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Proportionality, strategic military advantage and the battle for hearts and minds

January 19, 2009

Further to the point about proportionality: as I outlined in my last post, a decision about whether or not military action is “proportional” depends on first deciding what “strategic military advantage” it leads to. What I gathered from this (and what Kevin Jon Heller’s comment seems to confirm) is that lawyers alone can’t make decisions about proportionality – it requires a military opinion. Someone coming from a military perspective needs to offer an opinion about what qualifies as a “strategic military advantage” and how it can be quantified in terms of casualties and property damage.

(My mind reels when I think of this. It reminds me of environmental economics, and trying to put a dollar value on a river or clean air, only it seems even more scary and arbitrary. This is not to say that I don’t think it should be done – I’m not convinced either way. But I know I don’t envy those who might try to do it)

In my very non-expert opinion, in a world where conflict is changing, “strategic military advantage” should take some sort of account of the “battle for hearts and minds.” This seems important because military advantage in a counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism situation probably can’t be as easily defined as it can in a traditional state-versus-state war – where there are more obvious quantifiables like territory, and unified enemies who (generally) take direction through a chain of command, and would ultimately surrender if a high-level decision was made to do so. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, IMHO, no amount of “strategic military advantage,” defined in traditional terms, is actually going to lead to the outcome Israelis (and other sane people) want – i.e. no more rocket attacks. So what should strategic military advantage mean in this case? Doesn’t it need to be defined in a radically different way from how it has been defined before?

Just as lawyers and judges alone can’t define “proportionality” can military commanders define “strategic military advantage”? In a way that would make a compelling case for proportionality as an adequate justification of military action? I’m inclined to say no – you’d need all kinds of other social scientists, like psychologists, sociologists, criminologists, etc. to tell you what an advantageous position is in this type of conflict.

There’s a kind of domino effect, where defining one concept — ie. proportionality — depends on defining a slew of other concepts. This raises two questions for me: 1) is defining the kinds of concepts we can base international law on even possible? and 2) is it worth pursuing?

Even though I’m not sure about the answer to 1), I’m relatively sure the answer to 2) is “yes” – because of the promise of international law. And I’m also fairly sure that the way forward in dealing with this domino effect is a movement towards the kind of “systems thinking” that has started to penetrate the sciences. But that’s for another post.

One Comment leave one →
  1. January 20, 2009 2:49 pm

    Another perspective on military advantage, from David Bercuson:

    “Israel changed the facts on the ground diplomatically as it did militarily. It imposed its will on Hamas. And it has gained greater diplomatic leverage. Hamas has been humbled and with it, Hezbollah and Iran.”

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