Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Postmoderns Palestine

The new amorality in the Middle East

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

There is a postmodern amorality afloat — the dividend of years of an American educational system in which historical ignorance, cultural relativism, and well-intentioned theory, in place of cold facts, has reigned. We see the sad results everywhere in the current discussions of the Middle East and our own war on terror.

Palestinians appeal to the American public on grounds that three or four times as many of their own citizens have died as Israelis. The crazy logic is that in war the side that suffers the most casualties is either in the right or at least should be the winner. Some Americans nursed on the popular ideology of equivalence find this attractive. But if so, they should then sympathize with Hitler, Tojo, Kim Il Sung, and Ho Chi Minh who all lost more soldiers — and civilians — in their wars against us than we did.

Perhaps a million Chinese were casualties in Korea, ten times the number of Americans killed, wounded, and missing. Are we then to forget that the Communists crossed the Yalu River to implement totalitarianism in the south — and instead agree that their catastrophic wartime sacrifices were proof of American culpability? Palestinians suffer more casualties than Israelis not because they wish to, or because they are somehow more moral — but because they are not as adept in fighting real soldiers in the full-fledged war that is growing out of their own intifada.

We are told that Palestinian civilians who are killed by the Israeli Defense Forces are the moral equivalent of slaughtering Israeli civilians at schools, restaurants, and on buses. That should be a hard sell for Americans after September 11, who are currently bombing in Afghanistan to ensure that there are not more suicide murderers on our shores. This premise hinges upon the acceptance that the suicide bombers’ deliberate butchering of civilians is the same as the collateral damage that occurs when soldiers retaliate against other armed combatants.

In fact, the tragic civilian deaths on the West Bank make a less-compelling argument for amorality than the one revisionists often use in condemning the Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo bombings. Then British and American planes knowingly incinerated civilians in their quests to shut down the warmaking potential of the Third Reich and imperial Japan. Unlike what the B-17s and B-29s did to stop fascist murdering on a global scale, the Israelis are not carpet-bombing indiscriminately. Rather they are doing precisely what we ourselves were forced to do in Mogadishu: Fighting a dirty urban war against combatants who have no uniforms, shoot from houses, and are deliberately mixed in with civilians. So far the Israelis have probably killed fewer civilians in a year of fighting on the West Bank than our trapped soldiers did in two days of similar gun battles in Somalia.

An ignorance of historical context is also critical for such postmodern revisionism. If the conflict is due to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, then the first three wars for the survival of Israel itself must be conveniently ignored. If there is a push for the exchange of land for peace, then we must overlook that some in the Arab world who have suggested just that bromide in the past three decades were either assassinated or executed. And if we accept that both sides are equally culpable for the current killing, we must forget that less than two years ago the Palestinians rejected an Israeli offer to return 97 percent of the West Bank, along with other major concessions — assuming that unleashing the present intifada could get them still more.

Facts mean nothing. The dispute is purportedly over the principle of occupation — but next-door Syria holds far more Lebanese land than Israel does the West Bank. The dispute is supposedly over ethnic intolerance and gratuitous humiliation — but Kuwait, quite unlike Israel, ethnically cleansed their entire country of Palestinians after the Gulf War. The dispute is said to be about treating the “other” fairly — but Syria and Iraq summarily expelled over 7,000 Jews after the 1967 war, stole their property, and bragged that they had rid their country of them. The upcoming Arab Summit could spend weeks just investigating the Arab murder and persecution of its own people and Jews.

Multicultural distortion also appears in a variety of strange ways. Palestinian spokesmen harangue Americans about their tilt toward Israel. Yet they also speak in grandiose terms of an “Arab summit” and a global Islamic brotherhood. Apparently, fellow Muslims, Arabs — and kindred autocracies — are supposed to support Palestinians unquestioningly because of religious, cultural, and political affinities. Yet we multicultural Americans are not entitled to exhibit similar sympathy for Israel, which like us and unlike Mr. Arafat’s regime, is a Western, democratic, open, and free society.

Why do such bankrupt arguments find resonance? I think the causes have now permeated well beyond a few coffeehouse theorists blabbering away in Cambridge or Palo Alto. Rather it is because we live in a society in which playground fights in our schools are now often adjudicated by concepts such as “zero tolerance” and “equal culpability.” Rather than exercising moral judgment — and investing time and energy in such investigation — our school principals simply expel any student caught fighting, as if the bully and his victim occupy the same moral ground.

Our schoolbooks devote more space to Hiroshima than to the far, far greater casualties on Okinawa. Students are not told that the two tragedies are connected — as if the American bombing to prevent an enormous bloodbath on the Japanese mainland is somehow not a direct result of the Japanese imperial military’s efforts a few weeks earlier to unleash 2,000 kamikazes, and through suicide attacks and banzai charges kill every American (and tens of thousands of civilians) on the island rather than surrender.

Rather than do the hard work of learning about the historical relationships, conflicts, and similarities between Islamic and Christian culture, East and West, and Europe and Asia, our teachers simply avoid the trouble. They claim that all cultures are just “different,” and thereby hope to avoid the hard and unpleasant questions that might prompt hurt feelings and eventual enlightenment, rather than ensure their own immediate raises and promotions. No wonder I have had college students who affirm that British imperialism in India was no different from Hitler’s attempt at dominance in Europe — as if there were gas chambers in New Delhi, as if the Nazi “super-race” might have sought to eradicate the caste system, or as if Gandhi’s civil disobedience would have worked against Himmler.

I do not think there is some grand postmodern scheme afloat to undermine the legacy of empiricism, history, and logic. Rather the spread of such amorality is simply a result of our own sloth and timidity — and perhaps ultimately the dangerous dividend of an increasingly affluent and cynical society. Teachers, professors, and reporters embrace such dubious notions because they either bring rewards or at least the satisfaction of being liked and in the majority.

It is also less demanding to watch television than read, safer to blame or praise both than investigate the culpability of one, neater to create rather than recall facts, and better to feel good about oneself by adopting platitudes of eternal peace and universal tolerance than to talk honestly of evil, war, and the tragic nature of man. When you combine such American laziness and lack of intellectual rigor with worries over oil and anti-Semitism, then our baffling nonchalance about the current war against Israel begins to make sense.

Moral equivalence, conflict-resolution theory, utopian pacifism, and multiculturalism are, of course, antirational and often silly. But we should also have the courage to confess that they bring on, rather than avoid, conflict and killing, and breed rather than eradicate ignorance. In short, they are not ethical ideas at all, but amoral in every sense of the word.

©2002 Victor Davis Hanson

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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