It is purely a coincidence that I just recently began listening to the audio version of John Toland’s “The Last 100 Days: The Tumultuous and Controversial Story of the Final Days of World War II in Europe.”
I am at the point where the Russian Army is advancing into Germany. It is painful to listen to the details of what the Russian soldiers are doing to the retreating German soldiers and the indigenous German civilians. The looting, killing, raping of women and girls, and senseless and wanton destruction of property are almost beyond comprehension.
We seem to have accepted the killing of armed combatants in wartime but are repulsed by the brutality inflicted on civilian women and children. Our innate sense of decency, humanity, and morality is distressed at the mere thought of such events. How can human beings mistreat other human beings?
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The coincidence to which I refer is that I am listening to these past events just as similar events are happening in Israel as a result of the attack by Hamas from Gaza. Daily, we learn of the wanton slaughter of Israeli civilians, the rape of women and girls, and the beheading of babies by Hamas militants. In addition, a great many civilians have been taken hostage and are being threatened with death by their abductors.
At the same time that we hear or read about what has been going on, we are learning that groups throughout the world and in the United States are marching in support of Hamas and blaming Israel for the violence. As a retired law school professor, I have been appalled to see that among those supporting the actions of Hamas are Harvard Law School students. Have these students lost all sense of decency, humanity, and morality to the point that they actually condone these atrocities?
I lost my paternal grandparents and an uncle to the Nazi concentration camp butchers, so I can understand to some extent the feelings of the Russian soldiers advancing into Germany. They had experienced firsthand the violence of the German army that advanced into their country. Revenge for the atrocities that had been inflicted upon the Russian people no doubt contributed to their lack of feelings about the German people who had supported Hitler.
If American college students can march in support of the atrocities being committed by Hamas against Israeli civilians due to their belief that Israel has mistreated Palestinians, how difficult is it to believe that the Russian soldiers felt justified in their treatment of the defeated Germans? Revenge outweighs decency, humanity, and morality.
In wartime decency, humanity and morality lose out to their opposites.
There is little doubt in my mind that, as the Israeli army seeks to defeat Hamas in Gaza, some Israeli soldiers will have little compassion for the civilian inhabitants of Gaza. There are very likely going to be incidents of severe mistreatment of innocent civilians by Israeli soldiers. Unfortunately, brutality begets brutality.
The civilian population of Gaza has tolerated Hamas for years. They may not have liked Hamas, but they did not rebel against them. They could not have been ignorant of the activities of Hamas. They had to know where munitions and weapons were being stored. They had to be aware of rocket launchers being moved and stored. They had to have some knowledge of the tunnels being dug under the border into Israel. Their denials of the activities of Hamas are no more believable than the denials of the civilians in the vicinities of the death camps.
Hamas has used hospitals, schools, and mosques as bases for launching rocket attacks against Israel. They are unlikely to be spared in the Israeli effort to finally and completely destroy Hamas. Civilians will be killed, even if it is unintentional. But I won’t be surprised if, in many cases, civilians are not treated with gentleness. If Harvard law students, who live in safety and security, can overcome their sense of decency, humanity, and morality, I would not expect Israeli soldiers, whose lives are at risk, to be overly concerned with the safety of the civilians who may be in their way.
In wartime decency, humanity and morality lose out to their opposites. Unfortunately, the object of war is to kill the enemy. Bullets, bombs, and artillery shells have no conscience.
Howard Lurie is Emeritus Professor of Law at Charles Widger School of Law, Villanova University.