In an act that was as fatuous as it was banal, President Barack Obama’s Department of State issued guidelines for Israel to follow in the conduct of an existential war that has been raging on its soil since 2005. The constraining guidelines impair Israel’s ability to defend itself. Moreover, no nation, including the U.S., has ever conducted a war in this fashion.
If Israel would follow the example of America’s actual conduct in modern warfare instead of the administration’s attempts to placate the Islamic world by tying Israel’s hands behind its back, the war in Gaza would have been far more brutal and far more decisive.
During World War II, Gen. Curtis LeMay used incendiary bombs against the civilian population of Tokyo. Homes in that city were built primarily from wood. The bombs created a massive, unstoppable firestorm. LeMay’s conventional bombing of Japanese cities created more civilian casualties than the two nuclear bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In Europe, America followed the strategic bombing philosophy of the British, who by 1942 decided to respond in kind to the German’s purposeful targeting of civilian neighborhoods. Britain argued that Germany’s industrial might and civilian labor force were an integral part of its war effort declaring civilians legitimate targets.
The problem with that philosophy came with the incendiary bombing of the cultural city of Dresden, where the heavy industry was outside the city and was not targeted. At least 25,000 civilians died in Dresden and the flames from the bombing were visible some 200 miles away. To the world, it appeared that the bombing of Dresden was more about sending a message to the Germans than being concerned about its industrial base.
If Gaza City looked anything like Berlin or Tokyo, in the aftermath of World War II, the Israelis would have followed the British and American example.
World War II is, perhaps, ancient history, so let’s consider whether the American-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing of Serbia qualifies the Obama administration to give Israel gratuitous advice about the conduct of warfare.
Serbia was involved in an internal conflict, and while there were war crimes being committed, they were being committed on both sides. Serbia posed no threat to NATO, and the United Nations Security Council did not give approval to NATO’s intervention in Serbia.
America, which led the attack on Serbia, had no strategic interest in the conflict.
Over 2,000 civilians were killed including 88 children. Thousands more were injured. Two hundred thousand ethnic Serbs were displaced by Kosovo Muslims as a result of the conflict. The bombing augmented the ethnic cleansing of Serbs, about which the American media did not write. Three hundred schools and more than twenty hospitals were destroyed.
On April 12, 1999, near the city of Leskovak, a bridge was bombed while a passenger train was on it, killing 15 people, wounding 44 others, with many never accounted for. Two days later, NATO bombed a convoy of refugees fleeing the war torn area of Western Kosovo. Targeting an airfield near the city of Nis, NATO mistakenly bombed a nearby hospital.
The Chinese embassy in Belgrade was hit by a NATO missile and three Chinese citizens were killed as a result. Amnesty International concluded in a report it made public:
“[N]ATO did not always meet its legal obligations in selecting targets and in choosing means and methods of attack. On the basis of available evidence, including NATO's own statements and accounts of specific incidents, Amnesty International believes that - whatever their intentions - NATO forces did commit serious violations of the laws of war leading in a number of cases to the unlawful killings of civilians.”
Then, of course, there are the two wars in Iraq. In neither the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1990 nor the invasion in 2003 did the U.N. authorize invasion in terms of its charter. In the first Iraq war, the U.S. targeted water and sewage treatment plants, communications infrastructure, as well as electric generation sites. These sites were not hit as a consequence of collateral damage but as specific targets. The U.S. attacks in 2003 were more precise, but the attacks on senior members of the Iraqi government suffered from faulty intelligence and ended up killing lots of civilians, not unlike Israeli strikes on Hamas leaders.
In part, the 2003 Iraq war experienced unanticipated civilian casualties because the war moved faster than military intelligence could assess what was going on in the field. Despite the best of intentions and more precise targeting, a lot of civilians were killed.
Then, of course, since the war was not authorized and illegal under international law - collateral damage or not - arguably no one should have been killed.
Nations fight wars because they perceive their national interest at stake. The reality of warfare is that faced with a brutal enemy, such as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan, winning is the only thing that counts. If strategic bombing is vital to break the morale and industrial capacity of the enemy, then nations will justify strategic bombing. It is obviously better to kill the enemy’s civilians than have your own murdered because you did not have the will to win.
In the fog and chaos of war, bad things happen. Sometimes unintentionally, sometimes without justification, and sometimes because of the calculus that winning is the only moral consequence of war. If the balance is an order of battle that would result in a million casualties among your troops or an atomic bomb, the answer seems obvious.
I’ll leave it to others to stand in moral judgment of American actions in the aforementioned wars. My point is neither to condemn nor to praise America’s conduct. Others have systematically studied these events in excruciating detail and are more qualified to render judgment.
My objection is simply that given our own experience, the sanctimonious pronouncements of the Obama administration about Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza ring not only hollow; they sound like talking points for the brutal Hamas.
If fighting a brutal enemy that is willing to both ignore all the laws of civilized society and murder larger numbers of civilians gives justification to strategic bombing and targeting civilians, as it appears to have in World War II, doesn't Israel have the same concerns and the same rights?
All that Israelis have to do is look at the broad spectrum of Islamic-wrought wanton violence in Syria and Iraq and throughout the Mahgreb and know what awaits them. If Israel loses to Hamas, the carnage in Iraq and Syria will be nothing compared to what Hamas will do to the Jews.
It is time for the Department of State to look at its own history and decision making before condemning Israel to fight a war that will lead to the prospect of its own defeat. Obama seems to have Hamas’ back, not Israel’s. For those still in denial, this action should be the last straw.
Abraham H. Miller is an emeritus professor of political science, University of Cincinnati. He also served on the faculty of the University of California, Davis and the University of Illinois, Urbana.
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