History never repeats exactly, but important lessons can and should be gleaned from the past. The months leading to the end of both world wars in the 20th century – especially the major difference between them, and subsequent “peace” outcomes – are two cases that point the way to conclude Israel’s present war in Gaza against Hamas.
Begin with a question: why were the aftermaths of the two world wars so different? Put simply: A) Why did the end of World War I (back then called “the Great War”) lead directly and relatively quickly to the even worse World War II? And then…
B) Why did the denouement of World War II lead just as directly and even more quickly to one of the greatest “national culture” turnarounds in world history, with an ensuing European peace almost unprecedented in its duration?
To recall: World War I ended with the capitulation of the Imperial German Army, even though their allied opponents were nowhere close to conquering the German homeland (but the German army’s defeat was clearly in the offing). With no direct evidence of a defeat – i.e., Germany’s civilian population didn’t undergo any serious suffering on the home front – civilian Germans couldn’t comprehend why the country surrendered. This led to conspiracy theories about a “stab in the back” (as usual, “the Jews were at fault”), and within 15 years Hitler came to power.
And the end of World War II? Total destruction of Germany. The allies firebombed Dresden to oblivion along with several other industrial heartland cities (no “proportionate” attacks there), bringing Germany to a state of massive destruction with huge population losses. On the other side of the world, its ally Japan suffered even worse when two of its important cities were completely obliterated by atomic bombs.
The ensuing result? What had been two of the most militaristic societies in the world until then (Germany and Japan) made the most unprecedented about-face in recorded human history, becoming two of the most pacifistic nations on Earth! The lesson they learned was very clear: war that you start can end in your hell. But again: only because of what the civilians went through and saw with their own eyes – total destruction.
The lesson for Israel is clear. Interestingly, it already has twice caused a minor variation of this phenomenon. First, Egypt. Despite the surprise attack in October 1973, that war ended with the Egyptian army soundly defeated (actually, encircled), Suez City captured, and the IDF a mere 60 miles from Cairo. Sadat thereafter sought and attained a peace treaty that has held for over 40 years. Second, and perhaps more germane: in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Israel pummeled into smithereens southern Beirut (Hezbollah’s stronghold) and it hasn’t started any serious fight with Israel since then (the past week’s shelling of northern Israel seems to be Hezbollah’s muscle-flexing to show “support” for Hamas).
In any case, after Israel’s several rounds of short, Gazan battle “campaigns” against Hamas over the past decade and a half, to not much avail, the latest Hamas attack – brutally uncivilized by any standard – the lesson of World War II has finally sunk in. When faced with an ideology that is both extreme and almost irrational (similar to Nazism in its hatred of Jews), Hamas has to be eliminated for there to be any chance of some sort of peace, or at least a long-term “armistice” of non-belligerence.
Of course, Israel is not contemplating indiscriminate killing of civilians, and certainly not any “nuclear” option (assuming it has one). Quite the reverse: the IDF’s almost unprecedented advance warning for northern Gaza residents to go south – thus holding off its own ground attack for several days – is proof that Israel is not interested in a non-combatant death toll. Nevertheless, a high level of “pain” to the Hamas leadership, perhaps its complete annihilation, is in the cards and a certain number of civilians will be caught in the crossfire. That combination of Hamas leadership elimination and civilian infrastructure decimation (not hospitals etc., unless they too hide Hamas military equipment) is an intended goal of Israel’s government – for the historical reasons mentioned above.
Some of the world’s more enlightened nations (e.g., Europe, the U.S.) that have seen this phenomenon first-hand and continue to benefit from the 20th century’s brutal (uncivilized? disproportionate?) bombings of Germany and Japan, have once again reached the realization that when faced with a political-national cancer, aspirin and even some “surgical procedures” will not do the job. Only a drastic operation removing the malignancy will save the patient from further suffering. What’s true for an individual is no less true for a nation facing an ideological cancer. The time has come for such a drastic, long-term, life-saving campaign. Were they alive today, U.S. Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur would certainly approve.