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(photo: Business Insider)

By Keith Pavlischek

A blogger who goes by Theonerd  thinks Israel is “carpet bombing” Gaza and is “waging an unjust war.” For a decidedly more expert opinion on that subject you might check out the testimony of someone who knows what he is talking about over at the Huffington Post.

Theonerd also thinks I have distorted the jus in bello principle of proportionality. Which raises the question, Does Theonerd know any more about the Christian just war tradition in general and the jus in bello principle of proportionality in particular than he does about the extraordinary and even unprecedented efforts of Israel to avoid civilian casualties. Or about what “carpet bombing,” is all about?

Theonerd objects to this passage in my post, Just War and Gaza:

Proportionality, properly understood has absolutely nothing at all to do with bringing a gun to a knife fight, and almost nothing to do with measuring the ratio of combatant casualties…. The proper understanding of the jus in bello criterion of proportionality, that for centuries was part and parcel of  customary international law has to do with the unintended, “incidental” or “secondary” harm done to noncombatants. Proportionality has to do with weighing the unintended bad effects to noncombatants against the intended good effects of an attack.

I got it all wrong, says Theonerd, but this, he says, is exactly what you would expect from someone who distorts the Christian just war tradition.  So, what great theologian of the Christian church does Mr. Theonerd call upon to reject this understanding of proportionality? Does he suggest that my understanding runs counter to the great early modern Christian theorists of just war, Vitoria or Grotius, for instance. Or Paul Ramsey, perhaps? Or Oliver O’Donovan? Or James Turner Johnson? Not exactly.

Mr. Theonerd cites the opinions of Daniel Bell, a professor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary.  Bell is the author of a highly idiosyncratic book  Just War as Christian Discipleship in which he introduces the rather novel idea that just war theory is divided between the good guys (Just War as Christian Discipleship, or JW-CD) and the bad guys (Just War as Public Policy Checklist, or JW-PPC). Theonerd claims that my understanding of the jus in bello principle of “proportionality” puts me among the bad guys, at least as far as my understanding of proportionality is concerned.  My views are just what you would expect, says Theonerd,  from someone working from a “public policy checklist” understanding of the just war tradition.

More needs to be said with regard to Bell’s distinction between the good guys and the bad guys, and about his book more generally. For now let me go on the record as agreeing with Bell that the Christian just war tradition cannot be reduced to a mere checklist, a point that I have been insisting upon in public lectures and teaching for two decades. That’s because, as Paul Ramsey, James Turner Johnson, George Weigel and others have insisted for decades, the just war tradition is part and parcel of a Christian theory of statecraft. Statecraft, like any other craft (think of art, music, sports, etc.) cannot be reduced to a mere “checklist.” Bell is right about that.  But the immediate question here is whether my description of proportionality is out of line even with the Bell’s Christian heroes, those who view Christian just war theory rightly.

When we speak of “proportionality” in the conduct of war, we can say that an engagement was proportional and therefore just or disproportional and therefore unjust in relation to (1) enemy combatants and (2) noncombatants (and civilian property and infrastructure).

You will note that with regard to (1) I said that proportionality, properly understood has absolutely nothing at all to do with bringing a gun to a knife fight….” That was a metaphor meant to express the obvious truth that a just combatant is not required to limit his response to aggression to a tit for tat or in kind response. This is all common sense. If a rapist is going about his evil deed by threatening a woman at knife point, a police officer is under no obligation to keep his firearm holstered. The analogy to warfighting should be obvious.

Assume for the sake of simplicity that there are no issues related to civilians in a military engagement. If I am a soldier or marine attacking a fortified position in which the enemy does not have artillery and I do have artillery or other forms of fire support I have absolutely no moral or ethical obligation to refrain from employing fire support. I am under no obligation to conduct an infantry assault merely because the enemy only has infantry. In fact, it would be a violation of professional responsibility if I put my own men at risk when I could have achieved the military objective without putting them at increased risk. All this is rather elementary, but then Theonerd thinks Israel is “carpet bombing” Gaza, so he’s not exactly an expert in military history or strategy.

Since Christian ethics is more his specialty,  perhaps  Theonerd could offer up a responsible Christian just war theorist who limits a just combatant’s right to respond to aggression to a tit for tat or purely in kind response, such that a combatant could only bring a knife to a knife fight or must refuse to employ superior firepower to preserve the lives of his own soldiers.

Theonerd also objects to my statement that jus in bello proportionality has “almost nothing to do with measuring the ratio of combatant casualties.” If Mr. Theonerd would have taken the time to look at my longer article on proportionality, referred to in my post, he would have found a longer discussion where I affirm the just war tradition’s insistence that gratuitous violence be avoided. If he had taken time to carefully read what Bell says about Vitoria he would find that Vitoria insisted that the just combatant  should seek to avoid “wanton or excessive violence or destruction.”

The problem is once we stipulate that there should be no gratuitous harm, that does not specify the proportion between the military objective and the harm, much less a prescribed ratio between opposing combatants. As Michael Walzer said with regard to Operation Cast Lead, even if the casualty ration is 100-1 Israeli to Gazan, if those deaths “were all soldiers (fighters or militants) on either side, a ratio like that would simply be a sign of military victory, the deaths regrettable but probably not immoral.”

For these reasons, as I stated,  proportionality has to do, almost always, with the degree of unintended, though foreseen, harm to noncombatants. If the harm done to noncombatants is intentional, if it is to inflict terror and/or if attacks on noncombatants are employed as a means to get at combatants, that is prohibited by the jus in bello principle of discrimination. Proportionality governs the unintended harm to noncombatants, asking whether that unintentional harm is greater in proportion to the military objective sought.  Needless to say none of this has to do with whether I or anyone else takes a “public policy checklist” approach to the just war tradition.

I will say more about Theonerd and Professor Bell and the jus in bello principle of proportionality with regard to unintended harm to noncombatants in my next post.