Has Israel used unnecessary force to cripple or destroy Hezbollah?
About 1,000 Lebanese have been killed. Many have been civilians placed in harm’s way by Hezbollah guerrillas. More than 3,000 have been injured, and tens of thousands have been displaced. Hezbollah has fired approximately 3,650 rockets at Israeli civilians, killing 51 and injuring 430. At present, it remains a viable fighting force, and civilian casualties on both sides are not diminishing.
Israel’s critics insist it is employing more military might than necessary to achieve legitimate war objectives. They point to the obligation under international law of a nation at war to kill, injure or displace the fewest number of civilians consistent with the military goal sought.
Killing or otherwise harming civilians for its own sake is morally reprehensible. But as with Israel in Lebanon, nations at war commonly injure civilians either in attacking military targets, seeking to accelerate surrender by destroying enemy morale or aiming to deter future aggression. Whether the civilian casualties inflicted were incommensurate with a legitimate military goal is generally unanswerable.
The United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of Japanese civilians were killed or maimed. Military installations, however, were also destroyed. And the unprecedented explosive power of the bombs prompted Emperor Hirohito to surrender within a week. It probably saved millions of American and Japanese lives — military and civilian — that would have perished with a land invasion. The bombings may also have averted a Soviet presence in postwar Japan akin to the division of Germany or Korea. And they may have deterred Josef Stalin from invading Western Europe in the initial Cold War years before the formation of NATO in 1949.
Detractors of the atomic bombings argue Hirohito was poised to surrender in any event and that the Soviet Union was satisfied with its side of the Iron Curtain and had no craving to dominate West Germany, France or Italy. Their claims can neither be conclusively proven nor disproven. Nor can the opposite claims of the defenders of the atomic bombings. Too little is known of what is necessary to secure surrender or to deter aggression. Indeed, the concept of minimal military force to achieve war aims is an empty vessel.
Winning means convincing the enemy it has been defeated. And defeat is more a state of mind than a tally sheet of weapons and manpower. Before the fact, knowing whether projected bombings that anticipate civilian deaths will push the enemy past that mental threshold is unknowable. The United States did not know with certainty that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would lead to surrender on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Indeed, Hirohito was fiercely opposed by powerful military and ministerial officials who craved to turn all of Japan into a mass grave.
The United States’ firebombing of Dresden killed and injured tens of thousands of civilians. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill instructed the RAF to make the rubble dance in German cities. The American and British bombings hoped to demoralize Nazi Germany and accelerate victory. A parallel war aim was to inflict a crushing defeat that Germans would accept, in contrast to the Versailles Treaty that concluded World War I.
Whether Dresden hastened Germany’s surrender can only be speculated. The bombings might have provoked Germans to turn against Adolf Hitler. But they might also have engendered a German desire for revenge and a spirit of fighting to the finish. Experience and human nature teach either effect was plausible. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march from Atlanta to the sea devastated the countryside but may have considerably shortened the Civil War and hastened the full re-integration of the South into the Union.
With these examples and understandings, it is fatuous to condemn Israel for excessive force in fighting Hezbollah because of consequential injuries to civilians. Hezbollah terrorists routinely conscript civilians and civilian property to assist in killing or injuring both the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and Israeli civilians. The IDF legitimately targets Hezbollah for destruction even if civilians will be inescapably killed acting as human shields. These deaths are not incommensurate with the IDF military goal. If they were, terrorists could attain de facto immunity from attack by taking civilian hostages.
The IDF’s bombing of roads, bridges or electric power plants have occasioned hardship for Lebanese civilians. But the misery is not disproportionate to the goal of curbing a resupply of Hezbollah in the south. Neither is it excessive when measured against the goal of engendering the political resentment of Hezbollah necessary to empower the Lebanese government to assume control over its border with Israel. Even if the goals are not ultimately attained, the failures would not discredit the reasonableness of the IDF’s bombing.
In sum, knowledge of the causes and prevention of war is too primitive to permit even a blurry dividing line between commensurate and incommensurate harms to civilians in pursuing legitimate war objectives.
Bruce Fein is a constitutional lawyer and international consultant with Bruce Fein & Associates and the Lichfield Group.