Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Michael Walzer on killing civilians in war

Michael Walzer is the editor of Dissent magazine and a Princeton philosopher who is known for his scholarly work on Just War theory. I provide a longer version of this post elsewhere. But I wanted to flag an article by him just published in a briefer version here. His arguments in the article are very similar to those of the neoconservatives, though he's not typically counted in their number. He opposed the Iraq War, though his arguments against it largely accepted the neocon case for the threat Iraq posed.

His new article is in the Spring 2009 issue of the Army War College's Parameters, Responsibility and Proportionality in State and Nonstate Wars. It's perspective seems very different, even contradictory, to a current piece that he co-authored with Avishai Margalit, Israel: Civilians & Combatants New York Review of Books 05/14/09 edition.

The New York Review piece is a commentary on the article "Assassination and Preventive Killing" by Asa Kasher and Amos Yadlin SAIS Review of International Affairs (Winter-Spring 2005). Kasher was an adviser Israeli Defense Force (IDF) College of National Defense, and Yadlin the military attaché of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Though their article includes the disclaimer that they were not speaking in an official capacity, they focus particularly on the Israeli context. And they make what boils down to an argument that the IDF shouldn't worry about enemy civilian casualties in its wars and military actions.


Margalit and Walzer sort through their argument and oppose it:

This is the guideline we advocate: Conduct your war in the presence of noncombatants on the other side with the same care as if your citizens were the noncombatants. A guideline like that should not seem strange to people who are guided by the counterfactual line from the Passover Haggadah, "In every generation, a man must regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt."
And they argue:

There is nothing unusual in this demand, and nothing unique to Israel. When soldiers in Afghanistan, or Sri Lanka, or Gaza take fire from the rooftop of a building, they should not pull back and call for artillery or air strikes that may destroy most or all of the people in or near the building; they should try to get close enough to the building to find out who is inside or to aim directly at the fighters on the roof. Without a willingness to fight in that way, Israel's condemnation of terrorism and of the use of human shields by its enemies rings hollow; no one will believe it.
Yet in the Parameters article, Walzer makes an argument that sounds more like the Kasher-Yadlin position. His Parameters article sounds like a general justification for not worrying too much about the number of civilians killed in combat zones. And he also puts it in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which heavily influences the thinking of many American policymakers toward the Middle East and counterinsurgency - and just just the neocons.

He uses a philosophical argument about "responsibility" being more important in the issue of civilian casualties in war than "proportionality". And he uses it as an argument to say (pretty much explicitly) that The Terrorists are responsible for any civilian casualties Israel or the United States may cause in fighting The Terrorists in Gaza, Lebanon or Afghanistan. He does say that the "free fire zones" that were used in the Vietnam War, in which any human being there was considered to be a legitimate target for lethal force, aren't morally acceptable. But, then, that's safe enough to argue now, because that experience isn't being used prominently as a justification for current practices by the US or Israel. And Walzer's own argument effectively declares Gaza, Lebanon and Afghanistan free-fire zones for the US and Israel.

It really makes me wonder why he wrote the article with Avishai Margalit at around the same time. Because he is really making a very similar argument to the one he an Margalit are refuting in their piece for the New York Review. Although I was surprised in reading the NY Review piece that Walzer was one of the co-authors; I was thinking at the time that he seems to be changing his outlook. But the Parameters article suggests otherwise.

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