When war becomes personal

Our attitudes to war change drastically when it becomes personal.

When it is distant, it involves people whose nationality and culture we do not share, and wrongs of whose cause are disputed.

But it does not affect us at gut level.

When it is someone who has walked our streets, swum on our beaches, speaks our language as their own, and dies when helping victims of war, war becomes personal.

Israel and Hamas

The killing of Zomi Frankcom, together with other members of the Charity organisation World Central Kitchen, made the war between Israel and Hamas personal.

It has led many people to see the destruction of Gaza and its people as not only regrettable but intolerable.

For many Australians, of course, the war was already personal.

Many people of Israeli and Palestinian origin had already lost family members and friends and grieved for their fellows abused, wounded, driven from their homes and starved.

Yet other Australians did not take their suffering personally.

It was distanced by being set within the framework of international relations and military strategy.

Faces became numbers and the human destruction of war a regrettable necessity.

Now that the victims of the Israeli armed forces’ invasion of Gaza have a human and Australian face, we shall be called on take a stand.

We ought to heed that call to pressure the opposed parties to end the war. War is the enemy.

Taking sides

To take a stand, however, is not the same as taking sides.

That is a fatal mistake.

Both sides contribute to the making and sustaining of war. To take sides is to perpetuate the war.

To take sides with the Israeli Government or with Hamas inevitably leads us to move away from the human, disfigured faces whose destruction is the business of war.

It leads us to see the dead and injured and homeless as statistics.

Their value then depends on the side to which they belong.

The deliberate killing of non-combatants associated with the other side will be called an accident or a mistake and their faces whitewashed.

The similar killing of people on one’s own side will be seen as an atrocity and their faces weaponised.

Taking sides will deepen the hostility that led to war and will perpetuate the cycle of violence.

To take a stand against the war in Gaza demands focusing on the human faces of the persons destroyed by it.

To do that, of course, we must also engage in arguments whether the war and the actions taken in it are just. But we must not be trapped in them.

Justice and justification

Argument about whether a war is just is generally rigged to produce reasons why one’s own side is justified in fighting the war and the other side is not.

It is also used to justify the strategies and actions that the chosen side adopts. It assumes that if God is on your side you can do anything you want to God’s enemies.

Once again the human face of war, central in evaluating its justification, is disregarded.

If we reflect on whether a war is justifiable while at the same time attending closely to its human face, the classical rules for waging a just war are helpful.

Their starting point is that all human lives are precious.

For war to be justified, a number of conditions must be met both in its declaration (ius ad bellum) and in its conduct (ius in bello).

Today’s wars

Classical rules envisage conflict between the armed forces of different and recognisable states, not military action against minority groups or with failed states.

Therefore, some of the traditional tests for declaring a war just are not applicable to situations today.

The two central rules, however, remain relevant.

Both must be satisfied for a war to be called just. The first is that war is unjustifiable unless it is fought in defence of a just cause.

This is most often self-defence, but it could also include responding to serious injustice perpetrated by the other side.

In Gaza, as in most military conflicts both sides claim that their continuing military action is justifiable because it is taken for self-defence and for the redress of injustice.

Even if a war is held to be for a just cause, however, it must also meet a second condition.

It must be proportionate.

This means that its goal of redressing injustice or defending the nation must be realisable and that the human good achieved by the military action must exceed the human harm.

It is difficult to see how the conduct of the war in Gaza by Hamas or by Israel satisfies either of these criteria. Nor does it satisfy the third test of a just war: that it should be waged only after negotiation to avoid war.

Just war theory

In just war theory a just cause and proportionate framing of the action do not alone make a war just.

The military strategies and actions adopted taken must also satisfy strict criteria.

First, they must be discriminating.

They must not target civilians.

The value of each human life demands that the loss of civilian lives must be coincidental to military action and not intended by it.

In Gaza, the huge number of deaths of non-combatants reported by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, and accounts of such things as the use of AI to identify suspected members of Hamas and of unguided bombs to kill both them and those around them, witness to a disregard for human lives in both strategy and in rules of engagement.

The second criterion for justice in the conduct of war is proportionality.

The human benefits achieved by military action must outweigh the human harm caused by it. It is difficult to see that the war in Gaza, and particularly the military action by the Israeli armed forces, satisfy this criterion.

The stated means to achieve the goal of self-defence is to destroy Hamas.

This is then taken to demand destroying the human habitat of Gaza in order to eradicate the presence and influence of Hamas within it.

The massive number of civilian casualties, the destruction of the necessary conditions for human life such as houses, meeting places, hospitals, health services and schools, and the starving of the civilian population deny the equal value of each human life.

They are massively disproportionate.

Furthermore, this strategy and the actions that flow from it will not lead to peace but to the hatred that will ensure future conflict and breed the soldiers who will fight in it.

Their logical endpoint is the destruction or enslavement of the people of Palestine.

Making a just peace

The present path is inconsistent with the conviction that each human being matters equally, the necessary belief for establishing a lasting and just peace.

These considerations explain why recent Popes have said that modern war can never be justified.

The destructive power of modern weapons inevitably leads to the denial of the unique value of human being and the consequent destruction of the conditions necessary for living with human dignity.

It also corrupts even in those whose cause is just the respect for humanity essential to its justice.

That moral corruption was evident in the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima and in the defences subsequently made for them.

Gaza is yet another demonstration of the injustice of war and of its power to corrupt human judgment. It must be met by seeing and feeling the lives of those destroyed in it as personal.

  • First published in Eureka Street
  • Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services. Reproduced with the author’s permission.
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