Krauthammer on Proportionality
Acton Institute Powerblog

Krauthammer on Proportionality

“‘Disproportionate’ in What Moral Universe?” asks Charles Krauthammer in today’s Washington Post.

He continues:

When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, it did not respond with a parallel “proportionate” attack on a Japanese naval base. It launched a four-year campaign that killed millions of Japanese, reduced Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to cinders, and turned the Japanese home islands into rubble and ruin.

Disproportionate? No. When one is wantonly attacked by an aggressor, one has every right — legal and moral — to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one’s security again. That’s what it took with Japan.

Britain was never invaded by Germany in World War II. Did it respond to the Blitz and V-1 and V-2 rockets with “proportionate” aerial bombardment of Germany? Of course not. Churchill orchestrated the greatest air campaign and land invasion in history, which flattened and utterly destroyed Germany, killing untold innocent German women and children in the process.

Now I don’t take Krauthammer to be trying to undermine the principle of proportionality in just war itself, but rather to be arguing for a different way to apply that principle in this conflict compared to how some others, including Prof. Bainbridge, have done. He continues, “The perversity of today’s international outcry lies in the fact that there is indeed a disproportion in this war, a radical moral asymmetry between Hezbollah and Israel: Hezbollah is deliberately trying to create civilian casualties on both sides while Israel is deliberately trying to minimize civilian casualties, also on both sides.”

I would respond to Krauthammer, however, that simply being attacked on your own sovereign soil does not give carte blanche to pursue your enemies in whatever manner and to whatever extent you deem fit. And even if your enemies are conducting themselves in an evil fashion that ignores just war principles, which clearly Hezbollah are, you are not then relieved of your moral duty to conduct war justly.

The assertion that by being attacked in whatever fashion “one has every right — legal and moral — to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one’s security again” simply does not follow, and itself seems to undermine the principle of proportionality. The only way to guarantee that your security cannot ever be threatened again is to utterly destroy and annihilate your opponent…and this is not something that just war theory allows for.

As previous discussion here has determined, the validity of the causus belli and the legitimacy of jus ad bellum does not mean that the principles of jus in bello no longer apply.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.