Monday, July 31, 2006

Women and children first: the propaganda of compassion, at Qana and elsewhere

The casualties at Qana are horrific. The visuals are heartrending, and the details sorrowful--especially the predominance of women and children among the dead.

We are biologically predisposed to want to protect children--to love them, to smile when we see them. Only monsters kill children, correct?

Although the phrase "women and children first" comes from maritime tradition, the same impulse has meant, historically, that societies were generally dedicated to protecting that especially vulnerable and vital portion of their population from the enemy.

This doesn't mean that in war women and children were not killed, of course, despite those efforts at protection. In particular, the aeriel bombardments of World War II made children fair game if they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, although they were not specifically targets (except for purposeful Nazi killings of Jewish children during the Holocaust). Some countries, such as England, sent many of their children off to the countryside during the war, because it was mainly cities that were bombed.

And World War II ended with the terrible atomic conflagration of Hiroshima, which killed indiscriminately; a description of the plight of the victims was immortalized in John Hersey's classic. Hersey's Hiroshima, published after World War II ended, represented the first attempt of which I'm aware to take a close look at the enemy war dead, and to view them with compassion and even a sense of shame for what an honorable nation, the United States, felt it necessary to do in time of war.

I've discussed the pros and cons of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan here; I'm not going to rehash the topic at this point. I'm bringing it up now, however, to illustrate the fact that World War II involved such widespread and horrific carnage--both military and civilian--that, once it was over, there was a natural desire to write about the devastation in the humane (and probably vain) hope that people would somehow found a way to avoid such things in the future.

Here's what I wrote about Hersey's work in my earlier post:

Hersey's book purposely gives his reportage on Hiroshima no context at all, the better to appreciate the appalling human cost. He simply describes, and the reader identifies with the victims. There is no way to read his book and not feel a deep and visceral revulsion towards what happened there.

Although the scale is nothing whatsoever like Hiroshima, the casualties at Qana are dreadful, and we instinctively recoil from them. They are also the sort of the thing that makes good programming for the voracious jaws of the 24-hour-a-day cable news cycle. And as for context--well, too much context would muddy the waters and appear to justify the bombing of children.

But too little context serves the propaganda purposes of the group least interested in stopping the deaths of children such as these, and that is Hezbollah.

In Qana, Israel was targeting a location that had been used repeatedly for rocket firing at Israel's own civilians. Israel forces had warned the population to leave prior to the bombing. The people who died obviously did not heed those warnings. Whether this was because they didn't get the word to leave, or couldn't leave because they didn't have the resources, or voluntarily chose not to leave, or whether Hezbollah kept them from leaving, we simply do not know.

Israel had no information that this particular structure was filled with women and children when it was targeted. But filled it was. And, as Richard Fernandez of Belmont Club writes, "... all the leaflets in the world can be dropped and the death of civilians still be a near-inevitability."

The new calculus of asymmetrical warfare, of which Hezbollah is master, is that the sacrifice of women and children is a good strategic move; putting weaponry among its own women and children is the result of a conscious and wily decision on its part.

This is a sort of looking-glass inversion of the old rule "women and children first." And it tends to work, because current asymmetrical warfare is fought less on the traditional battlefield and more on the battlefield of public opinion.

Hezbollah knows that there's nothing like dead women and children to turn public opinion against those doing the killing. And there's nothing like the Western news to fail to adequately provide and evaluate the all-important context for that killing.

Hezbollah could not--and would not--operate this way if it didn't rely on both the compassion of the West and its news cycle. Without these things, Hezbollah's actions would be suicidal. But with these things, Hezbollah's actions are effective.

So, what's the solution? What should Israel--or any other country faced with such a dilemma--do when an enemy such as Hezbollah turns the tables on the compassionate West, and takes advantage of the compassion to get a twofer: launching rockets from civilian enclaves in Lebanon to directly target Israeli civilians, and then scoring a propaganda coup with the cooperation of the Western media when Israel retaliates and kills the Lebanese civilians?

And then imagine a similar question being asked when a nation such as Iran goes nuclear. The people of Iran will then be in the position of the women and children of Qana, first in line for retaliation if the mad mullahs decide to attack.

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