Missing the Point – War Crimes: Form vs. Substance

When I write something – one of my “Missing the Point” columns, for example – I do my best to tell my story carefully, with just the right words.

It’s never just about the details of what I’m trying to say.  It’s also about how I say it.  The specific language I use not only gives you information, it conveys the print equivalent of the sound of my voice, the expression on my face, and my body language.  Collectively, these word choices are often as influential as the raw facts themselves that I’m laying out for your consideration.

On October 7, Hamas, the militant organization that rules over the more than two million Palestinian residents of Gaza City, attacked the people of Israel.  Round numbers, 1,400 Israelis, almost all of them civilians, were killed.  …Notice that I said “killed,” instead of “slaughtered” to minimize the vulgarity of precisely how well-trained, thoroughly indoctrinated Hamas soldiers chose to take the lives of defenseless people who meant their attackers no harm.

More than 3,900 Israelis were injured.  Almost 200 were taken prisoner and are now being held in Gaza.

“War crimes?!”

Really?  It’s as if it’s okay to wage war, which is what Hamas thinks it’s doing, as long as you follow the rules.  And does the threat of criminal prosecution by a world court really ever deter an organization dedicated to violence against those it perceives as threatening its existence?  So, what if using people as human shields is against international law?  Does anybody really think the bad guys care?  Law without enforcement is meaningless.  Third-party restrictions on how you defend yourself are of no concern to those who believe they are facing an existential threat.

What’s wrong is not the form or style of the killing.  It’s the fact of it.

Hamas is a “terrorist group,” an entirely appropriate reference.  It’s not as if killing people isn’t terrorizing in its own right.  For Hamas, terror is one of the primary objectives of the organization.  There are certainly many ways to kill people and other non-violent means of accomplishing one’s political objectives, but Hamas actually believes in killing – and in doing their killing in ways that are particularly abhorrent to most people.

I’m not a psychologist.  I don’t know if Hamas kills in the particularly vicious way it does because of the emotional effect on its enemies and/or because something about their psyche enjoys it.  I mean, for all practical purposes, dead is dead.  How you kill your enemy shouldn’t make any difference.  But then it does, doesn’t it?

So, Hamas killed 1400 Israelis when it attacked on October 7.  What Hamas has done is awful.  But in terms of body counts, these Hamas are rank amateurs compared to what we – the United States of America – did to end World War II.

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped a single bomb on the city of Hiroshima in Japan with which we were at war, but is now one of our closest allies.  In a flash, literally, we killed between 7,000 and 20,000 combatants (soldiers).  Oh, and we also killed 70,000 to 126,000 civilians.

Just three days later, on August 9, 1945 – as if three days was enough time for Japan to throw in the towel or not – we dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki.  The second bomb killed an estimated 150 combatants, but also another 60,000 to 80,000 civilians.  …No.  The number “150” in the previous sentence is not a typo.  It’s an estimate that may be somewhat imprecise, but the order of magnitude, minuscule as it is, is worth noting.  We killed 60,000 to 80,000 non-combatants, men, women, children, and the elderly, just to make a point.  It was a display of power that perhaps could have been accomplished in other, less deadly ways.

So, two bombs, were dropped only three days apart, one bomb each from one slow-moving propeller-driven plane, killing a total of 130,000 to 206,000 innocent people.  “Innocent” in the sense that they were, as we call them, civilians.  Not in the military.  The Japanese surrendered, ending the war.

We did this because our government, led at the time by President Truman, made the calculation that killing all these people was worth the carnage.  We didn’t think of ourselves as “terrorists.”  I’m not even sure that was a “thing” back then, with the meaning it has now.  No.  We were fighting for our lives, and for “truth, justice, and the American way” as the announcer used to say in the opening of early TV episodes of “Superman.”  And we did it from a distance.  There was no hand-to-hand combat.  No Special Forces were deployed.  We didn’t lose a single combatant of our own.  We didn’t shoot, stab, rape, or behead anyone.  All we did was drop two bombs from relatively small and slow-moving planes on people a comfortable 7,000 miles from Washington, D.C.

All things considered, it’s better, and easier to kill from a distance.  With the exception of hijackings and terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the advantage of having vast oceans on the left and right of us have spared America the destruction and civilian losses of war.

So, are the 130,000 to 206,000 people we killed on two days in August 1945 any less dead than their current-day Israeli counterparts?  Not to forget the thousands of Japanese who died later from radiation-induced cancer.

Why are we not terrorists?  Because we won the war?  We’ve killed a lot of people in Vietnam and other foreign venues since then – including the sacrifice of so many of our own military – for far less pressing reasons.  Who is there to hold us accountable except ourselves?

My point is that the language and perspectives of those who use it matter.  That said, it’s not the form of killing that should be important, but the fact of it.

When President Joe Biden calls the attack by Hamas “pure barbarism” he’s talking about more than the killings as a matter of fact.  What he’s doing – what our media and all of us personally are doing, me included – are characterizing the carnage in ways that enhance our reaction, that emphasize and promote the anger we feel toward…  Toward who?  Hamas certainly, but unfortunately, in this case, the people of Gaza and perhaps, more generally, the Arab nations of the Middle East and even our own Muslim-Americans.

We need to watch what we say, because the words we use affect how we think and react.  All indications are that Israel is in the early stages of mounting a full-scale invasion of Gaza, a city of more than two million people of which only a relative few are Hamas.

We – especially Israel of course – are angry and appalled.  Two of our nuclear carrier groups have been dispatched to the area to discourage Iran and other countries, other terrorist organizations, and their supporters from becoming involved.  Whatever the specifics of what happens next, at the very least thousands of Gazans are going to die and tens of thousands more are going to have their lives damaged to an extent from which they may never recover.

If Hamas is trying to upset us, to piss us off, it’s working.  Vicious cruelty can be a tool of war as much as any other kind of weapon.  Hamas wants us to overreact, to lose our righteous high ground, and to become the vicious enemy they need to hate.  A superpower they can blame.

We need to be careful.  To not be emotionally distracted by the form of what they have done.  The cost of our over-reacting will be measured by the lost lives of way too many innocent people including Americans, although that detail shouldn’t make any difference.