It seems that unimaginable evil isn’t only imaginable, it’s getting more and more common. Israel and Ukraine are the best known recent examples, but there has also been ethnic violence as Azerbaijan took a chunk of Armenia and elsewhere. These wars aren’t the first and they won’t be the last.
It isn’t exactly news, but technology has not made mankind more civilized. It merely gave us new ways to express our barbarism and become more efficient at killing. It used be exhausting work to slaughter a hundred people. Now we can kill thousands or even millions in short order without even staining the uniforms of the killers.
It hasn’t been all bad. Civilization has brought with it laws that govern warfare. Acts that were once commonplace are now taboo, at least in polite society.
But there are exceptions. We saw one of those exceptions last week. By now we’ve heard many tales of atrocities from Hamas’s brief incursion into Israeli territory. The civilized world is aghast.
We’ve also heard similar stories from Ukraine of Russian soldiers indiscriminately killing and raping and pillaging. This isn’t new either. In the closing days of WWII, the Red Army used rape and murder to punish the German population. Red Army soldiers raped “every German female from eight to 80,” some many, many times.
For every story that we’ve heard, there’s probably at least one that we haven’t. That’s doubly true if we consider backwater countries without an extensive media and social media presence. The dead tell no tales and post no status updates.
It’s a paradox that war brings out both the best and worst of mankind. In contrast to the stories of cruelty and sadism, war also brings us examples of heroism and self-sacrifice. Some, such as the story of Desmond Doss, who I once had the privilege of flying, are even heroic stories of mercy rather than violence.
As Private “Joker” said in “Full Metal Jacket,” It’s “about the duality of man, the Jungian thing.”
For some civilized people, the violence and uncivilized acts aren’t a byproduct of war, they’re the point. Some of the barbarism is a simple expression of hate, an outlet for the frustration and jealousy that the perpetrators have felt for perhaps their whole lives.
For example, much has been written about how Gaza is the “world’s largest POW camp,” a place where Gazans are allowed to work in Israel, but have to cross back over the border to live. A place where people are subjected to both the savagery of Hamas and the possibility of being caught up in Israeli air strikes. A place where people feel powerless and don’t control their own lives. (I’m going to stipulate that Israel isn’t the only country to blame. Gaza also borders on Egypt, but the Egyptians don’t like Islamist radicals either.)
But there’s a strategic point as well.
A general in a war across the ocean from Gaza, William Tecumseh Sherman, once said, “We can make war so terrible and make them so sick of war that generations pass away before they again appeal to it.”
From the Palestinian side, hewing to Sherman’s strategy means making Israelis perpetually afraid for their lives and exhausting their will to fight and keep the Palestinians in a relatively nonthreatening position. From the Israeli side, it means an overwhelming response. “Shock and awe,” in the terms of the 1991 Gulf War.
Sometimes Sherman’s strategy works. The US hasn’t had another civil war in 150 years (although there has been talk). But this strategy also breeds resentment. Such feelings still exist to this day in the South, never mind that the Confederacy itself served an evil cause.
Some would make the case that modern Western war doctrine that spares civilians makes future wars more likely. They need to know that they’ve been beaten, the argument goes, like Germany in World War II. Otherwise, we may have to fight them again in a generation, like Germany in World War I.
What probably happens more often is that these resentments simmer and fester, sometimes for hundreds of years, until there is an opportunity to strike back. And then the other side strikes back and the strife continues in a tit for tat until, like the Hatfields and the McCoys, no one is sure exactly why the feud started, but both sides are fighting to avenge losses from the last skirmish. War and violence are self-perpetuating.
Eventually, the attitude becomes one similar to a different, disturbing statement by General Sherman, who opined, “The more Indians we can kill... the less will have to be killed the next war, for the more I see of these Indians, the more convinced I am that they all have to be killed or be maintained as a species of paupers.”
The enemy becomes dehumanized, not worthy of life. That happens to the good guys as well as the bad guys in war. At best, it makes it psychologically possible to fight off invaders who would murder and enslave free people. At worst, it’s a tool used by demagogues to incite violence and whip up war fever.
I don’t know what the solution is to Middle East violence… or to violence in general. Savagery is an inherent part of the human condition. We can repress it with norms and rules and treaties, but it’s always there, lurking beneath the surface, waiting for an opportunity to break free and run amok.
I don’t know what else Israel could have done. Groups like Hamas don’t want to live in peace. Israel isolated Hamas in Gaza to protect their own citizens, both Jewish and Arab, from Hamas’s past terror attacks. Hamas is richly deserving of the retribution they are about to receive.
But what about the average Arab in Gaza? If we as Americans feel like our government doesn’t listen to us, imagine how much less a government run by Hamas or Vladimir Putin respects the opinions of its citizens.
I see Palestinian and Israeli mourners and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
I’m sure that there is a lot of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment in Gaza, but I’d also bet that a lot of people there just want to be left alone to live their lives, marry their sweethearts, and raise their children. These people are caught in the middle no less than than the Israeli Jews and others who were murdered in their homes merely because they lived near the border or happened to be at a concert in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Israeli operation to root out and destroy Hamas is necessary, but it’s also not a solution. The war will orphan more children, widow more wives, and make more people take Sherman’s view that the only real answer is to kill them all.
Violence begets violence, and war begets war. As far as I can see, there is no answer because at heart, humans are barbarians and there will always be leaders who tap into that instinct for their own purposes.
Changing hearts is possible with God, but all too often, the Biblical message that we should love our neighbors, turn the other cheek, and leave vengeance to God is perverted into a message of attacking unbelievers. And that’s not even considering the religions that don’t preach peace. Koranic passages that preach violence against Jews are different to reconcile with the desire for peaceful coexistence.
No matter how civilized or technologically advanced we become, we will periodically have to relearn that other lesson of General Sherman’s: “War is hell.”
ANTISEMITISM AT HOME: I’m going to take a moment to call out anti-Semitism here in the United States. The new war has exposed the existence of numerous people on both sides of the political spectrum. While much focus has been made on the BLM and university expressions of support for Hamas, there are also anti-Israel voices on the right. To his credit, Erick Erickson pointed out some of these right-wing anti-Semites. There is no excuse for supporting or rationalizing Hamas’s savage behavior.
It’s interesting to note that anti-Semitism is one of the few areas other than deficit spending on which there is bipartisan agreement, but it’s very possible to be critical of Israeli policy without condoning the rape and murder of innocents.