THE BLOG
07/22/2014 08:09 pm ET Updated Sep 21, 2014

Suddenly We're All Proportionalists?

When there is a military objective, there is very rarely "proportionality." The lack of proportionality is what losers use to explain their defeat. In the current Hamas-Israel war, the concept of proportionality has become a front-and-center issue. The score is kept by the number of dead and wounded, with a particular emphasis on the number of women and children.

A recent episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart featured two war correspondents and their contrasting on-air dress (the correspondent in Israel in spotless casual cloths, the Gaza one in battle gear) as an example of the disproportional nature of the suffering. The Europeans seem obsessed with the proportional-response issue.

It is easy to understand the concern for proportionality, but if we start investigating, we see little proportional response in military history, and frankly, very little in our civilian world.

Rolling back to World War II, in 1945 America dropped two atom bombs on civilian cities. They unleashed a horror that had never been seen before. Before that, ask the citizens of Dresden, Hamburg or even Berlin how the daily firebombing of their cities felt. Dresden was worse than London; Churchill made sure that was so. The reality was that the Americans and their European allies all felt that the Germans should suffer a disproportional response to the bombing of England. The Germans, of course, were famous for their disproportional responses. They announced in advance that for every German soldier or SS troop killed, scores of civilians would be murdered. That happened all over Europe.

Then there was Vietnam. Were the millions of tons of high-intensity aerial bombs dropped on sandal-footed, straw-hatted revolutionaries proportional?

Is America's current nuclear arsenal proportional to the goal of deterrence? When you have enough nuclear destructive capacity to eliminate human life on Earth (several times over), what possible proportional outcome could give you? Yet both politically and militarily, we live with this every day; few question this obscene arsenal of planet-ending death.

There are tens of thousands of prisoners rotting away for life in our jails for nonviolent crimes and sentenced via absurd drug laws. There are thousands of cases of a third-striker who stole the equivalent of a video tape sentenced to life in jail. Clearly the wisdom of the entire legal, law-enforcement and political establishment thought that these draconian sentences were a wise and proportional response to eliminate crime.

Have you ever seen a SWAT team respond to a domestic disturbance? Have you ever seen dozens of armed men in full battle dress and armed for a firefight arrive in armored cars to kick down doors and invade a home where there was a report of a domestic disturbance or a mentally disturbed person with a handgun? It happens every day. Scores are killed by these actions. A rare few are ever punished. The over-militarization of our domestic police force is well known and well reported, but the sound of this disproportional and often-lethal action is met with utter silence.

So why is it that Israel is held to a different standard? Why are the Israelis asked to lay back and let their enemy inflict some equal death and destruction on them so that there can be proportionality on the battlefield?

When the disproportionality of a deal works in Hamas' favor, like the 1,027 Palestinians and Israeli Arabs traded for one Gilad Shalit, they did not seem to mind.

The entire history of the Middle East is one of total disproportionality. Think of when a new Ottoman sultan took the throne. First course of action: Strangle and murder all brothers, uncles and other blood relatives who could claim legitimate title to his throne. Often hundreds were purged. Today there are barrel bombs; Assad has dropped hundreds on his own bakeries, schools and hospitals -- a proportional response to the insurgency there? Clearly he thinks so, and the fact that no one has stopped him means something.

Egyptian General (now President) Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's rounding up, imprisonment and outlawing of the Muslim Brotherhood did not seem disproportional to much of the world -- including most other Egyptians.

One could hazard a guess that the Western concern over proportionality stems from the deepest ignorance of our own military history and a failure to see ourselves in the true light of our own contemporary society. Wars are won from disproportional attacks and responses. This was true for General Vo Nguyen Giap when his 25,000 Viet Minh overran 6,000 French troops at Dien Bien Phu. The Vietnamese threw out the oppressive French once and for all by delivering a disproportional attack. Western history was forever changed. The Israelis are probably hoping for the same thing.

It is hard -- yet necessary -- to conceive that the strategic goal of the Hamas government is to put civilians in harm's way for propaganda value. The sympathy shown to Hamas by the Europeans and some Americans seems to be one of their aims. But why should Israel fight on the terms laid down by its enemy?

All this notwithstanding, Israel must take the greatest care to minimize civilian deaths. It is poor military strategy to give your enemy a propaganda victory that puts the world on your enemy's side. Israel is not Iran or Syria; it is connected to the free world. Whatever it can do to minimize harm to innocents it should. But the "proportionality" argument being used to singularly condemn Israel simply does not hold water. One only has to read a history book and take a hard look at the rest of the world to see why.