Fighting It– Terrorists among Civilians

This Op-ED by AJC’S Washington Director again points out the difficulties in fighting against a terrorist enemy willing to hide among civilians and desiring civilian casualties for its propaganda effort. How can the West, and specifically the Europeans learn to understand the need victory, not proportion:

A Price of Fighting Terrorism

By David Bernstein

August 10, 2006

When much of the world initially supported Israel’s right to defend itself against the Hezbollah attacks, I wondered how long the international backing would last. Would Israel be given enough time to push Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon and cripple the terrorist organization before the world lost patience?

Alas, the international support lasted a mere two weeks. With the unfortunate but inevitable loss of life, calls for a cease-fire have reached a fevered pitch, threatening to end the operation before Israel’s basic military objectives have been met and before an adequate international force can be mobilized and placed on the ground.

The chain of events was predictable: Hezbollah attacks Israel; Israel battles an enemy that hides among and fights from civilian populations, which inevitably leads to civilian casualties; the images of suffering reach Western audiences, which react with horror; the international community pressures the Jewish state to cease and desist.

Predictable, but foolish. Wars, as we all know, are now fought on TV and are subject to far greater — and quicker — scrutiny than ever. The tendency to support war and then recoil from its consequences is very modern and very human — but it is also a major handicap against an Islamic extremist enemy that is all too aware of our weaknesses.

If we are going to effectively fight the fascism of our time, we’d better face up to the sad fact that even the most just wars and justly fought wars cause civilian casualties.

The American effort to root out the Taliban, which, unlike the Israeli campaign, was not conducted under an ongoing barrage of missiles on American cities, caused hundreds of casualties among innocent Afghans. On one occasion, in 2002, the U.S. military accidentally bombed an Afghan wedding hall, killing or wounding 140 civilians.

In the U.S.-led war effort to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo — a more noble war there never was — the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was accidentally bombed, killing or wounding 23 people. NATO, which admitted to approximately 500 civilian fatalities (and 10,000 deaths overall) in its effort to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, cautioned that “these losses must be viewed in perspective.”

Even the most sophisticated armies using the most precise weapons are subject to a margin of error.

Americans have fought several wars in recent years and, by and large, seem able to stomach the inevitable consequences. Many Europeans, however, who have lived under the American security umbrella for more than 60 years have not had to make such excruciating decisions about life and death. When confronted with the brutal facts of war, they substitute revulsion for reasoning.

If World War II had been fought in our day and age, it is highly possible that the allied troops would not have been able to maintain the public support necessary to fight the Nazis in an all-out war. Today’s Western publics would probably recoil from the death and devastation shown on TV.

We must develop a public discourse on war that is realistic as well as compassionate and that allows us to rise to the challenge. The concept of “just war,” a time-honored moral framework for judging parties at war, has much to offer our modern media age but, for whatever reason, has rarely factored into the public discourse. A preeminent theorist of just war, Michael Walzer, states, “When Palestinian militants launch rocket attacks from civilian areas, they are themselves responsible — and no one else is — for the civilian deaths caused by Israeli counter fire. But . . . Israeli soldiers are required to aim as precisely as they can at the militants, to take risks in order to do that, and to call off counterattacks that would kill large numbers of civilians . . . . Still, minimizing does not mean avoiding entirely: Civilians will suffer.”

If we are serious about winning the war against Islamic extremists, the West will have to fight against an enemy that hides missiles in family homes and cynically exploits the inevitable results. It will occasionally have to take military action that it knows in advance will cause civilian casualties, even as it tries to minimize those casualties. And when those casualties do occur, it will have to place blame where it belongs — on the extremists and their supporters — and then go on with the war


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