and WW2. In 1917, after German bombings, Premier Lloyd George shouted to a working class London crowd, “We will give all back to them and we will give it to them soon. We shall bomb Germany with compound interest.”
WW2’s Blitz was repaid with compound interest over Germany. Japan’s firebombing of Chinese cities was repaid with compound interest with the firebombing of Tokyo. This wasn’t mere vengeance. The rules of war are set by mutual consent. The humanitarian protections that we have come to take for granted as if they were natural laws are really mutual agreements between two sides.
On September 14, 2001, George W. Bush stood at Ground Zero and offered the working class New Yorkers amid the rubble an echo of Lloyd George. “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Since then we have been mired in an extended debate which presumes wrongly that any laws of war ever applied to those men. The entire existence of terrorism is eloquent evidence that treating fighters who have placed themselves outside the social contract as if they were within it is foolishly destructive.
Mutuality makes morality and immorality in war self-regulating. If you firebomb someone else’s cities, someone else will firebomb your cities. If you want your prisoners of war to be treated well, you have to treat the prisoners you take equally well.
Such mutuality is the only international agreement that truly matters. It takes humanitarian behavior out of the realm of idealism and into the realm of rational self-interest. It creates a direct and working program for rewards and punishments that does not rely on a League of Nations or United Nations.
During the Cold War, mutuality saved the world. The only thing that restrained the USSR from pushing through into Western Europe with tanks and nukes was the knowledge that what it did would be done to it. MAD meant that there would be no more free lunches. It was scary and dangerous, but it forced everyone to be moral in a way that all the whiny disarmament marches against nukes never could.
Unilateral nuclear disarmament would have made WWIII inevitable by offering the USSR a free lunch.
But the era of the free lunch arrived with terrorism. We unilaterally extend protections to terrorists that they do not reciprocate. Terrorists are excused from the laws of war, while everyone else has to abide by them. This only incentivizes terrorism and makes fighting terrorists a grim and impossible business.
Israel’s fight against Hamas shows how unilateral humanitarianism decontextualizes warfare creating a completely impossible standard for a good war. With no context derived from what the other side is doing all that is left is the necessity of meeting a completely impossible standard in which no civilians on the other side ever die, even while the enemy uses them as human shields.
The Londoners who heard Lloyd George, the New Yorkers who heard George W. Bush and the Israelis who heard Benjamin Netanyahu understood the context in which the next phase of the conflict would be taking place. It was a context created by the tactics of their enemies.
But context is no longer acceptable in warfare. All wars must be fought to the same impossible standard.
The civilian combatant casualty ratio for modern wars has almost always been higher for civilians than soldiers. Israel is desperately scrambling for a 1:1 civilian combatant ratio even though this ratio is usually achieved by modern countries only in their own propaganda. But a 1:1 ratio is also technical context and war is now contextualized by the latest atrocity photo rather than by anything else.
“The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Psaki is demanding that Israel’s strikes on terrorists abide by a higher standard than her own country’s strikes on terrorists. That’s absurd and irrational because the only reason the drone program wasn’t scrapped by Obama is that it’s the only part of the War on Terror that still works.
But when wars are stripped of context, then countries are obligated to endlessly chase an impossible standard that can always be improved on.
Every time Israel demonstrates that it has set an even higher standard, the goal posts are moved toward another standard. Now it’s being condemned for taking out terrorists outside UNRWA schools as if the attack had happened inside the school; even though UNRWA schools are demonstrably terror bases.
Israel obviously cannot fight terrorists who operate around civilians without killing civilians. But it also cannot be allowed to kill civilians because in a decontextualized conflict, killing any civilian is wrong.
These rules would have made it impossible to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Had Churchill and FDR been bound by the belief that bombing enemy cities is genocide, Hitler and Tojo would have been free to implement real genocide in Europe and Asia. If the United States had not dropped 635,000 tons of bombs on North Korea, all of Korea would be living under the Kim Dynasty.
And yet our wars now exist in a twilight zone in which context no longer matters. Instead of fighting genocidal enemies, we wrestle with ourselves, debating the ratio that we need to achieve to be moral.
With each war, from Korea to Vietnam to the War on Terror, the United States became more hesitant to finish it quickly with the use of overwhelming force leading instead to prolonged and bloodier conflicts.
General Curtis LeMay’s initial proposal for quickly breaking North Korea was considered immoral. Instead the more “moral” approach led to far more casualties on both sides and a divided Korea. The “moral” approach in Vietnam led to more casualties and a lost war. The War on Terror has become an indefinite war whose mangled version of morality means that it can never actually end.
Israel is trapped in that same moral twilight. Its attempt to make war moral has only stretched it out indefinitely while increasing civilian casualties on both sides. Its unilateral humanitarianism inflicts all the responsibility on it while leaving the terrorists free to pursue any tactics they please. That isn’t a recipe for limiting civilian casualties, but for infinitely expanding them.
The good war is not a war in which no civilians die. It is a war that ends quickly and decisively with the side that is contextually more humane in peacetime triumphing. Wars are not ideal. They are exercises of lesser evils. The only way to fight a moral war is to remember that a war is only as moral as its eventual peacetime outcome.
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