Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008.
The illusion never dies. That this time, because of our laser guided bombs, or smart munitions, or GPS assisted targeting, the military operation will be different. We won’t carpet-bomb like the Russians or as in Vietnam: we’ll be precise. We’ll use surgical strikes to eliminate collateral damage. Like the designers of a welfare reform programme aimed at the poor, we’ll separate the deserving from the undeserving dead.
Its spell was strongest in Kosovo. The 19 democracies that then composed the NATO alliance were engaged in protecting people from the depredations of Milosevic’s death squads and ethnic cleansers. The air campaign’s rhythm was slow, directed not mainly at the Yugoslav Army’s mechanised formations (largely hidden to avoid being bombed), or even at the militia carrying out massacres of Kosovo Albanians, but at stationary targets of the military and civil infrastructure of Milosevic’s state. Aiming largely at fixed targets, NATO could allow itself time to consult lawyers, public relations specialists, and even railway timetables, before selecting those to be hit. Though, in a tragic accident, a railway bridge at Novi Sad was hit just as a train crossed it, the circumstances had been set for as close to a surgical military campaign as could be allowed.
Yet, even then, innocent Serbian civilians, including children, were killed. Their infrastructure was destroyed and people’s livelihoods harmed irreparably. Opponents of Milosevic’s dictatorship suffered together with its supporters.
It is much more difficult to live up to those standards when your enemy has chosen to fight a guerrilla war concealing military installations in hospitals, schools and civilian houses, and using hit-and-run tactics for its offensive operations. So with Hamas rocket launches. Though some are launched from open areas, many are not. If attacks are to be mounted against the launch sites, Israeli officers must to make extremely quick decisions about whether, and indeed where, to hit back. Quite frequently they will make mistakes, acting on outdated or inaccurate intelligence, or arriving a best guess based on partial information.
Ground operations are even harder. Artillery shells and mortars can’t be aimed in time with sufficient accuracy in the middle of urban combat. Though the age distribution of Palestinian dead suggests that the commonly circulating numbers of civilians killed are exaggerated, a lot of entirely innocent Gazans have been killed and injured. Nothing will bring them back or make them whole.
Israeli spokesmen, as is their job, will attribute their death and misery to Hamas’s policy and tactics. The merit of their claims, or lack thereof, is not the relevant concern. Kosovo allowed us to imagine the comfortable illusion of a just war, where we could be satisfied, or come as close to being satisfied as realistic expectations of how human beings under pressure behave, that only the deserving were killed; or that if the undeserving had been killed, this was because of the moral turpitude of our enemy, who hid behind human shields, and made the job of avoiding civilian casualties impossible.
But justice can’t be the right measure for war. War is an enterprise that creates conditions where people will very often not receive what they are due: to put it baldly, the wrong people will be killed. Other men and women will be responsible for killing the wrong people, whether directly, or by selecting targets, or interpreting intelligence.
Is that building from which it is estimated that there is a 80 per cent chance that a rocket was fired at your grandmother’s village still a school? Some reports from reasonably reliable sources suggest it was converted into a warehouse last April. But isn’t April an odd time to close a school down? You have 25 seconds, and another 72 possible sites to analyse in the next 15 minutes.
The important moral question in a war isn’t justice but necessity. What are the tactical alternatives? A conventional rule of thumb is that it’s morally preferable to send ground troops in than to bomb from the air, but is that still valid if the bombs are laser guided and the neighbourhood covered with booby traps, leading to high intensity combat among civilians in which precise decisions about where to fire are almost impossible to make? Then, what are the strategic ones? Is there another way of meeting your war aim? Are there diplomatic means to avoid fighting at all?
If we are, as many of us have been, focusing on Israel’s conduct, these are questions about necessity are the right ones to ask. We may rather have a world in which Hamas didn’t behave as it did. And a properly conceived peace process, as part of which Israel began to uproot settlements, may stand a chance of marginalising them – but none of that applies to the war in Gaza. The Islamists appear either determined to fight to the very end, and sign up to ceasefires as a ruse, or to be incapable of imposing the discipline to prevent any breaches of them. Not fighting Hamas isn’t an option for any Israeli government (the Iron Dome improved people’s chance of surviving attack; it doesn’t prevent them and their attendant disruption). Peace moves, though defensible in their own right, are unlikely to make Hamas more inclined to negotiate. In the past, the reverse has been true, for Hamas derives its distinctiveness from its rejectionism: “So called peace is a surrender to the occupier; the only solution is resistance.”
The outcome is a great deal of injustice done to the people of Gaza. Though Israel can choose tactics to reduce it, it cannot eliminate it because the preponderance of its tactical military power does not make it all powerful politically.
If you believe Israel’s tactics are wrong, or excessively brutal, by all means argue that they are, and suggest alternatives if you know of them. But to claim that it can, through its own actions end this war is to demand the impossible and to abdicate the responsibility to deal with the world as we find it. The Judaeo-Christian and Islamic traditions mankind hold that mankind was condemned to undertake this responsibility once Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden of Eden. The more secular among us call it growing up.