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Risk and War

January 16th, 2009by Haim Watzman · 11 Comments · Politics and Policy

Haim Watzman

Howard Schweber’s analysis of the Gaza war in light of just war theory (in full at The Huffingon Post and in two parts, here and here on Jewcy) is thought-provoking and worthy of a longer response than I have time for before Shabbat on this short winter Friday. But I’d like to point out one inherent characteristic of war that Schweber does not adequately address: the nature of risk.

To frame the issue, let me turn to the theater? The theater? What connection could there possibly be? To put on a high-quality, meaningful production of a play, a director and producer need to be able to take risks. To accomplish its mission and to win, an army needs to take risks. And when you take risks, an unsuccessful or problematic outcome is not in and of itself evidence that the choices you made and the strategy you pursued were wrong.

As a boy growing up just outside Washington D.C., I was lucky enough to be able to attend performances at the Arena Stage, one of the country’s best repertory theaters. According to a story I heard then, when the theater was founded, its artistic director, Zelda Fichandler, was asked by a reporter what she would like her Washington audiences to give her. She said, if I remember correctly, “The right to fail.”

What Fichandler meant, I think, was that a theater that fears failure can never score a great success. A theater may seldom fail if it sticks to popular plays performed in proven ways by popular actors, but it will never score a great success, either. Without going out on a limb with new interpretations, new material, and new actors, a theater will never put on new and exciting productions. But when you take risks, you inevitably fail part of the time.

An army going to war doesn’t even have the luxury of depending on proven strategies. If a strategy was successful in the last war, it probably won’t work again, because the enemy will have prepared for it. So officers must take risks. A risky operation can be a huge success, but there’s always a chance of failure, too.

This applies to the moral questions raised by war, and in particular to the questions of proportionality and civilian deaths. Most just war theorists argue that it is wrong for Israel to, in seeking to kill a Hamas leader, fire a rocket into a house knowing that numerous non-combatants are present. But what about a case where there is a certain chance that a certain number of civilians may be killed, but not definite or almost definite knowledge?

In the progress of war, and in particular during ground operations, certainty is the exception and uncertainty the rule. And a military planner or officer in the field who refuses to take risks may well find his forces at a disadvantage.

Discussions and critiques of choices made in battle often assume that military decision-makers have perfect or near-perfect knowledge of who and how many will be killed by every shell and bullet fired. But clearly that is not the case. It’s also clearly the case that, in battle, hesitation can be dangerous.

As readers of South Jerusalem know, I’m critical of how the Gaza invasion has been handled. The evidence available at this writing indicates that Israel has killed far more Palestinian civilians than can be justified by the gains Israel is likely to make in this war. But once military action has been decided on, the army must incur risks. That includes risks to its own soldiers, but it also includes risks that civilian casualties and damage may be greater than desired or than foreseen. The death and destruction we see in Gaza is not in and of itself proof that the IDF acted improperly or in violation of the rules of war.

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