Military force: Use it and lose your soul

IDF soldiers in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead   Source:  Haaretz
IDF soldiers in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead Source: Haaretz

Political scientists study the power of states, looking at the linkages between a society’s economic and political strengths and its capacity to use or threaten military force.   The assessment of a country’s power is made relative to other states in the international system.  Yet the use of military force itself is tricky, because it can subvert the very values that underpin the strength of a people.  Just wars are fought, true, but as Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic said in a recent article, “no just wars are fought only justly.”  He adds, “No state was ever innocent, but not all states are evil.”

History and headlines are full of immoral military actions.  U.S. troops have allegedly committed them in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Those of us who remember the Vietnam War remember the My Lai massacre.  Going back further, many label the R.A.F.’s firebombing of Dresden in its effort to break Germany’s will a significant moral lapse.  Russia’s actions in Chechnya, Turkey’s against the Kurdish PKK, India’s in Kashmir, all warrant examination.  Rising Powers must deal with this question of morality and the use of military force, increasingly as they rise.

Israel was roundly criticized for Operation Cast Lead in Gaza earlier this year, bearing a very serious diplomatic cost, not to mention the agonizing ethical issues the country faces.  Fighting terror organizations in densely populated cities will by definition involve the unintended killing of civilians.  The argument that the IDF, with enemies on three sides embedding combatants where civilians live, has performed more ethically over the years than almost any other national army would in similar circumstances, while not proveable, may have some merit.  Nevertheless, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has begun to publish IDF soldiers’ accounts of serious lapses in the conduct of the war in Gaza.  Wieseltier in his article rightly bemoans a “coarsening” of Israel’s conscience – exemplified by some Israeli commentators and politicians arguing that IDF actions are justified by Hamas’s inhumanity.  If anybody doubts the nature of Israel’s enemy in Gaza, a read of the Hamas Covenant is in order.  Wieseltier is encouraged, on the other hand, by the willingness of Israel to examine its moral condition, much as the U.S. did after Vietnam and Abu Ghraib. 

Global powers – both rising and declining — face this test.  President Obama, in spite of his harsh criticism of Bush’s use of military force, will employ much the same tactics.  Daniel Byman, of Georgetown University, in a March 18th Foreign Affairs piece, referring to a U.S. Predator strike against militants in Pakistan in early March, wrote, “The strike, the fifth drone attack in Pakistan since late January, demonstrates that the Obama administration is not jettisoning the policies of the Bush administration regarding targeted killings; in fact, it appears to be ramping them up.” 

Byman, an expert on Israel’s use of targeted killings in the intifada, argues that targeted killings work because they disrupt enemy leadership, but cannot alone defeat an enemy. He notes as well that there is a heavy cost — 40% of the deaths from Israel’s targeted killings from 2000-08 were unintended, usually civilian and sometimes children.  A tough choice for any power to make.

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