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Some lessons from a just war wrongly waged



Some Lessons from a Just War Fought Unjustly

The terrible ‘accidental’ killing of seven aid workers in Gaza offers many lessons. One of these is the importance of communicating the moral principles that are expected to be followed. A week after the barbaric attack on Israeli civilians, I wrote:

The basic individualist ethic fostered by Western civilization rejects group identities and tribal intuitions that justify collective punishment. In times of war, the individualist ethic may be difficult to uphold by those waging just defensive war, but its recognition is essential as a benchmark for distinguishing collectivist barbarians from civilized individualists. Just as it makes no sense to hold Israelis responsible for the barbaric attack of which they were victims, it makes no sense to view ordinary residents of Gaza, under the yoke of Hamas violence, as collectively guilty and as creators of their own accident.

Two months later, after three Israeli hostages were killed by the army sent to free them, I wrote more explicitly (I apologize for quoting myself again):

A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, within certain moral constraints. After October 7, the Israeli government should have proclaimed this principle as loudly as the calls for revenge were heard, and tried to lead by example.

It would not have been too late for the Israeli government to make clear, and begin to reiterate, that it was not seeking collective punishment regardless of guilt, and that it intended to uphold the laws of war, the Western individualist ethic and to respect simple human ethics. decency towards citizens. It was probably still time for the Israeli government to retain the moral support of decent people in the international community and send a strong message of moral restraint to its armed forces. Thousands of civilian lives in Gaza would have been saved. The chance of “unintentionally” killing emergency workers would have been smaller. The Israelis would not have wasted so much of their sympathy capital. Moral principles are a good strategy.

There is also a lesson to be learned about the circulation of information as the Financial times is correct:

The fatal attacks followed a series of incorrect assumptions that could have been avoided if the military had properly communicated details of the humanitarian convoy to the commanders who ultimately ordered the attacks. World Central Kitchen had shared these details with the appropriate military authorities, but they were lost somewhere in the communications chain, the investigation found.

Students of bureaucracy know that there is a lot of noise in the internal communications of any large organization. The military is a big bureaucracy, a point Gordon Tullock emphasized. Anthony Downs, one of the first public choice economists, noted this in his 1967 book Within the bureaucracy:

When information has to be passed through many officials, each of whom condenses it somewhat before passing it on to the next, the final output will be very different in quality from the original input; that is, significant distortion will occur.

In an agency hierarchy, information passed upward to the highest ranking officials tends to be distorted so that it more closely reflects what he would like to hear, or his preconceived notions, than reality justifies.

Soldiers and officers on the ground do not receive the exact same orders issued at the top of the pyramid. Identifying moral principles could have clarified communication about the required moral restraint.

The Israeli military apologized to the World Central Kitchen, which included the slain aid workers, and said it had “dismissed two officers and reprimanded three,” the Israeli military said. Financial times. This does not seem to be enough to compensate for the many mistakes the Israeli government has committed during this war. Of course, we are still waiting for the remaining leaders of Hamas to condemn those who participated in or organized the October 7 massacre. Their refusal to do so and their use of their people as an innocent shield should not make us forget that, as the US Secretary of State rightly said, the State of Israel should be held to “higher standards.”

All this presupposes that the Israeli government wants to be held to higher standards. The economist writes (“What Israel’s killing of aid workers means for Gaza“, April 3, 2024):

Isaac Herzog, the Israeli president, called Mr. Andrés [the founder of the World Central Kitchen] and expressed “deep sadness.” The army chief promised a thorough investigation (although Israel has a poor track record in that area). The Israeli prime minister was less contrite: In a bizarre videotaped statement, a smiling Netanyahu said he was recovering well from hernia surgery and then acknowledged the “tragic event” in Gaza. “This happens in a war,” he said. …

For months, Netanyahu has refused to order the Israeli army to distribute aid in Gaza itself.


The featured image of my post is from DALL-E, working under my instructions. As they put it: “the images show Ker, the goddess of death in Greek mythology, walking through the remains of a city destroyed by aerial bombardment…”

Ker, the Greek goddess of death, at work in Gaza