Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

Us vs. Them

So I was listening to BBC World Service this morning, which was focused on the expanding mess around Israel's borders. And it occasioned a variety of musings on the subject of War. Note that the following is more questions than answers, and some of those questions are hard. I'm following those questions down some uncomfortable paths.

Note the asymmetry of these recent battles. Al Qaeda attacks the US; the US attacks Afghanistan and Iraq. Hamas attacks Israel; Israel attacks Gaza. Hizbullah attacks Israel; Israel attacks Lebanon. That characterization is a bit over-simplified, but I think that in most peoples' eyes, that's the way things are playing out. And related to that last point, you've got Bush giving a press conference, implicitly blaming Syria for the Hizbullah attacks; that isn't wholly preposterous, but it's not nearly as correct as it would have been ten years ago. Throughout, it shows that governments think mainly in terms of battling other governments, when the reality is much more complex.

A variety of officials, especially from Europe, have been castigating Israel for the way it's been responding to things in recent weeks; the one getting the airplay this morning was the French ambassador to the UN calling the Israeli response "disproportionate". And that's both true and false, I think. Really, it kind of misses the point.

Warfare is *always* disproportionate in this way. What we really mean by "disproportionate" is "you're responding by hurting innocent civilians". But that's always true. We like to indulge in this myth of the "good war", where it's fought entirely between soldiers and we never hurt innocents, but in practice that never happens -- there are always people who get caught in the crossfire. The Western concept of War is that hurting civilians is always an evil and wrong thing to do, but the philosophical justification is weak (what is the difference, morally, between a shooting at a draftee or a civilian?), and it's pretty clear that many people do *not* draw that neat line in the sand. When you declare War, you are implicitly saying that you will be hurting some innocents.

Mind, I'm not justifying the current mess. Rather, I think it provides a fine chance to reflect on the nature of War in general, and the groups that wage it. Because what we're talking about *is* War in almost every meaningful sense. The only thing that's changed is the nature of the players -- and those haven't changed as much as we might think.

War is always about "Us vs. Them" -- it always comes down to tribalism in some form. However, the sides used to be more distinct. The modern conception of warfare is deeply rooted in the nation-state, and nation-states are fairly easy to define; the better defined the borders, the easier it is to understand the war. Even civil wars and ideological wars tend to get simplified to match geographic boundaries, as much as we can.

The problem is, warfare is now increasingly decentralized. The entities fighting still usually claim to represent their "people", but the ones initiating the combat typically aren't the governments of the nation-states; frequently, they aren't even groups trying to become governments. Sometimes the combatants really are just proxies for a national government, but frequently they're at odds with the nominal leaders of the nation, or at least maintain an indifferent relationship.

Now here's the really interesting question: how legitimate are these entities? Do they have the same moral authority to wage war in the name of their tribe that we usually grant to governments? The usual Western gut instinct is to say "no", but it's not really so obvious. I mean, how much moral authority does the US government have in Iraq? When the war started, it was supported by the majority of citizens -- does that imply that those citizens are, morally, legitimate targets of counter-attack, since they in a sense authorized the war? Does it mean that citizens who did *not* want that war are legitimate targets, if they grant the American majority-rule model? Why are they *not* morally culpable, and thus legitimate targets?

Now apply those same questions to the current mess surrounding Israel. Does Hizbullah represent the people of Lebanon? They would probably claim that they do, and some citizens would probably agree, but the government and other citizens do not. Do their attacks justify counter-attacks against the citizens of Lebanon? If you say that they do (and Israel's counter-attacks that hit civilian targets can be construed that way), are you granting a measure of government-style legitimacy to Hizbullah?

Sharpen the point further, and look at Iraq. Much of the populace does not consider the government to legitimately represent them; some would consider some faction or another of the "insurgency" to more appropriately represent them. Does that make them legitimate targets of the war that that insurgency keeps fomenting? How are they any more or less legitimate as targets than those in conventional warfare?

And here's the nastiest question of all: if you treat these tribal entities as if they were legitimate wings of the government, and consider an attack from any of them to be equivalent to a declaration of war by the nation-state, how the hell do you ever *stop* such a war?

It's kind of nauseating when you start to deconstruct the whole mess. Once you start down the road of having a "war" against something so ill-defined, it exposes the tenuous nature of governmental authority, the blurry lines between nation and tribe, and the equally blurry lines of what constitutes a morally legitimate target. Most of all, it illustrates how little separates the idea of "War" from simply being tribes in a Hobbesian state of nature...
Tags: politics
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