Monday, July 24, 2006

Syrian Missile Crisis

The prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons is generally taken to be half the problem. The second problem they would be taken to have is to develop a missile delivery system that can hit Israel. But do they really have to? Is it not entirely conceivable that they will simply place it in Iran or worse, with Hezbollah in South Lebanon and use a simple delivery system that really does not have to be long range? There is no way to prevent this, and it might even be difficult for Israel to know about such weapons even in Syria.

On Proportionality

There has been a lot of talk about Israel and "proportionality" lately. This has been mainly in the form of criticism against Israel. Israel, the charge goes, is using a disproportionate amount of force against Hezbollah.

This charge is mistaken, and was most likely thought up by someone who took a philosophy class about 30 years ago, and pretty much forgot everything he or she learned, and merely remembered a soundbyte. I say this because a standard doctrine of the theory of Just War is proportionality. And in some ways this seems fairly reasonable. Not that I really think it is a great criterion, but since Aquinas people have been taking this seriously and giving it serious thought, so for the moment so will I.

The reason I say that whoever first used this argument in the context of the current Israel-Hezbolla conflict took a philosophy class 30 years ago, is because the word "proportionality" is bandied about a lot in the context of debates about wars. It is taken seriously by scholars, and there is a reasonable intuition behind it.

However, the reason I claim that the person who originally talked about this must have forgotten everything else he learned in that class is because the way proportionality is being used, is not the way that the just war theorists talk about it.

The claim being made is that Israel is using disproportionate force against Hezbollah. However the concept of "proportionate" in just war theory is not interested in proportionate force against some enemy. What they are interested in proportionate force toward the aim that it is being used for. The theory of just war is interested in making sure you don't use nuclear weapons to sove a trade dispute, or to save the life of one of your soldiers. It is not made sure that you are evenly matched with the force you are fighting.

That is why US UN ambassador John Bolton (together, I assume, with anyone who understands just war theory) would be baffled at someone offering the proportionality argument. Bolton's response summs up our puzzlement well: "I don't quite know what the argument about proportionate force means here. Is Israel entitled only to kidnap two Hezbollah operatives and fire a couple of rockets aimlessly into Lebanon?"

Proportionality is not about tit-for-tat fighting. It is not about making sure that whatever you do to me, I do back to you. That is reprisal fighting - something that I am sure would be condemned too if Israel were doing it. Proportionality is not about making sure that you are evenly matched with your enemy. No sane responsible leader goes in to a battle evenly matched, thinking that they are merely going to inflict the same damage as was done to them. You go in to any engagement with enough force to decisevely force a victory. (The US likes a 3:1 (or is it 4:1?) ratio of force superiority.)

Proportionality in the application of just war is about two things: First making sure that you are only using the minimum amount of force to achieve your objectives - like not trying to take out a terrorist organization by killing everyone in the country it lives in. And second, it is about making sure the benefits are proportional to the costs of the engagement, like making sure that weakening an enemy on your border is worth a small high-intensity military engagement.

Proportionality seeks to make sure that if you have a responsible military goal, you don't unnecessarily deliberately kill a whole lot of other people to obtain it.

Proportionality is certainly not about tallying up the casuality list on both sides to see if one is bigger than the other. That is a morbid thing that media and propoganda groups do to made a point that has little moral relevance, but seems to make some people feel self-righteous.

So the guy remembered a soundbyte, and millions of people are repeating it without having to give the slightest thought to how much sense it makes. Any military engagement in history that has had a winner was disproportionate in the way the current argument runs, because one is doing more damage than the other. That is why no intelligent person would make that argumet.

Who would have thought

I tend not to think of myself as the type of person who tends to agree with Stanley Fish, but alas, here I do.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Petition for what?

Hillel, the Jewish student campus orginization has launched a petition which will eventually go to Kofi Annan, where undoubtely his secretary's intern might see it.

Now, while I support said petition, and the sentiment behind it, I am pretty annoyed at the wording: ". . . we respectfully ask that you join us in clearly and immediately reaffirming the right of Israel to defend its citizens and ensure its security in the face of relentless attacks, killings and kidnappings . . .".

I am mostly annoyed that anyone feels the need to ask Annan to reaffirm the right of any country, or anyone for that matter to protect its citizens. The right to self defense is the most intuitive right we have. Any philosophical justification of government starts with that as a premise. What else could justify a government, if not the protection of its citizens? The right of self-defense is not one that anyone needs granted. It is the most basic of rights we have, and it is not one that can be taken away in any case.

Why to Jews feel like they have to ask anyone for permission to live?

Has anyone else in the history of the universe ever begged someone for acknowledgement of the right to defend themselves? Has any country in the world ever feared condemnation merely for protecting itself? A country under attack, a country that just had soldiers kidnapped by an organization not bound by any Geneva conventions and has no expectation that they will live or be safe from torture, a country who put whole cities in bomb shelters, a country whose border has been infiltrated by hostile forces, a country that has been abused since inception - such a country is under no obligation to grovel, to come hat-in-hand, to humbly and meekly ask anyone's permission to defend itself.

Is there something in the Jewish American psyche that thinks that anything is OK if it sanctioned by "the world"? Or that something is only OK if it is sanctioned by "the world"? Is there some real fear that if the UN doesn't see it their way then they'll be worse off? Is there a need to justify your life, your very existence, and the lives of other Jews to a bunch of people who mostly see you as a problem rather than as a person?

A petition needs to demand respect, not be an affirmation of your right not be attacked by a terror group that exists without being accountable to any recognized body of law.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Review of Wallace's Everything and More

David Foster Wallace is obviously a very smart and tallented guy. His book Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity is just that, it is a very good history of infinity from Zeno's paradoxes to Cantor, and even through continuum hypothesis. He presents all the metaphysical issues,a nd all the discussions of infinitesmals, and everything else you always wanted to know about infinity but were too afraid that you weren't math-savvy enough to handle.

The book is not for the math-phobic. There are going to be times you might have to take it a bit slow, or read something twice, but it'll be worth it.

Wallace's style is quirky and idiosyncratic, but it works. It does not read like any other book I've ever read, but it gets the point across, and does it with a sense of humor. I loved the book, and would recommend it to anyone, x, who: has some tiny bit of mathematical competence < x < is a professional mathematician.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


I have been watching the events In south Lebanon and Northern Israel unfold for the past few days. I have ben in touch with people in both countries, ans while most people are doing fine, it really is a mess.

What does not cease to amaze me about the whole conflict is the general ignorance of the issues of the press. It is painfully clear that too many members of the press are either not very interested in presenting the isses here clearly, or they simply do not understand them.

The current conflict for example is not between ISrael and Lebanon. It is between Israel and Hizballah. It is not clear where Lebanon stands on this. (Given what governements really are, it is not clear how many governments Lebanon actually has.)

I wish all these self-styled pundits (liek the BBC) would just take a day off, go to a library, read a book, and then start broadcasting the news. It just annoys me.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Star Trek Trivia

A bit of a Star Trek trivia I picked up on my recent trip to California. What does the following stand for and where is it from? (Treat them as 6 strings of letters, each broken in two parts.)

WH GOL _______ MA RUS
CO MEA _______ JO CHE

(If you can answer this you are a total nerd, you have my genuine admiration, and should instantly get your butt here because you have too much time on your hands and need a girlfriend.)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


This is just so typical of why the Army always tells you to keep track of all your paperwork.

Added The story has him as a Captain. This cannot be his real rank. CBS apparently promoted him.

when I think back at all the crap I learned in high school . . .

I have never heard a plea for important philosophical thinking expressed this well by a high school student (or college student) ever. That is what a good thinker should be like when he or she is young. This, by the way, is what his idiot principal sounds like. (hat tip Metafilter.)


I spent the last five days in California. Interesting town there. I did lots of things, like all them touristy thingies.