Opinion: War is cruelty without refinement


Published: 11-17-2023 6:00 AM

Charles Huckelbury lives in Henniker.

General William T. Sherman’s most famous quote compares warfare to hell. Sherman clearly knew whereof he spoke, having commanded Union troops in a war in which Americans killed over 700,000 of our own. A subsequent observation is, however, perhaps more relevant for our time: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”

Rational minds can agree that any armed assault that preferentially targets civilians or noncombatants is a gross violation of both moral and martial laws. When Hamas terrorists crossed the border into Israel from Gaza on October 7, they had no military objectives. Their sole driving force was the intent to kill as many Israelis as possible. The 2,200 rockets previously fired into Israeli villages from Gaza were apparently insufficiently fatal, thus the necessity for slaughtering families in their homes, including women, children, and infants. This was indeed abject cruelty without refinement, as General Sherman observed. Then came the Israeli response.

The Israeli air force pounded large sections of Gaza, including refugee camps, into rubble. Hamas commanders were the primary targets, but their subterranean tunnels often ran beneath residential or commercial sites, which increased the number of civilian casualties from each bombing run. Analysts now put the number of dead at over 10,000 with half that number being children. Food, water, and medical supplies have been exhausted, and the hostages remain in captivity. Again, war’s intrinsic, breathtaking cruelty confirms Sherman’s axiom.

Prior to the Hamas attack, history can of course verify similar attacks against unarmed populations. Rwanda and Myanmar come to mind, but the most egregious example is of course Nazi Germany, where Jewish citizens were systematically selected for slaughter. Except for the most intransigent Holocaust deniers, the Nazi butchers and their enablers have never escaped universal condemnation for their actions. And yet, this same kind of prejudice has reared its ugly head here as well. Antisemitic attacks, including those at colleges and universities, had increased by 400% by October 31. We read about a 69-year-old Jewish man who was murdered in California following a confrontation between supporters of Israel and Palestine.

Both sides, however, have suffered tragic losses. A 6-year-old Palestinian American child was stabbed to death and his mother was also stabbed in Illinois after their attacker shouted anti-Muslim insults at them. Yes, a child was murdered solely because of his ethnicity. The cruelty of the war in the Middle East does not respect geographical boundaries and is a rapacious predator constantly searching for victims.

If the description of the Israeli-Hamas war echoes the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the similarities are no accident. Without notice or provocation, Russian troops stormed across the border after an intense rocket barrage, attacked civilian targets, and kidnapped Ukrainians, and now holds them in Russia. Again, widespread condemnation followed, but the killing continued.

The difference between collateral damage in warfare and premeditated murder disappears as the body count rises in both of these examples. As General George Patton is supposed to have said, “The idea is not to die for your country but to make the other guy die for his.” The nature of modern warfare unfortunately requires bomb and rocket attacks that do indeed target “the other guy” but cruelly include citizens uninvolved in actual combat. The difference is lost on those who refuse to condemn the civilian carnage as long as the victims are Israelis or Palestinians.

Civilian deaths are tragic no matter how they are inflicted and on whom, and a “pause” in the killing will mean only a pause. The citizens of Gaza have nowhere to run, and Israel will not stop its advance until Hamas is totally destroyed. Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel and its people. Sadly, a military response is the only solution that both sides believe will bring a respite to the killing.

Racial and ethnic hatred runs deep in the Middle East, facilitated by centuries of discrimination, pogroms, and warfare. If we cannot recognize each other’s fundamental human worth, then, as George Santayana reminds us, we are doomed to repeat the cycle of killing and retribution. The best we can do under those circumstances is hope for a speedy conclusion to the conflicts when they arise. And to better prepare for the next one.