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What Makes a War Just? Peter Savodnik

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Michael Walzer at his home. (Jacob Kander for The Free Press)

Reports out of Gaza Tuesday that 500 Palestinians had been killed in a hospital blast—which now appear to be wildly inaccurate—underscored the debate coursing through the protests and proclamations surrounding Israel’s showdown with Hamas: Is this a just war?

And, assuming it is a just war, assuming Israel is right to strike back against Hamas, the terrorist group behind the October 7 attack on Israel—in which 1,400 were killed, numerous women were raped, and 199 people, including many children, were kidnapped—can it be fought justly?

This is an especially tricky question when it comes to Gaza. Hamas stores weapons and other strategic assets in residential buildings, hospitals, mosques, and other places packed with civilians—which, in previous conflicts with Israel, has led to a disproportionate number of civilian deaths and made it easier for Hamas to win over public sentiment.

So on Wednesday, I turned to the prominent political theorist Michael Walzer, the author of Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations

The book was published in 1977, and it has had a profound impact on academics, policymakers, and elected officials in both major parties over the decades. John Yoo, the legal scholar who wrote the so-called torture memos defending waterboarding for President George W. Bush, said of Just and Unjust Wars: “The book’s influence is such that political leaders and opinion makers seem to seek out Walzer’s blessing every time the United States launches a war.”

I asked Walzer: Did tragedies like the explosion at (or perhaps near) the Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital, in Gaza City, raise doubts about the justness of this war? 

No, Walzer said—the war is justified—but it’s clear, he added, that Hamas “deliberately exposes” civilians to danger, and “the more civilians you kill, the more likely you are to lose the political war that always goes along with the military war.” 

Below is a transcript of my conversation with Walzer, who spoke with me from his apartment in New York City. It’s been lightly edited for the sake of clarity.

Peter Savodnik: Just and Unjust Wars argues that, for a war to be just, there must be a just cause, it must be declared by a lawful authority, all the other ways of resolving the conflict must have been exhausted, there must be a reasonable chance of success, there must be a net benefit, and there must be proportionality. Given all that, is Israel justified in waging war against Hamas?

Michael Walzer: That’s not actually my list. It’s the just war theory list. I have doubts about the value of proportionality. Anyway, I think the answer is yes. But that doesn’t mean that a just response should be a full-scale war tomorrow. 

PS: Hamas’s signature tactic seems to be to force Israel to kill civilians by placing military assets in places where there are a lot of civilians—like schools and hospitals. I’m wondering if it’s possible for Israel to fight a just war against Hamas?

MW: Well, it has to be possible. There always has to be a way of fighting a just war. And admittedly, yes, Hamas makes it difficult, because when you respond to an enemy that is fighting from civilian cover, you kill civilians who are perhaps the responsibility of Hamas, which exposes them quite deliberately. But the more civilians you kill, the more likely you are to lose the political war that always goes along with the military war. So it is a dilemma.

The way to respond politically as well as militarily is to use extreme caution about choosing tactics, choosing targets, and to require your own soldiers to take risks in order to minimize the risks they impose even on enemy civilians. This is a central argument both in the U.S. Army and in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]: What risks can we ask our soldiers to take to reduce the risks they impose on enemy civilians who are being used by the enemy?

I’ll give you an example. I was at the Army War College a decade ago, and I met with a colonel back from Afghanistan who told me this story. American soldiers take fire from the roof of what looks like an apartment building. In the old days, before General [Stanley] McChrystal’s new rules of engagement, we would just pull back and call in an artillery strike. If there were people in the building, some of them would die, but we would get the bad guys on the roof. Now, he says, we can’t do that. So what are the alternatives? One is to send a scout undercover into the building to see if there are families in the building, and if there are, then we don’t call in the artillery strike, and if there aren’t, maybe we do. The other possibility is to get soldiers onto an adjacent roof so they can fire directly at the bad guys. Both of those new tactics put our soldiers at a risk that they wouldn’t face if we just called in the artillery. So that’s a good example of the kinds of risks that if we want to avoid bombing a building that may have families living in it, we need to ask our soldiers sometimes to take some degree of risks themselves.

PS: Let’s turn for a moment to the very tragic bombing, or what appears to be a bombing or blast, at this hospital in Gaza yesterday. 

MW: There’s now a lot of evidence that this is a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket. 

PS: In that case, how are we to assess the hospital blast? 

MW: Well, Hamas wanted to hit an Israeli hospital. They’re firing rockets not at military targets, they’re firing rockets at cities, in the general direction of Israeli cities and towns. They are certainly fighting an unjust war, and they are fighting it unjustly. 

PS: What about this question of net benefit? We need to know that, after this war is over, the world is going to be a better place. How can we be confident that whatever good that arises from an Israeli victory would exceed the destruction caused by it?

MW: We certainly can’t be confident in this situation, especially given that we really don’t know how Israel intends to fight the war. The current prime minister seems to try to play the role of an angel of vengeance, perhaps, to make up for his actual responsibilities for what happened. And if they fight a war of vengeance, it’s not likely to end well for anybody. But it’s at least imaginable that a war fought with a serious effort to minimize civilian casualties might end with some opportunities. I don’t know. The situation is so awful, but I still would hope for an Israeli response which is in accordance with the laws of war—a war fought that way would at least maintain the possibility of some progress afterwards, of some better aftermath. But this is a terrible time and I’ve never found it so difficult to think about what ought to be done. I’m so anxious about the likely full-scale invasion of 300,000 Israeli soldiers moving into terrain apparently with minimal intelligence about what’s going on on the other side and without knowing where the hostages are. It’s a situation where every decision is agonizing.

PS: Just and Unjust Wars, which you published in 1977, emerged out of this tension ten years earlier, in 1967. On one hand, you were arguing back then, at the height of the Vietnam War, against the war, but at the same time, for the morality of Israel’s preemptive strike against Egypt in the Six-Day War. You were trying to carve out this thoughtful space between the knee-jerk peace camp, the “anti–every war” people, as you put it, and, I guess you could say, the realists. Looking back, comparing then and now, do you feel less or more optimistic about Israel’s capacity to wage a just war?

MW: The government of Israel at the time of the Hamas strike was, I think, not only a terrible government politically and morally, but also an incompetent one. They have brought in a few competent people for the war council, but at this moment, as I am listening to the prime minister, I don’t have confidence that Israel will fight the right kind of war. I hope, but I can’t have confidence. And apparently, what is now going on on the West Bank is there are settler thugs attacking Palestinians, and the army is watching and not stopping it. It seems that the people responsible for the war, the war council, are not the people who are directly responsible for whatever is going on on the West Bank. I think [opposition leader Yair] Lapid was probably right to refuse to join a government which still included people like [Minister of National Security Itamar] Ben-Gvir, even if they were excluded from the war council. 

PS: As you know, within hours of news of Hamas’s attack on Israel surfacing, the anti-war activists and some government officials in the United States and Europe were already calling for an end to the violence—including any violence presumably the Israelis might take in the future on Hamas. That struck me as an immoral position. Because if Israel were to follow that advice, it would be inviting more attacks, more deaths of innocents. I wonder what you make of the anti-Israel demonstrators or camp who have insisted Israel has a moral responsibility not to respond.

MW: There have been two kinds of responses. On the farther left, there have been some appalling expressions of support for Hamas. And then, from other parts of the left or the pacifist world, there have been the calls that you just described for a cease-fire. The United States apparently vetoed a [United Nations] Security Council resolution that would have asked for a cease-fire, and I think that we were right to veto it. There has to be a response to an attack of the sort that Hamas carried out on October 7. There has to be a response. There also have to be arguments about how to respond, but there has to be a response. I think that has been the official position of the U.S. government.

PS: Are there certain weapons or tactics in particular that you think Israel has to rule out using? Are there certain things they should absolutely avoid doing? 

MW: The siege has come under a lot of criticism, and, interestingly, not only from the left. I read a very strong statement from the Begin-Sadat Center [a conservative think tank in Tel Aviv] against the cutoff of electric power for both political and moral reasons. I think the whole idea of the siege has hurt Israel far more than it has hurt anyone else on the other side except the civilian population of Gaza. There is a famous line from Maimonides about siege warfare. Do you know it?

PS: No, what is it?

MW: Maimonides says, with regard to sieges, “You can only surround a city on three sides.” That’s almost the quote. You can only surround a city on three sides in order to let people escape the city on the fourth side. It’s a wonderful sentence, because what it means is that you can’t surround the city.

If you’re going to ask people to leave, you have to help them wherever you send them. There has to be humanitarian aid to the southern part of Gaza, if you’re sending people to the southern part of Gaza. So that’s one military strategy or tactic that, I think, has to be avoided. As for weapons, I don’t know. I was opposed to the U.S. sending cluster bombs to Ukraine, but Israel doesn’t, I don’t think, use that kind of munition. 

PS: Does Egypt have any moral obligations to the people of Gaza, given that Egypt, like Israel, borders Gaza?

MW: The siege was a joint Israeli-Egyptian operation. The long-term blockade of Gaza wasn’t an Israeli blockade. It was a joint effort, and yes, at least with regard to humanitarian intervention, they certainly have an obligation to let supplies in. Do they have an obligation to take refugees? They don’t want Palestinians in the Sinai. Yeah, they have some obligation. I can’t say how many—100,000? Ten thousand? I don’t know. But they have an obligation, simply because they’re there.

PS: I want to go back to something you said a few minutes ago, about the appalling expressions of support for Hamas on the left. The levels of vitriol, the antisemitism on the far left, are unavoidable and disgusting and confusing. How do you make sense of that?

MW: There has always been left antisemitism. August Bebel, the German Social Democrat, called it the “socialism of fools.” And it has always been directed against the Rothschilds or Jewish bankers or Jewish control of the media. And it creeps in, sometimes, to the anti-Zionist stuff.

There have always been people on the left who believe that the struggle for national liberation, say, in Algeria, justifies terrorist attacks against French children. There’s the famous story of a bomb in a café where young people were gathered, and the left justifying that sort of thing on the grounds that you can’t tell the oppressed how to fight, you just have to support whatever they decide is necessary. 

That view has now focused very, very sharply on Israel. Israel has become the classic case for many leftists of the oppressed fighting against the oppressor, and they can do whatever they have to do, and we don’t judge them. It’s awful. It’s a very loud group on campus. But, from what I have heard, there are an awful lot of people that don’t like it. And there is a certain kind of Jewish response to that sort of thing which takes the form of saying, “All the world is against us.” And I think it’s very important to recognize the allies that we have. President Biden gave a stronger Zionist speech than I have ever heard from any Israeli politician. 

PS: Pivoting toward the future, are there telltale signs that will suggest Israel is heading in the right or wrong direction—that it is conducting a just or unjust war? 

MW: That’s very, very hard. You know, my friends in Israel now have grandchildren in the army, and what they say is everything depends on the lieutenant or the captain who is right there with the soldiers, who is the commander on the ground. Some of these commanders fight beautifully as well as effectively, and some of them are either incompetent or scared or frightened, really frightened, and they do bad things. And you don’t really find out about that until afterwards, until you sit and talk to some of the soldiers. Then you try to make judgments about what might have happened if this had been done rather than that, but at the moment, I think I will avoid it.

PS: Ultimately, if I understand you correctly, so much of this—determining whether a war is just or unjust—can only happen after the fact.

MW: You might know in advance that it is a just war. The question you’re asking now is: Will it be fought justly? I will withhold judgment, but we do know what ought not to be done, and we just hope it is not done. 

Peter Savodnik is senior editor at the Free Press. Read his latest column, on what “decolonization” really looks like, here.

And if you’ve found our coverage of the war in Israel illuminating, please become a subscriber:

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TGIF: WWIII May Come Tomorrow, But. . . Nellie Bowles

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Google employees protesting at the office. They were later fired. (Via X)

Welcome back. World War III watch over here continues. The Axis of Resistance seemed ready to kick off a major war, but then our Ayatollah stood down. The Houthi Youth at Columbia University camped out in solidarity, but the rebellion was short. Then, at press time, Israel struck back against Iran, so World War Watch resumed. You know what helps my stress? A good book. This one, by your faithful soldier, is out May 14.

→ Trump’s Gettysburg Address: Before Trump hit the campaign trail, I’d forgotten a little what he sounds like. In the amber of my mind, he was just “MAGA” and “Shithole countries” on a loop. Now, thanks to a campaign speech Saturday in Schnecksville, PA, we are back in the game with the craziest American orator who’s ever been in the game. The topic was Gettysburg. And our former president gave an impromptu slam poetry interpretation that left me snapping. 

Gettysburg, what an unbelievable battle that was. I mean, it was so much and so interesting and so vicious and horrible and so beautiful in so many different ways. It represented such a big portion of the success of this country. Gettysburg, wow. I go to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to look and to watch. And the statement of Robert E. Lee—who’s no longer in favor—did you ever notice that? He’s no longer in favor. “Never fight uphill, me boys, never fight uphill.” They were fighting uphill. He said, “Wow, that was a big mistake.” He lost his great general. They were fighting, “Never fight uphill, me boys,” but it was too late.

Vicious and horrible and beautiful. And the sun that blazes over the October sky. Who will watch the watcher? Who will sing the song of the lonely? Check out my self-published novel in the back, Trump says. 

→ Biden continues paying off successful young voters: Sorry, I mean “forgiving student debt.” Biden this week paid off another $7.4 billion in student loans, making his total student loan cancellation something like $153 billion. And by cancellation, I mean tax dollars were used to make the ledger go to zero. How much exactly? From Penn Wharton’s analysis: “We estimate that President Biden’s recently announced ‘New Plans’ to provide relief to student borrowers will cost $84 billion, in addition to the $475 billion that we previously estimated for President Biden’s SAVE plan.” But that goes to really needy people, right? Well, actually, at least 750,000 of those households are “making over $312,000 in average household income.” Meanwhile, to anyone who questions this allocation of resources, the White House answer is to shame them from official White House accounts by listing how much in pandemic loans were forgiven for House Republicans who own individual small business, which is weird because the reason businesses needed pandemic relief was because the White House banned them from operating. It’s a trap! And the only answer is to pay off every Media Studies PhD student’s loan. Colleges, for their part, are now charging up to $100,000 a year. Yes, literally. And since that’s ultimately going to be paid for by the taxpayers, why work to make it less expensive? Why cut corners when you need to remodel the cafeteria?

→ Oh, RFK’s running mate: For a flash I was thinking, Am I an RFK voter? I’m a mom who worries about plastics, and no, I don’t like how our national conversation is getting so divisive these days. And those steely blue eyes. It just felt right. But this week, my love affair hit a snag. Here’s RFK’s new vice-presidential pick, Nicole Shanahan, arguing that the Covid vaccine is not just bad, that it’s not just something she personally doesn’t want and should have the freedom to choose not to take, but that it should be banned. Over to Nicole: “Here is the devastating reality: it is not a safe vaccine, and must be recalled immediately. Many people are suffering who took it.” I guess this is really the agenda: RFK Jr. might be just asking questions, but if Nicole is chief executive, it sounds like she’s going to be executing. And that looks like legally required sound baths and astrology readings. The government understands that you want to take antibiotics, but you haven’t even tried rubbing yourself in honey yet. 

→ Wow, Kari Lake comes out as really pro-choice: Kari Lake, the Republican running for Senate in Arizona, has released a video about how she disagrees with Arizona’s total abortion ban, a ban she previously supported. I’m all for mind-changing. I actually want our politicians to put their finger to the wind every once in a while. Here’s Lake: “We as American people don’t agree on everything all of the time. But if you look at where the population is on this—a full ban on abortion is not where the people are.” 

She says, “I chose life, but I’m not every woman.” She pivots to Europe, which has all those annoyingly sensible abortion laws, and which is my exact same move: “I had the opportunity to visit Hungary, and it completely changed my view of how we should deal with this complicated, difficult issue.”

Is this Kari Lake sounding normal? In case you need to be reminded of the old Kari, here she is shaking hands with a statue. 

→ Oh no, “get out the vote” helps. . . Trump? Now that young people are for Trump and old people are for Biden, there’s another switcheroo: those who vote less or have never voted are more likely to be Trumpers. Call off the Rock the Vote campaigners! Return the blue t-shirts! The new message for Democrats to win needs to be: do not register new voters. Keep on keeping on. Stay home, save lives.


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April 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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I will not spend the rest of 2024 focusing on Trump and the chaos in the Republican Party, but today it has been impossible to look away.

In Trump’s election interference trial in Manhattan, Judge Juan Merchan this morning dismissed one of the selected jurors after she expressed concern for her anonymity and thus for her safety. All of the reporters in the courtroom have shared so much information about the jurors that they seemed at risk of being identified, but Fox News Channel host Jesse Watters not only ran a video segment about a juror, he suggested she was “concerning.” Trump shared the video on social media.

The juror told the judge that so much information about her had become public that her friends and family had begun to ask her if she was one of the jurors. Legal analyst Joyce White Vance noted jurors’ fear for their safety was a concern normally seen only “in a case involving violent organized crime.”

Nonetheless, by the end of the day, twelve people had been chosen to serve as jurors. Tomorrow the process will continue in order to find six alternate jurors. 

It is a courtesy for the two sides at a trial to share with each other the names of their next witnesses so the other team can prepare for them. Today the prosecution declined to provide the names of their first three witnesses to the defense lawyers out of concern that Trump would broadcast them on social media. “Mr. Trump has been tweeting about the witnesses. We’re not telling them who the witnesses are,” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said. 

Merchan said he “can’t blame them.” Trump’s defense attorney Todd Blanche offered to “commit to the court and the [prosecution] that President Trump will not [post] about any witness” on social media. “I don’t think you can make that representation,” Merchan said, in a recognition that Trump cannot be trusted, even by his own lawyers.

An article in the New York Times today confirmed that the trial will give Trump plenty of publicity, but not the kind that he prefers. Lawyer Norman L. Eisen walked through questions about what a prison sentence for Trump could look like.

Trump’s popular image is taking a hit in other ways, as well. Zac Anderson and Erin Mansfield of USA Today reported that Trump is funneling money from his campaign fundraising directly into his businesses. According to a new report filed with the Federal Election Commission, in February and March the campaign wrote checks totaling $411,287 to Mar-a-Lago and in March a check for $62,337 to Trump National Doral Miami.

Experts say it is legal for candidates to pay their own businesses for services used by the campaign so long as they pay fair market value. At the same time, they note that since Trump appears to be desperate for money, “it looks bad.”

Astonishingly, Trump’s trial was not the biggest domestic story today. Republicans in Congress were in chaos as members of the extremist Freedom Caucus worked to derail the national security supplemental bills that House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has introduced in place of the Senate bill, although they track that bill closely. 

The House Rules Committee spent the day debating the foreign aid package, which appropriates aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan separately. The Israel bill also contains $9.1 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza and other countries. A fourth bill focuses on forcing the Chinese owners of TikTok to sell the company, as well as on imposing sanctions on Russia and Iran. 

At stake in the House Rules Committee was Johnson’s plan to allow the House to debate and vote on each measure separately, and then recombine them all into a single measure if they all pass. This would allow extremist Republicans to vote against aid to Ukraine, while still tying the pieces all together to send to the Senate. As Robert Jimison outlined in the New York Times, this complicated plan meant that the Rules Committee vote to allow such a maneuver was crucial to the bill’s passage.

The extremist House Republicans were adamantly opposed to the plan because of their staunch opposition to aid for Ukraine. They wrote in a memo on Wednesday: “This tactic allows Johnson to pass priorities favored by President Biden, the swamp and the Ukraine war machine with a supermajority of House members, leaving conservatives out to dry.”

Extremists Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Thomas Massie (R-KY) vowed to throw House speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) out of the speakership, but Democrats Tom Suozzi of New York and Jared Moskowitz of Florida have said they would vote to keep him in his seat, thereby defanging the attack on his leadership.

So the extremists instead tried to load the measures up with amendments prohibiting funds from being used for abortion, removing humanitarian aid for Gaza, opposing a two-state solution to the Hamas-Israel war, calling for a wall at the southern border of the U.S., defunding the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and so on.

Greene was especially active in opposition to aid to Ukraine. She tried to amend the bill to direct the president to withdraw the U.S. from NATO and demanded that any members of Congress voting for aid to Ukraine be conscripted into the Ukraine army as well as have their salaries taken to offset funding. She wanted to stop funding until Ukraine “turns over all information related to Hunter Biden and Burisma,” and to require Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to resign. More curiously, she suggested amending the Ukraine bill so that funding would require “restrictions on ethnic minorities’, including Hungarians in Transcarpathia, right to use their native languages in schools are lifted.” This language echoes a very specific piece of Russian propaganda.

Finally, Moskowitz proposed “that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene…should be appointed as Vladimir Putin’s Special Envoy to the United States Congress.” 

Many congress members have left Washington, D.C., since Friday was to be the first day of a planned recess. This meant the partisan majority on the floor fluctuated. Olivia Beavers of Politico reported that that instability made Freedom Caucus members nervous enough to put together a Floor Action Response Team (FART—I am not making this up) to make sure other Republicans didn’t limit the power of the extremists when they were off the floor.

The name of their response team seems likely to be their way to signal their disrespect for the entire Congress. Their fellow Republicans are returning the heat. Today Mike Turner (R-OH) referred to the extremists as the Bully Caucus on MSNBC and said, “We need to get back to professionalism, we need to get back to governing, we need to get back to legislating.” Derrick Van Orden (R-WI) told Juliegrace Brufke of Axios:  “The vast majority of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives…are sick and tired of having people who…constantly blackmail the speaker of the House.”

Another Republican representative, Jake LaTurner of Kansas, announced today he will not run for reelection. He joins more than 20 other Republican representatives heading for the exits.

After all the drama, the House Rules Committee voted 6–3 tonight to advance the foreign aid package to the House floor. Three Republicans voted nay. While it is customary for the opposition party to vote against advancing bills out of the committee, the Democrats broke with tradition and voted in favor.

Notes:

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/opinion/donald-trump-trial-prison.html

https://www.politico.com/live-updates/2024/04/18/congress/hfc-on-alert-00153097

https://www.jns.org/house-rules-committee-debates-israel-aid-package-as-house-speaker-confronts-right-flank/

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/donald-trump-new-york-court-criminal-trial/

https://www.thedailybeast.com/jesse-watters-goes-juror-by-juror-to-sow-doubt-in-trump-hush-money-case

https://www.salon.com/2024/04/18/juror-quits-over-fear-of-being-outed-after-fox-news-host-singled-her-out/

https://www.rawstory.com/jake-laturner/#cxrecs_s

https://www.cnn.com/2024/04/18/politics/mike-johnson-speakership-rules

https://www.rawstory.com/freedom-caucus-2667810851/

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8034

https://rules.house.gov/bill/118/hr-8035

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2024/04/18/trump-campaign-funnels-money-to-his-businesses/73344744007/

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/mike-johnson-gaetz-motion-to-vacate-ukraine

https://www.axios.com/2024/04/18/jake-laturner-retire-house-gop-kansas

https://www.axios.com/2024/03/27/house-members-retiring-quitting-productivity

https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/18/us/politics/house-israel-ukraine-aid-package-explainer.html

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April 17, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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