Shades of revenge from Pearl Harbour, Balakot to Gaza Strip - Hindustan Times
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Shades of revenge from Pearl Harbour, Balakot to Gaza Strip

ByHindustan Times
Nov 10, 2023 03:29 PM IST

This article is authored by Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (retd), former lieutenant general, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.

Revenge or punitive action by a sovereign is a fine line that can have a moral and practical justification, but also be a cause of enduring unrest and amorality. Revenge stems from popular outrage that seeks vengeance, incapacitation, or deterrence from future repetition by enemies. From the Bible and Koran to the Gita, each envisages ‘virtuous revenge’ which comes with inherent conditionalities. So, when does revenge tip from the justified, into the excess or unvirtuous? When does it lose its morality, and more importantly, its efficacy? The answer lies in the intent, direction, and limits of revenge, as set by the vengeance seeker.

Israel-Hamas War: Damaged buildings in the northern Gaza Strip.(AFP)
Israel-Hamas War: Damaged buildings in the northern Gaza Strip.(AFP)

The shock of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour led to the ‘Day of the Infamy Speech’ and the declaration of war by the United States (US) on rebound – but the sense of outrage was so strong that allies did not wait for the official US announcement before confirming their own declaration of war. However, did the just notions of revenge morally justify the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japanese civilians, the short answer is, No. Excess of reaction, undid the justness of revenge. An absolute lack of compassion, proportionality, and misguided direction of revenge had beset the American action in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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Decades later (post-9/11) when George Bush announced the war on terror to destroy terror organisations, it was rooted in bringing justice and satisfying a normal human urge to avenge a gross wrong. However, many accompanying assumptions like Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD’s), overseeing of post-Saddam Iraq, sullied the revenge premise. But a clearly targeted and limited operation to take out a dreaded terrorist like Osama bin Laden from a military garrison in Abbottabad had the implicit support of all, except understandably those forces and sovereigns, who helped create or support terror. Revenge, in the case of Osama bin Laden was cryptically contexualised in President Obama’s words as, “Justice has been done.”

India too, could be said to have taken three retributive military actions in recent times i.e., 2015 Surgical Strike against insurgents from NSCN-K in Myanmar (Operation Hot Pursuit), 2016 Surgical Strike across Line of Control (LOC) against terror camps of organisations like LeT, JeM and HuM, and thirdly the 2019 Balakot airstrike. Each of these revenges was preceded by outraging provocations like ambushing of Indian Army convoy in Manipur, fidayeen attack in Uri, and the Pulwama incident. All retributive actions of the Indian Army against specific organisations towards the aim of meting justice, satisfying the sovereign consciousness of avenging its own, preemptive incapacitation and guaranteeing a reaction towards any similar misadventure by enemies, in the future. All were classic ‘in-out’ operations with specific objectives and insistences of no civilian casualties as a matter of fundamental planning. Following the Balakot action, the Indian foreign minister insisted on the targeted selection to be, “conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties”. With this declared intent, objective and action, Delhi was able to retain the high ground with enemy States and terror groups, even when avenging.

A similar construct of targeted revenge, and therefore of efficacious outcomes by Israeli action is borne out by its relentless pursuit of Nazi collaborators across continents after World War II. Similarly, ‘Operation Wrath of God’ to hunt down and avenge the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists in the Munich Olympics of 1972, earned it the reputation of a guaranteed counterattack after any attack on Israeli interests. Though strictly not a revenge, but a pre-emptive strike to checkmate a potential enemy, ‘Operation Opera’ entailed a surprise airstrike on the unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor, towards incapacitation of threat. While it was slammed for violating the territorial integrity of another country by UN and almost all countries – privately then, and more publicly later, many countries believed that it critically derailed the prospects of an unhinged Saddam Hussein acquiring nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, revenge was targeted, specific and limited in its violence, to spare the civilians.

But what the recent Israel revenge action in Gaza Strip lacks, is exactly that sense of intent, operational direction and ‘limits’ of retribution that does differentiate between specifically targeted elements and civilians. Presumably, the Indian examples of revenge in its insurgency-infected territories too could have entailed situations where the local civilians may have supported the presence of forces inimical to India – but that didn’t give licence to the Indian reaction to treat the specific elements and the larger supporting civilians, with the same lens. The Israeli reaction seems to have practically (though they claim not to target Palestinian civilians) blurred that very vital distinction. The fact that locals presumably cheered the initial Hamas action, voted them in, reside enmeshed with civilian populace, or even refused to vacate Gaza Strip when ordered by Israelis, seems to frame the Israeli counter-argument of heavy civilian casualties.

The Israeli leadership seeks to benchmark and countenance its reaction by equating itself in one-upmanship with a terror organisation – the actions and reactions of a sovereign state can never be held to the same standards as that of a terror organisation, as it must simply do better. Hamas is a terror organisation which is naturally perverse and unaccountable to any noble, constitutional, or international convention, but the State of Israel ought to. Lastly, history instructs that sovereign ‘revenge’ works only when it is framed, planned, and executed under distinguishing impulses and not on sweeping generalities of xenophobic nature, pertaining to any one community. Israel’s vivid experience of ‘revenge’ extraction of what works, and what becomes counterproductive is self-explanatory. Gaza Strip type of ‘scorched earth’ approach may look politically decisive, but it always augurs badly for its own future.

This article is authored by Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (retd), former lieutenant general, Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry.

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