(an interlude in the discussion of Osama Bin Laden’s interesting argument)
Corey Robin denounces as “casuistry” and “the higher sociopathy” an attempt by Yishai Schwartz to justify the Israeli invasion of Gaza. Schwartz’s argument has the character of the public defense of Allied tactics during World War II, the one still widely accepted today, if also attacked by revisionists: not that the Germans or Japanese were forced to undergo a retributive and collective punishment, but that fighting them by apparently immoral or unjustifiable means could be justified according to a higher end. In what Robin calls “the gruesome final paragraph,” Schwartz sums up his view as follows:
We can say that there is a principle worth fighting and dying for: Civilians cannot be used to make just wars impossible and morality will not be used as a tool to disarm. And once we have that principle, the proportionality calculation changes. The deaths of innocents are not simply outweighed by Israelis’ right to live without daily rockets and terrorists tunneling into a kibbutz playground; but by the defense of a world in which terrorists cannot use morality to achieve victory over those who try to fight morally. It is the protection of that world, one in which moral soldiers still have a fighting chance, that justifies Israel’s operations against Hamas today. And it is that greater cause that decisively outweighs the terrible toll in innocent life.
To reach this conclusion, Schwartz lays out a practical logic for balancing today’s horrors against the fate of a possibly moral world:
[I]f Israel declines to fight, we live in a world where terror groups use their own civilians, and twist morality itself, to bind the hands of those who try to fight morally. In this world, cruelty is an advantage, and the moral are powerless in the face of aggression and indiscriminate attack. And make no mistake: The eyes of the world are on Hamas, and terrorist groups worldwide will—as they have for generations—learn from the tactics of Gazan terrorists and the world’s reaction. So if Israel allows Hamas’ human shields to defeat it now, we will all reap the results in the years to come.
Though in substance Schwartz’s point reduces to a traditional claim – that arguments with those who speak the language of brutality must be won in that same language, or simply lost – Robin, writing on behalf of “normal” people, treats it as an absurd new departure in warmongering:
The Gaza war, you see, is not a war over tunnels. It’s not even a war in defense of Israel. It’s a war about…war, a war in defense of just war. Once upon a time, crackpots thought they were fighting a war to end all wars. That was its justice. Now they’re fighting a war in order to make just war possible. That is its justice.
The theory of just war is supposed to impose limits upon the launching and fighting of wars. It’s a condition of, a constraint upon, war. But here it becomes the end—both the aim and the justification—of war. Because that is the aim of Israel’s war, “civilians cannot be used” to make such a war “impossible.” They must instead be used to make it possible.
Robin’s argument might carry more weight if the alternative to this war on behalf of moral war were no war at all, a position that numerous opponents to the Israeli action adopt, if not always explicitly: The focus on de-contextualized incidents, or on their character, evokes sufficient reflexive horror for polemical purposes, as in the charts that count the deaths pictograph by pictograph, as first, I believe, in the UK’s Independent, and now in the Washingon Post:
That the alternative to the deaths of civilians is simple peace seems not to be what the Israelis believe – or even what they believed prior to the uncovering of tunnels extending into Israeli territory and plans, we are told, to use them to great effect – nor is peace what the enthusiasts of the Islamic Resistance Movement, aka Hamas, put on offer, since the furthest Hamas has gone in its offers to the Zionist entity has been for a hudna, suspension not cessation of hostilities. That the alternative would be simply peace also seems belied by events in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya, which, for certainly complex reasons, as to whose proper configuration and order of priority we may differ, have not motivated the Washington Post or UK Independent to produce similar charts, or prompted thousands to march in the streets of European capitals.
The apparent sophistry of immoral war for the sake of moral war, so moral, will be, to say the least, problematic, but moralized and therefore constrained war is not a trivial project, unless one considers the fate of the nations or of civilization a trivial matter, since unconstrained war in the nuclear age has been thought finally unsurvivable for the nations or for civilization or possibly for the planet in some sense. Without going into the long and abused history of Just War concepts, we can say that the notion of moral war is the idea of a legalized, rules-based, rights-protecting international order. Whether maintenance of such an order is interesting enough to leftist intellectuals for them to fight and sacrifice for it, with the understanding that any such fight and sacrifice must sooner or later violate or contradict its essential idea, is not always clear. Many seem to have instead concluded that the logic of stubborn support for Israel in America remains strong, if subject to erosion, on the basis of an unjustified, implicitly racist or racialized comprehension of Israel’s predicament whose intolerably ugly intolerance naturally arises most dramatically in Israel itself. This view will make little impression on Israelis, who are said to support Israeli policy in overwhelming numbers, nor on Israel’s supporters in the United States, who will resort to their familiar reality principle: Israel as condemned to deal with facts, including the racialized or collectivized facts, up close and without margin for error, rather than with the ideals at a relatively comfortable distance.
We will not produce by philosophy an obligation on one side or the other regarding today’s tactics in Gaza or the long-term existence or bare possibility of, as the phrase goes, a both Jewish and democratic state, but that may also be the problem that both sides feel obligated to address by other means.