Moral Equivalence in War (Both Sides are Wrong)

by | Nov 21, 2023

Moral Equivalence in War (Both Sides are Wrong)

by | Nov 21, 2023

smoke and flames billow after israeli forces hit a high rise tower in gaza city

Smoke and flames billow after Israeli forces hit a high-rise tower in Gaza City. October 10, 2023.

It has become fashionable once again for regime apologists to denounce as “simpleminded,” even immoral, any assertion or intimation of moral equivalence between government killers and the factional fighters who undertake violent retaliation against them. Throughout the emotionally fraught dispute engendered by the events of October 7, 2023, and its aftermath, there has been a reigning confusion regarding what “moral equivalence” actually means.

The classical concept of “invincible ignorance,” which derives from the “just war” tradition, is closely related to the question of moral equivalence in killing because the soldiers on both sides of every conflict have been told by their commanders that they are acting in the name of justice. What’s more, the soldiers of formal military states are dutybound to obey what they themselves take to be lawful orders. They may of course be mistaken, but the question of objective justice is not the appropriate measure to use in analyzing what is happening during wartime, because the intentions acted upon inhere in individual actors, not the collective groups or institutions to which they belong. The truth is that in every war, whether symmetrical or asymmetrical, a number of strict moral equivalences obtain between the participants, whether killers or their material and moral supporters, on both sides:

  1. Both sides believe that they are right, and their adversaries are wrong.
  2. Both sides believe that their coveted end justifies the means which they choose to deploy in achieving that end.
  3. Both sides claim to be aiming for justice and assume that violence must be met with more violence in order to avenge the wrongs already done.
  4. Both sides have already decided, in advance of deploying any weapons, that they are willing to sacrifice innocent civilians, should that become necessary.
  5. Both sides tend to regard the adult inhabitants of the enemy group as responsible for the crimes committed in virtue of the material and moral support which they have provided. This is true even in cases where one side is governed by a ruthless despot who makes it impossible to resist without risking severe consequences, up to and including death.
  6. The fighters on both sides are willing to kill for their cause. (When the soldiers are coerced to fight under penalty of death for failure to comply, it is unclear that they are freely choosing to do so, but they are still acting as they do in order to achieve a more modest aim: to avoid military execution.)
  7. Because they believe that their cause is righteous and just, both sides act in good conscience and stigmatize their enemy as evil, even while knowing, on some level, that their adversaries, too, embrace the very same Manichean dichotomy: “We are good, and they are evil.”

If moral absolutism is true, then both sides to a dispute cannot be right, because it cannot be the case that both p and not-p. But there is nonetheless a profound sense in which it is possible for both sides to be wrong. The ugly truth about war is that both sides invariably accept the rules of a game which prioritizes the fighters at the expense of people who happen to “stand in their way.” When the military drops enormously destructive bombs on a densely populated area, everyone knows, including the officers who order the actions and the soldiers who execute them, that innocent civilians will be killed. This is not a matter of mere chance, but as certain as anything can be. Yet the military corps of formal nations continue to do this, even when their historical tally of corpses dwarfs that of the factional fighters whom they oppose.

Viewed from the perspective of the victims themselves—a perspective routinely ignored by those who develop and execute policy for both formal military institutions and factional killers—it is silly, even nonsensical, to quibble over numbers. Were 1,400 or 1,200 Israelis killed on October 7, 2023? For each individual victim stripped of his life, the loss is infinite in value. For each survivor left bereft, the loss is incalculable. The warriors on both sides publicly lament, in apparent sincerity, that they had no choice but to perpetrate death and destruction wherever they did. It was a “last resort,” they say.

In view of all of these terms of agreement, if the two sides ever bothered to listen to the grievances of the other, they would recognize why they fight with such vigor. In order to lessen the incidence of war in the world, what is needed is not to bellow out from the hilltops that we side with “the good guys,” and that anyone who opposes them is evil. For both sides believe this very same schema, with equal fervor, about themselves.

The point here is Socratic: No one knowingly does evil. Setting aside politics, and reflecting upon human action as it occurs in the moment, the unassailable truth of Socrates’ insight is that people are motivated to act based upon what they take to be the facts and according to their values. When two groups of killers agree to settle their disputes through the use of deadly force, with all of the innocent, noncombatant victims brushed aside and swiftly fictionalized as “collateral damage,” then they are both laboring under the delusion that somehow they are morally superior to their adversaries and anyone associated with them has less moral value than they and their fellow tribe members possess.

The supporters of formal military institutions will protest, “But of course it is worse to behead someone than it is to incinerate him using a missile launched from a drone! Who cannot recognize this truth?” The answer is that the victims themselves do not, for they are no longer in the position to be able to assess the allegedly “good intentions” of the killers who stole their lives away. The soldiers and the terrorists are all willing to sacrifice other people in achieving their aims, and in this sense they are indeed morally equivalent. The choice of the particular implement of homicide does not make one act of murder somehow more humane than another. Murder is murder, at the end of the day. Using a missile to carry out an act of assassination does not magically make it morally okay.

Other less obvious cases than the use of knives and missiles illustrate the very same point: that political killers evince a complete insouciance toward the people on the ground who “stand in the way.” Consider the children who died of dysentery and other treatable diseases in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton certainly did not behead those children, nor did they incinerate them using missiles launched from drones, a fate inflicted upon many people by the U.S. government in the twenty-first century throughout the Middle East. And yet, Presidents Bush and Clinton nonetheless physically caused the deaths of those children through their chosen and implemented foreign policies.

Bush Sr’s troops obliterated water treatment facilities, and Clinton imposed severe economic sanctions which made it impossible for Iraqi civilians to obtain either clean water or the medication needed to treat the diseases caused by the dirty water. In what sense, then, were the children who died of treatable, water-borne illnesses during the 1990s not killed by Bush and Clinton? Had the U.S. government not regarded the people of Iraq as expendable—“standing in the way” of what the presidents took to be important geopolitical aims—then they would have treated them as human beings. Instead, thousands of Iraqi children were destroyed through means in some ways more inhumane than swift and direct and more obvious cases of murder.

Pointing out these sorts of facts always leads to stentorian outcries of apparently righteous indignation (judging by the emotive force alone) because modern people have been trained to believe, through centuries of indoctrination, in the just war paradigm. According to the self-styled “just warriors,” there are certain “rules” of war, and those who follow the rules are by definition just warriors, and those who do not are perpetrating murder. The problem is that in any individual case where a group of people have been destroyed, the mindset of the killers themselves is precisely the same. They claim that they had no choice, that the actions leading to the deaths were a “last resort,” even in cases where it is obvious that they were not.

It is difficult to imagine the profound state of self-deception among people such as President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, whose Global War on Terror effected the deaths of millions of human beings in response to the murders of about 3,000 U.S. citizens. Ironically, through the use of a veritable drone-killing machine, the U.S. government deployed means nearly empirically indistinguishable from those of their adversaries, the members of Al Qaeda who targeted the Twin Towers in a surprise attack on September 11, 2001. Osama Bin Laden succeeded spectacularly in provoking a gross overreaction, which served to support his own cause, for the self-proclaimed “smart warriors,” too, adopted as their primary modus operandi the ambush of unwitting victims. Most notoriously, lethal drones were used analogously to the repurposing of airplanes by the jihadists against their targets. No warning, no possibility of self-defense, not even the possibility of denying that the person extrajudicially “convicted” through execution was guilty of a capital crime. The structure of the acts of September 11, 2001, and the retaliatory “take [nearly] no prisoners” approach of the U.S. military in the two decades to follow illustrate that the terrorists ultimately succeeded in creating their enemy in their own image.

Likewise, in Israel, the campaign to wipe out Hamas, though they are embedded in Gaza among millions of people who had nothing whatsoever to do with the crimes of October 7, 2023, reflects the very same cavalier attitude toward the destruction of innocent life. From the perspective of both Al Qaeda and Hamas, the civilians killed were supporters of the enemy, which made them in fact guilty by association in the minds of those who killed them. The Israeli government has been conducting itself as though it, too, believes that because the Palestinian people elected Hamas as their leaders, they are therefore responsible for everything they do. But even if all of the adults supported Hamas, no one can coherently claim that the children being killed do so. They are merely inconveniently “standing in the way” of what the Israeli government wishes to achieve.

Another possibility is that the Israelis are in fact emulating the U.S. government’s own sanguinary quest to “mow down” emerging potential terrorists before they have the chance to act on their anger and seek revenge against the occupiers of their land and the murderers (as they view them) of their brethren. The Obama administration went so far as to summarily execute Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was claimed to be an operational terrorist, although his influence may have been to offer intellectual and moral support to factional jihadists. In any case, even if the elder al-Awlaki was guilty of aiding and abetting terrorists (which was never documented by his killers), there was never any sense in which his son was. We still do not know, more than twelve years later, what happened, because the U.S. government refused to comment on the case (whipping out the usual get-out-of-jail free card: state secrets privilege). Since no one in the U.S. government has bothered to deny this possibility, it may well be the case that Abdulrahman was killed because the government feared that he would be transformed into a terrorist by the anger generated through the assassination of his father.

If that is indeed what happened in the case of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, then it would seem to be very similar to the current modus operandi of Israel’s military as it wipes out children who might possibly, one day, have grown up to be members of Hamas. What, after all, the strategists may acknowledge behind closed doors, was it that motivated factional fighters throughout Iraq and Afghanistan to go so far as to commit suicide in their efforts to oust the invaders of their lands? In many cases, it was their personal witness of atrocities, such as the specter of drones hovering above the sky and targeting suspected militants in surprise attacks, under the assumption that the killers possessed the right to end the life of anyone whom they regarded as suspicious. As evidence of this possibility, nearly every jihadi terrorist suspect who made it to trial in the United States (most were summarily whacked abroad) explicitly claimed to have been motivated by personal outrage at what the U.S. military was doing to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Fast forward to Gaza in 2023. Israel has been razing neighborhoods, bombing hospitals, mosques, refugee camps, etc., all the while claiming that these are acts of self-defense. Setting aside the conceptual confusion involved in a state claiming that the obliteration of a subset of the persons who comprise the state is somehow an act of “self-defense,” the fact is that the images of thousands of dead children who obviously have nothing whatsoever to do with Hamas can have no more tangible effect than to inspire young men and women to join the battle with the terrorists to destroy their oppressors. No one should be surprised in the least when this happens, for they will be acting in emulation of the Israeli government currently in the process of slaying their neighbors and rendering Gaza uninhabitable.

Rage at what happened on October 7, 2023, has blinded the Israelis from the truth, that their current actions can only exacerbate their own situation. The bombing of civilian gatherings such as weddings and funerals during the Global War on Terror, in pursuit of individuals possibly in attendance, bore striking similarities to the intentional, premeditated obliteration of refugee camps in pursuit of Hamas members allegedly present. We should expect to see, and we have seen, under these horrific circumstances, an outpouring of support for Hamas and an increase of the number of young people willing to join forces with them.

What the Israeli government, through its actions, has told the world and its people is that they do not care how many innocent people they kill, so long as they get “the bad guys.” Everyone else is just “standing in the way.” But the group of “bad guys” will continue to enlarge so long as the government shows such an utter disregard for the value of Palestinians’ lives. The direct consequences of what is being done to Gaza are entirely predictable, given what we witnessed throughout the Global War on Terror. Through a program of indiscriminate killing, Israel’s leaders are simultaneously expressing contempt for not only the Palestinian people but also Jewish citizens, by essentially ensuring that they will never, ever live in peace and security—at least not in Israel. More terrorists will perpetrate more terrorist acts, which will lead the government to kill more innocent people casually written off, fictionalized and forgotten, as “collateral damage.” This in turn will lead more young persons to join the jihadists calling for Israel’s annihilation.

The savage murders of October 7, 2023, and the brutal bombing of densely populated civilian areas are two sides of the same coin, given the moral equivalences inherent to every war, indeed every violent conflict in which the adversarial parties are willing to commit homicide to avenge themselves or to achieve a desired aim. The Israel First crowd may loudly denounce such assertions as false moral equivalency, but in reality, when all of the rhetoric is shaved away, and the actions in question are examined from a purely physical viewpoint, there is no sense in which dropping bombs is somehow less murderous than cutting off people’s heads, because bombs, too, annihilate conscious, sentient human beings.

The lesson to be learned from Israeli’s completely over-the-top assault on the Palestinian people might have been gleaned by onlookers throughout the Global War on Terror, when the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, Syria and Libya, were also brutally assaulted in response to crimes committed by a small group of miscreants. Instead, the warriors blunder ahead in a state of myopia and amnesia, as though “We are good, and they are evil,” is the only justification they need for doing anything they please.

The terrorists commit murder, which leads the government to commit murder, which leads more people to sympathize with, if not join the ranks of, the terrorists, some of whom will commit further murder. In effect, this is a depraved race to the bottom, with neither side taking the time to understand the gross overreaction of the other, nor to acknowledge how the very same outrage which they feel has been experienced by their enemy as well. The reason why institutionalized, codified murder, as carried out by governments is regarded by some people (see the writings of Frantz Fanon) as even worse than terrorist attacks is because governments have vast means at their disposal for settling disputes. They have court systems and economic power, none of which are possessed by the members of radical factions who rise up to oppose their government oppressors.

Even if, as I have suggested, acts of intentional, premeditated homicide are morally equivalent, the comportment of the U.S. government and the Israeli government should be criticized as strategically inept. Given the stakes, the very future of democratic states, what should have been undertaken, not only post-9/11 but also post-10/7, was a criminal investigation and pursuit of the perpetrators. When people commit apolitical murders, the procedure followed is to locate the murderers and hold them accountable. Instead of doing that in the case of factional terrorists, the U.S. government and the Israeli government decided to fight murder with murder, expressing their utter disdain for humanity by killing multiple times more innocent people and thereby ensuring that enemy factions will grow, spread, and retaliate in kind. The problem is not just that the Israelis have overreacted or gone mad. They have undermined the future prospects of their own people ever to live in security and peace.

Laurie Calhoun

Laurie Calhoun

Laurie Calhoun is a Senior Fellow for The Libertarian Institute. She is the author of Questioning the COVID Company Line: Critical Thinking in Hysterical Times,We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, Theodicy: A Metaphilosophical Investigation, You Can Leave, Laminated Souls, and Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic's Critique. In 2015, she began traveling around the world while writing. In 2020, she returned to the United States, where she remained until 2023 as a result of the COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed by governments nearly everywhere.

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