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The case against proportionality

Critics of Israel’s performance in the Hezbollah War argue their attacks are not “proportionate” because more Lebanese have died than Israelis. This twisted use of the concept of proportionality is philosophically juvenile, morally repugnant, historically hypocritical, ignorant of reality and militarily vacuous.

Critics of Israel’s performance in the Hezbollah War argue their attacks are not “proportionate” because more Lebanese have died than Israelis. This twisted use of the concept of proportionality is philosophically juvenile, morally repugnant, historically hypocritical, ignorant of reality and militarily vacuous.

Proportionality is a tenet of traditional just-war theory, but it bears no resemblance to the comparative body counts now in vogue. Rather, it refers to the relationship between the threat faced and the force employed.

In the words of philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain, “Proportionality refers to the need to use the level of force commensurate with the nature of the threat.” Using nuclear weapons to stop two soldiers carrying machine guns would be disproportionate.

What is the scope of the threat facing Israel? Hezbollah claims to have 12,000 missiles within range of nearly 3 million Israelis and 6,000 armed soldiers massed on the border. Hezbollah has demonstrated its willingness to use those missiles, already firing some 1,500 into Israel.

Confronting that level of threat from people sworn to destroy them, Israel’s response is surely proportionate in terms of the Statement on Just War by the Catholic Conference: “In the conduct of hostilities, efforts must be made to attain military objectives with no more force than is militarily necessary.” Does anyone believe that Hezbollah could be successfully removed with less force?

Discussions of proportional killing also lack moral justification. The Bible tells us that all human beings are descended from one person, not to provide a lesson in evolutionary biology but to teach us that every human life is of infinite value. In the words of the Talmudic commentary, “He who has saved one life, it is as if he has saved the entire world. He who takes one life, it is as if he has destroyed the entire world.”

To those who take seriously the infinite value of human life, proportionate casualties are a mockery. How do we compare 20 infinites to 40 infinites? Each death is a tragedy of infinite proportion that must be avoided wherever possible but cannot rightly be compared to any other death.

Put differently, if Hezbollah killed 50 Israelis and the Israel Defense Forces rounded up and killed 50 Lebanese, the response would be proportionate but barbaric. The justice of a war is not a mathematical function of each side’s causalities.

Indeed, this caricature of the just-war concept of proportionality is historically novel. The Japanese killed 68 American civilians at Pearl Harbor. In the course of World War II, we killed 600,000 Japanese civilians. It was the level of threat posed by Japan, not the number of civilian deaths they caused, that justified full-scale war by the United States. If the quarter of a million Israelis living in bomb shelters had made themselves easier targets by coming out into the open, would Israeli military action then be justified?

Unlike Hezbollah terrorists, and even unlike the United States in Japan, Israel practices the just-war criterion of discrimination — making every effort to avoid civilian causalities. Neither Hezbollah missiles nor their suicide bombers make any attempt to differentiate between civilians and soldiers. Quite the opposite — they purposely target civilians.

Israeli air force pilots risk their own lives flying missions to drop leaflets urging civilians to leave combat zones. By just-war standards, those who remain lose their civilian immunity. It is Hezbollah’s practice of placing missile batteries in civilian neighborhoods that deserves condemnation.

The Hezbollah War is neither retaliation nor revenge. It is an effort to remove Hezbollah, and the threat it poses, from Israel’s border. Counting bodies is not a useful exercise. Separating the perpetrators of wanton violence from their victims is.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.

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