Proportionality in warfare

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Outchanter
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Proportionality in warfare

Postby Outchanter » Sun Jan 04, 2009 12:34 pm UTC

A lot of people seem to use an intuitive definition of proportionality in warfare: that the civilian casualties on either side shouldn't be significantly higher than the civilian casualties on the other side. But the actual definition, from international law, doesn't say that:

The incidental (i.e.- unintended) harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated by an attack on a military objective.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proportionality_(law)#International_law

Which definition makes more sense, the intuitive one or the legal one? One problem with the intuitive definition is that civilian casualties on one side could be used to justify deliberate civilian casualties on the other side. But the official version is also problematic because it seems to justify any number of civilian casualties if the military advantage is judged great enough.

Neither formulation gives a quantitative comparison, which means that in any war, people holding different biases are unlikely to agree on whether or not proportionality was actually observed.

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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Pez Dispens3r » Sun Jan 04, 2009 1:58 pm UTC

I don't agree that the former definition of proportionality you provided is the intuitive definition. It stands to reason that if one country is invading another, civilian casualties will be significantly different on one side than another. The official one seems to restrict the excessive use of force if one force has a significant advantage over the other. The Russian invasion of Georgia might be a good example: a certain level of civilian casualties would have been expected, with the Russians rolling in hard and fast. But if they'd carpet bombed cities for the hell of it, then it would breach the official definition.

EDITED first sentence to make it clearer what I was saying.
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Maurog » Sun Jan 04, 2009 2:20 pm UTC

The intuitive one gets really weird once you try to apply it to a large country vs. small country scenario.

Suppose I'm Spain and I attack Andorra with missiles, or foxes set on fire, whatever, and kill 20 civilians. Is Andorra now justified in a retribution attack which kills 20, or a retribution attack which kills 12586 (as per the relative population of Spain vs. Andorra)?

If 20 is the answer, it's like saying that if a professional boxer hits me in the jaw out of the blue and probably knocks me out, I'm allowed to hit one back and we're even. 20 for 12586 doesn't feel right either. Maybe the legal one is more intuitive than it looks.
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby mewshi » Sun Jan 04, 2009 6:23 pm UTC

Why, exactly, can't the rule be "Keep it to the bare minimum"? I understand why *some* civilians will probably be casualties, but some situations, where civilians are the *intended* target, are just ridiculous.

This is not the place to discuss Israel, or to offer your opinions about who needs to act more maturely.

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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby yoni45 » Sun Jan 04, 2009 6:33 pm UTC

I wouldn't say the intuitive one is very intuitive at all. Makes no sense to me, frankly - even though it's probably one of the most used PR claims out there...

This isn't "eye-for-an-eye, they get to kill X civilians, we get to kill X civilians too", it's do what needs be done to win, within legal warfare, and where civilians come into play proportionality simply means the military advantage should be greater than the civilian loss. Subjective? As is, perhaps, but no less legitimate.
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Alcazabedabra » Sun Jan 04, 2009 8:12 pm UTC

Gad. What an awful subject.

The quoted definition of proportionality in warfare does make more sense, but honestly, warfare is something that is difficult to confine or regulate in the best of times. Even the concept of limited warfare is an extremely new one, and only came about when nuclear weapons entered the scene so famously in the second world war. Now that we've the capability to literally blow up the planet, it's become necessary to check our reach a bit, pull our punches to the point that we're not turning troublesome small nations into radioactive craters.

I guess it just goes to show that we're a long way from the Mongol hordes and Roman legions. In those times, you didn't even govern in such a way as to prevent civilian deaths. Wholesale slaughter was, occasionally, a good administrative decision.

This proportionality rule sounds like a good idea when compared to the old ways of doing things.

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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Akula » Sun Jan 04, 2009 8:36 pm UTC

Maurog wrote:The intuitive one gets really weird once you try to apply it to a large country vs. small country scenario.

Suppose I'm Spain and I attack Andorra with missiles, or foxes set on fire, whatever, and kill 20 civilians. Is Andorra now justified in a retribution attack which kills 20, or a retribution attack which kills 12586 (as per the relative population of Spain vs. Andorra)?

If 20 is the answer, it's like saying that if a professional boxer hits me in the jaw out of the blue and probably knocks me out, I'm allowed to hit one back and we're even. 20 for 12586 doesn't feel right either. Maybe the legal one is more intuitive than it looks.


I think it's a matter of intuition really.

I don't think the number should matter so much as the effort on either side to limit civilian casualties.
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Kaiyas » Sun Jan 04, 2009 10:16 pm UTC

I'm not quite following where the contradiction is. Proportionality refers to acceptable collateral damage and concerns one side. Tit-for-tat concerns the relationship between the collateral of both parties. How are the two mutually exclusive? Or am I missing the point entirely? :roll:
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Indon » Tue Jan 06, 2009 5:17 pm UTC

Should we really care about how intuitive the definition is? I mean, it's a legal definition.

Legal terms are there not because they sound good, but to help make the law work better. In this case, proportionality exists to stand as criteria for when a military action is illegal because it either targets civilians (such as in a terrorist act) or disregards the safety of civilians (like bombing a populated factory).

Admittedly, though, it's kinda vague.
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Diadem » Tue Jan 06, 2009 5:58 pm UTC

mewshi wrote:Why, exactly, can't the rule be "Keep it to the bare minimum"? I understand why *some* civilians will probably be casualties, but some situations, where civilians are the *intended* target, are just ridiculous.


Isn't that basically what the law that Outchanter quoted states?
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Gunfingers » Tue Jan 06, 2009 6:59 pm UTC

I think Mewshi is more going for "Don't kill civilians even if it is proportional", which is an understandable (if unrealistic) desire.

Sometimes i think it'd be nice if we could go back to lining up in an open field and trading shots. Very little risk of accidentally bombing apartments that way. But then, if we could do that, we could just have Ajax fight Hector and decide the war by who wins the one on one.

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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Indon » Tue Jan 06, 2009 7:18 pm UTC

Gunfingers wrote:Sometimes i think it'd be nice if we could go back to lining up in an open field and trading shots. Very little risk of accidentally bombing apartments that way. But then, if we could do that, we could just have Ajax fight Hector and decide the war by who wins the one on one.


Nowadays, we should use mecha instead. In fact, isn't there a Gundam series about that concept?

But to further elaborate on Gunfingers' point, if it were illegal to produce any civilian casualties, then it suddenly becomes in the best interest of a force facing a larger force that obeys international law to integrate with civilians in order to maximize civilian casualties from attacks against them.
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Silas » Wed Jan 07, 2009 5:22 am UTC

Gunfingers wrote:But then, if we could do that, we could just have Ajax fight Hector and decide the war by who wins the one on one.

Except Ajax fighting Hector (and Achilles killing him later) didn't solve anything. The war dragged on until the Greeks killed all the Trojans. Not really the model we want to be imitating, is it?
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby The Cat » Fri Jan 09, 2009 9:33 pm UTC

I don't think that Proportionality as any place when fighting an unconventional war. The current Israeli Palestinian conflict is a good example of this. I think the current stats are 60% civilian 40% combatants. The Israeli objective is to occupy the ground and put a strangle hold on Hamas ability to launch an offensive. This means bombs, tanks, and door to door close quarters battle. With Combatants hiding amongst the civilian population, civilian casualties are going to be high. Northern Ireland is another very good example of this. I believe western civilization replaced the thought of proportionality in warfare with total warfare after the American Revolution.

Advancement in technology have also played a large roll in reducing the number of civilian casualties. We have come a long way since mustard gas and carpet bombing...

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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby GreenWings » Sat Jan 10, 2009 3:42 pm UTC

@ The Cat.

Northern Ireland is not a good example of it, certainly not in the context you are discussing. It is unwise and false to compare Israel/Gaza with Northern Ireland. For a start the stated political aims of the terrorist groups, and their ideologies, are completely at odds with each other. Further, the tactics employed by the 'occupying forces' (if you will) are totally different, with different rules of engagement, force constructs, political mandates and so on.

In terms of proportionality and the use thereof, the two situations are very opposite (and if that's the point you are making, a contrast, then i agree wholeheartedly); British military operations in NI throughout the Troubles made *every* effort to avoid civilian casualities, even when the IRA were being taken on with force. Deliberate ops involved surgical use of 'non-Green' army units and security forces in constrained, pre-planned clinical actions; very different to a wholesale rolling-up of a city using helicopter gunships, tanks, artillery etc.

I am curious about your opening line - that proportionality has no place in unconventional war. I think that depends on which side of the fence you sit on. Are you an insurgent/terrorist or the Western representation of the The Good Guy (tm) ? If you want to take down the oppressing/invading forces in as an effective manner as possible and dont really give a snot who gets in the way, a la Iraq, then you proably dont believe in the concept of proportionality anyway. If on the other hand you're the good guy then perhaps the continual rolling up of all and sundry, either as acceptable (in your eyes) collateral damage, or because they *might* have been bad guys might be a bad thing? Killing/maiming people just 'cos they got in the way or didnt get out the way fast enough is unacceptable. Proportionality is the acceptance that there will be civilian casualities because war is nasty and bombs hurt people; it is there partly as the moral component of warfare that separates the modern battlefield from the ancient one, where no quarter was sought or given. Which would you prefer?

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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby The Cat » Sat Jan 10, 2009 4:55 pm UTC

I was trying to stay on topic with the Proportionality in warfare. The ideology is no doubt greatly different. I would venture to say that the situation in NI was socioeconomic where as the conflict in Gaza is based MORE on religion. In NI I think religion was only used to identify the enemy...However, that is off topic. I would love to discuss the History of NI from 1171, but that would be another topic. Please start, I would be happy to join in. The British did not occupy the cities with armored personal carriers, troops, and use gunships? I believe Israel occupies the streets and the British occupied the streets. Maybe I misunderstood what you were saying.

I am curious about your opening line - that proportionality has no place in unconventional war.


My point was that you are going to have to except the higher % of civilian casualties going in. I am sorry, it does have a place, but it is something that should be excepted before the battle begins. I was addressing it after those decisions were made. I did a poor job...

So, the point I was trying to make was, in an unconventional war, the proportional civilian casualties are going to be higher, and I do think that Northern Ireland is a good example of this. http://www.wesleyjohnston.com/users/ire ... _year.html. The numbers seem to be very similar... Two opposing groups living in close proximity might have been better than opening up a debate on the definition of conventional as opposed to unconventional warfare.

I think that the current situation in Gaza is what prompted this topic, that is why I used this example rather than debating the Hiroshima bomb as opposed to a beach landing.

Again, since this is serious business, I was trying to leave my personal opinion out and stay on topic. It does not matter who is good or bad. I believe that discussion would move to the Israel topic.

I would prefer quarter :)

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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Mercurius » Sat Jan 10, 2009 7:49 pm UTC

I think this link is relevant to the discussion http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/html/p0793

Prorportionality, as a concept within Just War Theory, is notoriously dodgy and hard to quanitfy, to say the least. But then again, so are all the concepts within Just War, because its the application of about 2000 years of thought to a very complex problem. However, if we use the Geneva model to discuss proportionality, I think we get a much clearer picture. As Kalshoven and Zegveld show in the above link, the commander must:

Do everything possible to make sure the target is a military one
Take all feasible steps when it comes to methods and means to minimize civilian casualities
To not undertake an attack if it may reasonably be expected to cause harm in excess of the military advantage or against the threat posed

Going by this framework, civilian casualties could be as minimized as possible, in terms of steps taken to prevent deaths, while still being excessive in terms of the importance of the target. Interestingly, these protocols bound signatory countries even if the enemy refuses to adhere to the same rules, for example by using human shields or attacking civilian targets. This is still not as quantifiable as it could be, however it does apply a certain standard which can be debated and discussed. For example, one could claim a command and communications centre is a far more valuable target than an individual member of the targeted organization. Equally, a top leader or commander within that organization is a more compelling target than a group of combatants located far away from the scenes of the fighting, and making no attempt to move towards the conflict zone (as hypotheticals).

Of course, the 'fog of war' makes this much more difficult. You are usually required to act swiftly, based on minimal or unreliable evidence, against a potentially deadly threat. Weighing the variables is going to be difficult in the extreme, in a highly stressful environment, even for experienced commanders.

Israel is, I should point out, not bound by this treaty, and neither is the USA (I believe the latter signed the treaty, but never ratified it). It is accepted by the international community at large, with over 160 signatories (with varying degrees of loyalty to the ideas expressed within), which suggests even though some countries haven't signed the treaty, it could be considered something of an international legal norm. But then we get into debates about sovereignty and the like, and I know we are struggling to stay on topic as it is.

I think, if we set aside the legal argument for the moment, there are still significant political/grand strategic advantages from adhering to a broadly accepted level of proportionality. Because of the nature of the media and the political system, this unfortunately means taking into account the views of people not in the firing line, or highly ambivalent towards the particular cause behind this conflict, but as they say, life's a bitch, then you end up in a transnational conflict situation. Well, I say that, anyway.

Claims to proportionality, for example, help legitamize the conflict itself. Especially in liberal democracies, who place heavy emphasis (rightly or wrongly) on the rule of law when it comes to their internal actions as much as their foreign policy. Suggestions that ones leaders are not concerned with proportionality suggests a lack of rule of law, of a rule of the strong which is anathema to the ethos of the aforementioned democracies. It suggests a political leadership not concerned with the rule of law, which could really undermine its claims to governance.

Furthermore, as conflict becomes less about states taking on states, with the associated nastiness of of total war, and more about taking on non-state actor engaging in asymmetrical conflict, Van Creveld's paradox comes into play. Namely that:

he who fights against the weak - and the rag-tag Iraqi militias are very weak indeed - and loses, loses. He who fights against the weak and wins also loses. To kill an opponent who is much weaker than yourself is unnecessary and therefore cruel; to let that opponent kill you is unnecessary and therefore foolish. As Vietnam and countless other cases prove, no armed force, however rich, however powerful, however advanced, however well motivated is immune to this dilemma. The end result is always disintegration and defeat...


Interestingly, and I'm not sure if Van Creveld is aware of this, Chinese military theorists may have come up with a solution to this paradox, which informs the operational and tactical level of the conflict in more detail (which I had been ignoring up until now, because of the manifest differences involved in discussing it). In Unrestricted Warfare, the infamous PLA military theory text, Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui take the idea of conflict without restrictions to its obvious conclusion, which is not the use of absolute force against ones enemy, as some have suspected, but the use of the full spectrum of methods available to end a conflict. Because warfare is inherently political (insert misquoted sentence from Clausewitz here), and politics is co-determinant with society at large, the book focuses on using a variety of methods, such as international law, NGOs, the media (and any other examples of soft power you can think of), hacking, terrorism, financial attacks and any other method designed to stop the enemy from having either the will or ability to pose a threat.

One of their main points is that the inceases in nonlethal weapons technology over recent years (and the book was written ten years ago) meant that a focus on causing nonlethal damage was not only possible, it could be desirable. Via maiming and temporarily wounding target combatants, one could reduce their military threat, keep the war in proportion and actually cost the enemy a lot more. Even quasi-states such as Hamas and Al-Qaeda have well developed welfare systems and payment for its 'employees'. By reducing their capacity for conflict while increasing their outgoing expenses, one would significantly undermine the organization. Morale, which is usually only hardened by enemy shows of force, could also take a hit. Equally, by reducing civilian casualties, one could focus on various soft power methods designed to decouple a subject population from the organization hiding among them. I could go off on another tangent here, but again, I'm going to try and stick to proportionality as much as possible.

Obviously this is not entirely feasible. The switch to non-lethal forces would take time and money, and one would still need to retain lethal forces for situations where their level of force is necessary. To be able to respond to all levels of conflict, from those directly on the political end of the politcal-conflict axis, and those on the opposite end, total war, one must have the means to respond to these various levels of threat.

Equally, the problem of using too little force is immediately obvious as well. The results will be a loss in confidence of the government by the people who elect it, and if responses are inffective (because this is often confused with proportionate, for some reason) then the security threat will persist, or worsen. At best, this results in a continuation of the status quo, in other words a continuation of the conflict, which is clearly suboptimal. In the very worst cases, this results in the collapse of the state as a viable social organization.

To a degree, I think drawing up a quantifiable guideline to what is or is not a proportionate response is a fool's errand. Its going to be a continual process of self-examination, tailored as a response to the percieved and actual threat of the moment. Since conflict isn't static in and of itself, at various times in the course of a conflict, and with various targets, certain responses will be acceptable and proportionate, and at other times they will not be. This is unfortunate, but it shouldn't stop people from attempting to pass judgement. I think, to use a non-hypothetical example, we can safely say that bombing a school, and killing 42 civilians, in order to remove the threat of two gunmen, is not proportionate. If the circumstances had been different, then perhaps it could have been. If the men were transporting a WMD, for example, it would be very hard to decry Israel's actions, as horrible as those deaths still would have been. Even if they had been operating a missile launcher, from a fortified position within the school which would have made other attacks impossible, could be considered legitimate (though I am reminded of the RAF captain who used to risk his life flying over factories during WWII, giving civilians enough time to escape). Equally, the deliberate targeting of policemen in Gaza, who are not taking part in the conflict (such as the Gaza chief of police, who was not even a Hamas member) does not serve any legitimate military function. Any civilians killed when attacking him, by virtue of his role, would not be proportionate.

We can also consider the overall strategic aim. As many, many people have pointed out, if Israel's goal is to stop the conflict, they are doing a piss-poor job of it. Do attacks which apparently do not consider the possibility of civilian casualties actually help, or hinder, Israel's aims? Most evidence suggests the latter. Urban warfare is bloody and protracted, and bombing campaigns againt civilians are notoriously ineffective in breaking the will of a target population. In which case, attacks which do not serve the overall strategic aim are also disproportionate. Furthermore, with sabre-rattling from Hezbollah and the possibility of international jihadist ("Al-Qaeda", if you will) infiltration into Gaza in a power gap left by a reduced Hamas, as well as the destabalizing impact of refugees on surrounding countries, suggest a strategy which is not "proportionate" in the sense that it does not deal with the problem at hand, while still resulting in lots of dead bodies.

I'm sure this makes absolutely no sense, since I have been up nearly 3 days, writing about pirates and mercenaries, of all things. I'm not really in the headspace for contemporary conflict. But if someone wants to pick this apart, tear strips from the corpse and use it to make an argument which wont, unlike this one, fall over the second I hit "submit", please do so.
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby The Cat » Sat Jan 10, 2009 10:10 pm UTC

Do everything possible to make sure the target is a military one
Take all feasible steps when it comes to methods and means to minimize civilian casualities
To not undertake an attack if it may reasonably be expected to cause harm in excess of the military advantage or against the threat posed


And that, as they say, is where "the rubber meets the road" for lack of better terms. One would hope that any commander would take "cost benefit" into consideration prior to military action, however, I believe the debate quickly moves to how many of your soldiers lives are worth one of mine. As a commander who must write the letters to the loved ones, I'm sure it gets simplified in a hurry. I would imagine it is a very stressful situation to be in.

In the case of Gaza (and this is getting off topic) the government has not been able to police their own state or they are "passively" supportive of the terrorist actions. What are the alternatives with rockets coming into your neighborhoods? I would hope that (trying to get back on topic) the casualties were considered acceptable in hopes of a long term peace.

Yes, there is no doubt that winning the "hearts and minds" is a much more effective way of bringing long term peace. However, without control of the populous, how are you going to accomplish this? I agree that attacking and withdrawing is just going to leave a breeding ground for Hamas or other terrorist organizations. Dead friends,family.......... No positive change.

There is no doubt that this is a very complex situation.

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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby drunken » Sun Jan 11, 2009 1:08 am UTC

As far as Gaza is concerned I think the simple fact that more Israeli citizens have died directly as a result of the military action (friendly fire) than from the hamas rockets (the threat to be eliminated) since the start of the action throws any idea of proportionality out the window, without even needing to count the hundreds of children that have died.

Mercurius wrote:nonlethal weapons technology

Thankyou for a particularly interesting post. This really got me thinking about the possibility of using real nonlethal weapons in war. Weapons that don't even maim, weapons that simply incapacitate temporarily. As far as I know in this category we have equally effective equivalents to short and medium range firearms, small explosives such as grenades and mines, some support weapons, and even large scale explosives as long as the enemy don't have access to gas masks. These weapons also do zero infrastructure damage. The Israel - Palestine conflict is the perfect type of theatre for something like this. A large number of soldiers would have to be specially trained, and they would also have to be very brave, to attack lethally armed opponents with non-lethal tactics. They would be considered heroes by many though and that is often enough incentive for some soldiers.

Basically the agressor would research using it's intelligence agencies where the leaders and instigators of the paramilitary or terrorist orginisation might be found, then a few companies could be deployed by helecopter or armoured convoy, raid the place, and load all the semi conscious targets into trucks. Casualties for both sides combined would be in the low double digits, and civilian casualties would likely be in the single digits. World public opinion would love you as well, which is really what the fight is about in Gaza now.
The main problem would be what to do with them all after that, but this is both a very interesting question in itself, and way off topic. I will ask it here in context but I encourage anyone who feels they have an answer to this to start a seperate thread for it: What would/should Israel do if it had all the main hamas people in custody?

I realise that doing something like this would only be applicable in a very limited range of situations but those limited and rare situations are all over the news lately, and seem to be a big deal. Not only terrorist organisations but militia groups in African countries could be dealt with in this way. The majority of terrorists and militia groups have access to small arms and explosives and thiats it, some groups (hamas not included I don't think) may have heavy machine guns and rpgs which could be very dangerous for such a unit but I believe with some time and effort put into training and a bit of money spent on technology it could even cope with those. If such a unit were created I would seriously consider joining it, I am a peacenik but also fascinated by combat and military history.

In conclusion I would like to add that I realise that such an idea is a pipe dream and will not occur at least not in any of the conflicts I have mentioned (it already does happen in domestic crime situations), I still think it is a nice idea and in a perfect world we would really just go and arrest terrorists and charge them for murder and unlicenced weapons and hostage taking and breach of the peace and reckless endangerment and any one of a million other civil crimes that it would be easy to convict them of. Sigh, I am such a dreamer. The saddest thing is that it would really work, it would stop terrorists, protect civilians, and placete world opinion. Not to mention the fact that if a terrorist is still alive he can be asked for the names and locations of associates.
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby Telchar » Sun Jan 11, 2009 3:31 am UTC

Non-lethal methods could be a solution to proportionality if it doesn't escalate the conflict, and if those people you take prisoner are not executed anyway. In the case of traditional warfare I think it could work, with some logistical concern for where to put everyone, but in a more modern conflict I think you would quickly find these people being tried and executed/imprisoned for a long time, which could have the opposite effect and escalate the conflict.

That, in turn, could call into question a governments ability to protect it's citizens, which I think is a governments primary obligation even before proportionality. Unfortuneately, the US government, to use an example, is only responsible for protecting US citizens. Now, if they can also protect other citizens, then by all means do so, but government official deciding who lives and who dies between average Joes from the US and Canada should choose US Joe. I would expect no less from any other government, and I think that trumps concerns of proportionality.
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Re: Proportionality in warfare

Postby drunken » Sun Jan 11, 2009 5:42 am UTC

Telchar wrote:Now, if they can also protect other citizens, then by all means do so

That should read "They should by all means do so" I wanted to bring this up in this thread but I don't know if it is part of the topic or not. The question of proportionality in deployment, ie. If military intervention is used in X case, does that mean it should be used in another similar case, and what kind of guidelines are used in deciding wether to intervene or not. In my experience with the US it is actually strategic and financial, protecting the citizens of other countries has never been a reason the US went to war. Even US citizens are rarely a factor, not since WWII that I know of. Maybe Afganistan but it's debatable. The US government admits to this it's not a conspiracy or anything. It's just business not personal.
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