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When war becomes personal



Our attitudes to war change drastically when it becomes personal. When it is distant, involves people whose nationality and culture we do not share, and the rights and wrongs of whose cause are disputed, we may have strong feelings about it. But it does not affect us at gut level. When it is someone who has walked our streets, swum on our beaches, speaks our language as their own, and dies when helping victims of war, war becomes personal. The killing of Zomi Frankcom, together with other members of the Charity organisation World Central Kitchen, made the war between Israel and Hamas personal. It has led many people to see the destruction of Gaza and its people as not only regrettable but intolerable.

For many Australians, of course, the war was already personal. Many people of Israeli and Palestinian origin had already lost family members and friends and grieved for their fellows abused, wounded, driven from their homes and starved. Yet other Australians did not take their suffering personally. It was distanced by being set within the framework of international relations and military strategy. Faces became numbers and the human destruction of war a regrettable necessity.

Now that the victims of the Israeli armed forces’ invasion of Gaza have a human and Australian face, we shall be called on take a stand. We ought to heed that call to pressure the opposed parties to end the war. War is the enemy.

To take a stand, however, is not the same as taking sides. That is a fatal mistake. Both sides contribute to the making and sustaining of war. To take sides is to perpetuate the war. To take sides with the Israeli Government or with Hamas inevitably leads us to move away from the human, disfigured faces whose destruction is the business of war and to see the dead and injured and homeless as statistics. Their value then depends on the side to which they belong.  The deliberate killing of non-combatants associated with the other side will be called an accident or a mistake and their faces whitewashed. The similar killing of people on one’s own side will be seen as an atrocity and their faces weaponised. Taking sides will deepen the hostility that led to war and will perpetuate the cycle of violence.

To take a stand against the war in Gaza demands focusing on the human faces of the persons destroyed by it. To do that, of course, we must also engage in arguments whether the war and the actions taken in it are just. But we must not be trapped in them. Argument about whether a war is just is generally rigged to produce reasons why one’s own side is justified in fighting the war and the other side is not. It is also used to justify the strategies and actions that the chosen side adopts. It assumes that if God is on your side you can do anything you want to God’s enemies. Once again the human face of war, central in evaluating its justification, is disregarded.

If we reflect on whether a war is justifiable while at the same time attending closely to its human face, the classical rules for waging a just war are helpful. Their starting point is that all human lives are precious. For war to be justified, a number of conditions must be met both in its declaration (ius ad bellum) and in its conduct (ius in bello).

Because the classical rules envisage conflict between the armed forces of different and recognisable states, not military action against minority groups or with failed states, some of the traditional tests for declaring a war just are not applicable to situations today.  The two central rules, however, remain relevant. Both must be satisfied for a war to be called just. The first is that war is unjustifiable unless it is fought in defence of a just cause. This is most often self-defence, but it could also include responding to serious injustice perpetrated by the other side. In Gaza, as in most military conflicts both sides claim that their continuing military action is justifiable because it is taken for self-defence and for the redress of injustice.


'Gaza is yet another demonstration of the injustice of war and of its power to corrupt human judgment. It must be met by seeing and feeling the lives of those destroyed in it as personal.'


Even if a war is held to be for a just cause, however, it must also meet a second condition. It must be proportionate. This means that its goal of redressing injustice or defending the nation must be realisable and that the human good achieved by the military action must exceed the human harm. It is difficult to see how the conduct of the war in Gaza by Hamas or by Israel satisfies either of these criteria. Nor does it satisfy the third test of a just war: that it should be waged only after negotiation to avoid war.

In just war theory a just cause and proportionate framing of the action do not alone make a war just. The military strategies and actions adopted taken must also satisfy strict criteria. First, they must be discriminating. They must not target civilians. The value of each human life demands that the loss of civilian lives must be coincidental to military action and not intended by it. In Gaza, the huge number of deaths of non-combatants reported by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry, and accounts of such things as the use of AI to identify suspected members of Hamas and of unguided bombs to kill both them and those around them, witness to a disregard for human lives in both strategy and in rules of engagement.  

The second criterion for justice in the conduct of war is proportionality. The human benefits achieved by military action must outweigh the human harm caused by it.  It is difficult to see that the war in Gaza, and particularly the military action by the Israeli armed forces, satisfy this criterion. The stated means to achieve the goal of self-defence is to destroy Hamas. This is then taken to demand destroying the human habitat of Gaza in order to eradicate the presence and influence of Hamas within it. The massive number of civilian casualties, the destruction of the necessary conditions for human life such as houses, meeting places, hospitals, health services and schools, and the starving of the civilian population deny the equal value of each human life. They are massively disproportionate.

Furthermore, this strategy and the actions that flow from it will not lead to peace but to the hatred that will ensure future conflict and breed the soldiers who will fight in it. Their logical endpoint is the destruction or enslavement of the people of Palestine. The present path is inconsistent with the conviction that each human being matters equally, the necessary belief for establishing a lasting and just peace.

These considerations explain why recent Popes have said that modern war can never be justified. The destructive power of modern weapons inevitably leads to the denial of the unique value of human being and the consequent destruction of the conditions necessary for living with human dignity. It also corrupts even in those whose cause is just the respect for humanity essential to its justice. That moral corruption was evident in the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima and in the defences subsequently made for them. Gaza is yet another demonstration of the injustice of war and of its power to corrupt human judgment. It must be met by seeing and feeling the lives of those destroyed in it as personal.  




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Zomi Francom working with World Central Kitchen. (Facebook)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Zomi Frankcom, Gaza, War, Hamas, IDF, WCK



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Existing comments

"Proportionality" for Israel means taking a response equal and opposite to the real and often-spoken threat of "annihilation" by their enemy ... hence the scale of the war we are witnessing. This is not a justification for the suffering in Gaza but an explanation. As long as Hamas is planning their next violent assault in Israel, Israel sees no logic in relenting.

Micah | 11 April 2024  

You reflect, Andrew, that “moral corruption was evident in the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima and in the defences subsequently made for them”. The same might well be said of our participation in the military conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. In each of these deaths and injury of innocent civilians was on a far greater scale than that of combatants, not to mention the appalling destruction of homes and infrastructure. Yet we continue to memorialise our participation and losses in these conflicts with scant consideration for the shocking suffering and loss of life they inflicted on the poor unfortunates in whose countries they were fought.

JOHN QUILTY | 13 April 2024  

Hamas may threaten ‘annihilation’, but does anyone really think Hamas has the capability to do that ? The strikes of which it was capable are little more than irritations compared to the existential violence that Israel is perpetrating on the people of Gaza.

Ginger Meggs | 13 April 2024  

Complaints about Hiroshima and Dresden ignore who was the aggressors in the conflict and the reality of modern war which occur not between professional armies but between fully mobilised nations.

Here are the Top 10 Myths About the Bombing of Dresden:

1. "The raid killed 250,000 people” A week after the raid, the Dresden police chief reported to Berlin that about 25,000 people had been killed. Propaganda Minister Goebbels added a zero and announced the death toll as 250,000. That figure was repeated by David Irving in his book “The Destruction of Dresden.” He later acknowledged the correct figure in a letter to The Times, but continues to repeat the higher figure in his lectures. Kurt Vonnegut repeats the higher figure in his novel Slaughterhouse Five, and anti-American propagandists of both left and right continue to use it.

2. "Dresden was the worst single air attack of the war” The Dresden raid killed fewer people than the RAF raid on Hamburg in 1943 (45,000) or several other big raids. Death tolls depended on the effectiveness of civil defence systems. Dresden had virtually none, thanks to the laziness and corruption of the Nazi Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann. The worst single aid-raid of the war was the US bombing of Tokyo in March 1945, which killed 200,000.

3. "Dresden was not a military target” Dresden was a major communications and transport centre and contained over 100 military factories, notably the Zeiss optical works.

4. "The raid had no military purpose” The raid on Dresden was part of a co-ordinated series of raids on cities in eastern Germany designed to dislocate transport and communications in the zone in front of the Red Army, which was preparing to cross the Oder river. The raids were intended to assist the Soviet forces, a fact never mentioned in later East German and “peace movement” propaganda.

5. "Dresden was undefended” It’s true that Germany’s fighter force and anti-aircraft defences were severely degraded by this stage of the war, and that Dresden’s flak guns had been removed and sent to the eastern front. But Allies did not attack Dresden *because* it was undefended. They had no way of knowing in advance what defences they would meet. In fact four Allied bombers were shot down during the attack.

6. "The war was nearly over” The war in Europe was far from over in February 1945. The Germans were still holding the Rhine in the west and the Oder in the east, and still had a million men in the field. They were still occupying the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, northern Italy and half of Czechoslovakia. Thousands of Allied soldiers were dying every day.

7. "Churchill personally ordered the bombing” The series of raids of which the bombing of Dresden was carried out to assist the Soviets, and was approved by the War Cabinet. But Churchill did not specifically approve the bombing of Dresden, let alone order it. To repeat, the bombing of Dresden was nothing exceptional - it was just one of an ongoing series of attacks. There was a much bigger attack on Berlin on 4 February and also attacks on Leipzig and Chemnitz.

8. "Dresden was deliberately fire-bombed to kill civilians” The use of incendiaries was standard in all bombing attacks, but the creation of a firestorm was not something that could done to order. It depended on climatic circumstances such as temperature and wind-speed. Since Dresden was bombed in winter, a firestorm was less likely. The Dresden raid was no more intended to create a firestorm than any other.

9. "The Allies dropped white phosphorous anti-personnel bombs.” Phosphorous was used as the fire-starter in incendiary bombs, which were intended to lodge in roofs and start fires. They were not anti-personnel bombs.

10. "Allied fighters strafed civilians in the streets” This story began with an article in the Nazi newspaper Das Reich. German survivors repeated it after the war, and they probably believed it, but it never happened. The Allied fighters over Dresden, which were at the limit of their range, were there to protect the bombers, not to descend into the firestorm below.

There was no indication that the Germans were on the point of surrender, and they were still killing people even as they went down to defeat.

Probably 20,000 people were being liquidated each day, every day. I have no tears for the Nazis and their supporters in Dresden.

Jamie Lloyd | 14 April 2024  

'Complaints about Hiroshima and Dresden' may ignore 'the reality of modern war', Jamie, but they don't ignore 'who was (sic) the aggressors in the conflict'. One of the earliest instances of the deliberate bombing of civilians was in 1923 in what is now Iraq where it was seen as a more efficient way of suppressing 'the natives'. The aggressors there were Churchill and 'Bomber' Harris. It's not a matter of who does it, but is it moral?

Ginger Meggs | 22 April 2024  

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