Civil Fights: Goldstone's recipe for never-ending conflict

Civil Fights Goldstone

September 30, 2009 20:40
4 minute read.

It is a pity that amid the 10,000 documents he perused while seeking war crimes in Gaza, Judge Richard Goldstone did not make time for one book - or even one review. The book is The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe, by historian William Hitchcock, and reading it would undoubtedly have given Goldstone insight into the reality of warfare. But even Richard Bernstein's thoughtful review in The New York Times last May would have sufficed. The book details the sheer scope of civilian casualties, including Allied ones, that Europe's liberation from the Nazis entailed. For instance, 1,300 civilians died in a single Normandy department, Calvados, on D-Day alone; another 1,200 died the next day. Some 900 French civilians were killed in a single town, Rouen, on another single day, April 19, when Britain bombed it to soften German resistance. Altogether, about 19,890 civilians died in the five worst-hit French departments over just 11 weeks: June 6 to August 25, 1944. Hitchcock's point, Bernstein noted, is not that the Allies committed war crimes, but that "even in a morally clear, entirely just and necessary conflict like World War II, civilian suffering was tremendous." Indeed, Hitchcock goes even further: World War II succeeded "in large part because it was so brutal," Bernstein quotes him saying. The Allies won, "but this victory required massive force." And that is the truth Goldstone's commission signally ignored: It is not possible to wage any kind of war without civilian casualties. The Allies did not slaughter French civilians intentionally. But if civilians are present in a war zone, many will inevitably die. Partly, this is because mistakes are inevitable. Information in wartime is always imperfect; it is often impossible to know whether the people in your sights are civilians, enemy fighters or your own soldiers. Soldiers must make split-second judgments using this imperfect information, and sometimes they are wrong. Moreover, even with correct information, nobody is infallible. And misaiming by even a hair can mean hitting an innocent person or building instead of the target. That is why all battles produce friendly-fire casualties. Indeed, four of the 10 IDF soldiers killed in the Gaza fighting - fully 40 percent - were friendly-fire deaths. Does Goldstone believe Israeli troops shot their own comrades deliberately? Presumably not. Yet he insists that numerous Palestinian civilians were killed deliberately. That Israelis err when killing their comrades but never when killing Palestinians is a conclusion so illogical as to defy comprehension. And indeed, simple error can easily explain many of Goldstone's "Israeli war crimes." But Hitchcock also offers a lesson relevant to the rest: Not only is it impossible to wage war without civilian casualties, but the harder you try, the less effective your fighting becomes. IN IRAQ and Afghanistan, for instance, America used far less force than in World War II; consequently, both conflicts have lasted far longer. Or as Bernstein quotes Hitchcock saying, reduced force "is a more humane approach than in World War II, but so far it has been less effective." Goldstone's rules, however, would make war less effective still. His list of "Israeli war crimes" includes many "disproportionate attacks" on legitimate targets, attacks that achieved a military purpose "at the cost of too many civilian lives." While acknowledging that avoiding civilian casualties is difficult in "heavily populated" areas where combatants "mixed and mingled with civilians," he nevertheless accuses Israel of not taking "all feasible measures" to avoid these casualties. What "feasible measures" could Israel have taken besides those it did, like dropping leaflets and telephoning private houses to tell civilians to leave? Goldstone never says, but the implication is clear: When soldiers could not be certain an attack would not kill civilians, they should have held their fire. The problem, of course, is that holding fire whenever civilians are present means rarely getting a chance to fire at all, thus precluding effective military action. Indeed, prior to the war, Israel repeatedly tried pinpoint attacks on Hamas operatives, for which the rule was "don't fire if civilians are present"; yet these never dented the Palestinian rocket attacks. The Gaza operation, precisely because it was larger-scale, secured a lull that has thus far lasted nine months. Perhaps Goldstone truly believes that since effective military action inevitably involves civilian casualties, it should be outlawed: that since multiple attempts to stop Palestinian rocket fire without war - two truces, pinpoint attacks, international pressure and blockade - failed, Israel should just have let Hamas continue firing thousands of rockets a year at its citizens. Yet few people would accept that solution were their own countrymen under fire. Speaking in Jerusalem nine years ago, Goldstone attributed his views on war and war crimes to the Holocaust. But he clearly failed to learn the obvious lesson: What ended the Holocaust was overwhelming force. Had the Allies adopted his impossible standards, World War II would never have ended, and Hitler would have continued slaughtering Jews with impunity. BUT GOLDSTONE also ignores one final lesson from Hitchcock: Despite far higher casualties, Europe's liberation aroused less antagonism among civilian victims than Afghanistan's has, in part because "the Normandy invasion lasted just one summer, and the people whose homes were destroyed knew that it was all over and they could start rebuilding," Bernstein quotes him saying. Afghanis have no such comfort. But neither do Gazans - because Israel used just enough force to secure a lull, not enough to destroy Hamas. Hence both sides know another round is coming. Hamas is rebuilding its arsenal, and will eventually resume the barrages; Israel will ultimately respond, and everything Gazans have rebuilt will be destroyed. Indeed, the true tragedy of Israel's Gaza war was not excessive force, but insufficient force: insufficient to actually end the conflict and let both sides rebuild. And that is also the tragedy of Goldstone's report: Out of genuine concern for civilian casualties, it creates norms of warfare that would preclude victory from ever being achieved - thus condemning civilians on both sides to never-ending conflict.

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