Book review

The least of all possible evils

18 Mar 2013

Review Details
Date: 18 March 2013
Author: Sverre Molland
Publisher: ForMHub
Owning Institution(s): Swinburne University of Technology

Book Details
Title: The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence From Arendt to Gaza
Publisher: Verso: London
Date Published: 2012
Author/s: Eyal Weizman

Current asylum seeker policies in Australia have taken an interesting rhetorical twist. Increasingly, stringent border controls are being expressed in humanitarian terms where a stricter asylum regime is justified as a means for saving lives at sea. As a result, policy reflects a paradox where its rhetorical structure resembles two bad choices: a lenient policy will be humane but may open the flood-gates of boat people that may cause asylum seekers to take fatal risks. Alternatively, a policy of deterrence will - according to both the government and opposition - reduce the number of boats, but may result in numerous negative consequences for the asylum seekers who nonetheless attempt boat-journeys to the Australian mainland (detention, self-harm, etc.). As the former is considered a “greater evil” in policy terms, the latter is justified. In this way, the minimisation of harm (i.e. choosing “the lesser evil”) becomes part of the very logic of harm. It is precisely this kind of logical collapse between compassion and punitive force, which Eyal Weizman explores in his latest book.

The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, is a highly engaging and thought-provoking analysis of the merging of humanitarian and military logics. At first glance, the book appears to repeat several points that are made by a number of humanitarian scholars. It highlights the ways in which humanitarianism can be co-opted and become part of the wider political economy of war-induced famine, it draws attention to how the humanitarian project is often a politics by other means, and it examines the merging of military and humanitarian aid. Although none of these arguments are new, Weizman places these claims within a fresh narration and from unusual and highly illuminating angles. The chief difference to other literature is methodological, where a fine-tuned attention to spatial configuration, physicality and materiality are examined in relation to ethics, humanitarian law, calculation and military strategy. This highly material approach becomes most evident in latter parts of the book where considerable attention is given to forensic architecture (see below).

Weizman deploys a singular approach in his analysis. The book is essentially about a handful of sites (Ethiopia, The Israel-Palestine partition wall, Gaza, and to a lesser extent Bosnia and Iraq) and three individuals (Rony Brauman who was the president of Médecins Sans Frontières in the 1980s; Muhammad Dahla, a Palestinian Lawyer; and former US military intelligence analyst Marc Garlasco). It is through this very localized and individuated approach that Weizman so eloquently examines the ways in which a logic of “the lesser evil” permeates landscapes, locales and buildings.

The main theme of the book - the lesser evil - explores different ways in which violence is being minimized, contained and moderated through various modalities of calculation. The book’s chief argument is that “the moderation of violence is part of the very logic of violence” (Weizman 2012: 3). Put simply, the lesser evil is the very grammar of evil itself. Weizman goes on to substantiate this claim by analysing how

“Humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), when abused by state, supra-state and military action, have become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed." (Weizman 2012:3f.)

The first chapter, The Humanitarian Present, provides a thoughtful elaboration of the principle of “the lesser evil”. Weizman traces the ascendance of the principle from theology and philosophy (Augustine, Voltaire, Leibniz) and elucidates the ways in which this form of moral calculation has become secularized. It is here that the importance of objectification (measurement, estimation, calculation) is made clear where proportionality is a key mediating logic (Weizman returns to this principle throughout the book). It is not just that “The choice made justifies the pursuit of harmful actions that would be otherwise deemed unacceptable in the hope of averting even greater suffering" (2012: 6), but that such choices are underpinned by particular modalities of calculation. Although it is not made entirely explicit, there are obvious references to Foucault’s concept of apparatus, where due emphasis is placed on the proliferation of “moral technologies” in order to produce such moral calculations. Weizman reminds us that international humanitarian law is not about the abolition of war, but its regulation. It is in this context Weizman is examining the ubiquity of the principle of “the lesser evil”. The examples of such necro-calculations are multiple, including “acceptable” levels of civilian deaths in order to defeat the enemy (2012: 14).

Chapter two, Arendt in Ethiopia, can be read as a micro-social history of Médecins Sans Frontières. Weizman follows the trajectory of the moral-political thinking of Rony Brauman who was the president of the organization during the emerging Ethiopian famine in the 1980s. During his time in Ethiopia, Brauman read the political theorist Hanna Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem, which influenced his concerns regarding the risk of aid being co-opted for political purposes. In this context, Weizman elaborates the principle of witnessing, which has become a trademark for MSF, as well as the political act of exiting humanitarian emergencies when aid delivery becomes compromised. In other words, the chapter traces MSF’s own self-reflections regarding the limitations in participating in “the lesser evil”. It is in this chapter we see the contours of two central points in the book: Weizman foreshadows the importance of physical space and the way in which humanitarian ethics and violence become imprinted in specific locales, such as refugee camps, and draws attention to how data (such as epidemiological data) is central to “witnessing”, where testimony moves from the living to the dead. In other words, there is a shift from the importance of victims to the centrality of objects in shaping humanitarian arguments.

The importance of materiality becomes more central in the third chapter, The Best of All Possible Walls, in which Weizman analyses a court case where a model of the Israel-Palestine partition wall is central to the legal proceedings. A key problematic is how the security of Israel ought to be balanced with the marginalisation of Palestinian lives, where the exact positioning of the wall acts as the common denominator for assessing humanitarian, security and legal-ethical claims. This is a fascinating account of how the principle of the lesser evil works physically, where "the trials were concerned with moderating the violations and violence perpetrated by the wall in the name of the principle of the 'lesser evil'" (2012: 66).  Drawing on Wittgenstein, a central point is that a model of reality functions as a model for reality, where:

" (…) the model presented at court generated the geographical grammar for 'the law' to shape physical reality, in a similar way that a chessboard dictates the possibilities of a game of chess." (Weizman 2012: 73)

The ruling, Weimzan argues, was based on the principle of proportionality, so that “(…) the wall could be said to have been forensically engineered. It has given the principle of proportionality a material and spatial dimension" (2012: 77). 

Weizman goes on to examine the blockade of Gaza in 2008-9 where the Israeli government deployed specific techniques of calculation to define the “humanitarian minimum” in order to achieve politico-military objectives, but without transgressing humanitarian principles beyond what international allies might tolerate. The threshold for this calculated proportionality was settled very precisely (it was subject to court hearings). Through this “controlled abandonment” of Gaza, Weizman provides a very detailed account of how Israel in highly calculated ways employed the principle of “lesser evil” in order to hurt the Palestinians, but not too much. This involved calculations of minimum calorie intakes as well as reducing electricity supply to Gaza ("humanitarian thresholds" were decided by the Israeli high court) which could determine whether fresh water pumps, irrigation systems, fish farms, sewage pumps and hospitals would be able to function. Weizman uses this event to show how the law in subtle ways has moved from an absolutist positivist/formalist to a flexible, cost-benefit logic of “the lesser evil”. In doing so, legal boundaries are being transformed through the principle of proportionality thereby relativizing the law.

It is in chapter four, Forensic Architecture: Only the Criminal Can Solve the Crime, that the role of forensic architecture becomes most explicit. This is also the most fascinating part of the book. The chapter revolves around Marc Garlasco who previously worked for the US defence force, but later became employed by Human Rights Watch. His key role with HRW was to provide professional expertise in documenting human rights violations through analysing physical landscapes in warzones (for example, how buildings collapse due to the use of specific weaponry).

Such a forensic analysis of the built environment became a key strategy for HRW and Garlasco to contest the Israeli military and became central to legal-political disputes. Here we again see a shift from testimony of victims to the importance of forensic evidence in the context of humanitarian law. At this point the book most clearly spells out the importance of physical space, calculation and the ways in which a humanitarian logic has become integral to warfare and is expressed through material objects. For example, by examining bombed buildings, Garlasco could document how various “technologies of warning” such as “knock on the door bombs” could achieve a military objective, which at the same time has incorporated minimum humanitarian principles:

“To communicate a ‘warning’ can indeed save a life, but here this principle ended up rendering every house in the strip into a potential ‘legitimate’ target whose destruction would have been otherwise in contravention of IHL.” (Weizman 2012:122)

Effectively, through such military manoeuvres non-combatants are reconfigured as “human shields” and become fair game for bombardment without transgressing humanitarian law. Through the study of demolished buildings in Gaza it becomes possible, according to Weizman, to “read off” how a humanitarian principle of “the lesser evil” is embedded within this logic. This is by no means limited to the Israeli-Palestine conflict but has also been employed in the Iraq war, where the US military very precisely placed the threshold for civilian casualties to thirty. Once again, we see how humanitarian international law becomes embedded within military planning.

Overall, the Least of All Possible Evils is highly insightful and thought provoking. Through Weizman’s analysis of forensic architecture, it provides a compelling account of how the grammars of materiality, calculation, ethics, military strategy and humanitarianism have increasingly become intertwined. By showing how human rights and humanitarian law have become part of military strategizing, Weizman’s argument echoes the recent work by Didier Fassin, which shows how humanitarian reason is no longer confined to specific questions of aid relief but has become a modality of government.


The book was reviewed by Dr. Sverre Molland. Sverre Molland is lecturer in anthropology and development studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. His research engages intersections between development aid programming and human mobility. Dr. Molland is the author of The Perfect Business? Anti-Trafficking and the Sex Trade along the Mekong.

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