William Tecumseh Sherman was the Yankee general who said: “War is hell!” as he burned Atlanta to the ground during the American Civil War.
Because this hastened the end of this bloody conflict, he was hailed by some as a hero, the man who saved thousands of Union and Confederate lives. Confederate sympathizers, on the other hand, still consider him a butcher. Did he have to burn Atlanta?
Sherman said he had no choice, it was either that or prolong the war. The same argument, which I find persuasive, is used to justify the 1945 atomic-bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Now let us fast-forward to the early 1980s when Israeli general Ariel Sharon was trying to expel Yasser Arafat from Lebanon. As I recall, Israel was condemned by the “usual suspects” for having shelled Lebanese hospitals and schools.
What was seldom mentioned was the fact that Arafat had set-up his artillery next to those institutions. The Israelis had a choice. By not attacking Arafat’s sheltered artillery, they would spare these institutions, and thus make it much more difficult to expel Arafat from Lebanon. Or, they could silence his guns with a bombardment that would likely inflict collateral damage on the adjacent hospitals and schools.
Like Sherman in 1864 and Truman in 1945, Sharon chose to put the lives of enemy civilians at risk in order to achieve his military objective.
Now, move ahead again to 2000 (or was it 2001?). Remember the pictures of the young Palestinian boy cowering in his father’s arms as they were caught in a cross-fire between Israeli and Palestinian fighters? Of course! Remember the pictures of his bullet-ridden dead body cradled in his father’s arms? Of course! Remember the universal opprobrium heaped upon Israel for this barbaric act? Of course!
However, about a year later, a European newspaper (I think it was German) cast doubt on Israeli responsibility. It reported the results of an investigation that concluded (1) that the boy was too well protected to have been hit by Israeli fire, but (2) that, since he was in the direct line of fire of Palestinian fighters, he could have been hit by them.
Do you remember if any other newspaper subsequently cast doubt on Israeli responsibility for that boy’s death? Of course not! Do you remember if any newspaper suggested that Palestinian gunmen might have been responsible for his death? Of course not! Obviously, Israel is always to blame, even when the facts absolve them.
Then there was the Israeli military venture into Jenin on the West Bank in 2002. There, in order to minimize collateral damage to Palestinian civilians, Israel put its own soldiers at risk by carrying out a house-to-house attack. The alternative was a bombardment that would have killed many more Palestinian civilians. In the house-to-house battle, about 25 Israeli soldiers were killed. Israel was nevertheless still accused of carrying out a massacre, an allegation subsequently disproved by the facts.
If I were Ariel Sharon, I would have concluded from the historical record that Israel was going to be condemned whether it chose to minimize or maximize enemy civilian casualties. Therefore, it would be a no-brainer to therefore always select the option that minimized Israeli casualties.
And that is the policy he seems to have adopted in the assassination in Gaza (via missile from an F-16 jet fighter-bomber) of Sheik Salah Shehada, a man very much in need of assassination. He was the Hezbollah terrorist leader responsible for managing the Palestinian suicide-bomber program, a program that had killed many Israeli civilians. Although the assassination itself generated outrage from the “usual suspects,” the real international fuss arose over the relatively large number (15 or
so) of concurrent civilian casualties, many of them children, some Shehada’s.
In my view, the real problem arose following the official Israeli response to this event. Prime Minister Sharon was condemned for stating that the death of Shehada made the attack a great success, full stop. I would agree that the assassination itself was indeed a great success. So also was the absence of Israeli casualties. I would also argue that the heavy loss of Palestinian life was unfortunate but nevertheless a natural consequence of allowing murderers to seek refuge among the innocent. Nevertheless, I would argue that Sharon was ham-handed and politically insensitive in the way he delivered his message of “success.” He really needs a competent spin doctor.
But where the whole thing became unraveled was when Foreign Minister Peres started to distance himself from Sharon. Then, other Israeli officials weighed in with condolences that were too weak and too late. Israel had made itself look indecisive, insensitive and brutal.
But, when all is said and done, I would still argue that Israel is justified in adopting a military policy that minimizes its own casualties as it inadvertently maximizes those of its adversaries. Moreover, if pressed by the “usual suspects,” Israel should simply remind them, first, of the similar policy followed by the American military in Afghanistan, and second, of the dictum of WW II American General George Patton who told his soldiers:
“Your job is not to die for your country. It is to make the other son of a bitch dies for his.” Right on!