When A War Crime Is Not a War Crime

Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic:

At least nine hundred people, maybe half of them civilians, have been killed in Gaza so far, the overwhelming majority presumably killed by Israel (some people, more than we probably know right now, have been killed by Hamas, mainly Fatah activists in revenge killings). This number, nine hundred, is large, and it brought to mind another conflict between a Western army and a Muslim insurgency, the one portrayed in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” Roughly one thousand Somalis were killed by American forces over the twenty hours or so of the First Battle of Mogadishu (eighteen American soldiers, of course, were also killed).

I couldn’t get an accurate read on how many of those Somalis were civilians, so I called my colleague, Mark Bowden, who wrote the book. He said that eighty percent of the Somali deaths were of civilian. Eighty percent! Roughly eight hundred people.  I asked Bowden if he thought this meant that American forces in Somalia had committed war crimes. …

Here is Bowden’s answer:

“If you feel the need to go to war against an enemy that is not as powerful as you are, one of the tactics of the weaker party is to hide among civilians, and use the global media to advertise the horror of the onslaught. People on the receiving end of the bombs greatly exaggerate the casualties and get photographers to take the most gruesome of pictures, and at the same time, the people in charge of the stronger power try to minimize the number of casualties. If you live in a democracy, then public opinion really matters, and reports of dead children swells the criticism of the war. If you live in a dictatorship, then you don’t care what the people think. Israel is a democracy and it cares about the way the rest of the world feels.  It gets hurt by killing civilians, so for moral and practical reasons, they’re trying very hard to avoid it.”

“I believe that culpability for these casualties is very much with Hamas. Take this leader, Nizar Rayyan, who was killed with many of his children. He knew he was a target. If I knew that I was a target, I sure as hell wouldn’t have my children near me. It’s a horrible and cynical choice he made. But if your enemy is a sophisticated manipulator of public opinion, then this is one of the many downsides of choosing to go to war. Israel knows that.”

“The parallel with Mogadishu is that gunmen in that battle hid behind walls of civilians and were aware of the restraint of the (Army) Rangers. These gunmen literally shot over the heads of civilians, or between their legs. They used women and children for this. It’s mind-boggling. Some of the Rangers shot civilians, some of them inadvertently and some of them advertently. They made the choice to shoot at crowds. When a ten-year-old is running at your vehicle with an AK-47, do you shoot the kid? Yes, you shoot the kid. You have to survive. When push comes to shove, faced with the horrible dilemma with a gunman facing you, yes, you shoot. It’s not just a choice about your own life. If you don’t shoot, you’re saying that your mission isn’t important, and the lives of your fellow soldiers aren’t important.”

So, to repeat, the question here is: Is it a war crime in asymmetric warfare for the militarily stronger party to kill massive numbers of civilians?

And the answer, according to Mark Bowden, is: No.

Let’s single out some specific sentences from Bowden’s analysis (emphasis mine):

If you feel the need to go to war against an enemy that is not as powerful as you are, one of the tactics of the weaker party is to hide among civilians, and use the global media to advertise the horror of the onslaught. …

… If you live in a democracy, then public opinion really matters, and reports of dead children swells the criticism of the war. If you live in a dictatorship, then you don’t care what the people think. Israel is a democracy and it cares about the way the rest of the world feels.  It gets hurt by killing civilians, so for moral and practical reasons, they’re trying very hard to avoid it.”
[…]
… Some of the Rangers shot civilians, some of them inadvertently and some of them advertently. They made the choice to shoot at crowds. When a ten-year-old is running at your vehicle with an AK-47, do you shoot the kid? Yes, you shoot the kid. You have to survive. When push comes to shove, faced with the horrible dilemma with a gunman facing you, yes, you shoot. It’s not just a choice about your own life. If you don’t shoot, you’re saying that your mission isn’t important, and the lives of your fellow soldiers aren’t important.

Some questions:

  1. If Israel cares about world opinion, why did it invade Gaza — a densely populated strip of land many times smaller than Rhode Island — knowing that Gazans had no weaponry even remotely approaching Israel’s bombers and tanks?
  2. If Israel has killed 1,000 people in two weeks, at least half of them civilians, where is the evidence that they are “trying very hard to avoid” killing civilians?
  3. If the lives of your fellow soldiers are more important than the lives of innocent civilians, then what does that say about the mission?
  4. If the weaker country is so much weaker that its most effective tactic is “to hide among civilians and advertise the onslaught,” then how could such a country pose any existential threat to the stronger country?

All of which adds up to one overall question: If the above realities are so well-known, so predictable, and so inevitable, then why would you choose to go to war with an enemy that is so much less powerful than you are, in the first place? And if you choose to do so despite knowing what will ensue, then why heap all the blame on the weaker party?

4 Responses to “When A War Crime Is Not a War Crime”

  1. tas says:

    To answer your questions…

    1. If Israel cares about world opinion, why did it invade Gaza — a densely populated strip of land many times smaller than Rhode Island — knowing that Gazans had no weaponry even remotely approaching Israel’s bombers and tanks?

    Israel’s primary concern is to stay a Jewish majority state. Violence from Palestinians in the occupied territories — no matter how weak it is in reality — is causing Jews to either leave or, if not yet in Israel, reconsider immigrating there. Immigration is important to the strength of Israel, at least in the mind of its government.

    2. If Israel has killed 1,000 people in two weeks, at least half of them civilians, where is the evidence that they are “trying very hard to avoid” killing civilians?

    The evidence exists solely in the minds of Israel’s hardline defenders. That is to say it doesn’t exist.

    3. If the lives of your fellow soldiers are more important than the lives of innocent civilians, then what does that say about the mission?

    In militaryese: FUBAR.

    4. If the weaker country is so much weaker that its most effective tactic is “to hide among civilians and advertise the onslaught,” then how could such a country pose any existential threat to the stronger country?

    See the answer to question 1. Of course, one has to question the validity of that answer… The Gaza crisis and discussion of “war crimes” has put Vietnam in my mind. Could (or were) the Viet Cong accused of “war crimes”? After all, they didn’t wear uniforms, caused children to be killed, etc. etc. But in the end, does it really matter? You had a much weaker domestic force trying to fend off an invading force of over half a million foreign troops, what are they supposed to do? Dress up in military uniforms, march into the battlefield and get slaughtered? Just to avoid a debate over war crimes? It’s just silly. People fight for their lives — period.

    Ironically enough, relating this back to Palestine a bit, just like the failure of the Palestinian spring from the 1919 Paris Peace Conference where it could have been fixed then, if anyone listened to Ho Chi Mihn’s pleas for Vietnam statehood at the peace conference. All the problems and needless deaths the war to end all wars has wrought…

  2. Sharon says:

    1. If Israel cares about world opinion, why did it invade Gaza — a densely populated strip of land many times smaller than Rhode Island — knowing that Gazans had no weaponry even remotely approaching Israel’s bombers and tanks?

    Israel invaded Gaza because Hamas–the government of the Palestinians–insists on firing thousands of rockets into Israel in order to kill Israelis and disrupt their daily lives. IOW, the Israelies invaded to end the attacks on their own country.

    2. If Israel has killed 1,000 people in two weeks, at least half of them civilians, where is the evidence that they are “trying very hard to avoid” killing civilians?

    Israel endured months of attacks from Hamas. That they didn’t not attack after the first rocket shows they are “trying very hard to avoid” killing civilians.

    3. If the lives of your fellow soldiers are more important than the lives of innocent civilians, then what does that say about the mission?

    It says that you are dedicated to your mission, to your country, and to your fellow soldiers. It’s called esprit de corps. And, to be honest, democracies try to avoid civilian deaths, but when you live in a war zone, your chances are much higher.

    4. If the weaker country is so much weaker that its most effective tactic is “to hide among civilians and advertise the onslaught,” then how could such a country pose any existential threat to the stronger country?

    If your neighbor keeps firing rockets into your territory trying to kill your people, how is that NOT a threat?

    But you knew the answers already. You just really didn’t like them.

  3. Continuum says:

    Was it a war crime when the Nazis destroyed the village and people of Lidice in order to kill the assassins of Reinhard Heydrich? What if the Nazis had merely carpet bombed the village instead ?

  4. Kathy says:

    But you knew the answers already. You just really didn’t like them.

    Of course, I know your answers. I read and hear them everyday. And of course I really don’t like them. I do generally tend to dislike hearing answers to questions about why Israel treats the Palestinian people with such brutality and contempt for their lives when those answers distort the truth and in no way explain the brutality.

    But you already knew all this. You just don’t really like to hear it (or read it).

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