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We Are Barbarians Too

We Are Barbarians Too


As the human toll mounts in Gaza, the irrational justifications for, and execution of, war are front of mind.  I won’t wade into the complex history of the region or opine one way or another on the oppression or bigotry flowing in both directions.  I write only to point out the absurdity, cruelty and hypocrisy associated with all wars, especially when considering our own country.

Rather than offering an arcane explication of the “law of war,” I refer you to this Wikipedia article.  It offers the arcane explication on my behalf.  So much commentary on the current conflict refers with great sobriety to violations of the rules of war, on both sides, as though it was a football game.  Or that war is like boxing, where the Rules of Queensbury apply, and one may not hit below the belt, yet rendering one’s opponent brain dead through savage punches to the head is fair play.

The absurdity can be illustrated through the eyes of grieving parents, of whom there are a great many in this latest horror.  There are the parents of a child brutally slaughtered in the Hamas attack that precipitated the war.  This child died in action that apparently violated the “rules.”  Then, there’s the child who died as “collateral damage” in a retaliatory strike by Israelis, which was within the “rules,” although sad to be sure.  And, of course, there are the thousands of children who have died or will die from dehydration, dysentery, and starvation.  Here, the “rules” don’t speak clearly.   Is any death, more or less, heart-wrenching because the “rules” were followed or violated?

Even the useful idea of a short ceasefire is absurd in a sense.  At one moment, soldiers are inflamed to slit a throat or riddle a body with bullets, and then what?  Stop for a moment, have a cup of tea, and then reignite the irrational fury that accompanies the taking of a human life?

This brings me to the sanitization of atrocity that accompanies the United States’s approach to warfare.  Our sanitized vulgarities are always justifiable, in contrast with the more direct and observably or imaginably horrifying acts, like a Hamas knife at the throat of a baby.  It has always been thus.  In Vietnam, B-52 pilots dropped tons and tons of bombs that indiscriminately tore limbs from children, or B-26 bombers dropped napalm, scorching children’s flesh.  Reliable reports suggest we used napalm in Iraq, too.

Then, as now, we use the distance provided by superior technology to ease or entirely avoid any guilt or remorse.  I drank beer with B-52 pilots in Thailand when they returned from bombing missions and never heard or sensed a moment of discomfort or self-reflection.  Every mission wrought more terrifying destruction than all of Hamas’s actions taken together.  But they didn’t have to see mutilated children or, in the case of B-26 pilots, smell the obscene peculiarity of napalm burning human flesh.

Although it is only tangentially relevant, I’ve always had similar beliefs about capital punishment.  I am opposed to the death penalty for ethical and logical (it is not a deterrent) reasons, but those who are complicit in its use should be required to closely observe the event.  That includes every judge, jury member, or legislator who imposes or facilitates the death of another human.

It is the safe haven of power that allows us to sustain a sense of moral superiority.  This sense creates a context in which our perceived enemies, like the Vietcong or Hamas, are savages in their tunnels while we unleash our holy hell with moral certainty.

To where and to whom does the complicity extend?  To the legislators who provide a torrent of cash to the military/political/corporate complex?  To the leaders who authorize the use of force?  I understand that these are very complicated matters that one must consider soberly in historical context.  Each of us must do our own consideration.

Our own sanitized savagery is a component of this conflict and so many others.  I have this nagging sense that the “law of war” perpetuates violence by legitimizing it.  Churchill is credited with saying, “History is written by victors.”  So are the rules.  The laws of war were created by the powerful.  Of course, there is some modest virtue in declaring innocent civilians and children “off limits,” but our own violations of such “rules” are of epic proportion.

Every war death, particularly that of a child, is a human tragedy and moral abomination.

In this case, the horrifying military might of the Israeli/American alliance bears more ethical responsibility than any of the “rule” violations by Hamas.  Revenge is an ugly monster.

There is only one path.  Peace, not victory.  Reconciliation, not retribution.  Humility, not righteous certainty.

Stop the damn war.


Steve Nelson
Steve Nelson is a retired educator, author, and newspaper columnist. He and his wife Wendy moved to Erie from Manhattan in 2017 to be near family. He was a serious violinist and athlete until a catastrophic mountain bike accident in 2020. He now specializes in gratitude and kindness.

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