Gaza and the Face of Modern War
According to the New York Times, the United Nations estimates between 320 and 390 people have been killed in ongoing Israeli air raids in Gaza, some percentage of whom are civilians. In the antiseptic language of military affairs, they are “collateral damage,” which means their deaths were unintended but just happened as part of the normal course of war.
Civilians innocent of anything other than being in the middle of a war zone at the wrong time have always been among the victims of warfare, of course. Conventions on warfare (e.g. the Geneva Accords) intone that purposely targeting and, in effect, executing civilians is a war crime, and when that targeting is egregiously obvious (e.g. the Holocaust, the Rwandan rampage, Darfur), charges of war crimes are brought and sometimes adjudicated and the guilty punished. When, however, the intent is not so obvious and those committing the acts that lead to civilian deaths can argue collateral damage witrh some plausibility, the matter becomes more ambiguous and the likelihood that wear crimes will be alleged decrease. This is, of course, of far greater confort to the perpetrators than it is to the victims, who are eqaully dead if their demises were on purpose or not.
The bombing of Gaza is the most recent vivid example of this aspect of modern war. The degree to which non-combatants are killed in warfare has been steadily rising since the beginning of the twentieth century (at least): in World War I, for instance, less than one in five of those killed was a non-combatant; in contemporary internal (civil) wars, as many as nine in ten victims are civilians.
The airplane has made attacking and killing people without specifically intending to slaughter the innocent more plausible and impersonal. One of the virtues that the scions of airpower extolled when airpower theory was being developed is the ability of airplanes to bypass the battlefield by flying over it and attacking the enemy’s “vital centers” directly. In antiseptic terms, this was meant to emphasize attacking the ability of societies to make wars by destroying weapons and munitions plants or petrochemical plants, for instance. Unfortunately, many of these “military” targets are located in urban areas where non-combatants live. When military targets are bombed from the air, some of them miss and kill civilians. Oops! Collateral damage!
Contemporary uses of airpower have been intended to reduce collateral damage by making bombing sorties much more accurate and thus limiting the amount of collateral damage. The term “surgical” is often used to suggest that enemy military targets in populated areas can be excised without damaging or detroying surrounding elements of the environment like innocent civilians. This is the argument made by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is also the argument being made by the Israelis in Gaza.
The problem is that no matter how hard one tries, bombing will never be so “surgical” that it eliminates collateral damage altogether, and that when innocents are inadvertently murdered in the process, bad consequences follow for the bombers. One such bad consequence is that the victims are inflamed by the results, increasing their hatred of the bombers and thus their will to continue to resist. That dynamic is apparently occurring in the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and Iraq the United States is bombing, and it is happening in Gaza. Another adverse consequence is that international opinion is unfavorably affected by the killing of innocents (imagine that!). Israel, as usual, is being pummeled internationally for its efforts and is stoically defending itself by saying, in effect, “accidents happen.” That defense does not play well around the world.
Those who are the intended targets of modern war understand these dynamics and take advantage of them. Hamas, for instance, imbeds itself in the highly dense urban areas of Gaza (one of the most densely populated places on the earth) because it knows the only way Israel can attack it is to risk–even guaranteee-collateral damage. The Israelis argue it is worth the cost; most outsiders are not so sure or disagree.
Israel’s enemies have it over a barrel because of this dynamic. Israel may or may not be justified in attacking Hamas over ceasefire violations or terrorist rocket and mortar launchings, but its available means of retaliation–the bombings of Gaza–are almost guaranteed to defeat its purposes. International opinion has, predictably, turned against Israel as the collateral damage increases, and the the ever higher piles of body-strewn rubble will likely increase, rather than decrease, support for Hamas and opposition to Israel in Gaza. Relentless electronic coverage of the spectacle only amplifies the effect. This is truly a lose-lose situation for the Israelis.
Given the history of Israel as a “garrison society” besieged by its enemies and having fought multiple times for its existence over the past 60 years, you would think the Israelis would have thought through the consequences of what they are doing, but apparently they have not. The Israelis continue to adhere to the conventional view that you can beat your enemies into submission, but that position is not so clearly true in modern warfare. It is especially true when the issue of collateral damage raises its head.