Hoist With One's Own Petard
As the world waits for events to answer the question: will the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah escalate to a regional or even global conflict, it is useful to recall two things. First, Israel though legally "at war" with the nation-state of Lebanon is actually at war with a subnational group called Hezbollah. Recently, the US Supreme Court ruled that the War on Terror, at least with respect to al-Qaeda, "is not of an international character". In a world where subnational groups like Hezbollah have demonstrated possession of anti-ship missiles, UAVs, and ballistic rockets how valid is such a distinction any longer? The second thing to remember is that we are now seeing in Lebanon and in the Global War on Terror in general, a replay of the old argument between precision strikes and morale bombing. Israel the advocate of the precision strike, Hezbollah the advocate of morale bombing; recalling that for most of history it is the morale bombers who have won. It's worth pondering how technology changes the rules of war.
Roger Alford writing in Opinio Juris says:
... historically, Common Article Three was intended to cover civil wars and internal armed conflicts, wars within the territory of a state, not international wars, and to provide a minimum - note minimum - level of humanity in how they were conducted. The characterization of the US invasion of Afghanistan, even somehow limited to the Al Qaeda part, as a war not of an international character is analytically questionable, even taking into account the fact that an important party in the conflict, Al Qaeda, is a non-state actor. ... Analytically questionable or not, the Hamdan decision has applied Common Article Three on the basis of a finding about the nature of the armed conflict. But that finding - that it is a war "not of an international character" - has other consequences that perhaps the Court considered, perhaps not. Certainly the press commentary does not seem to have considered it. Viz., if we are dealing with an armed conflict "not of an international character," then it is not an international armed conflict.
The irony is that the US invasion of Afghanistan to topple the governing Taliban is not an international conflict, while efforts by Israel -- not to topple the Lebanese government -- but to destroy a subnational group called Hezbollah is an international conflict suggests that our notions of warfare are seriously out of date. Very few countries in the world today possess sophisticated antiship missiles, military drones or ballistic rockets. Certainly Kofi Annan's Ghana does not. Yet nonstate Hezbollah does. And in a while, though it is pooh-poohed, nonstate entities like al-Qaeda, LET, or the Hezbollah itself could acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.
The other thing to note is that while Israel has been striking purely military targets in the sense that it is not aiming at civilians (though that has not spared it from international opprobrium), Hezbollah has been firing exclusively at civilians. Indeed, they can do nothing else because their weapons are presently so crude that they can only hit the vast sprawls of which modern urban life is made. The excellent Airpower by Stephen Budiansky, recalls how the US air forces in World War 2 eventually abandoned, in practice, their commitment to precision bombing until it became the very basis of stability we now look nostalgically back upon: Mutually Assured Destruction.
In 1938, a Gallup Poll had found 91% of Americans agreeing with the statement "all nations should agree not to bomb civilian cities in wartime." Three days after Pearl Harbor, 67% said they favored unqualified and indiscriminate bombing of enemy cities, with only 10% expressing unqualified opposition. ... In September 1942, Time called for destroying 31 German cities to shorten the war. An article in Harper's in January 1943 advocated burning the Japanese out of their homes with aerial attacks. In early 1944, three quarters of Americans surveyed expressed approval of bombing even historic buildings and religious shrines if military leaders believed such attacks were necessary. When the New York Times reported on its front page of March 11, 1944 that 28 noted clergymen, educators, and professional people had signed a protest against the American bombing of German civilians ... the story provoked a storm of letters that ran 50 to 1 against ... But the moral certainties became less absolute as the British firebombing raids intensified. Churchill began to question his own earlier enthusiasm for unrestricted city bombing. "Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?" he exclaimed, jumping up from his chair during a showing of a film of British bombing in July 1943.
At the first the USAAF looked with horror upon the British practice of leveling cities, ironically termed "morale bombing" since it was intended to destroy the enemy morale. The USAAF would never deliberately target cities.
In August 1944 Spaatz had written Arnold that he was being "subjected to some pressure" from the British Air Ministry to "join with them in morale bombing." He urged that the United States keep its hand clean, at least as far as its declared policy went: "I personally believe that any deviation from our present policy, even for an exceptional case, will be unfortunate." ... Eaker also counseled against joining in explicit targeting of cities, writing Spaatz on January 1, 1945: "We should never allow the history of this war to convict us of throwing the strategic bomber at the man in the street."
Targeting cities of course, was exactly what happened. Technological limitations and German defenses meant that in practice US bomber formations proved capable of hitting only area targets, whatever their intention. Muddled doctrine which believed in widely separated nodes of enemy strength within a city when this was still technologically possible meant that to all intents and purposes the city was bombed. Efforts to destroy Nazi submarine pens on the French coast produced no effect on the pens themselves; however the bombs "dehoused" workers in the communities behind them. It is often overlooked, but little appreciated, that guillotines also a permanent cure for pimples. By the end of the war virtue was made of necessity and 600,000 German civiliians were killed by the Allied bombing campaign. It undeniably helped win the war and topple Hitler. Lost in this vast footprint of death was that the fact that the USAAF had accidentally succeeded in smashing the Nazi war effort by a simple change in targeting strategy, though this was realized only in retrospect. Concentrating attacks on oil refineries had surprisingly powerful effects; they so crippled the enemy war machine that by the Battle of the Bulge it was reduced to scrounging for fuel. But this was unappreciated at the time.
When Curtis LeMay replaced the precision-targeting oriented Haywood Hansell to direct the strategic bombing campaign against Japan, he knew from European experience just what to do. In one single night raid on Tokyo, LeMay's B-29s burned out nearly 16 square miles of the Japanese capital and killed 100,000 civilians, as many as died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. This, from a nation in which 91% disapproved, seven years before, of bombing cities in wartime. As a school in brutality, war in unsurpassed. The outlook of the Good War is captured by a rarely cited meeting between J. Robert Oppenheimer and Harry Truman.
Truman was the man who had unflinchingly ordered the use of the Bomb against the Japanese and who had been appalled when Robert Oppenheimer later came to his office in a state of mawkish anguish, declaring that as a scientist he had blood on his hands. "The blood is on my hands," Truman snapped back. "Let me worry abut that." He told his aides he never wanted to see that "cry-baby" again. Now the President replaced the toy cannot on his desk with a toy plow, ordered the Presidential Seal redesigned with the eagle's head facing the olive branch of peace and away from the arrows of war, and turned his attention, like everyone else, resolutely homeward.
The devil though paid always cheats. And within short order the toy plow on Truman's desk was replaced by a map of Korea. But years later, technology changed the rules again. By the early 1970s reliable and accurate laser guided bombs became available. It was not until Desert Storm in 1990 that the public became widely aware that the USAF, once the world's premier leveler of cities, had now become capable of putting a 2,000 lb bomb through a hangar door. Then, as Budiansky notes, the devil cheated again. The advent of precision munitions created the public expectation that in future American wars, all targeting would be perfect. The press would be there to film every errant missile, bomb or shell. Ironically, the very existence of precision weapons implied to the Press, that all observed hits on nonmilitary targets were therefore deliberate. War Crimes. The possibility of error, even in an era of precision weapons, was not accepted. Ironically, the moral justification shifted from the precision bomber to the area bomber. Terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, lacking sophisticated weapons, were now forgiven, even romanticized by the press for firing on civilian targets. 'What other weapon do poor men have?', they rhetorically asked, as if organizations funded by petro-dollars were somehow indigent, and men, having nothing to eat somehow found the spare change to buy billions in antiship missiles, drones, explosives and rockets. Nongovernment entitites with powers exceeding nations now attack women and children and we sing them sweetly on.