Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 22, 2023

War is a clash between competing nationalisms. Thus no wars, be it in the past or the present, have witnessed proportionality 

The ethics of war: Proportionality and nationalism

Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war and especially the Hamas-Israel conflict, there has been considerable debate in the mainstream and social media about the importance of proportionality. The intense bloodshed in the ongoing war between Hamas and Israel has evoked very visceral emotions and responses from people across the world. However, proportionality is a myth in war. For instance, the Norwegian Prime Minister asserted that Israel’s application of military power against Hamas in Gaza is “I believe….beyond proportionality”. Almost identically, the Chairperson of the Indian National Congress (INC) Parliamentary Party stated: “We were collectively diminished by the brutal attacks on Israel. We are all now diminished by Israel’s disproportionate response and equally brutal response…The Israeli government is making a grievous error in equating the actions of Hamas with the Palestinian people.”

An additional claim purveyed is that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) imposes prohibitions and restraints on the use of force, especially against civilians is problematic. IHL is voluntary and non-binding on sovereign states. Adherence and compliance with international law is also a matter of “good faith”. This is simply because there is no supra-national entity to enforce international law. Restraints or lack of them in war are a function of several variables: the relative capabilities of the adversaries; the extent of enemy strength; the nature of the tactics and operational strategy employed by both warring parties; the terrain in which combat occurs; the objectives being sought by the belligerents; motivation between them; which in turn is governed by the history of antagonism between the belligerents predating the outbreak of hostilities and finally the relative position of adversaries; allies and partners vis-á-vis each of the adversaries. Reinforcing this is the nature of the adversary who may vary from state-to-state and group-to-group. Indeed, the way a country wages war is very much a function of its governing institutions and socio-political conditions. In a nutshell, every war has its context, in that the political conditions in which it is fought and the intensity of combat are also variable. Consequently, wars never happen in a political vacuum. The notion that wars are fought irrespective of public support or acquiescence is also a fallacy. Wars are ultimately a collision of nationalisms or a clash of collective human wills. Without mobilising populations, no state or even a sub-state actor such as Hamas can wage a war. Israel’s response itself is based on popular support as was Hamas’ attack on 7 October 2023. It is a myth to purvey the claim that Gaza’s civilian population is good whereas Gaza’s Hamas leadership is bad. It never occurs to those who propound this fallacy that why do the “good” Gaza people allow the “bad” Hamas leadership to run their territory. Ironically, the Israelis claim that their military action is directed against Hamas and not the “people” of Gaza. Besides the Hamas-Israel war, the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war is no exception. Beyond these wars, there are several other examples including from the subcontinent. 

India has not practised complete proportionality in combat against its adversaries in its wars such as the India-Pakistan War. Although the list is exhaustive, let us consider the Kargil conflict. The Kargil war between India and Pakistan broke out in the summer of 1999 upon the discovery of well-entrenched Pakistani soldiers from the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) on India’s side of the LoC in the Drass-Kargil sector, who were being passed off by the Pakistan Army (PA) as “Mujahideen” fighters in a quest to deny PA involvement, New Delhi escalated with airpower backed up by massive artillery and infantry assaults in late May of 1999. The Pakistanis saw this as a serious escalation but could do nothing about India’s use of massive military power to evict the Pakistani intrusion force, despite Rawalpindi not using airpower or force levels to match India. Indian aims in the Kargil War may have been limited, but the means used were not. Indeed, calls for ceasefire by the Pakistani government were summarily rejected by the then Vajpayee-led Indian caretaker government, because it would leave the Pakistanis with a sizeable chunk of Indian territory or worse freeze their existing hold on Indian territory, enervate the ferocity of India’s military response and allow the Pakistanis to re-group. Succinctly stated, New Delhi’s use of force was disproportionate. Indeed, on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LoC), there were civilian casualties due to Indian artillery shelling. A large number of Pakistani villages were destroyed due to Indian bombardment. However, civilian populations are sparse on both sides of the LoC dividing India and Pakistan, limiting civilian casualties and rendering their evacuation much easier as did occur during the Kargil conflict. This war, as was the case with past India-Pakistan wars, was a contest between nationalisms.

Thus, the geographic environment in which states are fighting matters as much as whether there are a high or low number of civilian casualties. Urban combat invariably involves heavy loss of civilian lives, because combatants co-mingle with civilians as Hamas is doing currently against the Israeli offensive. The purpose of using civilians as shields by a belligerent force such as Hamas is clearly intended to constrain the ferocity and relentlessness of Israel’s military action through pressure from the international community. Calls for a ceasefire may help secure at most some desperately needed aid to Gaza’s civilians and also their evacuation to safe zones, but from an Israeli military standpoint, they will serve to enable Hamas to replenish and reinforce itself to continue hostilities once the ceasefire breaks down. It never occurs to those who demand proportionality from Israel whether the onus is equally on Hamas. The group’s extensive use of an underground tunnel network built over many years is not for the protection of Gaza’s civilians from Israeli air, sea, and ground-based strikes, but to help transport military, medical, and food supplies for Hamas fighters, enable movement of fighters, stage ambushes against Israeli troops fighting overground and make tactical retreats when necessary. The other purpose of the subterranean network is to draw Israeli forces into the labyrinth to inflict casualties on the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF). The fundamental immorality of using tunnels for warfighting rather than shielding its own civilian population from deadly force reveals the nature of the Hamas adversary that the Israelis are up against and how disproportionate Hamas’ conduct has been towards its people, let alone against its adversary.

Let us consider more recent examples. The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is also a clash between competing nationalisms and there have been no restraints on the use of force by both warring parties, especially by the Russians. The latter has escalated most often through the course of the conflict attacking targets indiscriminately claiming a lot of Ukrainian civilian lives. Further, in 2017 the United States (US) and its allies carried out very intensive airstrikes in their war against Islamic State (IS) in urban environments such as Raqqa (Syria) and Mosul (Iraq) killing many civilians.   
Thus, it is imperative to understand that nationalism is inextricably linked to war. Neither wars that are being fought today have witnessed proportionality nor have they been so in the past. If anything, there are only different degrees of disproportionality across wars throughout human history. 

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation

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