Itching for Another World War
A hundred years ago this month, the Austro-Hungarian Empire began bombarding the capital of its diminutive archenemy, Serbia. The ancient Hapsburg regime, headed by the grandfatherly, impressively side-whiskered Emperor Franz Josef, had been looking for an excuse to pummel Serbia into submission, and the assassination of heir-apparent Franz Ferdinand by an impetuous young Serb was just the ticket. (The late archduke was widely disliked at home, but no matter.) Austria issued Serbia an ultimatum; the Serbs quibbled with a few of the terms, and that was enough to ignite the fireworks.
Austria’s bombardment of Belgrade set off a chain reaction that quickly spread throughout Europe and around the globe. Today we call the resulting conflagration World War I, and it wasn’t pretty even by the ugly standards of big-time warfare. The millions who died over the next four years couldn’t have cared less about Archduke Franz Ferdinand or the petty territorial squabbles of Balkan states, but their leaders apparently did. And so the bodies piled up. That’s the nature of classic warfare: rulers squabble, commoners die.
Fast-forward exactly a century, and it looks as if the world is itching for another cleansing round of mass bloodshed. How else to explain the tireless and infuriating tit-for-tat of hostilities between Israel and Hamas? Or the reckless brinksmanship of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine’s civil war? Or the wanton conquest of eastern Syria and northern Iraq by the eerily named militant Islamist group ISIS? (It’s as if the ancient goddess has returned to spread death and destruction across the Middle East and beyond.)
For now, let’s focus on Israel and its implacable adversaries. Both sides have been going at it with alarming gusto, and of course both sides claim to be victims. Hamas militants have been firing away at Israel mindlessly and persistently, like mosquitoes tormenting a sweaty horse, giving Israel a perfect excuse to fire back. Israel, no longer the plucky underdog of its early decades, has been spilling mostly-innocent Arab blood in the Gaza Strip, an Arab-occupied, Hamas-dominated patch of real estate the size of Philadelphia.
So who’s to blame? The obvious answer, at least from The New Moderate’s perspective, is both sides.
Hamas, like all Islamic terror groups, is guilty of refusing to accept the validity of Israeli statehood. What will it take for these Muslim militants to stop begrudging the Jewish people, dispersed and oppressed for nearly two thousand years, a New Jersey-sized slice of turf occupying roughly half their ancestral homeland, with a little extra desert thrown in for good measure? Where were the Jewish survivors of Nazi depredations supposed to establish a modern state for their people – Antarctica? The Jews earned their right to Israel through a combination of land purchases, grit and perseverance, and they’ve successfully defended it three times against staggering odds. The people we call Palestinians are simply Arabs who lived in an artificial state created from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, they were free to stay put or find a new home within a vast Arab dominion that stretches from Morocco to the Iranian border. Israelis have only Israel. This much is certain: if terror groups like Hamas stopped putting Israel in their crosshairs, the bloodshed in the so-called Holy Land would stop tomorrow.
And what about Israel, now widely vilified (especially on the multiculti left) as a world-class imperialist oppressor of indigenous peoples? First of all, Israel must plead guilty to creating a caste system that relegated its resident Arabs to second-class status. Yes, Israel was founded as a Jewish state, and you can’t blame Israel’s Jews for wanting to keep it that way. But Israel can be shockingly, almost gleefully ruthless in lashing back at its enemies; that ruthlessness has been amply displayed during the ongoing blockade and siege of Gaza. You’d think a civilized people who endured centuries of persecution at the hands of ethnic majorities would show a little more sensitivity toward the minorities in their midst – at least toward the civilians who suffer most from Israeli overkill. I’ll never forget the chilling words of an extremist rabbi who declared that “a million Arabs aren’t worth one Jewish fingernail.”
Ah, those irritating extremists – always ready to snatch war from the jaws of peace. For a while, back in the 1990s (which look increasingly like the world’s last relatively happy decade), Israel and the PLO were laying the groundwork for a permanent two-state solution. But then Hamas took the reins in Gaza and used that teeming hellhole as a staging ground for random rocket attacks on Israel. At the same time, arch-nationalist Israeli leaders like Sharon and Netanyahu emboldened Jewish settlers to plant themselves on West Bank real estate that Israeli moderates had set aside for a future Palestinian entity.
Extremists are often entertaining to watch, and they have a happy knack for energizing the push and pull of ideological debates. They’re not entirely without their merits. But once they land in the driver’s seat, watch out: they become the everlasting bane of political life. For whatever reason (stubbornness, obtuseness, or the surefire sex appeal of defiant certainty), extremists simply refuse to examine any issue, even fleetingly, from the other guy’s perspective. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll see too many bewildering shades of gray. Or they’d lose their mojo, or their fringe-element street cred. After all, sensible moderates don’t attract legions of followers in our time; just ask Bob Dole or George Bush the Elder. We’d rather follow a leader who stirs the blood.
Extremists in positions of power have been stirring the blood for centuries, but they faded from view after World War II. Today the ghost of Robespierre must be hooting with joy at the spectacle of politically empowered fanatics spreading their poisons around the planet once again. There’s been nothing like it since the glory days of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
Putin in Russia. ISIS in modern Mesopotamia. Boko Haram in West Africa. Mugabe in Zimbabwe. The Kim dynasty of North Korea. The Taliban. Al Qaeda. And of course, those ever-dependable feuding cousins in the land of Abraham, Jesus and Armageddon.
You have to wonder how much longer civilization can withstand such willful, widespread madness before something rips and we all go hurtling into another firestorm to rival the First World War. Fanatics love to court war. Tit for tat is their modus operandi, and each gesture escalates the hostilities like one of those precision-choreographed Laurel and Hardy altercations: an insult followed by a kick in the shin, followed by a squashed hat, followed by a pie in the face, followed by a well-aimed missile.
It used to be that leaders squabbled and commoners died; that was governing principle behind World War I a century ago, as it was for most warfare since the time of the pharaohs. With a minimum of persuasion, squabbling monarchs could depend upon the raging hormones of their young men to rouse the lust for battle.
But war today has gone populist. Tribalism is triumphant. Ordinary people, fanaticized by hateful and divisive rhetoric, would gladly murder their neighbors without any encouragement from the top. Arab or Jew, Sunni or Shiite, Russian or Ukrainian, and yes, Republican or Democrat – they answer now to the primal human need for creating a common enemy, and they itch collectively for combat.
Rick Bayan is founder-editor of The New Moderate.