Human Shields and Collateral Damage


I was just reading Michael Gerson’s article “Tackling a Fallacy in Gaza” which positively likens Israel’s actions in Gaza to the success of the surge in Iraq and summarily dismisses the civilian tragedy in Gaza as the fault of Hamas’ use of human shields. Gerson writes,

This augury of futility was wrong. Israeli forces, responding to an intolerable provocation, inflicted lopsided casualties on Hamas, which displayed a discrediting combination of cowardice and brutality. Hamas fighters used civilians as shields instead of shielding civilians — and some Palestinians seemed to resent it. Hamas leaders hid in the basements of hospitals while ordering public executions for Palestinian rivals, acting more like members of a criminal gang than a nationalist movement. Allies such as Iran, Syria and Hezbollah provided little practical help to Hamas, probably calculating that its rocket campaign against Israel was suicidal or at least foolishly premature. The international boycott against Hamas is holding. And the scale of missile attacks on Israeli citizens has been dramatically reduced.

But since when has destroying the human shield to reach the enemy been justified? Furthermore, there is an undertone to Gerson’s argument, which has also been expressed in other rationalizations for the Gazan death toll, that a dramatically high number of civilian casualties serves to undermine Hamas’ leadership and deter Iran, Syria and Hezbollah by reinforcing Israel’s superior might and resolve. While the latter argument is an admission of having committed war crimes and crimes against humanity (targeting civilians for strategic military gains), the notion that human shields are acceptable collateral damage highlights a grave duality underlying how we fight our battles: political cowardice and high tech warfare.

First and foremost, the “they’re using civilians as human shields” justification simply does not fly. Think about every Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen. The bad guy grabs the girl around her neck and says, “if you step any closer, I’ll slit her throat.” Does the good guy, shoot the girl and then the criminal? When hostages are taken, do we kill the hostages until we reach the hostage takers? When we know that there is a “criminal gang” (to use Gerson’s words) living in a building amongst innocent people, do we destroy the entire building? What if a group of terrorists occupied an American embassy full of staff members and their families. Should we sacrifice the lot to get to the bad guys? If the answer is no, then the only difference between the hostages and human shields is nationality and ethnicity. In other words, when the hostages are ethnically similar to us, then they should not be sacrificed, but when they are foreigners, they are collateral damage.

The fact of the matter is that from a political perspective, it is increasingly difficult to justify, especially in the case of “preemptive wars”, putting one’s soldiers at risk to fight abroad. This is furthered by a vicious cycle of political cowardice and modern technology. As technology improves and our soldiers are farther and farther away from actual hand-to-hand combat, our politicians are less willing to send troops closer to the action. Starting with the first Gulf War where we suffered almost no troop casualties by enemy fire whatsoever and watched the air strikes on CNN, Americans grew accustomed to the idea of distant yet relatively safe warfare where our troops comfortably used precision air strikes to bomb strategic targets without ever having to look the enemy in the eye. Helped by CNN, our Defense Department went on TV and told us just how precise and accurately we had destroyed the targets. We, the voting public, bought it all.

But look at the numbers: in Gaza, 1,500 Palestinian deaths (roughly 50% civilian) and 13 Israeli deaths (ten soldiers); in Iraq, 4,000 U.S. military deaths and close to one million Iraqi civilian deaths. The politically expedient argument is that the civilian toll is unfortunate collateral damage but a necessity in the urgent protection of our national security. But imagine that we were fighting the enemy at home. Would the Israeli public have accepted that its army killed 700 Israeli civilians (as human shields) and lost 700 of its own soldiers in the process? Could the U.S. government get away with the collateral damage argument of one million American deaths by U.S. forces in the War on Terror? The truth be told, were terrorists shielding themselves with our citizens, we would not risk the collateral damage; the difference being that we have attach little value to their innocent civilian lives.

In law enforcement, we do not fight the threat of a serial killer, mass murder, or rapist by destroying everything in their path. That would make law enforcement a greater threat to the public than the criminal. With the numbers from Iraq and Gaza, it’s hard to argue the opposite. From a strictly quantitative viewpoint, we definitely pose a greater threat to the Gazans and Iraqis then they could ever pose to us. So why don’t we confront them in a similar manner as with law enforcement? Instead of bombing the building, we use our soldiers to go in on foot and capture the enemy, just like in a police raid. But we don’t do that, why?

The fact of the matter is that the threat is not proportionate to the political will of the people or the courage of its politicians. The voters are willing to destroy the enemy as long as there is little risk of harm to their soldiers and none to their citizens. This means two things essentially: citizens are spoiled by modern military technology, and they do not perceive the threat as a sufficient enough risk to engage in any other form of warfare. And with further advances in technology, the new robotic warfare that I learned more about today on the Leonard Lopate Show, political cowardice is only going to increase.

The only political question left is how many civilian deaths will be politically forgivable, tolerated or ignored as collateral damage? Afghanistan has recently asked President Obama to reduce air strikes because too many civilians are dying. Apparently, the Afghan people no longer distinguish between mortal threat of the Taliban and the U.S. army. Israel is also learning that it may be losing the public relations battle.

In terms of the American people, I often wonder whether we lack compassion towards our fellow human beings altogether. Our politicians did everything they could to shelter the public from the war: no draft, no tax increase (war funded through debt), and to avoid increasing the number of military recruits, soldiers went on multiple tours and we outsourced to security forces companies (i.e., soldiers for hire). In a war that has lasted longer than World War II, Americans didn’t begin to protest the war because of the millions of Iraqi deaths – heck, we were improving their lives – but because of the 4,000 soldiers dead on our side (a tiny fraction of the casualties in World War II).

Eventually enough public outrage, outside of the U.S. and Israel, may led to the enforcement of the international laws on war. You never know, but Rumsfeld, Cheney and Bush may someday face prosecution or at least the threat thereof. If that itself may sound outrageous to some who believe that the War on Terror should be without limits, just remember that, in part, these laws are meant to be karmic in the inverse: what does not go around will not come around. Of course, I can already anticipate the evidentiary problems in proving the specific intent to commit a war crime (or to target civilians). It all kind of reminds of how some European jurisdictions deal with piercing the corporate veil by establishing a mandatory statutory minimum capitalization. If the corporation is undercapitalized, there is a presumption of misdeed and the shareholders can be sued for the corporation’s liability. Similarly, we could end up with some sort of civilian death ratio, that when surpassed, leads to a presumption of a war crime . . .



Filed under Essays

2 responses to “Human Shields and Collateral Damage

  1. Tom

    Okay, we get that you don’t agree, yet you didn’t offer an alternative. Unless your alternative is simply to negotiate with Hamas which we already know doesn’t work.

    Actually, if you want somebody to blame for this, it’s got to be Hamas. Because as the leaders of Gaza, they have to decide to what is best for their people. They must know that continued rocket fire will provoke an Israeli response everytime, yet they do it anyway. They have a choice, and yet they choose wrong so often. Is it unfortunate? Of course it is. But in the larger scope of things, Gerson is absolutely right.

    The Palestinian people also have a choice. They can band together and reject Hamas for bringing this down on them time and time again.

  2. eric


    Thanks for your comment! My post seems incredibly one sided, I know. Hamas is definitely to blame for so much . . . for terrorizing Israel, for not offering its people a better life. They played with fire and Palestinians gone burned. Palestinians, I suppose, like Americans who elected Bush, of course share part of the responsibility for the people they choose to govern them.

    Nevertheless, does all of that mean that we have the right, in the interest of the bigger picture, to destroy all that is in our path? If we agree that there is something fundamentally wrong with rounding up 800 people in Afghanistan and putting them on torture island for 6 years without a trial because maybe 20% were bad guys, how can justify bombing the most heavily populated place on earth because it is governed by Hamas?

    It reminds me a little of the debt relief debate (which I did not necessarily agree with) about how we should not make the impoverished citizens of the world’s poorest nations suffer (their national debt) because their leaders were corrupt.

    I don’t know what the solution is, but surely firing into a crowd cannot be it. Like I said, were the crowd filled with Israeli’s or with Americans (in the case of Iraq or Afghanistan), it would be considered unacceptable. By firing into the crowd, we become like Hamas.

    The problem with the bigger picture and the “Palestinian people have a choice” argument is that it rationalizes civilians as a strategic military target, rendering the action per se a war crime.

    Finally, I am trying to argue this all from an American perspective because in the U.S. we really don’t have this debate. But I think it is also interesting to note that tacitly the Middle Eastern “allies” (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan) have all bought into the Gerson argument. They want Hamas out, ASAP, and have the same sympathy for the Palestinians as the Israeli army.

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