Was the bombing of Gaza earlier this year a crime? Bombing cities kills civilians and destroys, in the language of the 1977 Geneva Protocols, “civilian objects” such as hospitals, mosques, schools and museums. The treaty seeks not simply to protect civilians and their objects but to criminalize such attacks, should they be excessive. This is but the latest codification of the debate over jus in bello, the “just” conduct of war, one still considered under the terms proposed by Augustine, Aquinas and Grotius, and that argues for categories of innocence—women and children, prisoners, the wounded, the elderly and their benign architectures—that qualify as civilian. These arguments presume that wars, however just, involve doing evil things; the immemorial question is over how much bad is ethical, the threshold of too much violence? This raises the all-important issue of proportionality, with its supporting cast of lesser evils, legal norms, fair play and “collateral damage,” including the deaths of civilians and the demolition of their objects. The 1977 protocols were intended to settle the question of competing strategies for bombing that arose during World War II, to adjudicate and refine the categorical difference between area and precision (or surgical) attacks. The former, with advocates like Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris and Curtis LeMay (and later Edward Teller and the whole ghoulish Cold War klavern of mutually assured destruction), is committed to indiscriminate slaughter, to breaking enemy morale via mass annihilation, while the latter claims to attack only military targets, including industrial or transportation facilities that support warfare.
But the categories are fuzzy, and proportionality is a fluid concept that can only be grasped with a dismal science that converts the value of an eye into the currency of teeth. In The Least of All Possible Evils, Eyal Weizman—the most indispensable contemporary analyst of the forensics of collateral damage (and an editor of the newly published Forensis, a landmark in this expanding field)—writes that “the principle of proportionality provides no scale, no formulas and no numerical thresholds.” Given this incalculability, the boundaries tend to be discussed in terms of specific events, most emblematically Dresden and Hiroshima, the victors’ targets in a war almost universally thought just. Was the firebombing of Dresden criminal? For those to whom this remains a question, the answer hinges on the “legitimacy” of the target and the extent and value of the collateral damage: the 25,000 incinerated civilians. Was it worth it if their deaths shortened the war by a week? Even a day?
The ethics of the Dresden deliberation lie somewhere between the idea of collective guilt (women gave birth to Hitlerjugend, all Germans were “willing executioners”) and the notion that the military objective was sufficiently important to sanction the sacrifice of a certain number of innocents who worked in or lived near military assets. The same arguments were rolled out to justify the A-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both allegedly military and industrial sites whose destruction would spare Americans a bloody invasion (not to mention spook the Soviets). The question of Dresden, in particular, has been unpacked by “revisionist” historians like Frederick Taylor, who have disproved the claims of economic innocence by demonstrating that the city’s factories, large and small, had been converted from camera, porcelain and cigarette manufacturing to producing bullets, fuses, torpedo parts and bombsights; that the city had a particularly virulent pro-Nazi history; that the rail yards were critical to the Nazi war effort; and that there weren’t that many refugees. Of course, all such claims ratchet up the permissible disproportion to accord with some idea of retributive justice. The A-bomb—with its capacity to kill entire populations—is proportionality’s reductio ad absurdum.
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Architecture is consequential because it lets us speak of the unspeakable indirectly, with mangled buildings standing in for mangled bodies. And the aesthetic side of judgment—the natural home of familiar architectural discourse—has plenty of ready-made uses. During World War II, as “Bomber” Harris grew more and more deeply obsessed with area bombing and setting off the perfect firestorm, he realized that the picturesque medieval centers of Germany’s cities—warrens of half-timbered houses—were precisely the tinder needed to trigger a conflagration. History became the best source of ignition and was reimagined as kindling for the technology of fire, not as the home of a civilian population or an artistic treasure. This was seasoned with the idea that the Boche were universally criminal—that there were, in effect, no civilians at all.