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The Myth of Proportional Response: Lesson #1 (of 7) from the Aftermath of 9/11

Over the last two hundred years, America has attempted to employ a proportional and measured response in various theatres of operations: Korea, Viet Nam, and Iraq. We have also engaged in smaller skirmishes in Panama, Kuwait and Haiti. Each time the United States has become involved in a military engagement of significant size and duration that is modeled to be a proportional and measured response, it has gone badly for us – even when we “won.” In the case of the Korean War (or “conflict” or “police action”) we gave up 33,000 American lives. The results were a reasonably democratic government in half of the country, essentially dividing it into two separate nations. In the case of Viet Nam, which I think any reasonable person will agree was a loss for the United States, over 55,000 Americans lost their lives. In the case of Iraq, America sacrificed about 5,000 lives (a dramatic improvement over prior instances, owing to much better technology and a much greater advantage in terms of military might), and the results – while encouraging – are not yet clear and definitive; only time will tell.

I have no clear idea from where the concept of proportional response arose. It may have been the Biblical “an eye for an eye” philosophy, but more likely came about earlier than that.

In essence, there are two broad definitions of “Proportional Response”:

  1. The first is: Proportional Response is an approach to conflict where the level of force applied is expected to be roughly equivalent in destructive results to the damage inflicted by the enemy on one’s own citizenry, properties or interests.
  2. The second is: Proportional Response is a response to the enemy that tempers the extent of violence so that it results in the minimum level of damage and casualties necessary to achieve the military objective.

As Jonathan Wallace pointed out in his treatise entitled “Proportionality and Responsibility, “….the entire intellectual framework of which proportionality forms a part has an air of absurdity about it. Rules of war must take their place in the same pantheon as rules of murder or rules of pillage–we are attempting to govern bloody and chaotic human behavior as a substitute for eliminating it. Proportionality means: ‘if they kill you a little, you can only kill them a little’. Also, there is no framework–no universally accepted law of war backed by a legal system ready to adjudicate these issues.” Wallace goes on to point out that in what he calls “the most moral war we ever fought” (WWII), the dropping of atomic bombs on civilian targets such as Hiroshima seems “highly disproportionate”. ( But the fact is that it worked; violence stopped almost immediately, and countless additional lives were saved.

It must have been difficult for the United States to develop a response after 9/11 that seemed appropriate, proportionate, and likely to succeed. The attack perpetrated on 9/11 was orchestrated and executed by a non-state terrorist group without defined territory, visible assets, or a uniformed and garrisoned armed force that could be targeted for retaliation. There is no binding and effective international law governing such matters to which most nations subscribe. In fact, the closest thing that existed at the time of the attack on 9/11 was a 1985 UN General Assembly Resolution which “unequivocally condemn[ed}, as criminal, all acts, methods and practices of terrorism wherever and by whomever committed…[and} call[ed] upon all States to fulfill their obligations under international law to refrain from organizing, instigating, assisting or participating in terrorist acts in other States, or acquiescing in activities within their territory directed towards the commission of such acts.” Similar sentiments also exist in other resolutions from that body. The UN has also endeavored to adopt and implement resolutions such as the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism, which was “enacted” in May 2001.

Immediately after the attacks on 9/11, both the (Taliban) government of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden denied involvement. On September 12, the UN General Assembly (and Security Council) passed resolutions calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. They also called for those responsible for aiding, supporting, and harboring the terrorists to be “held accountable.” On September 14, the US Congress authorized the use of military force against those who were involved in the 9/11 attacks.

On September 20, in an address to Congress, President Bush said the evidence gathered all pointed to Al Qaeda, an organization that was also responsible for terrorist attacks on the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, as well as the attack on the USS Cole. President Bush specifically called out Osama bin Laden as the leader of Al Qaeda.” He demanded publicly that the Taliban “deliver to the United States authorities all the leaders of Al Qaeda who hide in your land, immediately and permanently close every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, and hand over every terrorist, and every person in their support structure, to appropriate authorities’. He further stated that “Failure to immediately hand over the ‘terrorists’ would result in the Taliban ‘sharing their fate”.

On September 21, the Taliban refused to comply with US demands “unless” they said, “evidence could be produced.” The US rejected that response, pointing out that bin Laden had already been indicted in the United States for the Kenya and Tanzania embassy bombings. The US and Great Britain initiated air strikes against terrorist training camps and military installations in Afghanistan on October 7th. The rest of the “War on Terror” ensued.

Even though the (in)famous “Mission Accomplished” speech delivered by President Bush aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln was delivered on May 2, 2003 and the subsequent television address to the nation declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended , the US had combat forces deployed in that country through August 19, 2010. Nine years, roughly 5,000 American fatalities, and – according to reports published at that time – $704 billion had been spent by the United States by February 2010. In a March 16, 2003 Meet the Press interview of Vice President Dick Cheney, held less than a week before the Iraq War began, host Tim Russert reported that “every analysis said this war itself would cost about $80 billion, recovery of Baghdad, perhaps of Iraq, about $10 billion per year. We should expect as American citizens that this would cost at least $100 billion for a two-year involvement.”. So if we assume that the original projection of a $100 billion two year war was known and accepted by the US Government to be a measured and proportionate response, clearly the resulting 9 year, $700+ billion war that resulted was well outside of that construct.

Disproportional response, by way of contrast, is proven to work. As I mentioned previously, the dropping of atomic bombs on civilian targets such as Hiroshima seems “highly disproportionate”. But the fact is that it worked; violence stopped almost immediately, and countless additional lives were saved.

The US invasion of Panama in 1989 offers another example, where the US deployed 27,684 U.S. troops and over 300 aircraft against an opposing force that was merely a fraction of that size. Operation Just Cause involved the simultaneous striking of 27 targets designed to rapidly paralyze the Panamanian Defense Forces and capture Noriega with minimal causalities. Resulting casualties included 23 US military personnel, and – depending on whose estimates one believes – between 1,000 and 5,000 Panamanians. President Noriega surrendered to US forces and the entire matter was concluded (militarily) in less than 5 months. Major William Conley Jr., writing in Small Wars Journal, later said of the Panama operation: “….the rule of proportionality and the duty to minimize harm to civilians, where doing so would not compromise a legitimate military objective, were not faithfully observed by the invading U.S. forces.” (

The first Gulf War offers similar evidence. About 340,000 US ground forces were deployed. The coalition air campaign (consisting mostly of U.S. pilots) accumulated a total of 109,876 sorties over the 43-day air war — averaging 2,555 sorties per day. Of those, more than 27,000 sorties struck enemy scud missiles, airfields, air defenses, electrical power, biological and chemical weapons caches, headquarters, intelligence assets, communications, the Iraqi army, and oil refineries. Of Iraq’s 545,000 troops in Kuwait at the time they began their retreat, 100,000 were killed and another 300,000 were wounded. In contrast, the US suffered about 300 deaths and 467 wounded. Military operations concluded in something less than 9 months. The Iraqis were met with overwhelming air force and ground force technology, tactics, and capabilities and the result was swift and sure. (

I believe that history clearly demonstrates this principle: Wars are extremely unpredictable when they are of significant size, and especially when they rely upon the projection of force around the world, unless the military actions taken are overwhelming and – in most cases – disproportionate. Measured and proportional response does not work in most cases, and at best is unreliable as a strategy if one’s objective is to win. It has not proven to be an effective means to reduce losses in the form of damages and casualties either. It does not seem to me that America has learned that lesson, even after the 9/11 attacks, based on our ensuing efforts.

While initial tactics – commonly referred to in those days as “shock-and-awe” brought about a quick symbolic military victory in main areas of the populace, US and allied forces failed to deploy an overwhelming ground element to quickly route the indigenous terrorists, and rebuild the infrastructure and civilian environment in a manner resembling the Marshall Plan at the conclusion of WWII. A decade and hundreds of billions of dollars later, the proportional battles against insurgency have proven that proportional responses to the problems faced in post-military-operations activities don’t work well either. In any significant conflict, the way to win and minimize casualties is overwhelming force of a disproportionate level.

What do you think?

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