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War Hell

War is Hell

War is Hell
Armchair moralizing is easy, but war entails hard choices.
By Robert Spencer

“War is hell,” said Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, and he knew what he was talking about, as he had done all he could to make life hell for the Southerners who were unlucky enough to be in the path of his 1864 march through Georgia. Debates still rage to this day about the morality of the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firebombing of Dresden, during World War II. Such debates take on a new urgency now in light of Israel’s impending incursion into Gaza, and what are certain to be claims of “disproportionate” civilian casualties and calls for restraint. The armchair moralizers will ignore, as always, that in war, hard choices must be made.

Contrary to its reputation, the Israeli military is careful to avoid civilian casualties. The British Colonel Richard Kemp investigated its conduct and concluded that during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli defensive action against Hamas and other jihad groups in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009, “the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.” Kemp wrote in May 2023 that “the IDF which is known by all Western military commanders to be more effective than any other force in the world in preventing the deaths of civilians in enemy territory.”

Yet there are civilian casualties. On Thursday, a blast struck Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza, and at least sixteen people were killed. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem reacted swiftly, issuing a statement declaring: “The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem expresses its strongest condemnation of the Israeli airstrike that have struck its church compound in the city of Gaza.” According to the Washington Post, however, “the Israel Defense Forces said in an emailed statement that a strike targeting a Hamas control center ‘damaged the wall of a church in the area’ and that it was ‘aware of reports on casualties’ and was reviewing the incident. They declined to provide further information and reiterated, ‘It is important to clarify that the Church was not the target of the strike.’”

Is it implausible that the IDF might have hit the church in targeting a “Hamas control center”? Not in the slightest degree. Even the United Nations, which is no friend of Israel, has condemned the practice of terrorist organizations using civilians as human shields. In August 2014, Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, told the UN’s Secretary-General: “Hamas deliberately embeds its military operations in residential areas with the clear intention of using its own people, including women and children, as protection. One does not have to look any further than Hamas’ own combat manual on urban warfare to see how the terror organization has institutionalized its disregard for human life. Its combat strategy guidelines explicitly instruct terrorists to use civilians as human shields. This is not a new tactic — it has been the modus operandi of Hamas each and every time it has waged hostilities against Israel.”

The end result of such practices are incidents such as the blast at Saint Porphyrius Church. The responsibility for the deaths of the people there lies entirely with Hamas, which chose to set up a command center next to a twelfth-century church, not with the IDF. Some people, however, insist that the IDF strike is unacceptable under any circumstances, insisting that even if Hamas does launch attacks from civilian areas in order to draw retaliatory fire that it can exploit for propaganda purposes, there is no excuse to hit areas where civilians are present under any circumstances.

Yet this is facile. War presents people with hard alternatives. If the IDF declines to hit the Hamas control center because it will not risk any civilian casualties in Gaza, by making that decision it will be allowing for more civilian casualties in Israel, including attacks launched from that same Hamas control center. No civilian casualties are ultimately acceptable, and it would be nice if they could be entirely avoided, but given the weaponry that is used in modern warfare and the demonic evil of groups such as Hamas in seeking civilian deaths in order to advance their own cause in the international media, that is simply impossible.

War, as Sherman said, is hell. It requires numerous difficult choices. In light of that fact, we can be grateful that, as Colonel Kemp noted, the Israeli miltary is so scrupulous in doing all it can to keep civilians out of harm’s way. Other forces, including those arrayed against Israel now, do not have the same ethical code.

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