Israel, and America’s Misunderstanding of “War”

By: David McCaleb
David McCaleb is a writer and national bestselling novelist. Books →

Many American citizens no longer understand the term “war”, leading to a distorted view of Israel’s actions in Gaza. Our country has enjoyed eighty years since formally entering such a state, and today misconceptions abound, making truth difficult to discern. Efforts to pressure a ceasefire, even though well-intended, could lead to a worsening of human suffering. Though weapons and tactics evolve, war’s nature – and its peaceful aim – does not.

What is War?

Few military operations, no matter how large, are declared wars. War is a formal proclamation by one nation’s citizenry of their commitment to eliminate another nation’s ability to resist. It involves a country’s entire population, not only its armies. In doing so, the declaring nation pledges their resources and efforts to the cause.

A declaration of war is likened to the tossing of dogs into a ring, each bred and trained in the bloody art of the fight. But as appalling as this may sound, war is magnitudes more violent and inhumane. Though the Geneva Conventions define rules of conduct, these safeguards are sometimes ignored. And though the victor may prosecute war crimes afterward, few restraints exist in a dog fight.

As a U.S. military officer, I studied the tenets of warfare. One such principle is that the military exists at the direction of our civilian government, as an extension of its political power. War is declared by civilian authorities, not the military, and is the natural result of the failure of politics and diplomacy. It is an admittance by the declaring nation, regardless of where fault may lie, of this failure.

Another tenet is that any nation that enters it must be willing to commit wholeheartedly to victory and strive to bring the conflict to a speedy end. In fact, to minimize the harm and suffering of both nations, they are morally obligated to do so. Sun Tzu speaks much of this in Art of War, an ancient treatise studied by warfighters throughout history. He writes, “In war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns.” War should be quickly executed, allowing peace to be restored and nations rebuilt.

"War is...the natural result of the failure of politics and diplomacy."

Common Misconceptions

Many suppose that the effects of war should be proportional. If one nation causes a certain amount of harm, this justifies a proportionate retaliation by the other. This is false. No referee exists to call the game when the scoreboard evidences a woefully imbalance. In fact, ask a warfighter and they’ll likely tell you their goal is to win through the overwhelming use of force. Colin Powell, our former Secretary of State, advocated similarly. He called for the use of “decisive force” once committed to an engagement.

Another common misconception is that war should escalate gradually, and that attacks and responses should run in fits and starts until both sides fully commit. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Such may be the case leading up to war, but once war is declared, that nation must bring to bear a steadfast effort to quickly crush the enemy. Remember, war should be swiftly executed.

Lastly, many believe that civilians should never get hurt in war. Unfortunately, this is false. Deliberate attacks on civilians are prohibited by the Geneva Conventions but civilian deaths, though grievous, are allowable when a military target is attacked. However, such deaths should not outweigh the military advantage gained. This is, admittedly, a slippery slope since each nation must judge their own actions, and war clouds judgement.

War, Israel, and Hamas

Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, allowing that province to determine its own future. Its citizens elected Hamas as ruling party in 2006, however that organization had already been attacking Israel since 1989. But even after being given control of this territory, Hamas continued to indiscriminately target and attack Israeli civilians with rockets, suicide bombings, stabbings, and other violence. This aggression came to a head on October 7th, 2023. According to eyewitness accounts, video evidence, and Israeli government sources, Hamas fighters joyfully – gleefully – raped, slaughtered, and murdered 1,200 Israeli citizens. They shot old ladies while they slept in bed. They decapitated babies and adults. They burned other babies and adults while alive until they died like cooked food. They gang raped minors and mutilated them. And they documented many of these evil acts themselves, on their own cameras.

A day later, Israel declared war on Hamas. Let that sink in. The current situation in Gaza is more than a retaliation. It is larger than a military operation. It is war. October 7th was Israel’s December 7th (Pearl Harbor). It was a WWII level event for their nation. The next day they decided they had no choice but to destroy Hamas’s ability to fight, and formally declared war.

Dresden bomb damage 1945

Dresden, Germany, 1945

Remember, during WWII, targeting of Axis military capabilities by the U.S. and the Allied powers resulted in many civilian deaths. Official counts vary, but of the 40 million civilians that died during that conflict, it is safe to say that several hundred thousand were due to direct action on our part. The photo shown of the aftermath of our firebomb campaign upon Dresden, Germany stands as a sober reminder. We should avoid the hypocrisy of judging Israel against a double standard by attempting to force upon them a premature peace before their war has had the opportunity to finish its work.

This said, Israel must be careful of civilian casualties. The Palestinian civilian death toll is high. And even though it is difficult to target Hamas fighters since they entangle themselves within their dense civilian population and purposefully place military assets inside community centers, Israel has a clear technical and tactical advantage. They should use all of it to minimize civilian deaths.

Let America understand: Israel is at war. To minimize suffering on both sides, they are obligated to remain fully committed until Hamas surrenders. To do otherwise would exacerbate the problem. The scale of Palestinian citizen death is tragic. But Israel must press ahead carefully, ethically, balancing military targets with civilian deaths, even as Hamas stubbornly holds up its own citizens as human shields. Given the situation presented, this is the most humane path forward.

On October 7th, diplomacy failed. On October 8th, Israel released a dog named Duty into the ring. The result is violent. Visceral. Bloody. And as tragic as it is, THIS is the truth of war.

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  • Photo of Gaza courtesy of Palestinian News & Information Agency (Wafa) in contract with APAimages.
  • Photo of Dresden in public domain.

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