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War is always and inherently brutal



Back in 2004, I recall watching an interview with a young woman at a protest against the war the United States and its allies were waging against the insurgency in Iraq. “This is an incredibly brutal war,” she said. I doubt I’ll ever forget that, both as a redundancy and a truism.

The Iraq war was a divisive issue, with some arguing that it was necessary to eradicate terrorist breeding grounds and that it opened the possibility of a new, democratic impulse in the Middle East, and others that the costs – the brutality if you will – outstripped any idealism, and besides, it would only encourage the terrorism it was intended to stop.

As it happens, at that time, I was quite taken with classical military history, and wondered why such appellations were seldom applied to the warfare of distant centuries. Ancient warfare, with the technology involved, entailed a savage combination of impaling, bludgeoning, and severing, and often the collapse from exhaustion and literal trampling to death of foes during close quarters fighting. Over the course of a few hours on 2 August 216 BC, near the village of Cannae in Italy, a Carthaginian army surrounded and slaughtered as many as 80 000 Romans.

Nor were the ancients restrained in their understanding of what war involved and what was right and proper in its prosecution. The Sumerian Stele of the Vultures, celebrating the victory of King Eannatum of Lagash over the rival state of Umma, depicts in gory detail the bodily remnants of the vanquished and vultures feasting on them.

This comes to mind watching the commentary about the war in Gaza. Information and narrative have been weaponised in this conflict as nowhere else. And no country attracts the level of hostility for misdeeds – real or perceived – that Israel does.

There has been no restraint on the invective levelled at Israel – up to and including ethnic cleansing and genocide. This is slanderous, even though I have misgivings about Israel’s strategies and think that some Israeli leaders haven’t helped its case through incendiary rhetoric. But if the goal was to wipe out Gaza’s population, it would be a distressingly simple task, since Gaza is a tightly controlled and densely populated space, and Israel has the ordinance to do so. Yet this narrative has been relentlessly pushed and has found a receptive audience. South Africa’s government, which prevaricates about whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in fact a war, is making this case before the International Court of Justice.

Call this a reiteration of the condemnation of an “incredibly brutal” war.

In a sense, this is correct. War is by its nature brutal, has been since before Eannatum’s phalanxes skewered their foes and left them for the vultures. This is no less the case in the current conflict.

History is littered with cruelty towards defeated foes and civilians. The destruction caused during the wars of the Mongol conquests was sufficient to alter affected societies’ demographic compositions. Among other things, the Mongols pioneered biological warfare by catapulting diseased corpses into besieged cities. And when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the scale of looting, rape, and murder, and the enslavement of tens of thousands, was such that even the victorious Sultan Mehmed II lamented, “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction!”

As an aside, the claims by Hamas – echoed by Ronnie Kasrils – that the atrocities of 7 October could absolutely not have been perpetrated by its fighters as they are dutiful Muslims and wouldn’t behave like that are ludicrous and would make Hamas truly unique across human history.

What has perhaps changed is that civilians are today more likely to find themselves trapped in combat zones; that weaponry has an exponentially more destructive potential; and that over the past two centuries, attempts have been made to formalise the responsibilities of combatants towards their enemies and towards non-combatants. Contemporary armies are expected to show concern for the well-being of their opponents in a way that would have seemed incomprehensible to commanders of past epochs. This forms part of international law.

No-one could argue with the imperative of safeguarding those not involved in fighting. This reflects a revulsion in the inherent brutality of war, even of war itself. But since armies now seldom confront each other on open plains and move too quickly for civilians to avoid the immediate theatre of combat, it has also given groups like Hamas – embedded in a civilian population and its infrastructure – a potent weapon.

Israel is well aware that its key vulnerability is the possibility of faltering international support. This includes those who have newly “normalised” relations and countries, including many of the world’s democracies, with which it has long-established ties. In the latter, there’s considerable evidence that younger people feel particularly alienated by Israel’s response. Perhaps the current reaction is simply a function of a culture in which war is a repulsive phenomenon that’s beyond their frame of reference. Hamas and its sympathisers have capitalised on this with relish.

As a matter of law and morality, Israel has to try to minimise non-combatants’ deaths. Its military maintains an elaborate system of judicial officers to regulate its actions, and sends warnings to civilians, or at least it tries to, before strikes. However dismissive of this Israel’s detractors may be – Zapiro’s cartoons would be an example familiar to South Africans – this is fairly unique within the dreadful realities of war. Compared to the conduct of other militaries and “militant” groups – the conduct of the Russian military in the Chechen wars, for example, or of the belligerents in numerous less well-reported conflicts such as in Syria, the Great Lakes region, or Sudan – it can claim some moral high ground. It’s an open question just how much good that will do Israel’s cause.

The suffering of the population of Gaza is real, as is the trauma and suffering of the Israelis who were touched by Hamas’s attack, and those who see their sons and daughters killed. This is war, it’s brutal, and there’s no kind or gentle face that can be put on it. Whether it’s just, whether Israel’s actions are in all instances lawful, and whether the outcome of this war will be beneficial, well, those are separate questions.

  • Terence Corrigan is project and publications manager at the South African Institute of Race Relations, South Africa’s oldest think tank, which aims to promote individual and societal freedom and prosperity.

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  1. David Basserabie

    Jan 19, 2024 at 6:28 am

    “the bareness of Australia, the obscurity of New Zealand” Really?

    • Tom

      Jan 19, 2024 at 10:12 am

      Yeah. The author doesn’t exactly present as balanced

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