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‘We Did It Too’: The Ugliest Excuse for Israel

It has become a familiar refrain from U.S. officials and Israel-defenders, and it goes something like this: The Israeli military has gone out of its way to protect civilians, in fact it has done so more than any military in the world—and, by the way, when it comes to civilian slaughter amid drone and missile attacks in urban centers, the U.S. military has done it too. 

It’s an odd way to excuse and deflect responsibility from the gruesome images and stories from the ground in Gaza today, which include ostensible “precision” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) strikes on refugee encampments that sparked infernos killing more innocents than any reported Hamas terrorists in the operation. As reported in the Washington Post, “Parents were burned alive in their tents while children screamed for help. Doctors recounted struggling to treat gruesome shrapnel wounds with dwindling medical supplies.”

The U.S. military “did the same thing,” said National Security Spokesman John Kirby, himself a retired rear admiral, in a briefing on Tuesday. “We have conducted airstrikes in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where, tragically, we caused civilian casualties,” he added.

Let us put aside for a moment that the U.S. military was responsible, over a 20-year period, for a very wide range of civilian deaths during the Global War on Terror—in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and Libya. Let us also put aside that American bombs, drones and yes, soldiers, were responsible for carnage that, contrary to Kirby’s out of place admission Tuesday, was never fully “atoned for,” much less officially acknowledged in any way that would give survivors relief or closure from the horrific events. 

But why the recognition now, and is it truly “the same thing” as what we are seeing today in Gaza? And why would American officials feel the need to throw their own military under the bus to defend the actions of another nation’s military?

“This infuriates me,” steamed Ret. Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, who served in the Persian Gulf War and in the more recent Afghanistan conflict. “Kirby et al. are seeking to trash our own military as a justification for allowing Israel to kill innocent civilians without complaint. That’s what this is all about: we want to silence any criticism of the IDF’s performance in the Strip by saying, ‘Hey, we were bad too, so quit talking about Israel.’ That is reprehensible—and inaccurate.”

The claim that the IDF has been careful about civilian casualties—more so than even the U.S. military—has been repeated many times since the October 7 Hamas attacks by U.S. officials, hawkish Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and presidential contenders like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, went all the way back to the Second World War and the killing of French civilians at Normandy to play down the carnage we are seeing today on the ground in Rafah and Gaza writ large today.

We slaughtered people in massive numbers, innocent people who had nothing to do with their government, men, women and children. War is a terrible thing. But if it’s going to have meaning, if it’s going to have any sense of morality, there has to be a political purpose, and it must be achieved rapidly with the least cost, and you do [that] by speed.

This is an interesting rumination considering the 80th anniversary of D-Day coming up on June 6, but it is clear from performances like this Israel apologia from West Point Professor John Spencer that the point is not to examine the moral clarity of the Allies, but to get the IDF off the hook. In Spencer’s case, he claims the Israelis are doing things no other modern military would do to protect civilians. Like the others, he pointedly makes reference to Fallujah, Mosul and Raqqa in Syria, where U.S. airstrikes were responsible for civilian carnage, albeit in fewer numbers than what we have witnessed in Gaza in the last six months. He claims:

The reality is that when it comes to avoiding civilian harm, there is no modern comparison to Israel’s war against Hamas. Israel is not fighting a battle like Fallujah, Mosul, or Raqqa; it is fighting a war involving synchronous major urban battles. No military in modern history has faced over 30,000 urban defenders in more than seven cities using human shields and hiding in hundreds of miles of underground networks purposely built under civilian sites, while holding hundreds of hostages.

Despite the unique challenges Israel faces in its war against Hamas, it has implemented more measures to prevent civilian casualties than any other military in history.

“They are trying to equate the American experience in Iraq with the Israeli military in Gaza, when they are completely different scenarios. It is a false historical parallel that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny,” retorted Ret. Col. Gregory Daddis, a professor of history and veteran of the Persian Gulf and Iraq Wars, in a comment to The American Conservative. ”But that is the beauty of history. I can shift it to say whatever I want it to say.”

To claim that the U.S. has not bombed civilian targets in conflict zones, including hospitals, schools, and news operations, would be wrong. (Here is just a sampling.) But there is no record of the kind of deliberate, systematic bombing and laying siege to hospitals, assassinating individual journalists, striking aid workers and ambulance crews, bombing refugee camps, and cutting off medical attention and food to an entire population in such a short amount of time as has been witnessed in Gaza. Again, this is not to claim that it never happened—independent journalists will say it was much worse than reported in Fallujah, for example, due to restrictions on media access—but the truncated time frame and the number of dead in Gaza tell a different story, and that needs to be addressed now for what it is. 

“We did a lot wrong in Afghanistan and Iraq, but categorically violating the laws of war was not one of them,” charged Davis.

“I can absolutely tell you, from many first hand observances, that we would do all we could to protect civilians mixed within enemy fighters/terrorists so that we would kill the bad guys and not the innocents—nor destroy their ability to live afterwards (and we would routinely rebuild areas damaged, pay for damage to owners, and provide relief supplies for as long as needed),” he added.

Brandan Buck, who served multiple tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman and intelligence specialist, roundly disagrees that Israel has some special preeminence in protecting civilians, as evidenced by the sheer numbers of women and children killed since the October 7 attacks. While numbers are in dispute, the most conservative estimate is that somewhere in the range of 60 percent of the nearly 36,000 Gazans dead are innocents. 

“Warnings to evacuate and the like are pretty meaningless if the targeted area is inherently civilian, such as a refugee camp. In this case (Rafah), civilians were killed within the very area that they were supposed to flee to,” Buck told TAC. “The counterargument would be that Hamas militants were using the civilians as shields. Regardless of the veracity of that claim, it is the responsibility of the attacking force, in this case, the IDF, to use tactical patience to strike or capture those targets in more favorable conditions that would not assuredly kill civilians. Their inability to do so suggests gross incompetence, malice, or shocking indifference.”

What about his experience?

“I spent over five years in the intelligence community doing counterterrorism analysis related to the war in Afghanistan, nearly a year of which, while deployed overseas, I directly supported special operations forces in their operations directed against high-value targets. During that time, I assisted in prosecuting dozens of airstrikes from UAVs and conventional aircraft, and I cannot recall a strike even remotely similar to the one conducted by the IDF on the Rafah refugee camp.”

He went on: “When I was deployed overseas from 2011 until 2013, the teams that I supported had a zero-tolerance policy towards conducting strikes that could have conceivably resulted in the killing of women and children. I witnessed several operations that leadership called off to prevent such an outcome, and we developed alternative solutions to striking or capturing those individuals at later times and under more ideal conditions.”

The Israelis say they have been using “precision-guided” strikes to get at Hamas. They claim—and are supported by reports of the U.S.–made Boeing label on them—that the munitions used to attack in the Rafah tent encampment were the smallest bombs possible, GBU-39s, used to attack “high precision targets” and that the fire was started by some sort of secondary explosion on the ground. (There have been at least two attacks on nearby tent encampments since.) The U.S. has so far deferred to Israel’s own investigation before determining whether this crossed any red line into civilian harm or war crime.

Ret. Col. Douglas Macgregor, a TAC contributing editor who also served in the Persian Gulf War, balks at the idea that there is any “precision” in what the IDF is doing, in Rafah or anywhere else in Gaza, today.

“What is happening in Gaza has nothing to do with precision. In addition, history teaches that bombing urban areas makes the resulting ruins easier for the opposing force to defend. If the IDF wanted to focus on killing Hamas it would have flooded the tunnels with seawater and moved very deliberately through the city, block by block,” he told TAC. 

“Instead, the Israeli [air force] engaged in a campaign designed to kill or drive out the population while simultaneously leveling the urban areas. The goal is to make it impossible for the population to ever return to the homes they had.” 

Daddis also questions the idea that the Israelis are engaging in any higher level “precision” to protect civilians. “Then how do you account for the casualty disparity? If this is such a precise manner of warfare, how do you explain the high number of civilian casualties?”

“I think those who are actually guiding Israel’s military policy right now are not thinking about precision right now, they are thinking about revenge and extirpation,” he added.

Certainly revenge was on the minds of many Americans after September 11, 2001. They did not, however, level Kabul or starve out its citizens. Yes, over the next 20 years, the U.S. in myriad ways showed its darkest self. That should not be forgotten, but it must not be used to explain away Israel’s actions today, and U.S. veterans can’t be made the scapegoats.

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