The Myth of Proportionality in Retaliation

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Pablo Edronkin

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Recently, in the conflicts of Georgia and Gaza many people said that there was a lack of proportionality between the Georgian and Palestinian attacks and the military responses of Russia and Israel, but is it reasonable to expect proportionality in such cases?

War is a very unpleasant thing and the best remedy against it is not to start one, but if you absolutely think that you have to do one, you should carefully ponder its consequences because the damage and destruction might well become irreversible.

There is no doubt that the brief war that erupted in the Caucasus in 2008 was started by the Georgians when they attacked South Ossetia. No matter how good or bad or justifiable the reasons of each side in this conflict are, the fact is that the Georgians took the dispute to a higher level of violence by initiating the attack and prompting a swift and decisive Russian response. There is no doubt either that Hamas militants broke a long truce in Gaza and southern Israel and starting launching hundreds of rockets into the towns of the Jewish nation, only to attract to themselves and Gaza a ferocious answer from the Israelis.

In both cases it is difficult to separate good and evil, to say who started or why those conflict long ago, or what degree of reason any of both sides has. Critiques and recriminatory arguments are targeted both towards the Russians and Israelis based on possible violations of war conventions - oddly, their respective enemies receive little attention in the same sense despite the fact that they fight in the same terms - and the alleged lack of proportion between their armies and the forces for Hamas or the Georgians; in other words the Russians and Israelis are accused of being professional boxers and fighting as such.

The only problem with this fair-play argument is that war is not sports, it is neither boxing nor a football match in which both adversaries play by the same rules or with the same number of athletes. War is the quest for imposing one's will over your enemy by means of violent means, and it is sometimes initiated by those who feel strong because they think that it will be easier to achieve their goals, or by those that are weaker, either because they are not so weak as believed, or because they miscalculate, like it happened in the case of Georgians and Hamas leaders.

In a war you manage your resources in order to reduce as much as possible the damage you suffer, and to destroy in the most efficient manner the resources of your enemy. In order to achieve both goals you use your arsenals in offensive and defensive actions, and the more you have and the better you manage those resources, generally the results obtained are the better for you. Thus, if you are a General of an army at war and your enemy has cannons with a range of 15 km, and you have missiles that reach 100 km, would you limit yourself to launching your weapons at 15 km at most? If your enemy has ten cannons and you have a hundred missiles, would you se just ten or throw as much as needed to accomplish your mission? Obviously, you would not reduce your possibilities granting more to your enemy because war is not a contest of good manners. History shows that unless a commander makes a mistake. Armies in a better position tend to exploit their advantages, including firepower.

It would also be very difficult if not downrightly impossible to establish some sort of proportionality: the only that can be reasonably settled is a definition of war crimes, and in this regard it is very important to differentiate between the use of a more potent arsenal and the actual perpetration of crimes because both things are not the same, and the fact that when crimes against humanity should be investigated because there are indications on that direction, both sides, the strongest and the weakest must be investigated because for that to happen a lot of hatred should have been brewing for long and that is a shared feeling: You don't need a great arsenal to commit genocide, and we only need to remember the wars of the Balkans to ponder that.

Now suppose that someone enters your house with a knife in his hand. You have a knife on top of a table right next to you, and a pistol in your bedroom. What would you do? Go and grab the pistol or just use the knife in order to keep some degree of proportionality between you and your attacker? Now, think that rockets fall on your garden, coming from the country next to yours. Would you just fire rockets to keep up the pace or ask your government to send armoured divisions to blow the rocketeers out of existence? In other words: Would you limit your own odds of survival to favour the person that actually wants to kill you?

From remote times armies have tried to use new technologies against their enemies without even considering anything approaching the idea of fairness or reciprocity: what's more, in many occasions such technologies have been used as bad surprises for other armies like the Persian did at the city of Dura against the Romans, when they used for the first time ever weapons of mass destruction in the form of toxic gases. Since the surprise factor is fundamental in tactics, that states obviously that proportionality is a concept that bears no importance in this case. If during war proportionality were an absolute principle, then the United States would not have bombed Germany and Japan during WWII simply because neither the Germans nor the Japanese bombed the soil of the U.S.A.; the argument of proportionality is frankly childish, and to think that one can initiate a war in which a more powerful enemy would abide to alleged rules of proportionality to one's own advantage is imprudently stupid.

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