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I'm begging you, learn about another war

There are better comparisons to Gaza (and Ukraine) than WWII and the American Civil War! Plus: Donny convicted.

I have to start with the big news of the day, which is of course that Donald Trump has finally faced a consequence. No one knows what this is All Going To Mean™. (Among the outstanding questions: Will New York State Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan try to send him to prison? Will he go? Will he start riots? Could he win on appeal? Does this mean anything for Trump’s other 54 criminal indictments? Will any of this persuade voters either way?)

But those are questions for the future. For now, let’s just revel in it: Our Former Criminal President is officially a felon, 34 times over, for committing criminal fraud to conceal potentially damaging information from voters ahead of the 2016 election. (Specifically, that he had sex with a porn star weeks after his third wife gave birth to his youngest son.) In short, he’s guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty. Happy accountability day.

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Meanwhile, at the White House, President Biden just announced what he called an “Israeli proposal” for a permanent ceasefire with Hamas. I’m putting “Israeli proposal” in quotation marks because a) it’s what the president said and b) we don’t have any confirmation from the Israelis about it. Biden, perhaps strategically, waited until after sundown Friday in Jerusalem to speak (i.e. the beginning of Shabbat) making it unlikely we’ll hear anything official from the prime minister’s office for at least 24 hours.

I’ll put the details of Biden (or Israel’s?) proposal below. But the point for the moment is that Biden has come out in full-throated support of a permanent ceasefire—and one which, crucially, does not appear to include the total defeat of Hamas. This is in keeping with the assessment of both U.S. and Israeli military officials that Hamas has not only survived eight months of Israel’s brutal assault on Palestinian civilians—an assault that has killed over 36,000 people, including at least 7,797 children—but will not be defeated without, at a minimum, a significant prolongation and escalation of the war, if even then.

For Biden, enough is clearly enough. “I know there are those in Israel who will not agree with this plan and will call for the war to continue indefinitely,” he said today. “Some are even in the government coalition and they’ve made it clear that they want to occupy Gaza, they want to keep fighting for years, and the hostages are not a priority for them. Well, I urge the government of Israel to stand behind this deal, despite whatever pressure comes.”

That appeared to be a not-so-veiled reference to far-right Israeli ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich — a pair of personally violent religious extremists who, as I wrote in early 2023, are a model for Trump’s ethno-nationalist GOP. But it also applies to a lot of Israel’s culturally influential supporters in the United States as well. Their favorite move: To compare the ongoing assault on Gaza to the only two wars Americans ever seem to think about—World War II and the American Civil War—and find the slaughter both wholly justified and somehow wanting.

Take Bret Stephens. In his New York Times column this week, the avatar of the neocon id took a look at Israel’s war on Gaza—and, to a lesser extent, Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian invasion—and asked “Do we still understand how wars are won?” Bret’s answer: By committing loads and loads of war crimes.

Americans’ problem, Stephens says, is that none of the wars we’ve fought in the last 79 years counted, because “none of these wars were about our very existence.” (He references Afghanistan, Vietnam, Somalia, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, and the multiple wars in and against Iraq. I should note here that his list barely scratches the surface.) Never mind, too, that Stephens’ ideological allies routinely referred to many of the above as “existential threat[s] to the security of the United States of America” when it was time to sell those wars to the public. Or that’s a project in which Stephens giddily took part; often by making the same rhetorical move: comparing the conflict du jour to The Big One.

Not a model (Bettmann / Corbis)

No, what matters to Stephens — and, let’s be fair, many other Americans — is the historical freight of what you might call our Two Good Wars. (If we were Russian, we’d call them our otechestvennyye vójny, or “patriotic wars.”1 ) As I summarized in Gangsters of Capitalisma book whose main project was to fill in the black hole of memory that separates and obscures those twin lodestars of America’s martial ego—we love talking so much about the Civil War and World War II because they were “struggles most easily framed in moral certitudes of right and wrong, and in which those fighting under the U.S. flag had the strongest claims to being on the side of good.”2  

The problem is not just that those wars are the most flattering to us; it’s that they—and especially World War II—are marked outliers. The vast majority of America’s wars have been so-called “small wars”—far-away conflicts between a militarily dominant American empire and an “asymmetrically empowered adversary” (that is, far weaker foes who tend to employ guerrilla tactics), in places like Iraq, Vietnam, Haiti, and the Philippines. They, like the slaughter in Gaza, have not been “near-peer wars” like WWII (or a direct war with Russia and/or China would be), but rather counterinsurgencies (if not outright counter-terrors), and thus provide a much better model for understanding why Israel’s war on Gaza looks they way it does.

Moreover, as Stephens notes, even the Good part of the Good Wars is a fantasy, so far as Americans’ conduct went. Staring at Gaza, where Israeli has plunged much of the population of 2.3 million into “full-blown famine,” according to World Food Program director (and the senator’s widow) Cindy McCain, Stephens sweatily yearns for the moral clarity of the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, when “hunger ‘yielded to starvation,’” and yet “the Union did not send food convoys to relieve the suffering of innocent Southerners.”

He exults over how “in World War II, Allied bombers killed an estimated 10,000 civilians in the Netherlands, 60,000 in France, 60,000 in Italy and hundreds of thousands of Germans,” while in Japan, “bombardment killed, according to some estimates, nearly one million civilians,” all in a policy to undermine “the morale of the German people to the point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.” Stephens’ proof of the ultimate justice of those actions are the celebration of their actors in cultural lieux de memoire: Grant and FDR’s places on U.S. currency and White House portraiture, and an Apple TV+ series about WWII bomber pilots produced by Tom Hanks and starring Stephen Spielberg’s son.

This is all sick, unhinged stuff. More to the point, it’s strategically incoherent. The justification for the carpet bombing of Dresden and Tokyo, thin as it was, was that the Germans and Japanese had done the same at Rotterdam, Coventry, and Shanghai. It was an equally matched war — a “near-peer” — and the Allies, rightly or wrongly, felt they had no choice from a strategic standpoint. (The atomic immolations of the civilian centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the other hand were considered military unnecessary at the time by such noted hippies as General Dwight Eisenhower and the United States Air Force.)

The people of Gaza are not engaged in meaningful armed resistance—not to any degree approaching the power of the German and Japanese Empires, even late in the war, at least. Moreover, starving children to death, as Israel is doing, isn’t going to degrade Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s pitful attempts at launching unguided rockets. Nor will shelling humanitarian zones make fighters less likely to stop firing back at assaulting ground troops. (And gleefully burning libraries, as Israeli troops filmed themselves doing at Al-Aqsa University recently, will accomplish—what exactly?)

If there is a more parallel case, it’s Russia in Ukraine — which, like Germany and Japan in the 1940s, is both a world power and the aggressing force3 . But where Stephens is all too happy to tolerate the burning to death of Palestinian babies in their makeshift tents at Tal al-Sultan, he does not call for, say, the carpet bombing of Moscow to push Russia out of its war. That is likely because he, for all his callousness, knows that the most likely reaction to even a conventional NATO carpet bombing of apartment blocks in the Russian capital will be a massive launch of nuclear-tipped ICBMs at the east coast of the United States, at which point Bret will have to take off his pretend bomber helmet and die with the rest of us.

The same could go for a direct, near-peer escalation between Israel and Iran—which in turn could easily blow up into an intra-superpower conflict. But Stephens seems equally incapable of connecting the dots between Israel’s continued slaughter in Gaza and a war that could easily become “existential,” for real.

Indeed, avoiding such existential wars, and the horrors that attend them, was one of the main points of the creation of the entire post-World War II order. It was why, Bret, representatives of the exhausted and deeply scarred belligerents gathered for the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, and adopted the first binding international laws to deal with the protection of civilians in war and on occupied territories. (They built on the Hague Conventions of 1907 and 1889, which were, in fact, in turn built on the American “Lieber Code” of 1863—a code necessitated by just the kind of Civil War brutality that Stephens now looks back at with nostalgia.) In other words, not only were they not celebrating the atrocities they had committed (much less the atrocities committed against them, as well as the civilians of Europe and Asia), they set out immediately to make sure that no one ever felt the need to do them again.

Trying to name and prohibit those crimes was also part and parcel of the formation of the United Nations, as well as the creation of the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice. If those names ring a bell in this context, it’s because all three of those institutions have desperately been trying to keep both Russia and Israel from repeating the worst atrocities of the mid-20th Century. For their trouble, the ICC has had both Russian and American officials issue threats against them; and why Israel has effectively declared war on all three.

One of the lessons of the Civil War and World War II is indeed that sometimes force has to be met with force; and that—under certain circumstances—it can be better to use force sooner than later. But while that is the only lesson cosplaying columnists ever seem to learn, it is not the only lesson that the people who actually lived through those wars took to heart. The harder lesson they seem to have learned was that atrocities only beget more atrocities. It was a lesson they belatedly learned — and not until they finally field-tested a horrific new weapon that, in a moment of passion or fear, could wipe out all life on Earth. That understanding was a big reason why so many presidents who remembered that war decided to, as Stephens rues, abandon outposts like Saigon and Beirut, instead of going that extra mile to wipe out entire civilizations—even though they now had the technological capacity to easily do so. It wasn’t that they’d “forgotten how to win.” It’s that they remembered how much they could lose in the vain pursuit of battlefield dominance—and turned to other methods of accomplishing their aims.

Oh, right, the ceasefire proposal: The schema that Biden laid out would start with a “full and complete ceasefire” for six weeks, during which Israeli forces would withdraw from “all populated areas of Gaza.” Palestinians would return to their (few still standing) homes, and Palestinian militants would release women, elderly, wounded, and U.S. citizen hostages, as well as the bodies of those who have died, in exchange for the release of “hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.” Humanitarian assistance would also surge. A second phase would include the exchange of all remaining living hostages and a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza—in exchange for what, the president did not say.

The third phase would involve what Biden called “a major reconstruction plan for Gaza.” The details were also missing. But earlier this month Netanyahu’s office released a nine-panel PowerPoint presentation subtitled “Gaza 2035,” which foresaw a near-term future in which Gaza becomes a hub of electric vehicle manufacturing, gas production, and “the export of $1.3 trillion of metals,” along with the “construction from scratch of modern cities.” The crucial bit: For at least ten years, Israel would also “retain overall responsibility for security.”

There was no mention of a Palestinian state. And that plan, too, was predicated on the total elimination of Hamas—a goal which, for the moment at least, Israel’s main imperial sponsor seems to have given up on. We’ll see if more details emerge over the weekend. Shabbat shalom.

1  In russkiy the term refers to the original Patriotic War (against Napoleon’s French invasion of Russia in 1812) and what we call World War II, which they style Velikya Otechestvennaya voyna — the Great Patriotic War. Everyone’s obsessed with the latter.

2  You could also make the case that the neo-Confederate “Lost Cause” myth was all about gaslighting white Americans of the North and South into thinking that those fighting under the Confederate flag were also fighting on the side of the good. And you’d be right, it was.

3  I use the present tense here intentionally, because whatever else you may say about Operation Al-Aqsa Flood, the invasion part was repelled within about 48 hours, eight months ago, and thus is not ongoing.

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