Inside Israel and the Palestinian Territories
Death, destruction and moral relativity
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