Tuesday, January 13, 2009

War is the health of the state (and hack columnists)

Not every dimwitted and bloodthirsty pundit mouthing off on the Israeli invasion of Gaza is worth legitimizing with a response, but some commentators are more stridently obtuse and vicious than others -- and benefit from the prominent platforms handed to them by publications like Newsweek and The Washington Post -- and sometimes it's worth examining the actual arguments made by the over-compensating La-Z-Boy brigade. Take Carlos Alberto Motaner, "one of the most influential and widely-read columnists in the Spanish-language media," who pens an entire disingenous column on the notion that all critics of Israeli military actions are more or less driven by either 1) anti-semitism, or 2) a desire to kill Jews. Here's the nuanced argument:
Israelis are being accused of suffering too few casualties in their confrontation with the Hamas terrorists. Those who reason thus usually speak the words "disproportion" or "asymmetry" in an indignant tone. While at this writing close to a thousand Arab Palestinians have died or been wounded as a result of the bombings, the Israeli losses amount to just over a dozen.

Tel Aviv's critics -- from whom an anti-Semitic stench often rises -- do not say whether Israel should increase its quota of cadavers or if it must reduce the Arabs' quota to achieve the reasonable proportion of blood that will soothe the peculiar itch for parity that afflicts them. Nor do they specify the morally permissible number of casualties to end the rain of rockets that for years has been constantly falling on the heads of Israeli civilians.
Unfortunately, Mr. Motaner never gets around to citing any prominent voices stating the sentiments he decries, possibly because there aren't any -- a fact that would seem to undermine the straw man he constructs. Also, it never seems to occur to Motaner that perhaps some crtics of the Gaza invasion object to killing people, regardless of nationality and , and see no great moral principle behind the Israeli government's distinction between attacking civilian populations with ineffectual rockets (cold-blooded terrorism) and attacking them with the finest in U.S.-subsidized munitions (legitimate self-defense). Murder is murder, whether it's caused by a Qassam rocket or a smart bomb -- though chances are if it'll be one, it'll be the latter.

Here's more from Motaner, who seems genuinely perplexed as to why the concept of total, "all-out" war is abhorrent to some people:
This demand for "proportionality" can only be called surprising. Until this conflict began, history books everywhere always expressed great satisfaction and a certain chauvinistic pride when a nation's army inflicted on the enemy a large number of casualties, vis-à-vis a trifling price paid by "our boys." Israel is the only country expected to behave differently and, in fact, it does; I know of no other nation that announces where and when it will drop its bombs, thus enabling civilians to evacuate the territory. Of course, in this it behaves asymmetrically, because the Hamas terrorists, forever eager to cause the greatest damage possible, never announce when or where they will launch their rockets against Israel's civilian population.
First, a legalistic point -- namely, article 57, 2(c) of the Geneva Conventions, Protocol I
effective advance warning shall be given of attacks which may affect the civilian population, unless circumstances do not permit.
In other words, warning civilians of an impending attack isn't a courtesy (sometimes) granted the Palestinians out of the Israeli government's benevolent goodness, it's a law of war that if ignored (as it often is) could open up Israeli officials to charges of war crimes -- as if their actions to date haven't already. It should also be mentioned that the 1.5 million residents of the Gaza Strip notably don't have the freedom to merely flee the conflict as Israel has maintained an increasingly stringent blockade on the region since Hamas came to power, preventing both the exodus of people and goods as well as the importation of fuel and humanitarian goods. And when residents of the Strip have heeded Israeli warnings and evacuated to several of the UN schools in the region designated for refugees, the Israeli military has had no compunction blowing up said schools up if a suspected Hamas militant (that is, a Palestinian male over the age of 12) is thought to be in the area.

But talking of "war crimes" at times feels a bit academic, as war itself is a crime against nature that -- like government -- is at best a necessary evil, and at worst an intolerable one. Indeed, the only thing mass armed conflict is really healthy for is the state, as Randolph Bourne pointed out during World War I, which invariably expands its power while spawning dime-a-dozen courtiers like Motaner (who wistfully bemoans the loss of stature the mass murder of civilians has suffered over the years). That's all the reason to give Bourne's radical advice -- that one should seek not to stop some wars, but to abolish the power structure that enables them -- a little thought:
War is a very artificial thing. It is not the naïve spontaneous outburst of herd pugnacity; it is no more primary than is formal religion. War cannot exist without a military establishment, and a military establishment cannot exist without a State organization. War has an immemorial tradition and heredity only because the State has a long tradition and heredity. But they are inseparably and functionally joined. We cannot crusade against war without crusading implicitly against the State. And we cannot expect, or take measures to ensure, that this war is a war to end war, unless at the same time we take measures to end the State in its traditional form. The State is not the nation, and the State can be modified and even abolished in its present form, without harming the nation. On the contrary, with the passing of the dominance of the State, the genuine life-enhancing forces of the nation will be liberated. If the State's chief function is war, then the State must suck out of the nation a large part of its energy for its purely sterile purposes of defense and aggression. It devotes to waste or to actual destruction as much as it can of the vitality of the nation. No one will deny that war is a vast complex of life-destroying and life-crippling forces. If the State's chief function is war, then it is chiefly concerned with coordinating and developing the powers and techniques which make for destruction. And this means not only the actual and potential destruction of the enemy, but of the nation at home as well. For the very existence of a State in a system of States means that the nation lies always under a risk of war and invasion, and the calling away of energy into military pursuits means a crippling of the productive and life-enhancing processes of the national life.

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