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April 1, 2005

Just War Series - Proportionality II

Just War Theory - Introduction

Recourse To War - jus ad bellum

Conduct In War - jus in bello


This marks the last formal segment of my Just War Series. As it has given me much food for thought, however, I will do at least one more post on whether Just War Theory is adequate for our present day.

"The principle of proportionality with regards to conduct in war "deals not with a whole war but with a single military action in that war. The criterion requires that the good to be achieved by the action be proportionate to the damage done. Again, this means values preserved compared with values sacrificed, not a single cost-accounting of lives and dollars." (all quotes, and much material, Martino, unless otherwise noted).

We assume, of course, that all other criteria of a Just War are met. If one is violated, the entire war becomes unjust.

In Discrimination we said that one may not licitly make attacks in which noncombatants are directly intended to be killed". The question with regards to Proportion is how many civilians may be killed, even accidentally, before the action become illegitimate.

All this may seem macabre and unseemly. "How many we may kill" does make one wince, and properly so. As Herman Kahn said, however, we must not flinch from these issues, for they will arise, whether we like it or not. If we think them through before the war actually begins, at least we will have a dispassionate tool for evaluating our actions in the heat of battle. Unfortunately for me, the War on Terror is well underway, but that is something that cannot be helped. Better late than never.


Our enemies, not being stupid, know full well our moral qualms. Even since Vietnam they have taken advantage of our desire to keep civilian casualties to a minimum.

The North Vietnamese "deliberately located supply dumps in the middle of populate areas, in some cases simply stacking supplies in the mains streets of villages, confident that under the ground rules imposed on our bombing missions, those sites would not be attacked." And right they were.

As everyone knows, we have a similar situation in Iraq. The terrorists routinely hide in Mosques, and use women and children as shields. They play dead, or pretend to surrender, and then at the last moment reveal weapons and fire at us. Much of the world media advance their cause, deliberately or no, by playing up each and every alleged American violation, however small, while ignoring the blatant violations of the terrorists.

All this raises the question of whether we can or should grant our enemy a sanctuary. As Martino asks, "how many casualties are those supply dumps going to cause our side? Are we obliged to protect enemy civilians to the extent of completely avoiding attacks on enemy weapons, particularly when many of those weapons will be deliberately used in indiscriminate attacks that will kill civilians on our side?" Although written in 1988, Martino's words questions are relevant today.

Giving our enemy a sanctuary is unacceptable. Yet we must not be callous and "hardcore" and simply state that any and all accidental civilian casualties are acceptable. Martino answers his own questions by pointing out that

..providing the enemy with a sanctuary violates the rights of those who will be innocent victims of whatever the enemy places in the sanctuary. At the very least, we must weigh the values lost on our own side by permitting the sanctuary with the values destroyed on the enemy side by denying the sanctuary. Beyond this, however, we must include the values threatened or destroyed on the enemy side by the installation they have placed in the sanctuary. The continued reign of injustice on the enemy side destroys values among the victims of that injustice. Shortened or weakening that reign may well preserve more values than the attack destroys.
We can summarize the sanctuary issue by saying that the enemy need not be allowed to protect his weapons and other legitimate military targett with innocent shields. It may well be proportionate to attack an important target that the enemy has located in a densly populated area.
To this we may add lessons learned from our recent experience from Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Enemy civilians may become our civilians very shortly. In Vietnam, which was at the center of what Martino wrote above, there was little or no possibility that we would occupy North Vietnam. In the War on Terror, the objective is just the opposite with regard to occupy certain enemy nations; we wish to occupy them and reform their nation and government.
  • Allowing one sanctuary will only lead to the development by the enemy of more and more sanctuaries. We must remember that "the enemy is an animate object that reacts" (Clausewitz, I think).
Exact numbers are therefore not the point, although they must be considered. We must keep in mind that at times the cost in civilians will be too high for traditional attack. As with Discrimination, we may have to accept a higher risk to our own troops in order not to violate Proportionality.

Budget of Values

On the one hand, a "...we have to reject the view that simply concentrating the deaths in one location makes the total disproportionate when the same total would be proportionate if it were distributed widely." In other words, concentration or dispersal of civilian deaths is irrelevant.

On the other hand, "...the total values to be preserved by going to war, the values forming the basis for the jus ad bellum proportion, amount to a budget of values." This is not to imply a precision such as one has in financial accounting. Rather, we must keep in mind that there is a "total budget" available in a war, and we exceed it we risk making the entire war disproportionate.

In other words, "...we may not attack anything and everything of some military value in the enemy nation, simply 'because it's there'". Some people, of course, would have us do just that. We must reject that extreme view.

But there will be individual instances, such as with high value targets, when we may exceed our "budget" for any one operation. For example, in Fallujah, we destroyed a terrorist base, but at great cost to the surrounding infrastructure. American policy-makers reckoned that in this case the cost was worth it. Earlier in the war, we decided not to attack Mullah Sadr as we thought the cost too high. It is important to note that there is not an exact formula, and reasonable people can disagree about individual cases, but we must try to adhere to the general concept.

No Precision

As I have said throughout this series, there is no precise formula to Just War Theory. Reasonable people can and will disagree on interpretations. But the point is to agree on a general framework for discussion.

Proportion Before and During the War


In summary, then, the jus ad bellum criterion of proportion says one mustn't go to war unless the values to be preserved by the war exceeded the values to be sacrificed. Within the war, the jus in bello criterion of proportion says that when one takes action against enemy military units or installations, the values sacrificed in the attack must not exceeded the values that would be threatened by the continued existence of the target.

Current Events

United States and coalition actions in Afghanistan met the test of proportionality.

Proportion is not simply revenge, so talk of "they killed 3,000 of our people, we're justified in killing 3,000 of theirs" is out of place. We did not invade Afghanistan to take revenge for September 11. We did it to prevent another one. As such, we were justified in denying our enemy a sanctuary.

In Iraq we have adopted a "budget of values" approach. In Fallujah we "spent" a lot when we staged a full-scale attack on the terrorist army. In other places, such as earlier in Sadr City with Mullah Sadr, we held back our forces, believing that a full-scale attack would cost us more than we would gain. Clearly, if we had wanted to simply subdue Iraq, we could level a lot most of the country. All of the intense criticism directed at US commanders for their alleged failure to deal severely with thorns like Mullah Sadr demonstrate the restraint that we have practiced.

While it has taken some time, the full benefits of our actions in both countries are now beginning to be seen. With the success of the elections in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are seeing an "Arab Spring" throughout that region of the world. While of course it is too early to draw ultimate conclusions, or to say with certainty as to what the final result will be, one cannot escape the conclusion that the benefits to our invasions have been much greater than we had originally hoped.

That we did not find the WMD that we expected to find changes none of this. Contrary to left-wing conspiracy theorists, all reports indicate that the administration acted in good faith. Given the intelligence reports that they had to work with, the President and his advisors had good reason to believe that Saddam had stockpiles of chemical and biological munitions.

Next up: Summary and Reevaluation of Just War Theory

Posted by Tom at April 1, 2005 8:50 AM

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