Risk and War

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.

11 thoughts on “Risk and War”

  1. Haim, I’m opposed to what Israel is doing in Gaza and not just the war, but I don’t hold the soldiers responsible for what they are doing. An army is a tool. A tool can’t work if it can’t survive so those in Gaza.

    Instead of looking at what is “just” in the process of professional destruction, I see other rules of thumb. “Kill a civilian – create a warrior (or more than one)” is one I’d suggest. “Push someone into a corner and get a fight” is another. “Issue ultimatums to resolve an issue while not lifting a finger yourself” is a third. A fourth might be “treat someone like they are nobody and they will do anything, anything to make you know they are somebody” and finally, “Assume a posture that there is only one side that is right and ignore the other”

    With that introduction, I would begin Middle East 101, a prerequisite for Endless Conflict 102.

  2. ” 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.”

    the problems I see with your reasoning are several:

    1. The decision to use the military and uleash a “shock and awe” campaign” was made by the political eschelons. They bear the responsibility ultimately. If war crimes were committed (and they were – and are) , the culprits are in the “civilian” government, ie., the cabinet, the PM and everyone else who authorized the actions.

    2. It appears that the tactics used in this exercise involved ensuring minimal israeli casualties without regard to casualties on the other side. In other words, the risks to israeli soldiers were minimal (the worst being their own goals). But the risks to palestinian civilians were maximized. As a result, we see huge number of dead children, women and non-combatants, and hardly any israeli casualties (what’s the ratio now? 100:1?). The outcome is highly asymmetric, making israel’s toughest appear like they were making war on babies and children and infrastructure, never really endangering its own. How did they do it? simple – shoot everything in sight whenever there’s the slightest doubt. Then send out the forces of the hasbara.

    3. The soldiers in the field have clearly just obeyed orders. They were told to shoot at anything that moves. And so they did. But some may still remember that ‘following orders’ was not considered an adequate defense at Nurenburg.

    4. the worst part are the israeli citizens 90% of whom wholeheartedly supported an outright slaughter of civilians. The argument “but they shoot rockets at us!” appears quite lame when juxtaposed against the ‘collateral damage” inflicted by their citizen-soldiers on the other side. Especially seeing that this “other side” was basically locked up in prison. Dopes the whole enterprise not look like prison guards having fun shooting the caged prisoners, who have nowhere to flee?

    5. The world is beginning to suspect that slaughter was not a by-product of a military operation, but was one of its goals (cf yaalon and others who threatened to visit a “shoah” upon the people of gaza. looks like they did mean it too). No amount of risk analysis can mitigate the raw facts that are there for the whole world to see.

    one of the unintended consequence of israel’s assault on gazan civilians, women and children included – and possibly singled out to better increase the overall effect, is that its actions are the mirror image suicide bombing. For example, if there’s one combatant on a bus, why not explode the entire bus and then call the rest of the passengers “collateral damage”?

    Haim, you need to do better than this in your reasoning, I’m afraid. Israel has this time really crossed some serious red lines. If anything, they are beginning to look like a crazy country, lashing out every which way. I was hoping you’ll try to be one of sanity’s voices not a more sophisticated version of an enabler.

    And now, go demonstrate against your own government, if you can see your way to it, shabbat or no shabbat. Who was it that said that saving one life is more important than keeping shabbat inviolate?

  3. The carnage being carried out by a regional super power with the backing of hyper power needs close microscopic inspection by all actors of International Relations. If Mossad is aware of a pin falling anywhere in Middle East – why can they not know the exact location of Hamas Fighters – Why butcher children and women- Livni and Bush will have to answer for this genocide to the future generation – It will be treated as EVIL in history and will be in the same plane as that of German holucast of the Jews. A time will come when Nature will mete out justice to the Proud and arrogant Americans (WASP) and jews from the European nations, who now rule the STATE OF ISRAEL. Hamas should learn the lesson and be pragmatic – they cannot destroy the Jewish state by home made rockets and petro $ from crazy and shia Iran. Bassar of Syria is very queit when people are dying in Gaza.

  4. With Olmert’s declaration of a unilateral cease-fire last night and his claim that the operation has “achieved all its goals”-here is the situation:

    Gaza will now have a regime similar to Judea/Samaria in that there will now be a permanent IDF presence with a Palestinian autonomous regime-FATAH in Judea/Samaria and HAMAS in Gaza. Both will now have endless negotiations in order to reach a “permament” solution-the Annapolis process in Judea/Samaria and the “Egyptian” plan in Gaza, but there will never be any agreements because the two sides will never be able to arrive at one. Egypt will continue to play its double game, saying it wants peace and will try to stop the arms smuggling, but they really have no interest in doing this, just in having a reduced level of violence, which the IDF will have achieved. The IDF will from now on try to prevent rockets from moving around the Gaza Strip and they will carry out raids into the populated areas in order to catch terrorists, but their permanent presence will be outside the cities, just like in Judea/Samaria.

    This is the final death of the failed “hitnatkut”- withdrawal from Gaza that this failed governement trumpeted in 2005. We who opposed it correctly warned that it would fail and that the IDF would eventually return to Gaza. We were right and they were wrong. What a waste.

  5. Ben David,

    Congratulations on achieving your aims. Now let’s just take a deep breath before the anticipated blowback.

    Which, FYI, includes the “minor” fact that israel, in one swoosh, has lost the respect and good will of the entire world. Minus, of course, their US bought and paid for lobby-enforced lackeys (yes that’s the occupied territory of the US congress, and MSM, of course.).

    Israel is counting on the disappearing act of a short-attention-spanned world focus. Perhaps not this time and/or not so fast. Personally, I’ve never seen the boycott gaining as much steam as now. And a lot of it is not visible and will be hard to counter. The boycott is motivated by utter revulsion at what israel has done. Hundreds of dead children mean “better deterrent’ to most israelis. To the rest of the civilized world, it means – in a nut shell, “war crimes”.

    No, the world has not yet reached it’s own “never Again” moment. But it’s beginning to recognize psychosis for what it is – a serious mental illness – afflicting the great collective of israel. Unfortunately, insanity is not easy to treat, so for now, only behavior modification works. You, Ben David, is one of the many diagnostic bots to help us determine whether the disease is terminal, and just how malignant it is.

    Today was a good day – I found three more Israeli-made products in the store here which I was happy not to buy, and my letter to the supermarket just went out, calling upon them to give more shelf space to alternatives. I then sent a note out to tens of my acquaintances, so identifying said products by name, with the carrying chain, leaving the rest to their consciences. I’m quite certain that this will produce a hundred more notes, and am even more certain that each person will do what they can, as little as it is.

  6. Last night was a good day for me too – my local Safeway finally stocked this years supply of Israeli-made Chanukah candles and I bought the last three boxes.

    As for all the above posts, I would appreciate some straight shooting straight from the get-go with the poster declaring his opinion on Israeli’s right to exist or not . . . I’m more likely to read it. I prefer to differeniate between cutting criticism and euphemistic prose that undercuts the survival of the Jewish people. I sense the danger is real and although I doubt judeophobia is present much on this blog – how is it that thousands of people are dying by the sword all over the world today, by intent (i.e. murder), but no one is taking to the streets to protest those who are doing the deed? hmmm . . .

  7. Yes, Lloyd, Israel has the right to exist and prosper. And Palestinians have the right to exist and prosper, with the same oportunties. Now its your turn.

    Haim: from your piece–“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.”

    I think you are on mark. Nonviolence is a new allocation of risk. It is the apparent hyper-skewing of risk which is Israel’s worst enemy (please, please, I now terrorists are real). Gandhi’s contribution to humanity was the self assumption of risk in “combat.” But with both Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., such risk was assumed voluntarily. The dilemma at present (for nonviolence) is that the State of Israel is faced with the allocation of risk to its citizens. This is a new quandry for nonviolence. And this is why, elsewhere on your site, I have stressed the importance of Arab Israeli citizens, for there nonviolence can still be self-assumed. So foolish am I to say that the State of Israel, indeed Judaism proper, needs such help.

  8. Gregory, you make a subtle distinction in your first paragraph, and I don’t know if it’s intended. Israel is a state, while the Palestinians are a people, so isn’t comparing their respective rights a bit like apples & oranges?
    You are certainly aware of the voices from the Israeli right who say the Palestinians should exercise their right to exist somewhere else. A state OTOH exists exactly at the place where it exists, even leaving aside that Israel for 60 years doesn’t have fixed and recognized borders – the only country in the world to sport that feature (no, it’s a bug). You can’t easily transplant Israel to, say, Uganda, and if you did, you’d displace the native Ugandan people, and we can’t have that, right?
    So the idea of “existing”, all the more of “right to exist”, is intrinsically connected with the locus of that existing, which has quite a different meaning for people and states respectively.

  9. Fiddler, for me people are primary. States, once established, don’t go away very easily. But sometimes it might be better if they did. Zimbabwae. People exist where they exist. Including, in the American Southwest, Hispanics. Keep them out–fine. But once they are there in livelihood, the game changes for me.

    To remove a people is a civilized past time. Rome did it many times; so did victorious Greek city states. I think we must condemn that as now barbaric, a stage of civilization we now repudiate, no matter how inevitable it once might have been.

    As to the Israeli right: to tell the Palestinians to go somewhere else is to embrace the ontology of race of Nazism. Israel is trapped, and I do not mean trapped as surrounded by Arabs: by employing a netural democracy it cannot, a priori, assure itself as a racial State. It might be, but might not be, later. Jewish right of return may delay the crisis, but it cannot a prori remove it. It remains an emprical possibility.

    The United States failed in this–Native Americans were removed and erradicated. Israel is faced with a moral burden America couldnot uphold, even articulate. Israel is indeed chosen, and I fear the choseness has far to go.

    So, my reply to your point is that the ontology of a State is derivitive of the ontology of people; but a state may have more than one people within and, indeed, a people is not a Platonic unchanging entity, but may itself change over time. States develop to control violence internally and regulate its expression, somewhat, externally. They probably mostly initially come to form as a means of repressing various peoples, later evolving, if fortunate, into an expression of people. Russia has failed in this, in my view. Israel succeeded, but is now faced with the original motivation for much State formation: people foreign internally, externally, and in a nebulus inbetween (Gaza, the West Bank). Israel wails. America has wailed (slavery and Jim Crow) and will wail again (“whites” will eventually become only a plurality). Israel is at the turning point of civilization, its right, which will win in some form coming elections, wants to avoid that point. Lucky for me I am not Israeli–meant with no disdain at all. It is a terrible place to stand, that turning point. America hasn’t faced it very well in the greater world.

    So I think.

  10. Gregory, thanks for the clarification. I think we’re on the same page. This dreaded “right to exist” phrase has so many different unspoken subtexts and hidden agendas, considering the context in which it came up in the public discourse, that I’ve resigned to not using it, except with human beings, who have an unconditional right to exist.

  11. I agree completely. But it is horror to know that others have such a right. Very hard for all of us to bear. Yet that right does not go away, and I would claim that horror is also what motivates some attempts to articulate the concept of God. Very deep in me is a wish that some others were not here. But they are. And I may be horror for them. The Nazis showed us one logical endpoint for this fact. I say there must be other paths, and we must find them.

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