Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Middle East Erupts Anew

Conflict is as old as human history, and the conflict in the Middle East is as bitter as any we’ve know. Few nations have ever been willing to give humanitarian aid to an adversary bent on their destruction, and history gives us few examples of real enemies actually settling their disputes peacefully. It is distressing, but not surprising, to see a renewal of violence in the Middle East. As usual, the Israelis find themselves confronted with attacks on its citizens from neighbors bent on their destruction. As usual, their reaction has been to respond in kind. Yet this response has not brought peace in the past, and is just as unlikely to do so now.

Sherman’s march through Georgia provides one conventionally accepted solution: crush your enemy without mercy, and then try to make something bloom from the ashes. Rome did that as well, and was able to govern more or less successfully for hundreds of years. But this kind of attitude rarely produces the generosity of spirit needed to heal wounds and let everyone simply move on. After Lincoln’s assassination, Sherman’s swath of destruction through the south was followed by a punitive reconstruction— and over the next thirty years the scorched-earth tactic was adopted to crush the native Indian tribes into submission. In both instances, the brutality of war was followed by an almost-equally brutal peace. In one way or another, we’re still living with the aftermath.

On the other hand, to find an example of enlightened self-interest in the aftermath of a crushing military victory, we need only look to our own recent history, and what the America did after crushing Germany and Japan in World War II. Both defeated enemies had brutal regimes that had inflicted atrocities on countless innocents...and yet—having learned the lessons of Versailles after World War I—rather than leaving them defeated, impoverished, and bitter, we helped them rebuild. W e even offered to do the same to an adversary that really WAS bent on our destruction—the Soviet Union, a country unfortunately led by a ruler more interested in preserving his own power than helping his people. And so our offer was spurned, setting the stage for a forty-year long Cold War—a war between two bitter enemies that somehow managed to avoid triggering World War III.

Actually, the notion of pushing an enemy into “unconditional surrender,” history suggest that this may be a fairly recent fad. Laying aside the wars of conquest or plunder, or wars of extermination intended to wipe an enemy out of existence, many past wars ended by truce or a negotiated surrender. Our revolution ended with a negotiated peace, and so did the First World War. In fact, the only reason we insisted on pushing the Nazis and Imperial Japan to total defeat was (a) they were evil and needed to be expirpated from the world, and (b) Hitler came to power partly by insisting that the German victory was betrayed by the diplomats in Versailles...and we didn’t want to leave a future Hitler with any such illusions. And our own victory in the Cold War was achieved without firing a shot. Though we fought skirmishes against Soviet surrogates in Korea and Vietnam, in the end our people defeated their people peacefully, through the economic might of a superior economic system. Wisely, we refrained from gloating and imposed no further humiliation, and while our future is uncertain—as the future is wont to be—we managed to avoid a final military conflict between the two superpowers that would have destroyed everything both countries hoped for their people.

The Israeli-Palestinian situation is infinitely complex, but like the Cold War the solution will never come by viewing it entirely in military terms. In some ways, it’s akin to the South in the hey-day of the Klan: decent people in the South were often individually on decent terms with blacks they knew, but the hate-mongers were sufficiently outspoken and violent to keep the decent people in check—and the result was years of oppression and violence that didn’t end until (a) the rest of the country became willing to intervene, and did so in such a way that (b) the decent people in the South were unafraid to help put their own house in order. If the Federal Government had imposed the same kind of brutal sanctions that came in the wake of the Civil War, the result may well have been the same: instead of separating out the hate-mongers from the decent folk, such actions would have driven them together for their own self-preservation. The result would not have been not in the strides we’ve made in the area of civil rights since then, but a perpetuation of the racial hatred and violence.

The problems in the Middle East won’t be solved overnight—but then, we still have a long way to go in this country toward healing the wounds caused by slavery. For Israel, the solution won’t come by lumping the Palestinians together in an effort to crush them once and for all. Unless it ends in a Palestinian extermination, doing so would only perpetuate the cycle of hate. The better course would be a clear attempt to separate the decent people there from the hate-mongers and murderers...and a clear signal to them that they are not the targets. This signal won’t be received by a child whose loving mother is killed by a rocket, or a father whose son is blown apart in an explosion—no matter which side the bombs or rockets come from. And this is the source of Israel’s existential dilemma.

Acting with wisdom and restraint is very hard to do when an enemy is hiding among the civilians and attacking those you love. The instinct to lash out against an attacker is only natural, and a very human thing to do. But there are other ways to eliminate an enemy besides killing him. Lincoln once asked, “Am I not destroying my enemies by making friends of them?” But Israel can’t do that if their attacks drive potential friends into the arms of their enemies.

It’s obvious that nobody knows the answer. If anybody did, we wouldn’t have the problems we have today. But Israel’s insoluble problem is that they really are fighting against extreme and hateful elements that exist among the people living next to them. As the enemy is the hate that in the hearts of some of their neighbors, they can’t really win their battle militarily, in any conventional sense. Instead, they must either exterminate their enemies, or make friends with them. And they’re far too civilized to kill everyone who stands in their way.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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