A Necessary War, Unless You’re In The Middle Of It

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The Economist, that estimable UK magazine, wants me to do it “the honor of trying our publication risk-free.” So they’ve sent me a colorful brochure with a photograph of what appears to be an Afghan boy, about four or five, carrying a young girl, perhaps his sister, about two years of age, on his back. Superimposed on the photograph, to the right of the The Economist’s white on red logo, is the headline: A heart-rending but necessary war.

Who these children are we can only guess. Orphans, their parents killed in the barrage of Kandahar by U.S warplanes? Or are their parents still alive, eking out a bare existence in a refugee camp, fighting their own necessary war, not against abstractions like terrorism or the Taliban’s brutality or its refusal to kowtow to the President’s demands, but against cold and hunger?

If you can have it both ways, the editors of The Economist are determined they will. We’re hard-headed, prepared to back the tough choices, they seem to say, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a heart.

Those who will give The Economist’s editors the honor of trying their publication risk-free (the risks, not financial, but related to one’s conscience), sit in warm houses in places like Denver and Dallas, London and Toronto, smartly dressed in fashionable, comfortable clothes, poring over their newspapers while they wash their toast down with hot coffee, the kids already safely off to school, nodding in agreement. “Yes, it is a necessary war. Too bad about the kids, though. But war’s like that.”

Meanwhile, Bibi Gul, sitting on her sole possession, a tattered blanket, laid out on the hard, rocky soil of a Pakistani refugee camp, wonders just how necessary the war is. And she wonders if the editors at The Economist really know how heart-rending it is, not in that vicarious way, the way movies can be, but in a visceral, personal way, the way it would be if fuel air bombs, with their relentless boom, boom, boom had burst over London, and had driven The Economist’s editors from their homes, into a refugee camp where there was too little to eat and too little to keep the cold away. Where no photographer could snap a picture of their own children, to be put on the cover of a magazine, or a brochure to show how dispassionate but at the same time human you are, because their own children had already died? Bibi Gul’s son died one morning, from cold and hunger, a victim of the “necessary” war. The Economist won’t show you a photograph of Bibi Gul’s son, emaciated, crouched in a ball, trying to get warm, the way he was when he froze to death that night. That would be, well, a little too heart-rending. Heart-rending has its limits.

Plenty of well-fed, comfortable people, who’ve never known war but as something that happens somewhere else, something to make the pulse quicken and to stir patriotic feelings and to be glorified by Hollywood and to bear a president’s approval ratings into the stratosphere, squirm uncomfortably when they run headlong into reality. So war is pain and grief and blood and hunger and cold and panic. It’s little kids pissing their pants in terror, before a sniper’s bullet rips through their skull, splattering brains across their mothers’ faces. It’s young men being beaten to death by thugs, who we call soldiers. It’s Afghan kids orphaned by pilots who fly B-52’s, and have kids of their own, who go to Sunday School, and speak in admiring tones of their daddy the war hero who’s off in Afghanistan killing other people’s kids.

It’s easy to talk bravely of a necessary war, when other people are the victims, and other people do the fighting, and all you have to do is watch from afar and spin romantic fantasies about it. Harry Fisher, who went to war in Spain, fell into the arms of a great despair when he returned home, because all his friends wanted to know what it was like to kill fascists. They thought it was a glorious war, Fisher recalled. But to Fisher it was a sad, depressing affair, of corpses whose “faces revealed final moments filled with pain, horror, and fear,” of kids who wanted to do nothing more than play soccer but who were dragooned into Franco’s army and thrown into the front lines and were machine-gunned by antifascists filled with a burning desire to smash the vile, repellent ideology of Hitler and Mussolini and Franco, but who eventually learned the truth about war, a truth those at home could never get.

Itai Haviv is an artillery captain in the Israeli army reserves: “As a fighting officer of the Israel Defense Forces, I served all over the West Bank and Gaza Strip,” he writes. “I am not naive. Sometimes you must kill to survive. In the name of the State of Israel, I chased after children who threw stones at me. I patrolled the alleys of refugee camps. I banged on tin doors in the wee hours of the night. I looked for inciting texts between mattresses and blankets. I heard babies cry. I pulled people out of bed to erase slogans off the walls. I enforced curfews. I fought against Palestinian flags hanging on electricity poles. I stopped vehicles. I confiscated ID cards. I transferred handcuffed detainees in the back of my jeep. I shot rioters. I stopped hundreds of cars at checkpoints.”

Haviv, along with some 400 others, is a refusinik, an army reservist who refuses to serve in the West Bank, who sees the Israeli army operation against Palestinians not as a war against terrorism, but a war that guarantees terrorism. Haviv’s views are quite different from those of many Jews who live in North America, well away from the fighting, who’ve never patrolled the alleys of refugee camps, have never shot rioters, have never beaten rock-throwers to death, will never sit in cafes that are plunged into a maelstrom of blood and screams and exploding nails and metal by a suicide bomb detonated by a youth whose life is so bleak that a martyr’s death is infinitely more attractive, but are prepared to belligerently back whatever brutality is deemed necessary to defend Israel from terrorists, even if it means the terrorism will get worse, and more Israelis will die, and Israel is irredeemably stained.

Assaf Oron, another refusenik, says that when Tikkun, a US peace-supporting Jewish organization, declared solidarity with the refuseniks, it was “immediately bombarded with hate mail and phone calls from other American Jews.” Like the ardent communists Harry Fisher met when he got back from Spain, America’s staunch Israeli defenders can be counted on for unrelieved pugnacity.

“You get used to it in a hurry,” says Oron, an infantry sergeant. “Many even learn to like it. Where else can you go out on patrol é that is, walk the streets like a king, harass and humiliate pedestrians to your heart’s content, and get into mischief with your buddies é and at the same time feel like a big hero defending your country?” But to pro-Israelis, these are necessary actions. Israel must be defended.”Without thinking, I turned into the perfect occupation enforcer,” he continues. “I settled accounts with “upstarts” who didn’t show enough respect. I tore up the personal documents of men my father’s age. I hit, harassed, served as a bad example é all in the city of Kalkilia, barely three miles from grandma and grandpa’s home-sweet-home. No. I was no “aberration.” I was exactly the norm.”

Ellen Cantarow, a Jew who has reported for The Village Voice, Mother Jones and Inquiry from Israel and the West Bank from 1979 to 1989, has been keeping a record of what Israel’s necessary war amounts to: “[A]mbulances shot at and stopped from arriving at their destinations; hospitals invaded and medical personnel prevented at gunpoint from carrying out their responsibilities; people bleeding to death while soldiers block, at gunpoint and in tanks, their safe passage to medical relief; corpses rotting in hospital corridors; relatives forbidden to carry out decent burials (one group of the slain had to be buried in a Ramallah parking lot); civilians shot if they venture out their doors; massive looting and vandalizing of homes; cultural institutions invaded and files destroyed; electrical systems for water pumps destroyed so that whole urban areas have their water supplies cut off; internationals and Palestinian press members wounded by Israeli gun-fire…. six Nablus field hospitals with scores of people in serious-to-critical condition, doctors forced to operate with minimal equipment.”

If it seems like the IDF has borrowed from the Nazis, it’s because they have. The January 25th edition of Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, reported that one of the top commanders in the occupied territories recommended the German army’s methods of operating in the Warsaw Ghetto as a model for the IDF to follow.

Outrage is growing, met by an almost hysterical cry of protest from pro-Israelis. And the target of the outrage isn’t directed solely at the war-crazed Ariel Sharon, Israel’s Prime Minister, no stranger to atrocities and war crimes; it’s turning towards Washington too.

“There is a nearly unanimous global consensus that the United States policy has become one-sided and morally hypocritical, with clear displays of sympathy for Israeli victims of terrorist violence and relative indifference to the (much more numerous) Palestinian civilian causalities,” wrote Zbigbiew Brzezinski, National Security advisor to former President Jimmy Carter, in the New York Times.

Echoing Brzezinski, Bill Christison, a former CIA analyst says, “In the minds of Arabs and Muslims everywhere, the US seems to have accepted all actions by Palestinians against Israelis, including acts against Israeli soldiers as well as those against innocent civilians, as being terrorism. At the same time, however, the US appears to believe that no acts by Israelis against Palestinians constitute terrorism.”

Many, like the American novelists Russell Banks, who visited the West Bank at the invitation of Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, believe the Palestinians best hope lies with the refuseniks. But to others, it’s clear who can also stop the Israelis — the same people who’ve provided them with their tanks, helicopter gun ships and warplanes: the United States “[O]ne should not…underestimate the leverage the United States has, ” Brzezinski points out.

No, we shouldn’t.

Mr. Steve Gowans is a writer and political activist who lives in Ottawa, Canada.

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