This year marks the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest and most protracted battles in modern history — the Battle of Verdun. In February 1916, a year and a half after the beginning of World War I, in an effort to break a stalemate, the German armies launched an attack on French positions at Verdun, in the northeast corner of France, where the two nations’ forces faced each other along miles of trenches.
At the end of 10 months of unremitting carnage, the battle came to an end. Evenly matched, neither army accomplished much of anything. When the battle ended, the front had barely moved. More than 500,000 young men lay dead. Instead of either side achieving a decisive victory at this epic battle, the war would grind on for two more years, and millions more would die.
Had either army had the capability to inflict disproportionate casualties on the other, the battle might have ended, quickly and definitively, and so might have the war. Sadly, it can even be suggested that it would not really have mattered which side had won so long as the conflict had ended decisively.
Proportional warfare between implacable foes, as the terrible Battle of Verdun so clearly illustrates, simply postpones the inevitable — ultimate victory or defeat by one of the combatants — and does so at enormous cost.
It is currently popular to cry that the response to attacks should not be disproportionate. That position, however, is not only unrealistic, it is dangerous. When it is clear that the aggressor will not stop at anything short of destroying its target, then the targeted nation must simply and as quickly as possible put an end to the threat by destroying its enemy.
The State of Israel faces just such an existential threat. There cannot be any doubt that if the terrorists of Hamas had the ability to do so they would annihilate Israel and its citizens.
Israel’s “mow the grass” approach to Gaza — the need to go back and reduce Hamas’ capacity to attack Israel on a periodic basis — is actually quite proportionate. The fundamental problem is that, due to its proportionality, it is not effective enough. Hamas terrorists, just like the Nazis before them, will not be deterred by restraint and caution; they must be removed.
Sometimes, regrettably, morality demands the use of force and of a great deal of force. Insistence on proportionality in defending against aggression can be disguised as an exercise in morality, but it is assuredly not that at all. Rather, it is simply a false premise, and for Israel in its confrontation with its mortal enemies, it is a very dangerous one.
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington office of Arent Fox LLP.