Reflections on a Pointless war

I can barely bring myself to check the internet or watch the news because it’s so painful to watch this utterly pointless war, to see the inhumanity of it, its loud, dazzling suffering broadcast to the whole world. In this particular bout of strategy-less, tit-for-tat blood-letting, it is small children, their pale, quiet corpses filled with hot shards of metal, that have come to symbolize the inherent inhumanity of war and the madness of believing that security comes from superior killing power. Everyone watching knows that neither side is going to win this nasty little war; instead, both sides will eventually claim victory, bury their dead and then begin preparation for the next inevitable killing spree. This makes it strategically purposeless violence, almost entirely devoid of rational calculation or historical understanding. It’s a war waged in no one’s name (despite what politicians claim) and it will benefit no civilians in either territory. Only the shareholders of arms producing companies will directly profit from this orgy of mutual terror.

The Israelis have never won any real or long-lasting security through military operations like this, only world-wide vilification and a new generation of Palestinian militants seeking revenge. They are attacking Gaza today because the attack on Gaza four years ago was a total failure and patently counter-productive: it strengthened Hamas’s position in Gaza, hurt Israel’s reputation and led to Palestinian re-armament and a new determination to fight back. That was a war without purpose, as this one is. The real tragedy is that not one single lesson was learned and the same mistake is now being repeated. Either that or it is an exercise in sheer cynicism by Israel’s leaders, and the real point of killing Palestinians is to convince Israeli voters, punish the Palestinian population for its obstinacy, and/or test a new American president.

Hamas militants have likewise never won any concessions from Israel or advanced their cause through the firing of rockets into Israel; they’ve only ever garnered moral condemnation for their lack of concern for Israeli civilian casualties and provoked ever greater levels of bloody revenge from the vastly superior Israeli military machine. The leaders of both sides, it seems, exist in a moral void where they do not care how many people they kill, how many of their own people they sacrifice or what suffering they create, only that they’re seen to flex their military strength. In this respect, this war is a form of politician-led ritualized violence without strategy or rational purpose, and it will only result in suffering and further insecurity for both sides. They might as well shoot themselves for all the effect it will have. From this perspective, it’s a perfect demonstration that the spirit of World War I which we so recently remembered on Armistice Day lives on. Then, as now, we are at the mercy of vainglorious, warmongering, stupid politicians who are perfectly willing to sacrifice the lives of others for the sake of facile gestures.

Watching what’s happening, seeing this madness, I know I have to write something about it. In part, it’s because of the images I’ve seen from this war already: the small bodies of babies pulled from the rubble, the faces of ordinary people contorted in terror, the grief of a father holding his murdered child. You can’t see such things and keep your emotions locked up inside; you’ve got to let the grief out somehow lest it poison you from within. I know there are many other similar conflicts I could write about today: Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Congo, Kashmir, Tibet, West Papua. There are children dying there too, and in many cases, brutality on an even greater scale.

But this war seems to pull me in somehow; its visceral images seem to demand a response from me. Maybe it’s also because this situation is connected to me in ways that some of these other conflicts are not. After all, Israeli products are on the shelves of many stores in Western countries; the European Union gives Israel preferential terms of trade. I’ve probably bought things in the last year that were made in Israel, or maybe even grown on the West Bank by illegal settlers. In this respect, I am there, in the middle of that fight. Israel also wants to be a Western democracy and its most powerful ally and supporter is the United States, the most important ally of my own country. My national media most often treats Israel as one of ‘us’, a modern, civilized democracy. But it forgets that Israel and New Zealand are both settler colonies struggling to overcome a legacy of invasion, land appropriation and mistreatment of the indigenous people of the land. Despite this history, my government has been more inclined to offer words of support for Israel than to stand up for the rights of Palestinians.

However, these reasons are not that important compared to the fact that I personally know people from Gaza and Israel. I know people in Israel who are suffering tremendous anxiety at this very moment, fearing the roar of rockets about to fall on them or someone they know, and worried about whether the conflict will escalate and lead to a wider war which will result in a general call-up of reservists and put the whole country on a war-footing. I also know that they will be concerned about what this state-sanctioned violence is doing to their own country, to their politics and collective sense of morality and justice. They’ll be wondering what this will mean for the upcoming elections, whether it will play into the hands of the extremist groups who will insist on making things worse for Palestinians, thereby prolonging the conflict and insecurity which they have endured for so long.

I also know people in Gaza, huddling as I write, listening to Israeli planes overhead and then bracing for the next bomb, wondering if their house will be next to be smashed to smithereens. Their sense of vulnerability, impotent rage and helplessness will be suffocating them. They will see the broken bodies of their friends and neighbors and it will traumatize them for years to come, maybe even radicalize them. I remember a former student from Gaza, a young woman who was a member of Hamas but who had come to study conflict resolution with me so that she could try and persuade the Hamas leadership to switch tactics to nonviolent resistance instead. I wonder if she’s been targeted by Israel because she’s a member of what they call a terrorist group, and they don’t care that she’s a nonviolent activist trying to bring about the end of violent resistance. I wonder if years of bombardment and violent attack by Israel have changed her mind and transformed her ideals into militancy.

But what to write in a situation like this? What could I possibly say that would make any difference? Is there any point in giving another potted history of the conflict, a genealogy of how the two parties got to this point? I doubt it; everyone knows what the facts are, even if they have their own interpretation of what it means. Would it help to point out that violence hasn’t worked for either side, that violence has been tried for more than fifty years without any positive benefit, and that alternatives to violence exist if leaders are courageous enough to take a small risk? Would it make me an anti-Semite if I pointed out that trapping so many people in a tiny enclave and then subjecting them to a crushing blockade, assassinating their elected leaders, and refusing to negotiate on the future is likely to lead to the kind of rage and despair that then results in a barrage of rockets, that crushing people for so long and in so many ways leads more often to violent resistance than surrender? On the other hand, would it make me a privileged liberal to suggest that the Palestinians just accept all that oppression and violence and not try and fight back violently, but respond instead with nonviolence and moral force? Or would it just make me naïve to think that nonviolent resistance might have slowed the take-over of Palestinian land more than violent resistance has?

As I watch what’s happening, I feel quite helpless. I feel that I don’t really know anything, and I can’t really say anything without sounding ignorant or arrogant. I am just a human being watching the suffering of others from a great distance. I know it’s selfish and I have no right, but I just wish they’d stop so we don’t have to see any more bodies of little children, any more grieving parents, terrified residents. And I know they could stop if they wanted to, if they had an ounce of humanity, because killing is a choice not a destiny. Especially war; war doesn’t just happen; it’s a decision made by leaders. To end a war like this one just takes a little moral courage from leaders, and from the people who voted for them. It entails a modicum of willingness to admit that violence has failed and that dialogue and peaceful methods ought to be given an equal chance of succeeding. It begins with the recognition that your enemy is a person who suffers too.

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About richardjacksonterrorismblog

I am currently the Deputy Director of the National Peace and Conflict Studies Centre at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Prior to this, I was Professor of International Politics at Aberystwyth University in Wales, UK. I study and teach on issues of terrorism, political violence, conflict resolution and war. I have published several books on these topics, including: Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Lee Jarvis, Jeroen Gunning and Marie Breen Smyth); Contemporary State Terrorism: Theory and Cases (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010; edited by Richard Jackson, Eamon Murphy and Scott Poynting); Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009; edited by Richard Jackson, Marie Breen Smyth and Jeroen Gunning); Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch); and Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005). I am also the editor-in-chief of the academic journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism.
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2 Responses to Reflections on a Pointless war

  1. James Martin says:

    “Hamas militants have likewise never won any concessions from Israel or advanced their cause through the firing of rockets into Israel; they’ve only ever garnered moral condemnation for their lack of concern for Israeli civilian casualties and provoked ever greater levels of bloody revenge from the vastly superior Israeli military machine.”

    Indeed, but the Palestinian non-violent resistence movement has been widley ignored.

    http://www.csmonitor.com/Commentary/Opinion/2012/0607/West-must-recognize-peaceful-Palestinian-resistance-movement

    • Yes, that is one of the biggest difficulties, and one of the most hypocritical aspects of the West’s treatment of the Palestinians. They constantly urge Palestinians to pursue their goals nonviolently, but then ignore them whenever they do so. Similarly, Israel says the Palestinians must pursue their grievances diplomatically instead of violence, but then punishes them and authorises new settlements when they do – as occurred this past week. The Palestinians appear to be damned when they use violence, and damned when they use nonviolence. The only hope we have is that the Palestinian cause gains more and more legitimacy the more they pursue their cause nonviolently. I think a real shift is starting to take place. At some point soon, it will be impossible for Israel and the US to argue that Palestinian violence precludes dialogue and concessions.

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