The US military made news recently when it adopted the Israeli tactic of ‘roof knocking’ – detonating a small explosion above a building that is about to be bombed in order to give civilians that may be present a warning to evacuate – in its operations against the Islamic State.
Israel used the roof-knock technique to reduce civilian casualties in several recent wars, beginning with Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2008-9.
One of the tactics that the radical Islamist enemies of the West have adopted as part of the paradigm of asymmetric warfare that they are waging is to use their own civilian populations as human shields. Hamas launches its rockets from school courtyards, and Hezbollah has constructed a massive, dispersed rocket-launching facility embedded in the Shiite villages of southern Lebanon. If Israel has to neutralize this, it’s likely that many Lebanese will be killed.
The human shield tactic is effective because Western military and political leaders are highly sensitive to the charge of unnecessarily hurting civilians in warfare.
There are both practical and ideological reasons for this. In Israel’s case there are possible economic and diplomatic consequences when it is accused of disproportionate response, including cutoff of essential supplies in wartime. But that isn’t true of the US. Nobody will boycott the US or force it to give Texas back to Mexico, and it manufactures its own munitions.
Western populations empathize strongly with “innocent victims.” The effect is even stronger when those who empathize are not threatened; so Europeans (or American presidents) who don’t have to face Hamas and Hezbollah rockets can be highly critical of Israel’s attempts to defend herself.
There are two important things to note: 1) this is a relatively recent development, historically speaking; and 2) this practical/moral/political pressure in the West to behave in a particular way actually enables its enemies to effectively wage asymmetric war against it.
The change in Western sensibility occurred sometime after WWII. Not only were both sides relatively insensitive to collateral damage, the Allies even pursued a policy of strategic bombing of non-military targets both to reduce the enemy’s economic capability but also to sap his “will to resist.” Dresden, Hamburg and other German cities were targets of firebombing that killed tens of thousands.
But one raid on Tokyo stands out, even compared to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On March 9-10, 1945, 1,665 tons of napalm-loaded bombs were dropped on the city, creating a massive conflagration that reduced about 16 square miles and 100,000 people to ashes.
It is hard to imagine any Western nation in almost any circumstance today even contemplating such an operation.
The answer is “a lot of things,” some of them obvious and others more subtle.
Nationalism was blamed for the series of European wars that culminated in WWII, and was emphatically rejected in favor of a universalist ethic in which all humans are seen as part of one human race. It was recognized that every person had human rights that should be respected, even in time of war. But at the same time the collective rights of national groups were deemphasized. National rights in the West were considered dangerous.
At the same time, the great colonial empires began to break up. During the colonial period, there was an assumption of cultural superiority. With the dissolution of the empires, this too went away, replaced with cultural relativism and feelings of guilt for the mistreatment suffered by the former colonial subjects.
The American civil rights movement spotlighted racism as a fundamental evil. But people began to conflate any form of tribal feeling with racism.
At this point, the ideological process took a more dangerous and destructive turn, via postcolonialism. The appeal of universalist ideals and human rights and the rejection of racism was initially limited to the first-world nations. Somewhat later they penetrated to the less-developed world, but along the way underwent a transformation in which the language used to express important concepts was radically redefined. In the world of postcolonialism, only oppressed peoples have rights and only oppressors are capable of being racists.
‘Racism’ now means the oppression of ‘People Of Color’ by ‘whites’ (the actual skin color of the people involved is irrelevant, and placement into these groups is purely ideological).
Violence by whites against POC, (even, in the case of Israel, self-defense) is called ‘terrorism’.
Violence by POC against whites is called ‘resistance’ and, by misinterpretation of the UN charter, is said to be a human right.
Although nationalism and tribalism among Westerners has been condemned as the main cause of war, postcolonialism gives POC the right of self-determination as peoples.
This revolutionary logic is taught in Western universities. What has happened has been a kind of ideological disarmament by Western national groups. In effect, there has been a military disarmament as well, because the use of force by the West against POC is considered a violation of their human rights that is not balanced by any collective right that we possess.
The Israeli-Arab conflict is the paradigm case of this. The Palestinian Arabs do not recognize the Jews as a people, but do insist that there is a ‘Palestinian people’. They call Arabs killing Jews with knives, rocks or firebombs ‘nonviolent resistance’ and say that even armed attacks are justified resistance. They describe any action by Israel to protect herself – border controls, the security barrier – as a violation of their human rights, while the state of Israel has no collective right to exist.
In recent years, although the great power struggle between Russia and the West remains in an attenuated form, a new source of conflict has appeared: the decentralized Islamic jihad, aimed to expand dar al Islam at the expense of the rest of the world.
Much has been written about possible reasons for the newfound aggressiveness of Muslims in confronting the West. But the explanation is not to be found in any new Islamic doctrines.
Islam was always expansionist and confrontational. What has changed is us. In the past, the West didn’t hesitate to employ its vast military superiority when confronting a less-capable adversary. This was understood by everyone. The forces of jihad were deterred from attacking us.
But now, like Israel, the West finds itself concerned that using our power would abrogate the essential human rights of its adversaries – defined as People of Color – while ‘white’ nations have no rights. We are allowed to protect individuals, but not nations or cultures. Defined as the ‘racist oppressor’, we have no right to object to their racism, while they are permitted to ‘resist oppression’ with violence.
As a result, the jihad continues to press forward on multiple fronts and the West retreats, paralyzed by its ideology and unable to use its power.
I appreciate this explanation of kinds of self- defeating Western behavior I am often confused by. This piece also indirectly explains at least part of Western hostility to Israel’s defensive actions, and the absurdities of making Palestinian Arab violent aggressors into innocent victims.