Ethics, Politics, War

Wars Are Mainly Fought Against Civilians

JERUSALEM — Israeli combat soldiers have acknowledged that they forced Palestinian civilians to serve as human shields, needlessly killed unarmed Gazans and improperly used white phosphorus shells to burn down buildings as part of Israel‘s three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip last winter.

In filmed testimony and written statements released Wednesday, more than two dozen soldiers told an Israeli army veterans‘ group that military commanders led the fighters into what one described as a “moral Twilight Zone” where almost every Palestinian was seen as a threat.

Dion Nissenbaum, McClatchy Newspapers

I have several thoughts about this report. Among other things, the 26 Israeli soldiers who testified for this report strike me as, in a way, representing some of the best values of Israel — or of humanity. I don’t know if I had been in their boots whether I would have had the guts to come forth. But they did.

It is very easy for people to rationalize away crimes done to people we do not consider part of our group — especially in time of war. Some of us are better than that, but most of us are not. I’m not even sure it’s a matter of choice. Maybe most of us are genetically programed to rationalize away crimes done to members of our “out group”, and only a few of us are not.

I have a friend — a veteran — who is very blunt about it. Right before the US invaded Iraq, he told me “Very few people will get killed in this one”. I objected by saying, “Maybe very few of our troops will get killed, but this will cost the lives of thousands of civilians”. “They don’t count”, he said, “They’re Iraqi civilians”. I think his attitude is nearly universal among humans. He could have been almost anyone in any country talking about how much — or little — he valued the lives of people who were not in his group.

So I think the 26 Israeli soldiers who came forth for this report represent something quite rare.

As for the crimes committed by the Israeli Defense Forces, I wonder what people expected? Did they expect the war to be morally sane? For at least the past 100 years, war has meant that civilians are brutalized and killed in greater numbers than combatants. This is now the established reality of war everywhere it breaks out — in sheer numbers, the real victims are not the soldiers, but the civilians. In effect — in practice — we now go to war against civilians. And that is everywhere. Not just the Gaza Strip. And that is everyone’s army — not just the Israeli.

5 thoughts on “Wars Are Mainly Fought Against Civilians”

  1. This is the whole concept behind “terrorism.” Von Clausewitz characterized war as “diplomacy by other means.” This is accurate, but needs to be understood in the context of how the world really works – which is through the manipulation of perceptions (or “hearts and minds” as the saying went back in the days of Vietnam).

    Attacks on civilians are intended to sever their willingness to provide legitimacy, support and funding for the military/para-military extension of the people’s aggregate diplomatic presence. It is fundamentally “terrorism,” whether it’s done with a suitcase bomb in a mosque, an atomic bomb over a city of civilians, firebombing the industrial sector of a populous city, or burning down Atlanta and the surrounding countryside.

    William Tecumseh Sherman was perhaps the greatest pioneer of terrorist warfare, which has become the standard form of warfare in the modern world, whether engaged in by organized national militaries or psueudo-national para-military organizations. As historian Shelby Foote explained it in Ken Burns’ “Civil War” documentary:

    “Sherman was maybe the first truly modern general. He was the first one to understand that civilians were the backers-up of things and that if you went against civilians, you’d deprive the army of what kept it going… He had the real notion. He saw from the very beginning how hard a war it was going to be. ”

    Now, the problem is that warfare against civilians does NOT win hearts and minds, and is, in fact, counterproductive. That was clear from the huge swing in popularity and public support for terrorist organizations in Gaza and Lebanon following the Israeli invasions of those two areas in the past three years.

    The Israeli approach has legitimized Hamas and similar organizations in the minds of their target audiences – the ordinary people of the Muslim Middle East who give support to these organizations. Each hospital and school burned down by the invaders and rebuilt by Hamas was a HUGE LOSS for Israel and its hopes for a genuine secure and peaceful future. In the same way, Americans’ willingness to sell out their values in the name of vengeance during the invasion of Iraq and through the use of torture, suspension of civil rights like habeaus corpus and domestic spying, is a HUGE WIN for Al Queda. I’d almost say that the real victory for “enemies of freedom” was not when the WTC towers collapsed, but when, during our response, we sent the better angels of our nature on vacation.


  2. Dopp touches real bases here. The day we all let loose the CIA and our CSIS hawks, torturers and generally abandon our civil rights in the name of security, the likes of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, mollah Omar and assorted Fazlulla will have won the day.


  3. I most strongly disagree that his attitude is universal among humans. The majority of humans would find killing civilians wrong. “Maybe most of us are genetically programed to rationalize away crimes done to members of our “out group”, and only a few of us are not.” I would suggest this is also untrue.


  4. No matter what justification is offered to me for Israel’s attack on Gaza my mind can’t get past this figure:

    Hamas killed 13 Israelis, 3 or 4 being civilians.
    Israel killed 1400 Palestinians, most of them (into the hundreds) being civilians.

    How can you possibily rationalize this? Is the life of a Palestininan really worth so much less than an Israeli?

    I’ve been meaning to write a post about this, speculating that brain studies about the different ways we emotionalize killing depending on how it’s done (e.g. the train lever studies) might factor into this.


  5. @ dopp: Thank you for an excellent elaboration and analysis.

    @ Paul Squires: I would have agreed with you a few years ago. But after witnessing the response of Americans to the death of Iraqi civilians, I’m now of the opinion that only a minority of people would oppose killing “other people’s” civilians. I guess we will have to agree to disagree about that. I hope you’re right and I’m wrong.

    @ Hume’s Ghost: That would be a very interesting post. I hope you write it!


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