January 8, 2004

History and Total War

When I was a teenager and first learned about the Holocaust, something precious and small, not hope but perhaps faith, slipped away and was lost to me forever.

I have read about it in books. I have seen it in movies by Polanski and Spielberg and Benigni. My maternal grandfather was shot (but not killed) by the Nazis. My mother went to grade school on an American base in Germany during de-Nazification. Still, almost everything I know is third-hand. I’ve never met a Holocaust survivor, at least not knowingly. It was not so long ago, but it was before my time. It feels remote, though it is not.

Our country is still embroiled in the moral arguments of war. For some of us, the Holocaust hangs around out back. The Islamofascist jihad has already killed millions (not thousands) in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria, and Sudan. Most of us didn’t notice so long as far-away foreigners were the ones doing the dying. But when it arrived with apocalyptic fury in the heart of our own cities, we had neither cause nor the right to remain neutral or passive.

We’re still arguing about Iraq after the fact. And sometimes this discussion seems so petty. Compared to other people and ourselves in other times, we are spoiled. The Holocaust informs my view, but what we have suffered is nothing - nothing - nearly as bad as that.

Even if you opposed intervening in Iraq, surely you realize that some moral good has come out of it; a tyrant is gone. And we didn't need to nuke Baghdad to get him out.

The perceived immorality of our action may weigh heavily on your soul. But it’s nothing compared to what we might have to face if our goal of limited war for democracy fails.

Do you want to know what a truly terrible moral dilemma looks like? Read this interview with left-wing Israeli historian Benny Morris in the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz. (Via Allison Kaplan Sommer and Roger L. Simon.)

“Ben-Gurion was a transferist. He understood that there could be no Jewish state with a large and hostile Arab minority in its midst. There would be no such state. It would not be able to exist."

I don't hear you condemning him.

"Ben-Gurion was right. If he had not done what he did, a state would not have come into being. That has to be clear. It is impossible to evade it. Without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here."

Benny Morris, for decades you have been researching the dark side of Zionism. You are an expert on the atrocities of 1948. In the end, do you in effect justify all this? Are you an advocate of the transfer of 1948?

"There is no justification for acts of rape. There is no justification for acts of massacre. Those are war crimes. But in certain conditions, expulsion is not a war crime. I don't think that the expulsions of 1948 were war crimes. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. You have to dirty your hands."

We are talking about the killing of thousands of people, the destruction of an entire society.

"A society that aims to kill you forces you to destroy it. When the choice is between destroying or being destroyed, it's better to destroy."

There is something chilling about the quiet way in which you say that.

"If you expected me to burst into tears, I'm sorry to disappoint you. I will not do that."

So when the commanders of Operation Dani are standing there and observing the long and terrible column of the 50,000 people expelled from Lod walking eastward, you stand there with them? You justify them?

"I definitely understand them. I understand their motives. I don't think they felt any pangs of conscience, and in their place I wouldn't have felt pangs of conscience. Without that act, they would not have won the war and the state would not have come into being."

You do not condemn them morally?


They perpetrated ethnic cleansing.

"There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. I know that this term is completely negative in the discourse of the 21st century, but when the choice is between ethnic cleansing and genocide - the annihilation of your people - I prefer ethnic cleansing."

And that was the situation in 1948?

"That was the situation. That is what Zionism faced.”

That is what total war against a jihad looks like. That is the terrible moral equation we Americans might one day have to face if our morally attractive liberation strategy doesn’t work.

We in the West have not seen total war since the defeat of the Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We have not had to explode nuclear weapons. We have not had to firebomb large urban centers to make a ferocious enemy capitulate.

But war is part of the world, and total war may be in our future again. Total war is being waged as we speak by Palestinians against the Israelis. Don’t be so sure we are finished with it forever.

Some Americans and many more Europeans have convinced themselves that total war is a thing of the past, that we in the modern world have moved beyond such nasty necessities. But human nature is eternal. History does not stop. As Robert Kaplan put it in the opening of a recent book: There is no modern world.

UPDATE: Benny Morris visited Berkeley recently to give a lecture. The Berkeley crowd has swooned over Morris in the past, but they were not very happy with him this time. Judith Weiss has the details.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at January 8, 2004 5:41 PM
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