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Samizdata quote of the day – the proportionality absurdity

In a time of war, everybody makes proportionality arguments. But proportionality is a fool’s game, more suited to propaganda than to reasoned judgement.

Michael Walzer

Wars are not sporting events.

16 comments to Samizdata quote of the day – the proportionality absurdity

  • Kirk

    Can’t remember how many times I’ve said just this, to hear others tell me I’m a monster.

    If you’re going to violate the generally agreed-upon customs and laws of war, as in “fighting in civilian clothes among civilians”, then there’s one answer and one answer only: Establish the fact of guilt via a fair summary court martial, with a similar summary execution immediately following.

    Had the Bush II administration had the wit and wisdom to do this, then all that followed from the release of the prisoners from Camp Bucca would have never occurred. Why? Because the majority of the ISIS cadre would have been dead and buried, not living to be released and then wreak havoc among innocent Syrians, Yazidis, and Iraqis.

    There’s a price to be paid for what I think would best be termed “False compassion”. The compassionate thing, for all those raped women who were sold as sex slaves? Kill the bastards that did it before they got the opportunity. Which we could have done, had anyone been even slightly sensible about the issue.

    It ain’t like those denizens of Camp Bucca were ever going to contribute positively to the nation of Iraq. They’d already spent most of their lives oppressing it and then killing their fellow citizens…

  • bobby b

    Proportionality is almost a contractual thing, an agreement within an accepted legal system, mostly used to encourage people to accept the system instead of their own extra-judicial efforts. Commit offenses against the people or the peace, and you will be punished proportionately.

    But it doesn’t work in inter-societal contexts such as war. There’s no reason for it, and several good reasons against it.

    Attack my village across our border and kill ten? No, I’m not going to stop with killing ten of yours. That would be stupid of me, as it would only encourage you to keep killing in numbers that were acceptable losses to you. My people should be at risk whenever you feel you can spare ten of your own people in return? Nope.

  • Kirk

    You can take the idea of proportionality to the realm of self-defense and clearly see how asinine it is across the board.

    You are in a situation where you’ve been attacked by a mugger. If the rules that the various goody-goodies want to apply to Israel were to apply to you…?

    That means that if he punches you, you can only punch him back; no more, no less. Never mind that you might be a 90lb weakling, or elderly: You can only do as much to him as he did to you, regardless of any difference in vulnerability.

    Senseless, no?

    The rules in self-defense are that you act to stop the aggression, at least in most jurisdictions here in the US. You’re able to do whatever is needed to end the attack; if the attacker is dissuaded by you showing a weapon, and he runs off? That’s enough, and you’re not supposed to shoot him in the back as he flees. However… If he continues his assault on your person, you’re basically enabled to do whatever it takes to stop him, and if that idiot forces you to do a magazine dump into his upper torso? Well, too bad, so sad, thank you for playing. Most places in the United States, that sort of “improportionality” will go unremarked; in an unfortunate number, mostly with Soros-supported DAs, that might get you in some trouble.

    But, the same thing applies in war: You’re not required to play tit-for-tat under the generally-understood laws of war. You do whatever it takes to stop the attack, and if that means razing the city? Again, too bad, so sad… The enemy shouldn’t have been firing at you with those weapons from among civilians.

    Hamas has deliberately and with malice aforethought earned death for every person within Gaza, right now. The way they’ve organized their military and built their defenses, deliberately using civilians as human shields? The Israelis would be entirely justified in just leveling everything shooting back at them. Instead, they’re trying hard not to harm civilians, and still getting the blame for it all.

    The Hamas assholes are the ones who ought to be getting excoriated in the international press, but the international press has chosen sides, and that ain’t the side of the Israelis.

    It’d be nice if “use of force” rules could be laid out and people would follow them, but the nature of the beast is such that there will always be jackasses like Hamas who try to game them in order to eke out some advantage. That’s why they’re using civilians for cover.

    I have an anarchist acquaintance who keeps making the point that if you have rules and laws, you’ll always have people trying to game them and use them to their own advantage. He liked to use the situation in the Netherlands where they removed all the traffic signs and road features that tried to control everything, and then just let nature take its course. People became a hell of a lot more cautious, because they knew that there weren’t any traffic rules or protections, so they drove much more carefully and with more restraint than they had under the previous regime. Mostly because they didn’t know what to expect from other drivers, so… They were much more circumspect in what they did with their own driving.

    I’d speculate that “the rules” have encouraged Hamas to try this crap out, thinking that they knew for sure that the Israelis would never target hospitals and schools. This certainty contributes to their strategy, and I would submit that if there were no “rules” and that the Israelis were entirely unpredictable about these things…? I’d say that the Hamasniks would probably be a hell of a lot more circumspect in their activities.

    I don’t think they actually expected the Israelis to do what they’re doing right now, after October 7th. I think they were like al Qaeda, and just expected the US to roll over after 9/11 and go back to sleep. Instead, the poking-the-bear routine got the bear engaged enough to come out and break a bunch of stuff belonging to al Qaeda.

    Certainty of response isn’t a good strategy, dealing with these halfwits. If you set a boundary, they’ll come right up to it.

  • Mr Ed

    It seems to me that the Hamas leadership, knowing that they have an apparently endless supply of martyrdom material (their population) were quite happy to do get their troops to do what they do best – rape, kidnap and murder and have what the IRA called a ‘spectacular’. The political leadership of Hamas are safe in Qatar, the local leadership saw this as a chance to poke Israel and perhaps ignite a conflict, with Hezbollah kicking off from Lebanon and Iran and Qatar paying for it and Iran supplying support, perhaps with some Syrian intervention in the conflagration. Maybe Iran got cold feet and reined in Hizbolllah, and Iran wasn’t too upset to see the Sunni Hamas get the full force of Israel’s careful response.

    Coming on to Kirk’s point about proportionality. If you start it, there can be no proportionality in response, as anything action above zero is by definition out of proportion to the zero that was before it. The only proper consideration is the reasonableness of response in terms of absurdity, e.g. when Swiss troops occasionally stray into Liechtenstein, the response is ‘Tee hee, can’t you read a map? That’s the border over there’. If Hizbollah fire a rocket into Israel, that has to be taken seriously and the price of future actions – annihilation – made clear.

    The Soviets were generally untroubled by terrorism against their diplomats (they were the ones who brought it to the World). When some Soviet diplomats were kidnapped in Beirut in the 1980s, they used local allies to kidnap and dismember the families of the militia involved, and reportedly sent back body parts and photos of their hostages with a message along the lines of ‘Shall we continue?’, and threatened the Iranian regime with potential consequences and the crises ended peacefully. Reports of obviously sketchy, but the Soviets knew human psychology all too well.

  • Clovis Sangrail

    Agree with kirk on the whole. That is consistent with the laws of war. Proportionality in warfare is not about tit for tat. Its about making the risks of death to civilians proportional to the benefit to your war aims of the action you are contemplating.
    If your war aim is unconditional surrender then 10.for 1 or 100 for 1 is quite acceptable.

  • Clovis Sangrail

    Agree with kirk on the whole. That is consistent with the laws of war. Proportionality in warfare is not about tit for tat. It’s about making the risks of death to civilians proportional to the benefit to your war aims of the action you are contemplating.
    If your war aim is unconditional surrender then 10.for 1 or 100 for 1 is quite acceptable.

  • Paul Marks

    “Proportional response” means defeat – people and powers that call on Israel to be “proportional” are really demanding that Israel lose the war – and be wiped out.

    Clue, such “friends of Israel” give aid to the Gaza Salient (which is a dagger at the heart of Israel) and to the “West Bank” (much of which is closer to the sea than to the River Jordan – it almost cuts Israel in two).

    As for aid to Israel – Israel should reject such aid, it comes with lethal strings attached. Israel should make all of its own weapons and ammunition.

  • Paul Marks

    The Europeans and others who call upon Israel to be “proportional” carefully ignore the changing demographics of their own nations – indeed they ban serious discussion of the danger to their own nations as “Hate Speech”.

    As far as the political and Corporate leadership of many Western nations are concerned, as long as their nations last long enough to see them out, give them a comfortable life till they die, they do not care about the future.

    “After me the deluge” is their attitude – so they punish anyone who points out the danger.

    For example, in France there is an old saying “demography is destiny” (updated by Mark Steyn and others as “the future belongs to those who turn up for it”), but anyone who discusses that too much in modern France, say suggests the anti Israeli tone of “France 24” television is due to trying to please the increasing numbers of followers of Islam in France, risks being fined or imprisoned – for “Hate Speech”.

    Throwing the Jews under the bus will not save Europe – and nor will shutting eyes, putting fingers in ears and going “la, la, la” – with fines and imprisonment for anyone who warns of the danger.

  • Paul Marks

    Some years ago, in his book “America Alone”, Mr Mark Steyn pointed out that only the United States had so far escaped the demographic death spiral that had hit the traditional populations of Western Nations. Things have changed since that book was published – now Americans have joined the Western parade of death, their fertility rate is now below 2 (i.e. below replacement level).

    Interestingly Israel seems to be escaping that – American Jews may be in decline, but Israeli Jews are having children.

  • Ferox

    I wonder where all the calls for proportionality will go when/if Hamas surrenders to Israel?

    Will the international community insist that the Israelis kill every single Hamas member and supporter? That would certain be proportional to the aims of Hamas itself.

    In fact, a strict adherence to the principle of proportionality would require the Israelis to kill every living thing in Gaza, and salt the earth too.

  • Kirk

    Ferox said:

    In fact, a strict adherence to the principle of proportionality would require the Israelis to kill every living thing in Gaza, and salt the earth too.

    I’d love to read it like that, myself: Go by what the transgressors say they want to do, rather than what they actually accomplish in their attacks. Unfortunately, the genius minds behind proportionality have defined it as “What they do” vs. “What they say they will do in the future”.

    Or, at least, that’s the best working definition for this idiotic idea I can find out there, when they talk about it. You go do a quick survey of their work, and you wind up with a massive headache from trying to process the contradictions and inconsistencies. Proportionality, you see, really only applies to the people they don’t like, and must be implemented whenever those people they do like attack the ones they don’t, and… The logic is effectively inscrutable to anyone with a normal understanding of objective reality. Me? I’m a simple man; you tell me you’re going to kill me? I figure you mean it, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to stop you if I consider you a serious threat. I see no virtue in being “Mr. Nice Guy”, because that path just leads to a knife in the back in some dark alley.

    Frankly, when someone like Hitler tells you what he’s going to do in a nice book, or Hamas writes their foundational documents saying that their goal is the extermination of all Jews everywhere, the thing to do is take them at their word and preemptively act to eliminate the threat. You don’t wait for it to be a fair fight, you don’t wait for it to manifest. I mean, the Left has taught us that words and thoughts are violence, yes…? So, if you have words and thoughts about exterminating me, I’m doing the right thing in treating your words as actual physical attacks on me and then killing you. Right? That’s the way this works, isn’t it?

    Of course, we all know there’s a double-standard, because without one of those, the Left would have no standards at all…

  • Fraser Orr

    In a moral society the primary goal in any war should be to get it over as quickly as possible, while achieving your political goals and while operating within the moral bounds of decency. It is why the USA has consistently failed to do war correctly pretty much since WWII (the first Gulf war being an exception). It is why the war in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Vietnam and now Ukraine are all TOTAL disasters. It seems that the goal there was grinding attrition, presumably to fill the coffers on the military industrial complex. For many in the political class, with furrowed brows and steely gaze, they seem to forget that war is not a video game, not a version of Risk writ large. It is a bloody, disastrous mess, with mass casualties, rape, destruction and unhealable trauma to all except the fat donkeys leading the lions (never mind the collateral gazelle ground up in the process.)

    War is NOT a way of life, it is a horrible, deadly aberration. Sometimes necessary, but we need to get it over as soon as we can. War is not what should be normal, yet it seems the United States often allied with Britain and our antipodean friends seems to have been at war one place or another for the whole of my life as far as I can remember.

    Proportionality is a huge mistake. The best way to win a war is overwhelming force from one side. That is the best way to get it over quickly, and return to peace, where everyone can return to the decency of friendship and commerce with all, entangling alliances with none.

  • Kirk

    I seem to remember a lot of people telling me I was monstrous for saying that very thing about “going hard” in war.

    Raw fact is that we won WWII after killing roughly ten percent of the total pre-war German population, and utterly wrecking their country. About the same with Japan, plus nukes.

    Haven’t seen much in the way of “belligerence and so forth” from either nation, since.

    Contrast that with WWI, where we did not do that to the Germans or Austrians. It also did not happen to the Russians, who I’d argue bear about equal responsibility for what happened to start the war, what with their illicit and underhanded support for the Black Hand in killing the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo, then mobilizing to “support” Serbia in a fit of pan-Slav idiocy.

    Had the Entente insisted on marching into Germany and then crushing the German Army on the battlefield? Emphatically winning the war, followed by a relatively generous peace? WWII wouldn’t have happened. The peace would have lasted, much as it has since WWII. That’s how you win wars, and I’d speculate that there’s a number you could empirically reach wherein you’d know how many of the enemy you have to kill before “peace” will take.

    The US has tried being fair and virtuous in its wars since WWII, at the behest of all the “right-thinking people” of the world. Hasn’t worked very well, has it?

    My take on the whole thing is that before you can “fix” a country like Germany or Iraq, you have to utterly break it, first. Then, the hearts and minds of the populace might just be amenable to sweet reason.

    Ugly fact, but empirically demonstrated by history. The nice-nice theories of all the various and sundry “proportionality” idjits haven’t, so far. Can’t think of one case of “ratcheting escalation” where that hasn’t made things exponentially worse.

    Current situation in Ukraine is a perfect example. The Biden administration should have flooded them with weapons back in February of 2022, along with sinking everything with a Russian flag on it once they started playing games in the Black Sea. We did, as I remember, offer guarantees to the Ukrainians if they gave up their nukes, back in the day. Those alone mandate supporting them, along with common sense.

  • Quentin

    I thought it was outside times of war that calls for proportionality – and restraint – were made.

  • Steven WWwilson

    Ok I’ll admit I haven’t read all the responses, but wouldn’t proportionality in this case mean specifically targeting civilians, particularly the unarmed, the young, and the elderly. How would proportionality exclude any Palestinians.
    Hamas sowed the wind…feel free to finish the quote.

  • Fred the Fourth

    Two remarks I’ve made elsewhere, recently…

    – Civilians are being killed? That’s how you know it is a WAR, and not just the cops arresting belligerent drunks at the pub.

    – War is not about the victor. War is about convincing the loser that they have lost.