John Derbyshire on politics, collective punishment and modern war ethics

by Limbic on August 18, 2006

“You cannot be objective about an aerial torpedo. And the horror we feel of these things has led to this conclusion: if someone drops a bomb on your mother, go and drop two bombs on his mother. The only apparent alternatives are to smash dwelling houses to powder, blow out human entrails and burn holes in children with thermite, or to be enslaved by people who are more ready to do these things than you are yourself; as yet no one has suggested a practicable way out.” ‚Äî George Orwell, reviewing Arthur Koestler‚Äôs Spanish Testament for the magazine Time and Tide, Feb. 5, 1938.

From They, The People – New English Review:

These troubling thoughts came up while I was watching TV coverage of the fighting in Lebanon. It would be a wonderful thing if the Israeli Defense Force could kill only Hezbollah operatives, leaving the civilian population alone. They can’t, of course, and civilians are dying. It would be a much less wonderful thing—though still, so far as I am concerned, an acceptable one—if the Israelis could reduce their enemies to the condition of abject, unconditional surrender we reduced Germany to in 1945. But they can’t do that, either.

For Israel this is a “crisis war” , at least as much as WWII was for us. Hezbollah has been firing missiles into Israeli cities, killing Israeli civilians. Eighty percent of the population of South Lebanon voted for “Resistance Party” candidates in last year’s election—that’s mainly Hezbollah, joined with a few like-minded groups.

Now, that peasant who just got killed in an Israeli airstrike might very well have belonged to the twenty percent who did not vote “Resistance”; and the seven-year-old girl whose legs were blown off by another Israeli bomb while playing with her favorite doll, wasn’t even in the electorate. How can their killing be justified? By the doctrine of collective responsibility, which, if you allow its validity, applies even more strongly to Lebanon, where there have at least been elections, than to North Korea. This is your government. You have permitted this to be done to us. You—all of you, any of you, and your children too—are to some degree liable.

As a solvent of guilt, the doctrine of collective responsibility is hard to beat. When push truly comes to shove, when we find ourselves in the nightmare landscape Orwell describes, where the correct response to the bombing of one‚Äôs mother is a double bombing of his mother‚Äîwhen human beings are in that dark place, I think history shows that there is no nation too civilized to do what is necessary; nor any so un-civilized as to feel no need to cook up a doctrine of self-exculpation. A conservative commentator** recently wrote the following thing, in respect of mass killing of civilians: ‚ÄúI think it’s fair to say that we would rather our civilization die than that we commit such acts.‚Äù Speak for yourself, Sir. If our grandfathers had felt that way, I‚Äôd be writing this in Japanese.

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