The Corner

National Security & Defense

The U.N. Report on the Gaza Conflict and the Elasticity of Moral Conduct in War

On Monday, the press reported on the U.N.investigation of the 2014 Gaza conflict. Today, the press had two stories about the Pentagon’s view of rules of engagement. The contrast between the two is startling.

‐In the Gaza conflict, Hamas fired 7,000 rockets and mortar shells, killing 6 Israeli civilians.

‐Israel launched 6,000 air strikes and 50,000 tank and artillery shells, killing 800 Palestinian women and children.

The actions on both sides illustrate the elasticity of the moral concepts underlying the rules for warfare. Hamas launches rockets solely to induce fear and to kill civilians. On the other hand, an Israeli response of 100 to 1 is not proportionate, as it is supposed to be under the just war concept. So what’s going on here? An existential war between enemies who detest each other.

By comparison, we are waging a highly “moral” war (oxymoron?) against the Islamist fanatics who intend to kill us. This extraordinary restraint or higher morality is illustrated by two stories in today’s press.

‐The Army at Fort Bragg has convened a board to decide if a Special Forces major should be thrown out of the Army. In a polygraph taken at the CIA (that was recruiting him), he said he killed an Afghan IED bomb-maker who had murdered two Marines assigned to the major’s unit. In three years of investigation, Army investigators found no corroborating evidence. And the CIA refused to release the video of the polygraph. With no evidence for a trial, the Army took back the major’s awards for courage and convened a board to throw him out.

‐For the past several weeks, pilots have complained that they were ordered not to strike ISIS convoys. Today, the press reported that the Pentagon is vigorously defending its centralized command system for authorizing or denying every single air strike in Iraq. Pilots are not trusted to make that decision. Nor are the unnamed spotters on the ground talking to the pilots. Only command centers far from the ground target can decide whether to strike.

This tells us that the American way of war is the most restrained, considerate, and legalistic in the history of armed conflicts. We are — what? — 20 times more moral than when we fought the Japanese and ten times more moral than when we fought the North Vietnamese. We seek a war in which no civilian and no enemy not in the exact act of killing us is at risk. Are we going too far when every infantry battalion embeds a lawyer in the operations center to advise whether it is lawful to call in an air strike, regardless of what those on the front lines are saying?

If we ever again commit to hard combat against our enemies, the manner in which our military system now imposes its will from the top down, often retroactively, will have to be rescinded. The current set of restrictions, each imposed to insure jurisprudence morality, is incompatible with war-fighting against any future formidable foe. 

Bing West — Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College. A graduate ...

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