Brutal truth is high civilian casualties are unavoidable where one side is using the population as cover - John McLellan
Enola Gay, sang Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark from the safety of Liverpool in 1980, you should have stayed at home yesterday. And no doubt if you were one of the approximately 140,000 people killed in Hiroshima in August 1945 you would have wished that too.
But if you were one of the thousands of Allied soldiers preparing for the invasion of mainland Japan you would have been thankful the bomber flown by Colonel Paul Tibbets, and named after his mum, didn’t stay at home, although it took the nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki and the deaths of around 80,000 people three days later to persuade Emperor Hirohito to surrender.
The Battle of Okinawa in spring 1945, when over 14,000 American servicemen were killed, was one reason US Presi dent Harry Truman was persuaded to deploy the atomic bomb and end the war. Around 240,000 people died there, 77,000 of them Japanese soldiers dug into bunkered positions and tunnels and who used the civilian population as human shields, just short of 150,000 of whom were killed. In other words, as many, if not more, civilians were killed as a result of Japanese determination to fight to the death in Okinawa than were killed by the Hiroshima bomb.
Very few British people have any direct knowledge of what war means for civilians. We only have written records and some grainy footage of what it was like to be bombed from the air, not real-time film taken minutes after an explosion, and it’s not difficult to imagine how much stiffer the British determination to defeat Naziism would have been had there been smart phones and social media in Clydebank or Coventry. But as the war neared its end in February 1945, it’s impossible to know what impact similar images coming out of Dresden, where up to 25,000 people died in one night, would have had on public opinion, or after Operation Meetinghouse over Tokyo a month later, when over 100,000 civilians, mainly women and children, were killed in a conventional bombing raid and over a million made homeless.
There is no way of telling how morale might have been affected, and even if there was debate about tactics, I doubt it would have led to calls for a ceasefire. But it’s inconceivable that anyone would bandy around terms like “genocide”, partly because it wasn’t coined until 1944 (by a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent), but primarily because no-one for a minute thought civilian casualties incurred in defeating a brutal enemy was akin to a wider strategy of eradicating an entire people.
But instant social media reporting is a fact of life today, and there is no question the harrowing pictures of bleeding and traumatised children from the war in Gaza affects everyone and calls for a halt are entirely understandable. Who wouldn’t want children to be doing anything other than happily going to school or playing with their friends? But of course, if you wish that for Palestinian children in Gaza you must also have wanted it for the young people butchered by Hamas terrorists on October 7 and, I perhaps naively think, that the perpetrators of those murders should be brought to justice and action taken to make sure there can never be a repeat. But as the demonstrations over the past week have shown, there are more than a few people here who believe Israel is guilty of genocide. It was casually dropped into the conversation during one of my classes at Stirling University last week as if it was an indisputable fact.
There is a big difference between humanitarian pause and ceasefire, and the brutal truth is that high civilian casualties are unavoidable in urban warfare where, like Okinawa, one side is using the population as cover. The reasonable demand to avoid the death of innocents should also apply to those sheltering behind them, yet the calls for care are all directed at Israel, not Hamas which, after all, controls the territory and orchestrated mass slaughter and rape.
It always comes back to the right for Israel to exist and its right to defend itself, and even if those people chanting the “between the river and the sea” mantra as they prevent people boarding trains at Waverley Station, don’t fully understand what they are saying, it is still expressing a desire for the destruction of a Jewish homeland in a place they have lived since the dawn of civilisation.
Violent antisemitism did not begin or end with the Nazis and few people here will have heard of the massacre of Jedwabne, a small Polish town with a Jewish population of around 1600 before the war. All but seven were massacred in 1941 under the German occupation, not by the Wehrmacht or SS but, according to Polish-American historian Jan Gross, by enthusiastic local Poles. In Kielce, just a few miles north-west of Auschwitz, where the Jewish population was reduced from 23,000 to 300, 40 were murdered by Poles after a nine-year-old boy claimed Jews had kidnapped him for ritual murder. But this was in 1946.
Those who say the history of the Palestine problem didn’t start on October 7 are, of course, quite right, but they are selective about their starting point. Is it the 1948 war when Arab nations rejected the UN-mandated two state solution, but their defeat meant Israel was firmly established, and after which some one million Jews were forced to leave their homes in Arab countries? Is it the 1917 Balfour Declaration of the British intention to establish a Jewish homeland, which recognised the pogroms of Eastern Europe and parts of the Ottoman empire? Or is it the Roman crushing of Jewish culture after the Bar Kokhba Revolt in 136 when Judaea was renamed Syria Palaestina?
From the world’s rivers and seas, Jews have been forced to flee from centuries of oppression. Israel has the right to be.
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