. . . on the face of Andrew Sullivan, proprietor of the Daily Dish. He objects to Via Meadia, it seems, as he has in the past, for . . . well, this time for examining just why it is that huge slices of America do not see things the same way as the rest of the world, or even Comrade Sullivan.
The specific issue this time is why Americans by and large just do not see it as objectionable that Israel should respond to repeated and indiscriminate rocket launches from the Gaza Strip by attacking, with reasonable particularity, the specific locations, organizations, and persons whence originate those rocket attacks. Very briefly summarized, Mead distinguishes the two theories of jus ad bellum and jus in bello. The former proposes that a “just war” (just to whom? the simple reader might ask) must be fought to support a legitimate cause, such as self-defense; the latter proposes that even a war for a just cause must be fought justly — by the rules, “fair.” A “just war” must satisfy the demands of both.
Mead traces the intellectual pedigree of jus ad bellum and jus in bello — especially the latter — to the peculiar circumstances of European history and even more so the history of European war-fighting. Jus in bello was a notion cooked up theoretically to protect the peasants who formed the overwhelming majority of the European population from the excesses of dynastic wars. For an informative, easily-read description of what those excesses were like to the peasants over whose homes, families, and livelihoods the armies moved, you can’t do much better than Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. In a pre-gunpowder age, one diminished the war-fighting capacity of one’s opponent by destroying his army if one could, and whether or not one could, by destroying his source of wealth to continue fighting (kind of like . . . the 20th Century, when you think about it). That latter objective meant killing his peasantry, slaughtering their animals, and burning their crops. Starving people cannot pay rent, cannot work the manorial lands, cannot bear arms.
Jus in bello, with its notion of proportional response, theoretically protected the peasantry by forbidding their destruction disproportionately to the scope and severity of the attack. As Mead observes, why would a peasant care if the lord of the manor was the Count of Anjou or the Duke of Burgundy? The peasant was still subject to all the delights of heriot, mortmain, boon labor, compulsory tithes, and host upon hosts upon hosts of other manorial exactions, from forbidding him to grind his grain except at the lord’s mill to forbidding him to buy wine except of the lord’s vintage. So much the theory.
For a visual depiction of how well jus in bello worked in practice, we refer to Francisco de Goya. His The Third of May, 1808, depicts French shooting civilians in reprisal. From his series The Disasters of War we see graphic depictions of rape, mutilation, and prodigious death. We think of the miles upon miles of scorched earth the Russians presented to the invading French in 1812. Jus in bello, in other words, provided much greater protection in theory than in practice.
Hamas, al Qaeda, Iran, the Muslim Brotherhood, et al. deny the right of Israel to exist as a state. Even its self-defense is not a legitimate cause. For that matter they by and large deny the right of Jews to live, or at least to live as Jews. Everything Israel does in war, because it is done to further an abomination (by which is meant living Jews, either in their ancestral homeland or anywhere else, for that matter, in case you hadn’t recognized it), is by hypothesis unjust. Israel cannot fight a just war.
As Mead points out, the bulk of Israel’s other critics shake out, or say they shake out (and one ought never to assume that the stated grounds of objection to Israel’s actions are made in good faith), on the line that Israel’s fighting of its wars of self-defense is not “proportional,” that it is not fighting by the rules. That criticism has never obtained much traction in America. That collective response of “Huh?” to the cry that Israel is using (literally) a howitzer to kill a fly originates in America’s experience of war, according to Mead. In contrast to European experience of essentially dynastic conflict which as an incident produced suffering of non-combatants, Mead calls out the American experience, which is of course bereft of such warfare. What Americans have had rich experience of is existential warfare, from the mutual efforts at extermination waged by settlers and aboriginals to Sherman’s march, to the world wars, to the great combats of the battle between socialist slavery and freedom in Korea and Vietnam. Mead correctly points out that America’s experience of war is of clashes of entire peoples, in which conflicts the notion of playing by the rules to protect the peasantry has little meaning. The opponent’s peasant is not just your opponent’s source of rent and fodder for his cavalry; the peasant (so to speak) as a member of the opposing people is your actual enemy by virtue of his status.
The result is that Americans as a whole place little value in playing by the rules, and from the time of the Minutemen potting at the redcoats on their way back to Boston have never done so. We place enormous value in winning at all costs, because in a clash of peoples, the loser doesn’t just give up some territory. The loser suffers cultural and even physical extinction. This statement is not exaggerated; Hitler in outlining the forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union to his generals emphasized precisely the cultural and physical implications for the losers, which he erroneously supposed would turn out to be the Slavs. As it came to pass, it was large swathes of what had been German territory for centuries which were stripped of their pre-war inhabitants, either by flight, or killing, or deportation, and which today, a scant 67 years after the shooting stopped, evidence only traces here and there of the people who had tilled the soil for generations.
When the stakes are survival itself as a people and a culture, the duty to defend one’s people and territory is raised to an absolute. For the reasons Mead points out, the idea of jus in bello “sails right over the heads” of most Americans because they do not see rule-abiding as a protectable value in war. When they perceive (accurately) that Israel and its people are attacked with the stated objective of annihilating them, both politically and physically, it doesn’t strike them as objectionable that Israel does not moderate its response, that it greets low-tech pin-pricks with massive high-tech retaliation.
The first linked article of Via Meadia explains, or attempts to explain, to Andrew Sullivan the distinction between analyzing a viewpoint and endorsing it. Sullivan appears to believe that, by engaging it on its own terms Mead endorses the American impatience with, or non-comprehension of, jus in bello. A difficulty perceiving the difference between analysis and agreement seems to be a recurring problem for Sullivan, at least when it comes to his strictures against Walter Russell Mead. Sullivan’s stated championship for diversity of thought and good-faith engagement with one’s opponent in same appears to shoot more than a bit wide of the mark. In an instructive (one is tempted to borrow the Earl of Ickenham’s “pleasant and instructive”) take-down, Mead lays an open palm across Sullivan’s face which is likely to leave a bit of a mark.
And just for the record, I am firmly in the camp which recognizes Israel’s right to respond however it thinks expedient to attacks upon it, from whatever source and with whatever methods, and which likewise denies the right to quibble to those nations which sat on their hands as Hitler built his gas chambers and crematoria. The lecturing-Israel-on-the-polite-rules-of-warfare card is one that is simply not in the deck, so far as I am concerned.