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Death, destruction and moral relativity

July 16, 2009

Comparing one theatre of conflict with another is always dangerous, often meaningless, unless they belong 800px-tokyo_kushu_1945-3in the same timeframe and context e.g. the World War Two of Europe and that of the Far East.

This week saw publication in Israel of a report by the activist group Breaking the Silence. Featuring testimony from Israel’s own soldiers on the behaviour of troops in January’s Gaza offensive, it raised questions about the alleged “moral degeneration” of the armed forces, their alleged preference for risking civilian casualties rather than casualties in their own ranks, through hesitation or over-cautious trigger fingers. The army’s response was angry and indignant. Defence Minister Ehud Barak repeated his claim that Israel has “one of the most moral armies in the world”.

This is a slippery concept, because as armies move along the sliding scale of conflict — from robust policing or anti-guerrilla operations to total war for national survival — the notion of what is moral conduct and what is immoral is progressively lost.

Britain’s wartime “Bomber” Harris in Europe and America’s Curtis LeMay in the Pacfic were airforce generals who had no trouble with killing as many German and Japanese civilians as possible, in avowedly terroristic incendiary raids by fleets of bombers with the approval of their political leaders.

Harris, most notoriously, bombed Dresden. But it was only one of many German cities fire-bombed to hasten the collapse of the Third Reich. LeMay on 9 March 1945 sent 330 B-29s  to Toyko where in the space of a few hours their napalm incendiaries roasted to death 100,000 Japanese civilians, to the extent that pilots said they could smell burning flesh in the rising columns of smoke.  You can read about this in ”Nemesis” by British military historian Max Hastings, who quotes LeMay as saying his policy was to ”bomb and burn ‘em till they quit”.

Hastings quotes the official U.S. Army Airforce history of LeMay’s command, the Twentieth Airforce, calling its blitz on Japan “this fiery perfection, which literally burnt Japan out of the war”. “In its climactic five months of jellied fire attacks, the vaunted Twentieth killed outright 310,000 Japanese, injured 412,000 more and rendered 9,200,000 homeless. Never in the history of war had such colossal devastation been visited on an enemy at so slight a cost to the conqueror … The 1945 application of American Air Power, so destructive and concentrated as to cremate 65 Japanese cities in five months, forced an enemy’s surrender without land invasion for the first time in military history …”

Hasting quotes LeMay, who like Harris, he says, remained impenitent to the end: ”Nothing new about death, nothing new about deaths caused militarily. We scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night 9-10 March than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined,” he said.

LeMay, clearly, had no problem with “breaking the silence”.

This is not intended as a comparison of Gaza with WWII, or to  exonerate Israel’s allegedly “disproportionate” conduct of the operation, or to diminish the Palestinian loss of 1,417 lives in 22 days, or to gloss over the Palestinian militants’ pursuit of “asymmetric” fighting methods including the use of rockets fired deliberately into towns. Perhaps all it says is that it is better to have conflict in which armies are very sensitive to charges of savagery and barbarism than to have total, all-out war, in which all considerations of morality are swept aside.

PHOTO: Bombing of Tokyo, 1945


That is the problem with words like ‘genocide’, ‘war crime’ and ‘disproportionate force’.

They are easy to throw around cheaply. But these words have concrete legal meanings. And when people misuse them because of their activist views, the words are twisted until they mean nothing.

Operation Cast Lead was a legitimate military action. And it succeeded in it’s goal of stopping the rockets. Just like the Lebenon war before.

It is indeed tragic that so many civilians lost their lives. Such is the case with all wars.

But the problem is that people feel so strongly about those deaths, they forget that the deaths still complied with international law. They refuse to accept that civilians are allowed to die in certain circumstances.

Terms like proportionality and collateral damage are legal definitions which exist for a reason. Before people accuse Israel of breaching these principles, they should actually find out what these principles mean in law. They will be sorely disappointed.

When militants base their military operations to civilian areas, these principles mean that many civilians will die. But such deaths will remain legal.

The moral of this story?

“When terrorists refuse to follow the lawful conventions of war, civilians will die”.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

A very interesting, well-researched and thoughtful blog post. Although we should have progressed morally since WWII, this does not seem to be the case, and the difference between the era of LeMay and of Ehud Barak lies in that attacking armies are now under scrutiny by competing media outlets covering the story for audiences with very different slants: gung-ho or in-denial Israelis, conflicted European Jews, sympathetic arabophobe Americans, indignant-but-essentially hypocritical Arabs, beligerent armed Palestinian groups etc etc, as opposed to WWII when there was only one, ‘patriotic’ position to take for any Anglo-French journalist or historian and little coming from the other side by way of balance. So the attackers get away with less, or they find it harder to cover crimes up, or they get caught with their hands dirty a bit earlier, and the general public ends up debating the moral of a given military action under the pressure of the media’s naming and shaming. But do people mind that crimes are committed in their name? It seems not, as long as the crimes lead to victory.

Posted by Sasha Fischer-Kunz | Report as abusive

wow,the fact that someone would say that the murder of innocent civilians in palestine and lebanon “complies with international law” is a just label these murders as “collateral damage” is an insult to every innocent person every murdered at the hands of monsters. from horrific acts like the holocaust and 9/11 to the murder of palestinians and lebanese at the hands of the israels,the fact that people would try and justify some becase they support those murders is a joke. perhaps is is easy for some people to condone murder and genocide,however murder is murder no matter which way you try and paint the picture. just like in 2006 when israel failed to destroy hezbollah, they failed to destroy hamas. so all the so called “collateral damage” did not justify the murder that was carried out. hopefully the israeli population realizes soon that they horrors being commited by their governments is only putting them in more danger and has made their government look worse than the likes of al-qaeda and taliban.

Posted by sidney | Report as abusive

If you feel that way, Sydney, then perhaps you should look up the international law yourself.

The actions of the Israelis did not equal Genocide or Murder. Those are legal terms, with concrete legal definitions. Look them up.

And if the legal definitions of those words are not met, then those words do not apply, no matter how often people try to insist they do.

And when people try to call something Genocide, when the legal criteria of Genocide are not met, then the only joke is their misuse of the word.

And answer this: If the actions of Israel were not justified, then why have Hamas and Hizbulla stopped launching rockets at Israel? For that matter, why did Hizbulla not help Palestine at all during the last war?

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

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