April 12, 2024

and the moral high ground

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective                                                                     
America’s Longest-Running Column Founded 1932
Israel and the moral high ground
By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift         
          WASHINGTON — The nation that tempers the harsh realities of conflict with the held-out hand of humanity will sow the seeds of peace.
          “The moral high ground” is more than a phrase; it is a strategic and tactical policy that broke with conventional wisdom of the past and reaped unexpected rewards by supplanting vengeance with benevolence.
          Rome did not simply defeat Carthage; it destroyed Carthage. The Mongols did not simply conquer; they razed, raped, and enslaved.
          Conversely, Aristotle-educated Alexander the Great – in many instances – recognized the benefits of mercy. He defeated the Persian Army then held out a peaceful and even matrimonial hand to the Persian people.
          In modern times, these conflicting policies have played out in alternating spheres with lessons of the past learned as often as they have been ignored.
          The United States has a checkered past in this. On the negative side there was the genocidal treatment of native Americans, the utilization of “total war” in the Civil War, and the area bombing of cities in World War II euphemistically dubbed “strategic bombing.”
          On the positive side, the harsh military actions and harshly imposed peace programs (note the treatment of Germany following World War I) failed and were followed by a victor’s benevolence telegraphed well before the end of World War II, a benevolence that turned Germany and Japan into thriving democracies and American allies.
          In the end, nations aspiring to the moral high ground discovered the strategic superiority of benevolence over vengeance. But war does not lend itself to straight-line morality. War is hell on earth, but nations are judged by their enemies, which is why Germans and Japanese sought to surrender to the United States and its like-minded allies rather than to the Soviet Union and its barbarism at the end of World War II.
          This brings us to the situation at hand. Israel, with its roots in NATO morality (NATO, in this sense, representing the morality of the World War II non-communist victors), has sought to maintain the moral high ground though no nation, and certainly not all its soldiers, can claim perfect adherence to the ideal. In this vein, Israel should have been more successful at turning enemies into friends, but at least its enemies have known they were not barbarians.
          Hamas militants, on the other hand, clearly are. They brutally struck, then hid among supporting civilians, creating a military dilemma for Israel. As Israeli soldiers entered Gaza, they did not do so barbarically, but have attempted – not always successfully – to separate militants from civilians. In this the individual soldiers have behaved far better than their leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who unleashed area bombing to destroy Hamas, and in doing so killed thousands of civilians.
          Netanyahu can claim he is following the U.S. strategic bombing campaign in World War II. Although that U.S. campaign remains hard to justify, at least it is acknowledged that only “dumb bombs” rather than modern pin-point bombs were available. Further, there was an urgency to World War II (Germany was working on an atomic bomb, had developed jet planes, and was about to be overrun by the Soviets) that does not exist in Gaza.
          In the end, Israeli soldiers have maintained the moral high ground. They are not murdering and raping their way through Gaza, and their enemies know this. But Netanyahu’s barbaric and ill-executed air campaign has created by far the greatest number of mostly civilian Palestinian casualties, and his actions have brought the opprobrium of international opinion down upon Israel, leaving Israel no means of regaining the moral high ground and its commensurate benefits except by replacing a leader who has run amuck.
          Eleanor Clift’s latest book Selecting a President, and Douglas Cohn’s latest books The President’s First Year: The Only School for Presidents Is the Presidency and World War 4: Nine Scenarios (endorsed by seven flag officers).
          Twitter:  @douglas_cohn
          © 2024 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.
          Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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