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Proportionality in Military Force at War’’s Multiple Levels: Averting Civilian Casualties vs. Safeguarding Soldiers

Posted by on Wednesday, May 29, 2013 in Articles, Vol. 46 No. 3, Volume 46, Volumes.

To what lengths may a state go to protect its soldiers in war? May it design its military operations to further that goal if this significantly increases civilian casualties? International law currently offers no clear answers. Because recent wars have seen many states prioritize soldier safety over avoiding civilian casualties, spirited debate has arisen over the legal defensibility of this practice. This debate currently focuses on an ethics code proposed by two influential Israeli thinkers and allegedly embodied in Israel’s conduct of its 2008–2009 Gaza war with Hamas. This Article shows that current discussion fails to appreciate how judgments about proportionality in the use of military force necessarily differ at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of warfare. It illustrates this with empirical material from recent armed conflicts. If international law is to address war’s inescapable moral complexities, it must be interpreted to reflect the variation in the kind of decisions that soldiers confront at distinct organizational echelons. This approach largely resolves one of the most vexing conundrums that has perennially bedeviled the law of war.

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