Modern low-intensity conflicts are won and lost on their ragged edges. Nations act as though the plans of their militaries and intelligence operations can harness the chaos of combat and guide it to advance their interests. Then, the unplanned happens, collateral damage occurs, and it has a bigger impact on politics and the position of combatants than the calculated elements of the conflict added up.
We need look no further than the headlines of last week -- to the four dead Palestinian boys on the beach in Gaza or to the scattered wreckage of the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine.
While the Israeli government can justify its actions against Hamas as self-defense, it cannot argue away the deaths of four children on the beach or the large number of other civilian victims of its attacks.
The government may take every precaution, use the most advanced smart munitions available, and periodically stop its warring to offer humanitarian relief. But when innocent children die while playing on the beach, every justification rings hollow, every precaution is revealed to be callously inadequate. When a child's lifeless body lies in a Ukrainian field to which it has fallen from the sky, the prevarications and plausible deniability that may have been useful in managing less horrifying incidents lose their effectiveness.
From a political perspective, such tragedies instantly dominate the narrative of a conflict because they speak to the heart of observers -- whereas government speeches, Twitter feeds and news releases seem too coldly rational and calculated, too soulless and self-interested.
There is no moral equation that offers a satisfactory calculus to enable us to accept the death of innocents as warranted. In a moment, the rationales for waging such "limited actions" become moot. Arguments about self-defense ring hollow when the defenseless are murdered. Indeed, the notion that such actions could be "limited" is belied by unintended consequences like that dominated the news last week. This is doubly tragic in the case of this most recent round of fighting between the Israelis and Palestinians because of the inherent futility of the efforts of both sides. We have seen these skirmishes before.
Never have they improved the situation of either side. Neither can damage the other sufficiently to change the balance of power between them. No action that either can muster can be punitive enough to change the behavior of the other.
Just a few days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin stood among fellow leaders of a group of six emerging economies and basked in their support. They would stand by him against American and European sanctions. But if it is proved that Russian-supported separatists using Russian weapons were, as it seems, responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 and the deaths of 298 passengers and crew members, then it will be much harder for the friends of the Russian leader to embrace him or his brazen efforts to destabilize Ukraine.
For all his mastery in seizing Crimea without firing a shot, for slipping special forces and intelligence units into Ukraine, for leveraging the unrest to influence his neighbor, it could be that this tragedy will define this conflict in the eyes of the world. Certainly, it will rewrite its narrative.
In total warfare, it is easier to shrug off collateral damage as the cost of achieving a vital goal, of survival. But in more limited conflicts, it can reset the political context that is as much a part of the overall battle as is the use of force.
When innocents die, standard military metrics for success or failure pale in comparison with the human costs depicted so graphically in the media -- highlighting once again with indelible and deeply disturbing images the hubris of leaders who delude themselves into believing they can control the uncontrollable.