Proportionality in Wars with Terrorists

August 1, 2006 | by | Topic: Military & Foreign PolicyPrint Print

The scale of violence in warfare inevitably rises to meet the level of objectives. During World War II, Germany’s strategic objectives included dominating Eurasia from the Baltic to the Mediterranean and from the English Channel to the Urals along with racial purification to achieve a “Jew-free Europe.” Japan’s objectives in Asia were just as encompassing. The major combatant nations mobilized totally in a struggle between entire societies in which civilian deaths exceeded combatant deaths by at least four-to-one. Nazi Germany and Japan murdered civilians as a matter of policy, with the German work and death camp system accounting for over 12,000,000 deaths, six million of which resulted from ethnic cleansing of Jews, Slavs, Gypsies and other “untermenchen.” Millions of others died at the hands of German and Japanese occupation forces.

By comparison, civilian casualties were (for the most part) coincidental to Allied strategies, the Red Army’s rampages through Poland, Austria and eastern Germany notwithstanding. Allied strategic bombing, including the fire-bombings of Hamburg, Dresden and a handful of Japanese cities, and the atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, accounted for approximately 1.5 million of the three million German, Japanese and Italian civilians who perished. That is one-fourth the numbers of innocents intentionally murdered by the Nazi work/death camp system alone.

The tragic deaths of fifty-seven innocents at Kfar Qana in southern Lebanon raised the issue of “proportionality” with Israel charged from many quarters with the disproportionate use of force. Indeed, attention focused on the incident at Qana could affect the strategic outcome if a ceasefire takes hold before the Israeli Defense Forces decisively defeat—preferably annihilate—Hezbollah.

Overwhelming force to achieve a total war aim is the stuff of total war. In the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln understood that if the Southern rebellion was not crushed the union of states would be undone with the bifurcation of the Republic. Accordingly, during the war’s closing months, General Grant hurled his armies at the Army of Northern Virginia incurring—but also inflicting—horrendous casualties until the rebels were incapable of further resistance. Meanwhile, General Sherman’s “March to the Sea” eviscerated the South, economically striking at its political center of gravity in the strongly secessionist states of Georgia and South Carolina. The totality of objective was the preservation of the United States and it garnered a butcher’s bill tallying half of all Americans killed in wars from colonial times to the present.

Hezbollah, along with the Palestinian groups Hamas, al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade and Islamic Jihad, are devoted to the annihilation of Israel, a goal shared by Syria and Iran. Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist group controlled by Iran, also seeks the destruction of the United States, according its goals with those of its sponsors in Teheran. Al Qaeda, which declared war on the United States in 1996, has as its ultimate objective the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate. This means that despite the antipathy between Sunni al Qaeda and Shiite Iran and its surrogate Hezbollah, these groups and nations share similar total war objectives. Couple that with access to weapons of mass destruction, especially the nukes Iran is intent on acquiring, and the future looks very ominous.

Any ceasefire in this war, including one in the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah and Hamas, will be temporary. Such a respite is viable only if it works to the military and strategic advantage of Israel and the United States. Growing sympathy for the sufferings of the Lebanese people must be tempered with the understanding that Lebanon accommodated Hezbollah socially and politically while Beirut did nothing to prevent Hezbollah from attacking Israel from its border strongholds. Dance with the devil; you pay the devil his due.

Additionally, Israel and the United States must not be dissuaded by the argument that the Arab world will “turn on us” if Israeli operations in Lebanon continue. Walid Phares of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies estimates that, of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, some 300,000,000 to varying degrees support al Qaeda’s goals of defeating the West and establishing a world-wide Islamic caliphate while hundreds of millions of other Muslims—if they do not desire the obliteration of the Judeo-Christian West—certainly want the destruction of Israel. The rest of the world’s Muslim population must decide if they are with us or the Islamic Jihadists.

There can be no accommodations with fanatics devoted to our demise. Some Jihadists, though not the most fanatical, can be deterred if they understand that their attacks will be met with immediate, overwhelming and deadly force. The price they pay for attacking innocents must be vastly disproportionate to any perceived gains. War, best described by Sherman as “all hell,” is not a game. Death is inherently total … and decisive.

In this war, Israel, the United States and other Western liberal democracies cannot afford passivity in response to terrorism. Prevention and pre-emption make for two edges of a single strategic sword. We must be hunters because, if we are not the hunters, we surely will be the hunted.

Earl H. Tilford

Earl H. Tilford

Dr. Earl Tilford is a military historian and fellow for the Middle East & terrorism with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He currently lives in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where he is writing a history of the University of Alabama in the 1960s. A retired Air Force intelligence officer, Dr. Tilford earned his PhD in American and European military history at George Washington University. From 1993 to 2001, he served as Director of Research at the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute. In 2001, he left Government service for a professorship at Grove City College, where he taught courses in military history, national security, and international and domestic terrorism and counter-terrorism.

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