Is the looming Israeli invasion of Gaza a security necessity or a bloody trap awaiting the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)?
This has been a heated subject of discussion in recent days. It is also a dilemma within the hearts of many people who care about Israel and who are not indifferent to the suffering of the civilian population. I count myself among the many people who are unable to have an informed opinion on this matter.
The arguments for an invasion of Gaza tend to focus on the unambiguous message that the Hamas must receive from Israel in response to the Hamas’s genocidal sadism. Israel has been victimized and brutalized by a merciless manipulation from the Hamas. Collective blindness has led Israel to believe that the Hamas was relatively pragmatic and a manageable threat. As a result of this failure to see and to believe empirical reality, over 1000 Israeli civilians were murdered, kidnapped, raped or tortured by a pogrom that is unprecedented in the history of Israel.
The current moment, when the leaders of the Western world are firmly behind Israel, is thus viewed not only as a unique opportunity but also as a moral obligation to give Hamas warriors a chance to finally receive what they imagine to be their after-worldly reward—and to create deterrence that will not be easily forgotten, hopefully bringing an end to the Hamas.
Without an invasion of Gaza, the persuasive argument goes, Israel will remain the joke of its haters. A dangerous message will be communicated: you can do whatever you want to the Jews; they might do “some things” in retaliation—but ultimately they will care more about their lives and about public opinion. A “boo” from their haters around the world and misleading but persistent rhetoric about the occupation can intimidate the Jews into silence and inaction. And thus the pattern of aggression will continue and intensify—not only against Israel, but ultimately against anyone who loves liberty.
For the global significance of the war on Hamas, see the conclusion of the analysis in Retsef Levi’s October 14 Tweet:
“Finally, the war against Hamas has a much broader context than Israel. It is not even primarily related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Iran and Hamas don’t care about the Palestinians. It is part of a Jihad war, unilaterally declared by radical Islamic forces led by Iran, not only against Israel but against the US, and western civilization, including the many moderate Muslims! It is a war anyone seeking for freedom, lives and humanity should support!”
As Israel prepares for the possible entry of ground forces into Gaza, the soldiers of the IDF are idealized in the popular imagination as heroes who are standing willing and ready to act. They are just waiting for the command to charge forward and to fight for justice and liberty.
Indeed, the soldiers of the IDF deserve our utmost respect as they are putting their lives on the line–even as the suffering of Palestinian people in Gaza who want peace should never be far from our hearts.
There are, however, also people who are concerned that to invade Gaza now is to step into a bloody trap. The Hamas orchestrated a well-planned sadistic attack on Israeli civilians—and who knows what awaits the soldiers of the IDF in Gaza. Is the IDF prepared? Israel left Gaza unilaterally in 2005. The governance of Gaza passed to the Palestinian Authority, but the Hamas soon threw their rivals from the rooftops and took control over the population in what essentially became a military-terrorist state. In addition to the problem of going into Gaza with possibly sub-optimal preparation, Israel would also once again find itself in the position of having direct responsibility over the population—a far from desirable situation.
There are people with combat and military leadership experience who have ambivalent feelings about the heroic code. On the one hand, in many contexts, the concept of heroism is meaningful. Soldiers who go to dangerous places to defend people and principles are indeed heroic. Commanders who show personal example and deeply care for and protect their soldiers with their own bodies are indeed heroic.
But at some other times, the heroic code can take the form of charging forward blindly, no matter what, to perform risky missions that might seem increasingly alienating and questionable to the soldiers who are putting their lives at risk. In those situations, the noble aspects of heroism tend to come under challenge. If the troops are not led by wise decisions from the leadership that seek to reduce risk, heroic bravado about the desire to confront the enemy in face-to-face combat can turn fluid and melt into fear, paralysis or individual focus on self-preservation.
Under fire, some soldiers are pathologically shocked. Some others behave with instinctive self-preservation rather than always following the selfless ideals of combat. The worst situations tend to occur when soldiers feel that commanders and decision makers do not show personal example. The integrity of the commanders and leaders and their ability to set a personal example make a tremendous difference to the experience of soldiers and to their motivation to fight.
I am not saying that these problems will manifest themselves among IDF soldiers in Gaza—but these are problems that have occurred in some other contexts and should not be trivialized when we speak about heroism. To be heroes, soldiers should not be put in suicidal situations in which their lives are not regarded as precious.
War is antithetical to our deep need for peace. But what to do when evil attacks us? Does the heroic code exist to liberate us from evil? Or does the idealization of heroism exist in our culture mostly for psychological reasons—with the possible danger of leading us astray into traps laid for us by merciless enemies?
Taking us back to the bronze age, Bettany Hughes describes the idealization of the hero:
“Kalos thanatos, ‘a beautiful death’, euklees thanatos, ‘a glorious death’ and kleos aphthiton, ‘deathless fame’ were fundamental reasons to live (and die). The Iliad articulated a code for male, aristocratic Greek society – a belief-system embodied in the ultimate warrior, Achilles. The true hero was a man who loved both a glorious life and a glorious death. Yet where was the glory in the agony and putrescence of the battlefield? How could the call of fame be heard when the screams of death and pain were all around? When swords and spears ripped open linen armour, when careering chariots splintered bones and stretched skin from muscle, when poisoned arrows turned blood black, made the hero shit and vomit uncontrollably, when fathers, brothers, sons died hundreds of miles from home, and the crows pecked out their eyes: how could that be a thing of honour? How could it be the mark of a real man, to be cut off in what the Greeks called his akme, his prime? In the archaic and classical mind, violent death on the battlefield could in fact be the very best, the most illustrious way to die. Given the right, fairly prescriptive, set of circumstances, death might actively be sought out by the would-be hero. By accepting that a premature demise was his life’s ambition, a hero such as Achilles diced daily with mortality. For him, even a life that was nasty, brutish and short was more attractive than a long and happy one. Better to die young than to live contentedly, with the creeping humiliations of old age. Better to be remembered as a hero than to be forgotten by peers and by history.”
Source: Hughes, Bettany. Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore (p. 229-230). Random House. Kindle Edition.
But the Greek epic tradition also complicates heroism. When Odysseus visits the ghost of Achilles in the underworld and tells Achilles that he, Achilles, is a supreme hero, Achilles deflates the bravado:
Odysseus tells Achilles: “I have had bad luck. But no one’s luck was ever better than yours, nor ever will be. In your life we Greeks respected you as we do gods, and now that you are here [in the underworld as a dead hero], you have great power.”
But Achilles replies that being alive and feeling the sun and wind on his skin—even as a humble servant—seems preferable, in retrospect, over death:
“But he replied, ‘Odysseus, you must not comfort me for death. I would prefer to be a workman, hired by a poor man on a peasant farm, than rule as king of all the dead.”
Source: Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Emily Wilson. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition. (p. 295)
Unlike the Hamas, the Western classics leave room for the acknowledgement of the value of life, as well as for respect for the enemy. Hector, the enemy of the Greeks, often comes across as a greater hero than Achilles. Like many Israeli soldiers, Hector is both a devoted family man and a hero on the battlefield. Hector’s farewell to his wife Andromache and son Astyanax as he goes to his death on the battlefield, defending his beloved city Troy, has inspired much art over the centuries because it reminds us of what fuels civilization—love and emotional attachment.
As we seek to preserve the liberty so painfully fought for and won over the centuries—careful consideration is required about how to proceed.
Ambiguity is inherent in almost any military action—even the most justified.
Consider the painting “The Assault” by Orville Fisher, which hangs in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa:
Fisher made the drawing based on his personal experience as a Canadian soldier on D-Day, June 6, 1944: “In preparation for the D-Day invasion, he strapped tiny waterproof pads of paper to his wrist. After racing up the beach from his landing craft, Fisher made rapid, on-the-spot sketches, using perfectly dry materials, of the battle unfolding around him.” https://www.warmuseum.ca/cwm/exhibitions/artists/fisher1eng.html.
“The Assault” is an ambiguous title. On the one hand, the allied soldiers are conducting a heroic assault to liberate Europe from the Nazis. But they themselves are assaulted. Look how small they appear compared to the obstacles that the Nazis placed in their path!
In the tragic path ahead, with inevitable suffering to civilians and soldiers, may those who are much wiser than I know how to avoid stepping into traps as they protect civilization from terrorism.