The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza by Eyal Weizman

I picked up a few books in the Verso Christmas sale last week for a couple of quid. This is one of them, and it’s also my first almost original piece of writing in months. Got a couple more book reviews drifting about my drafts folder, will try and write them up soon. Exciting stuff all round.

When I found out, at the end of Eyal Weizman’s The Least of All Possible Evils, that it had been to some extent based off of an art exhibition, it explained a lot of what is good about the book, and most of what is weak. Its central thesis is slightly weak but the illustrations used to show this are really interesting, if hit-and-miss.

Weizman’s argument is essentially that the means to constrain and minimise civilian suffering have become methods of managing it and in a sense, legitimised this minimal level. There is no longer contestation of whether to commit evil, but over what is the ‘acceptable’ level of suffering. To a large extent it’s just a longer discussion of the (he never said it according to Google) Chomsky quote* on the lesser of two evils still being evil.

The book is organised in sections, with each one taking quite a different illustration of the argument. Weizman looks at the evolution of Médecins Sans Frontières and the humanitarian relief industry, at how the border wall encircling Palestine is contested and decided, and at how the US and Israeli militaries calculate and model collateral damage. He just about does enough to tie these ideas together and with the central thesis, but they also share the flaw of failing to provide any sort of alternative (with one exception).

The discussion of collateral damage was the one that struck me the most. There is undeniably something troubling about Human Rights Watch employing the man who used to model how buildings collapse under U.S bombing in order to assess if they would cause “excessive” civilian casualties, and the clinical nature of this sort of thing is certainly unsettling:

“The magic number in designing the attacks in Iraq, Garlasco recalled, was thirty. ‘If the computer came up with thirty anticipated civilians killed, the air-strike had to go to Rumsfeld or Bush personally to sign off. Anything less than thirty could simply go ahead.’ In this system of calculation, twenty-nine deaths designates a threshold.”

The problem is that I don’t see there being a plausible alternative. This week was the anniversary of the firebombing of Tokyo, where the mass death of civilians seemed to be if not the aim, at least a vindictive bonus. That we’ve gone from that to the US military incorporating international human rights law into its operating procedures strikes me as A Good Thing. Whether this is done out of sincere humanitarian concern or simply desire to avoid repercussions is immaterial. I don’t think Weizman is necessarily denying this. However, in common with a fair amount of leftist critique, it points out the obvious badness of civilian casualties and then wanders off, basically. Implicit in the argument that humanitarian law has legitimised civilian casualties is presumably that without it, there would be less of them. Or that they would occur but be more contested, because humanitarian law would no longer provide a figleaf. This is hard to buy – at the end of the day, hegemonic states are going to apply force where they see the need to, and humanitarian law is just trying to minimise that a little. It isn’t clear what the proposed alternative to this lesser evil is and the book generally suffers from it.

The exception I mentioned earlier is the section on refugee camps. Weizman builds a powerful critique of the apolitical, depoliticized space created, with generally noble intentions, in refugee camps in order to control and manage suffering, concluding:

“Only when humanitarianism seeks to offer temporary assistance rather than to govern or develop can the politics of humanitarianism really create a space for the politics of refugees themselves.”

Which is both beautiful, and part of a much more sustained and coherent critique than lots of the book.

Overall though, it’s worthwhile. I don’t think it lives up to the claims it makes for itself, and the central argument is a bit “sure, and?” but the examples are interestingly chosen and unconventionally approached. It drifts towards the critical-studies-over-academic without ever collapsing into it, and I enjoyed reading it.

Also I just noticed/remembered that there’s Candide references in it which are an immediate win in my book.

*Just yesterday I was talking to my flatmate about how much I hate Serious Writers who do the “As X once said…” high-school-level quotations to alleviate the tedium of their op-eds, but there you go. We all become what we once hated.

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