“For He’ll avenge the blood of His servants, wreak vengeance on His foes, and cleanse the land of His people” Deuteronomy 32:43

A discussion of the acceptable civilian casualties during a war underscores a typical leftist fallacy: theory is great, but the devil is in the details. Except for hardcore proponents of revenge such as myself, more or less everyone agrees on two things: civilian casualties are acceptable as collateral damage and they should be minimized. This is a common view from the Middle Ages, when the doctrine of double effect was first enunciated: simply, killing civilians must not be an end in itself, but must have another—military—effect.

This seemingly elegant doctrine is meaningless because its components are indefinable. Generals disagree on most strategic and all tactical questions; what some of them see as collateral damage is murder to others. Voting is not an option: not only is decision-making by majority alien to the military command system built on subordination, but also the seemingly murderous general might be right. In practice, distinguishing between meaningless and somewhat purposeful slaughter of civilians is impossible. Hiroshima housed plenty of Japanese factories, which were largely engaged in military production. The Dresden carpet-bombing, besides being a laudable vengeance for Coventry, was initially designed to crack the Germans’ will to fight. The Vietnam defoliation campaign, though it starved the villagers in the short term, was meant to end the war sooner and perhaps diminish the overall suffering by exposing the guerrillas.

The idea of minimizing civilian casualties is similarly vague. How many of our soldiers are we prepared to risk in order to spare a hundred enemy civilians? Though liberals might advocate a one-for-one ratio, or even risking more soldiers than the number of civilians likely to be spared, any sensible general knows otherwise. Soldiers are more precious than civilians because they are fewer and more costly: their supply is naturally limited by the cost and duration of their training. Also, in order to ask soldiers to risk their lives generals must assure them that they are cared about; the notion that their commanders would endanger them to spare enemy civilians demoralizes an army. In reality, any efficient general would save his soldiers at the cost of enemy civilians rather than vice-versa. Since risk evaluation is the generals’ domain, there is nothing to prevent them from adjusting the estimates to show that sparing enemy civilians would disproportionally endanger the soldiers.

Pursuing the double-effect approach to its logical end, armies should avoid urban combat and attacks on military factories in cities. That would preclude operations against terrorists and guerrillas and perpetuate wars by ensuring the enemy of uninterrupted industrial supply. Perhaps a theoretical enemy, one who only houses his army and military industrial facilities in the open, might claim immunity for his civilian centers, but so stupid a military would have no chance. Their opponents would exploit this weakness of location rather than respect their morality. At any rate, open-field fighting is not an option in a war against terrorists.

Precision bombing and acting on specific intelligence would make military operations prohibitively expensive. When Hamas has 20,000 active members, it is not feasible to kill each one in his house with fifty-thousand-dollar guided bombs in two-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-flight aerial attacks. Saving enemy civilians always comes at the price of killing Jewish ones. How so? The money is inherently limited; the defense budget reduces domestic healthcare spending. In the Gaza war Israel spent $3 million for each dead Palestinian; that money, allocated to Israeli hospitals, could have saved thousands of Jews. When the Heath Ministry’s budget amounts to $1,000 per Israeli per year, spending 3,000 times more per Gazan to minimize their casualties is immoral.

Limiting civilian casualties depends on knightly reciprocity. Once a country imagines it has something to gain by bombing the enemy’s population centers and does so, the other side has to retaliate if only to stop the bombings. Retaliation also plays a role: when the United States was bombing Vietnamese villages for the laudable cause of stopping communist expansion, who could have condemned the Vietnamese, theoretically, for terrorist attacks in American cities? Or consider the Jews whose friends and relatives fell victim to terrorist attacks by the PA government’s official militia—who has the moral authority to prevent them from avenging their dear ones?

The attempts to dissociate warfare from human feelings are futile. Ancient wars, and some medieval ones, were commercial enterprises where the armies had no reason to hate the conquered populations. Still, massacres were common. Modern nation-states carry out wars for ideological reasons, and so the entire enemy nation becomes a hated enemy. In foreign relations, nations act is single bodies; other countries cannot and should not distinguish between good and bad members of enemy nations.

Liberalism manifestly abandoned its roots by pronouncing citizens not responsible for their own actions. In the economic field, liberals call for government intervention in markets and bailing out of defaulted homeowners and people too lazy to find a job. In the military field, liberals declare that civilians cannot be bombed because they are not responsible for their government’s military actions. Huh? The people who elect the government, pay for it with taxes, and supply it cannon fodder are as culpable as it gets. At the peak of the anti-Vietnam war protests, not even 5 percent of Americans joined the street rallies, and even fewer dodged the draft. In every nation, the number of dissenters is small. People who elect an evil government which conducts what they see as an unjust, murderous war have a duty to remove that government by whatever means it takes. While some Americans were killing the Vietnamese, others could not claim innocence by merely marching against the government. Still less can the Gazans claim immunity while their elected government wages a war on Israel.