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July 20, 2006

Spot the Civilians

There has been a lot of discussion regarding the number of civilians killed in Lebanon by Israeli attacks. But what is interesting is the absolute clarity: X number of civilians killed. Many would call the death of even one civilian in a war, no matter how unintentional their death is, a crime committed by the party that fired on that civilian. While the demand for absolute perfection in targeting is clearly unrealistic, what is more baffling to me is the apparent expectation of perfect knowledge, as if the Israelis (or the US military in other circumstances) are omniscient gods.

How do we know, after all, how many civilians were killed in Lebanon? First of all, we have to accept the word of Hizb'allah, a group not noted for its truthfulness, as to who was killed and how many and under what circumstances. Is Israel responsible for civilians killed by Hizb'allah troops to prevent those civilians from fleeing the target areas? Were 8 children really killed, or just the two that Hizb'allah photographed? Second, and to me somewhat more insidious, Lebanon has the same issue that the Gaza, the West Bank, Iraq and Afghanistan have: how do you tell who the civilians are? Let's play a game I'll call "Spot the Civilians."

Is this person a civilian?

woman in jihadi headband carrying RPG

She is not wearing a uniform, after all. Or is she: does the headband count as a "fixed sign visible at a distance"? If she's not a civilian, does she become a civilian by putting down the anti-tank rocket? By taking off the headband? Does she become a soldier again by picking the weapon back up? If she's a civilian, how does one differentiate between her and this guy:

Hizb'allah fighter brandishing weapon

OK, he's wearing a pretty definite uniform, so maybe we can say that he is a soldier, but the lady above is not, because she's not wearing a uniform. Then how about this guy?

Palestinian fighter firing from the middle of a group of kids

Not only is he not wearing a uniform, he's firing from the middle of a group of kids! How would we tell him apart from the woman at the top of this post? And if Israeli soldiers were to fire at this guy in self-defense, would he or they be responsible for the kids who got killed? But at least we can all agree that kids are not threats, right? I mean, all those photos of dead toddlers from bombed buildings in Lebanon (whether or not they are the children of Hizb'allah fighters, and whether or not Hizb'allah had stored weapons in the child's home) are truly heartbreaking. So surely we can agree, children are innocents in all of this. Right?

Palestinian child aiming a gun

I don't know about anyone else, but I take the numbers of civilians reported killed with a huge block of salt. The truth is, we don't really know how many civilians have been killed, and how many have not.

And even more importantly, we have to realize that the civilized veneer stretched across war for the last couple of hundred years has been torn off, and we are back in a far more primitive world, where the moral issues are far less clear. When the enemy hides among non-combatants, fires from their midst, and forces them to stay in combat zones, it is inevitable that more non-combatants will be killed. I think that the only real way to approach this is to blame the barbarians who hide among civilians, or blur the line between combatants and civilians; and meanwhile harden our hearts against more pictures of dead children, placed for propaganda purposes by a barbaric enemy. The only other alternative is surrender, because if we hold fire for fear of killing civilians, that just gives the barbarians ready-made hostages and increases the death toll all around.

UPDATE: I don't know that I've agreed much with Alan Dershowitz before, but I do on this. Kevin Drum's dismissive tone notwithstanding, there really does need to be some redefinition of "civilians", because the all-purpose word doesn't capture the reality.

UPDATE: I am very interested in discussing how liberal democratic societies can fight terrorists who hide among civilians. I am very interested in discussing what is just and unjust in war. I am not the least bit interested in giving space to people whose main aim is to vent their frustrations, or just to call names. Nor am I at all interested in rehashing the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or getting bogged down in discussions of various technical points which "prove" the perfidy of Israel, or the US, or Christians or whomever. Fair warning: if you want to discuss serious issues, seriously, you are welcome; if you want to call names and hurl rhetorical bombs, go elsewhere: your comments are not going to get published here.

Posted by jeff at July 20, 2006 5:15 PM

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You moron, there are pictures of destroyed buildings in Lebanon. Complete rubble beneath which lie many dead. And you want to nit-pick.
You're quite the propagandist youself. Israel sucks.

Posted by: Anonymous at July 21, 2006 8:48 AM


Yeah, Israel sucks.

That says it all. Please stop trying to offer reasoned analysis. No more consideration of evidence that the jihadis are arranging the battlespace to generate images of civilian carnage. Or that accepting the offered paradigm of "two different sets of rules, one for me and one for thee" promotes the horrible tragedies such as those we are seeing.

Because Israel sucks.


(aside: check "Stem Cells" post for a misplaced comment.)

Posted by: AMac at July 21, 2006 10:11 AM

Nitpick? Exactly what rules of war is Israel supposed to follow when the enemies that have sworn their destruction use children as camoflauge? Israel has been patient with the Islamics terrorists for far too long.

Posted by: Nemo [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 21, 2006 11:32 AM

(Originally put this on the wrong post. Thanks, AMac, for letting me know.)

Nit pick? Umm...

If the problem is that civilians are being killed, isn't the problem of figuring out who the civilians are kind of important? Isn't it in fact pretty critical to determine whether a house that was destroyed was just a house with a family in it, or whether it was a house with a family and a rocket launcher in it? Or a house with a family and a vault of Hizb'allah funds in it?

The terrorists use methods calculated to make it harder for civilized and compassionate enemies (like the US and Israel) to fight them: go back and take a look at that gunman firing from the midst of a group of kids. Would you fire on that group of kids, if there were any way you could avoid it? Most civilized people wouldn't. But imagine if Israel were to do that. Imagine if Israel were to keep civilians out of bomb shelters in the North of Israel, and forbid them from leaving the area. Imagine if Israel, when it sends troops into South Lebanon to find bunkers, were to put a bunch of kids on its tanks so that Hizb'allah wouldn't fire at them. Do you think Hizb'allah would hesitate for a moment before firing at those kids, given that Hizb'allah makes a practice of deliberately targeting Israeli civilians, and of putting their own civilians right on top of Hizb'allah fighters, weapons and military installations? And were Israel to so use those kids, wouldn't Israel be at fault, rather than Hizb'allah, for endangering them?

Yet you seem perfectly ready to excuse Hizb'allah for doing that, and condemn Israel for not letting themselves be attacked with impunity. It seems to me that if you are going to make moral judgements of another person's/group's actions, you should do so with more depth than the back of a cereal box permits.

Posted by: Jeff Medcalf [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 21, 2006 3:33 PM

Thank you for the wonderful work you've done in putting this together. (Said as a true libera/progressive...trying to move Liberals to a deeper understanding of this world). I hope you don't mind me posting a link to this here and there. Best Wishes, Traveller

Posted by: Traveller at July 22, 2006 6:48 PM

The UN post bombed earlier this week (standing in the same place as it had done for the past 34 years) was clearly labelled. It didn't stop the Israeli army directing artillery and finally an air strike against it, killing 4 unarmed observers. Lets just face the fact that Israel as a state and as a party to war is more than willing to murder civillians or anyone else it see's fit. As for any assertion that Israel has ever been patient or even handed or just in their dealings with their neighbours, you need look no further than their very short but bloody history of peremtory aggression & violence to see that psychotic or genocidal are more apt characteristics to ascribe to the country.

Israel sucks. Hezbollah was born as an opposition force out of Israeli occupation and now, although they aren't natural allies, Alqaeda has a brand new friend in the region thanks to US backed, Israeli violence and aggression. The sad thing is, that most people, if they knew the truth, wouldn't back either side because they'd see there can't be any winners in this.

Say hello to the beginning of the end of the world people. We're all gonna DIE!!!!!!

Posted by: Tim at July 28, 2006 4:07 AM


That is just so wrong on so many levels I don't know where to start. You are wrong on your facts (you neglect, for example, that Hizb'allah positions were essentially co-located with the UN post), your history (all of Israel's wars have been defensive), your morality (you equate truly genocidal and psychotic Hizb'allah with liberal democratic Israel), and your analysis (Hizb'allah is not a resistance movement, since Israel withdrew from Lebanon).

Yes, we are going to all die eventually. You first.

Posted by: Jeff Medcalf [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 28, 2006 6:48 AM

I agree. ISRAEL Sucks.
If you knew your facts. then you would know that Israel was given that land by the UN.
It doesnt even belong to them.
It belongs to the Arabs and always has.
And before you tell me it was given to them by GOD,
I have to say GOD isnt here to tell us that.
And just because it is writen in some story book does not make it true.
They have been in control of another peoples country for more than 60 years.
also know that there treatment of palistine and its people is criminal.
Maybe you should do a little more reading and stop watching television to get your facts.

May i sugjest the NY Times?, Washington Post maybe?

And can we also talk about the over 300 UN resolutions that Isreal has not complied with.
Oh and here is a good one...... Democratic Israel??
how about the over 6000 (yes 6000) arab prisoners in isreals Prisons that have never had a trial or been able to see the evedance against them.
Some democracy

Dont even talk to us about what you think you know.
Open your eyes. Learn your history.

Posted by: Ken at July 30, 2006 2:31 AM

Jeff, it would seem that you are the one who is wrong.

Hezbollah sprang up along with Amal in the 80's and yes they were a resistance force because they commited themselve to expelling israel from Lebanon. Regradless that israel eventually withdrew, at the time of Hezbollah's incepton, their agenda was set due to occupation.

What has this following statement of yours to do with anything: Hizb'allah positions were essentially co-located with the UN post.

Is this some sort of half penny excuse for israel murdering UN staff?

You assert that I am wrong and yet you haven't actually pointed out any inaccuracies in what I'd previously said.

all of Israel's wars have been defensive

What about the 6 days war? Egypt's blockade. israel's pre-emptive strike.

I will grant that israel is "liberal and democratic" (your words) when you concede that the third reich was also liberal and democratic.

Your last statement I wont even dignify with comment.

Posted by: Tim at July 30, 2006 7:27 AM

Tim and Ken, you are missing the point. Strike that, Ken, you are just throwing around veiled insults and propagandistic assertions without making a point. Tim, you are missing the point.

My question is, how does a country defend itself without becoming barbaric, when the enemy's positions are co-located with hospitals, mosques and schools (and in this case, UN bases) and when the enemy's fighters do not distinguish themselves from civilians, but blend in with the civilians, live with them, hide behind them, fire from their houses?

Now, Tim, my guess is that you don't feel that is relevant, because you don't seem to think Israel should defend itself. And Ken obviously feels that Israel shouldn't exist. That's fine; well, it's immoral and horrid, but what I mean is, you are free to hold immoral and horrid opinions if you choose. But anyway, the problem still exists, and no amount of handwaving or yelling about occupation or pre-emption is going to make it go away. We either need to find a solution, or we will lose. Since the jihadis' goals are world domination, in losing we will eventually die or be enslaved.

I would rather neither of those choices, so from my point of view, winning is the right way to go. Do we have to become barbarians to do so? Maybe. Certainly, I would not hesitate any more than Israel has to bomb civilian houses with enemy fighters or weapons in them, or to bomb schools with rocket launchers on their roofs, or to bomb an enemy location 6 feet away from a UN post. The alternative is to give up my right of self-defense, to say that the enemy wins by default because I'm not willing to see someone else die.

As I said before, Tim, about all of us dying, you first. And by that I mean, you can commit the romantic, nihilistic suicide of letting the barbarians win, but I will not let that happen while I live.

So when I say that you are wrong, I don't need to address your detailed points (laden as they are with incorrect assumptions, mis-definitions, and unthinking propaganda), because you are wrong on such a fundamental level that your points are irrelevant.

Posted by: Jeff Medcalf [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 30, 2006 8:55 AM

Personally, I think the whole situation is a bunch of bullshit. I have never really supported Israel, sorry to say that straight out Mr. Jeff, but I'm a competent person and understand that every nation deserves the "right to defend itself." However, the one thing I don't understand is how preventative strikes or incursions into another country constitute "defending itself." Certainly Hezbollah... or whatever variation of the spelling you prefer to use... came and kidnapped 2 IDF soldiers. But was leveling towns an acceptable response? Rockets were fired into Israel only after the IDF crossed the Lebanese boarder, so I don't think the IDF really thought that one out.

Terrorism is undoubtedly a horrible thing...it leads to many deaths, however, the IDF's reasoning that terrorists exist in Lebanon..so let's blow the shit out of everything is slightly misguided. Terrorists exist in Israel, should the U.S. nuke the crap out of Tel Aviv because of that? I think not. The fact is, no matter what anybody says about who did what...or the numbers of how many were killed on each side, there's always another way, and Israel failed to see it. Because of that action, U.N. personnel are dead, women and children are dead. And yes I perfectly understand that they could have been part of Hezbollah, what if they weren't? Are you sorry? Do you feel bad that, hey... maybe the IDF killed some innocent people? Does it sicken you that Israeli children sign rockets "With love from Jerusalem" before having them fired into Qana? It sickens me. As it sickens me when I hear some terrorist in Iraq beheaded a journalist, or a truck driver, or blew up someone in a crowded market.

Israel certainly does have the right to defend itself, but so does Lebanon, so does Gaza, so does the West back, and so does Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and any other country inflicted by non-sensical attacks. Israel was given a chance... it was given the opportunity to rise out of a horrible human travesty, and I'm sorry to say, but it failed miserably. And what's worse is that the world sits back and watches it happen without so much as lifting a finger...we're all no better than Hitler.

As I side note, if you wish to learn how a country defends itself without becoming barbaric, I'd suggest reading any book by John A. Lynn.. particularly the piece "Battle". It's a stroke of genius and spells it out marvelously clearly.

LOL, and your rant on... hang on... I'll just quote it..."So when I say that you are wrong, I don't need to address your detailed points (laden as they are with incorrect assumptions, mis-definitions, and unthinking propaganda), because you are wrong on such a fundamental level that your points are irrelevant." How do you know you're right? How do you know you're not fed "unthinking propaganda". Did you choose your side because your Daddy told you? The facts are plainly simple...Israel killed civilians and Israel killed U.N. personnel. Is that propaganda fed to me by Hezbollah? Hell no, it's propaganda fed to me by CNN, BBC, MSNBC, and Fox. And as much as Rupert Murdoch is a cunt, he's not a terrorist.

P.S. Mr. Jeff Medcalf... don't even bother posting a reply to me. There is no reason for me to even come back to further waste my life. At the end of the day, I know I'm not going to change your opinion in any way, shape, or form, and well... you're not going to change mine. Also, I've already seen your counterarguments for everything posted here before me, and well there's no new material here that I haven't heard elsewhere so you might as well save it for someone who gives a damn.

Until then,
have fun living life the way you want to,
whether you agree or disagree,

Posted by: PFA at July 31, 2006 11:11 PM