Both sides in the Gaza conflict are ill-defined

There are certain issues that I don’t often write about; this isn’t due to apathy but rather the toxic nature of the debate. Guns are one, abortion is another. The discussion has calcified, and most writing gets subjected to the same, predictable criticism and vitriol. Best avoided when possible.

Currently the focus is on another landmine topic, the State of Israel, the Palestinian territories on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and who’s right, who’s wrong, and who’s justified doing this or that. Take a look at #Gaza on Twitter for about thirty seconds and you’ll be incensed in some way.

No conflict currently active today has more history and nuance around it. By necessity, commentary about it has to be highly simplified and compressed.

A continuing issue when discussing Palestine-Israel: people conflate groups and ideas together.

Even prior to 1948, Judaism and the idea of Israel have been locked together and equated. This despite a long history of Jewish rabbis and academics who were skeptical or against a new, physical state in the Middle East. Because the two are seen as the same, any criticism of Israel must also stand as valid criticism of the Jewish community. If this is maintained and applied, very few arguments against Israeli conduct can exist that are not attacked as antisemitic.

What this can do, and appears to be doing as I write this, is create an anti-Israel movement where legitimate antisemitic elements are not isolated from the swath of regular people. Yesterday the New York Times published a piece on rising antisemitism in Europe. Supporters of Jewish rights and for tolerance in general could use an ally to collaborate with. Unfortunately, people of such a disposition have been lumped together with vandals and thugs, and they rightly resent such association.

Regarding Palestine, there is the conflation of Hamas with the Palestinians in general. When used, this has a serious impact on how civilian causalities are viewed. If everyone is part of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, that means they share moral culpability with rocket attacks and tunnel ambushes. Such thinking is dangerous, as it’s clearly not the case, and a similar merging of Israeli citizens and the Israeli military has  the same problems. Some civilians are incapable of supporting terrorists, including children. Given that civilians have been over two-thirds of the casualties in this conflict, we can see the danger of a mindset where armed militants and unarmed civilians are merged together under the same banner- Hamas.

All people in Israel are not served by these links. Jews, living in Israel or elsewhere, are not served when any criticism of the State of Israel is spun and treated like a personal insult. Palestinians are not served when criticism of Hamas, or armed attacks on Hamas, falls on civilians because of perceived equivalence. To solve any problem, the first step is to define terms. In this case, it is: what is Israel? how does it relate to Judaism? what is Hamas? how does it relate to other groups in Palestine, and the Palestinian people in general? If there is no definition, the very parties in the conflict are uncertain and inaccurate.

Syria’s civil war machine keeps chugging

Last week an estimate came out; with over 1,700 dead, the third week in July may have been the deadliest in the Syrian conflict to date. This combines with a press conference held by a regime defector who has tens of thousands of pictures of dead Syrians, who had been brutally tortured. This man surfaced back in January, which led to a post I made located here, which links to a gallery of photos, most not for the faint of heart.

Destruction in the middle of Homs, Syria. Credit: Yazen Homsy, Reuters

In the international community, a cadre has long hoped that the Syrian conflict would reach a stalemate. The parties would then be open to a negotiated settlement, and large-scale violence would cease.

There has been no slowing down. Syria’s army, the Free Syrian Army, the fundamentalists, the Kurds, and all the other groups trying to survive are not out of will and fight.

Assad’s regime continues to get heavy weapons from Russia, while the Islamic State is now making huge sums from the oil fields it has captured. As long as the various factions have the money and arms to sustain a struggle, the idea of a lasting peace seems absurd.

 

 

War brings people together. War gets dissenters thrown in prison.

 

Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.
Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.

Hopefully this will be part of a trend towards a more critical approach to how World War I affected the United States: The Atlantic published “Why Wars Always End Up Hurting the Most Vulnerable Americans” yesterday. A choice quote:

Most Americans have forgotten how repressive a period World War I was. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” quipped the writer Max Eastman. “They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible.” Walter Lippmann said Woodrow Wilson’s administration had “done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”

What it comes down to is that there are two sides to any event, like a war or a terrorist attack, which rallies people together. There is union, but also violence and repression to those that are in the wrong place (or of the wrong race, or nationality) at the wrong time. Triumph over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan gets so much romanticism, but for 100,000+ Japanese-Americans who were herded into camps, they suffered because of the drive to war. Intellectuals of both liberal and conservative background have often welcomed war as an engine for social good, but as Randolph Bourne thought, “using war powers to achieve domestic reform is like using a firehose to fill a water glass”. Social solidarity in wartime comes with special symptoms: jingoism, inflexibility, and mob sanction.

1917 wasn’t just about giving the Kaiser a good licking, it was about government-led oppression against trade unionists, socialists, and anyone who opposed the war. That legacy remains with us- Edward Snowden, should he end up in US custody, would face charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, which doesn’t even allow him any kind of legal defense. Any justification, no matter how good, is irrelevant. That was the dark mentality of America at the time. You’re with us, or against us. No extenuating circumstances, no middle ground.

Long before each soul was laid

Now hushed, fields once green;
stained crimson by those that paid
the greatest price, their fate foreseen
long before each soul was laid,
screams dissolve, the cannons fade

bodies clad in rival dye
together form more fertile ground,
so under kindly azure sky,
gleeful daisies now abound
the tragic scene their joy surrounds.

Syrian carnage: If it stops hurting, we are all lost [explicit photograph]

UNICEF has announced their photo of the year, part of a set by Niclas Hammarström about Syrian children caught in a warzone. Hammarström quit news photography for a decade- his return as a freelancer matched the breakout of civil war in Syria. It is good to have him be able to bring such haunting portraits to us.

Syrien: Das vergessene Leid der Kinder. © Niclas Hammarström/Kontinent
Syrian child after an attack in Aleppo

Not that long ago I made a post- “Regarding Syria: Be horrified, continue to be horrified“. I wrote:

All aspects of the Syrian conflict are terrible- the shooting of unarmed protestors, the shelling of civilian centers, the millions of refugees fleeing to countries that want nothing to do with them, the civil wars among the “rebels” themselves, the use of violence to make religious and political statements.

It makes sense to become acclimated, to see this as just more torture, more murder, more war. But that is an injustice to those that suffer and die. Be horrified, be disgusted. It’s how things get changed.

Few Americans have to directly confront the horrors of war. Soldiers, charity workers, contractors. The scars follow these people back, as we see so many soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and commit suicide at an alarming rate. Most of us have the luxury, the fantasy of detachment. How many people have truly thought about and comprehended the civilian death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan? How many treat that number as an essential concern?

Syrien: Das vergessene Leid der Kinder. © Niclas Hammarström/Kontinent

This is what a photographer helps. They photograph people, and through them their stories. The first photo in this story- that girl has a name. Dania Kilsi.  People love her. Or they once did- before they died. Her injuries were not severe but they were preventable. And for every Dania Kilsi that lived there are those that died- and they had names and lives too. The hospital she and hundreds of others were treated at that day was later destroyed. This picture cannot be replicated, because the reality now is even worse.

I am not a pie-in-the-sky pacifist. And I know that this civil war- this senseless, stagnant butchery- is not just about the factions of the Levant and the innocent people who were dragged into slaughter by their hatred. It’s about all of us. The reason Bashar al-Assad gained power, stayed in power, was able to use heavy arms and chemical weapons- this comes back to countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China. There is seldom a conflict that does not at some point lead up to the permanent members of the UN Security Council. Part of the same international organization as UNICEF, who selected these pictures to show to the world. “It’s not my fight” is just wishful thinking. That doesn’t mean arming the various rebel groups to the teeth. But if war came to where we live, the places we travel, where friends we keep from all over the world live- we’d be appalled if those with the power to help said it wasn’t their fight.

Syria and similar conflicts should rip out a piece of our soul and make us hurt. Because that kind of hurt can only be stopped by getting that piece back- by regaining the empathy and compassion we need.

In spartan sepulchers

Factions torn asunder
each charging with their own flag
saltire and the cross met
and beheld
primal blood

That dawn
in mud run crimson
a pact was sworn by
those who buried their kin
each a testament in
the face of
simple murder

Soldiers sleep in
spartan sepulchers,
eyes once wide to
terror, the sabre and pike
with the last laid to rest
glory finally takes flight
to remind all who follow
what courage truly is!

A job awaiting death

Image of Mess of Pottage

Today brought yet more insight on the dire state of the military personnel in charge of the American nuclear missiles stock. Investigations are looking into two officials suspected of possessing illegal drugs in Montana. Earlier the general in charge of the ICBM program had been sacked due tohard drinking, swearing, and spending time with “suspect” women on a trip to Russia.

The article points out the obvious things- the Cold War has been over for a generation. Nuclear treaties have reduced the number of facilities (and thus staff). It neglects to mention another aspect which I think is incredibly important.

Personnel in charge of nuclear weapons and the protocols for readying and launching them spend a lot of time sitting around, doing nothing. And if that dreary existence were to be interrupted by serious action, there’s a good chance that it would involve the destruction of a massive number of people. In an exchange with the Russian Federation, that could involve the deaths of the staff and everyone they’d ever known- it all would be over in a matter of minutes.

Why do we subject people to this- where any action of interest would prove destructive? That if they were ever to launch missiles from their given facility, it would kill huge amounts of people- including some great number of civilians? The whole nuclear weapons system has a foundation based on insanity- cloaked by a bit of game theory that justifies being armed to the teeth in the sea, on land, and through the air. The substance-using staff aren’t bad people, and coming down hard on them doesn’t change anything. It is all self-medication to deal with a job built upon death.

In the opening stages of the Holocaust, gas chambers weren’t always the means of extermination. In 1941 the invasion of Eastern Europe had units that shot Jews and other groups in huge numbers. Gassing “began after Einsatzgruppe members complained of battle fatigue and mental anguish caused by shooting large numbers of women and children.”

Any job where death and murder are inescapable will create the kind of problems seen at missile bases. Even when it’s not as personal as shooting someone in the head, it is still there. It’s a job nobody wants.

And it’s a job nobody should need to do.

Blood and Kevlar pornography

War now screens in HD
each Tomahawk contrail arching across
a 72 inch LED TV bought during a mad rush
the day after Thanksgiving.
 
Hundreds of channels and a single thing on
should be rated MA for mature audiences –
the blood and Kevlar pornography;
numbers flow- ammo type, fighter speed, 
how many equivalent tons of TNT are getting dropped- 
how many militants died and how many villagers
were stupid enough to get in the way
of their own liberation.
 
When the carnage dies down,
and after a commercial break
to sell crappy beer and cut-rate car insurance
a camera always pans to a roundtable –
five white people, gleaming teeth
and sweatshop-made suits
growing red-faced and indignant
asking “why do they hate us!?”

 

Homs: a shattered ruin in the snow

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The ruins of Homs, Syria in the winter snow. Courtesy of CBS News correspondent Clarissa Ward.

There are no words. Tonight, hundreds of thousands of refugees will sleep in freezing temperatures, with makeshift housing and very little support- as the countries hosting them would rather they not exist.