It is said that much of the world is outraged by Israel’s war against Hamas. The media in America can’t find enough to criticize. Tens of thousands of women and children killed or crippled. Famine, inadequate medical supplies, attacks on hospitals—the list of moral transgressions could fill headlines from tomorrow until the end of time. We cannot dismiss this criticism as imagined or biased nonsense. There is truth in some, though certainly not all, of it. Nevertheless, the attacks on Israel’s conduct of the war are very far off from what they should be. There are many causes of that, but one is clear. Americans have forgotten what it is like to be at war, a real war that threatens our homeland and involves an enormous number of our countrymen.

We haven’t been in a real war in that sense since 1945, four generations past. During World War II, every American life was seriously threatened. No one asked why we must win, or at what cost. It did not have to be explained. The worst could happen. Hopefully not, but possibly yes. Apparently, we can understand Israel’s war only by recalling our war.

There was relatively little controversy about what Americans had to do during World War II. Everyone was needed. Who would do the fighting? Everyone. It was not a job limited to professional soldiers. Most of our recruits had never fired a gun, certainly not at another person. They hadn’t beaten up anyone ever, let alone killed one. The worst of it? They left their homes knowing they might never return. Not that their feelings mattered. Whether afraid and hesitant, or eager to be a hero, their attitude was irrelevant. They had to go. Farmers, plumbers, electricians, accountants, actors and baseball players, students not yet finished with their studies—all put their clothes in the closet and put on whatever uniform was assigned to them. Not a time for individualism and personal growth. They were expected to do what they were told to do. Military attitudes, put up and shut up. Anything else might land them in jail.

And most were willing. They had seen newsreels of Pearl Harbor, of fire and bombed buildings in London, dead people everywhere. Their grocery store, their high school, the houses on their block, their neighborhood, and Times Square—it was their job to protect all of it. To protect America. Everyone they loved and perhaps didn’t love, their brothers and sisters, parents and children, their wives, girlfriends, friends, and in-laws—everyone had to be kept safe.

The protecting didn’t fall only to the men. Tens of thousands of women worked in factories to keep the engines going. Others sold war bonds, held raffles, had breakfasts, luncheons, and dinners, finding a thousand ways to contribute. Food rationing, any and all conceivable ways that could help the war effort were dreamt up and carried through. The war was not a movie. It was real.

People turned to the news, needing to know how we were doing, the progress made by our soldiers, or defeats that set us back. Our reporters were expected to be like everyone else. Worried and concerned. Loyalty was assumed. The usual petty controversies, yesterday’s gossip, and today’s fads, compared with the war, were no longer entertaining. The rules were many. Right or wrong, they were expected to be followed. Photographing body bags was forbidden. To focus, one by one, on the 407,000 young Americans killed would have been destructive to our war effort. It would have supported the enemy’s cause. Nations who relented to Hitler did so because they believed fighting him wasn’t worth the cost in human lives. Many more Americans might have turned against the war if they were daily confronted by the horror of our dead being brought home. Similarly, calling attention to the suffering of civilians attributable to our military actions was taboo. It was rightly considered giving comfort to our enemy. Free expression of any type that hindered our war effort was a luxury we couldn’t afford.

The obscene gotcha of modern reporting would have been particularly incomprehensible. Mistakes were made all the time, thousands of them. For example, on D-day 47 out of 52 of our poorly designed amphibious tanks sank to the bottom of the ocean killing their crews during the invasion of Normandy. Should that have been a headline story on the day that our men made it beyond the beach to begin their treacherous path to Berlin? Would it have been helpful to our fighting spirit to place emphasis on the nincompoops running our military? The recent tragic bombing of the World Central Kitchen workers in Gaza is a reminder of how often friends are killed by friends in the confusion and fog of war. It isn’t treachery, and it isn’t always incompetence. It is an inevitable occurrence. It is estimated that up to 20 percent of all soldiers killed in any war are killed by friendly fire. In Operation Desert Storm, friendly fire was responsible for almost a quarter of American deaths.

Death is, of course, what makes war so horrible. But focusing too much on that interferes with crucial planning. We don’t want to know about the dying; we want to keep our focus on winning. But, yes, it matters. Losing our own men unnecessarily was not irrelevant to our generals as they tried to figure out how to destroy our enemies—but as with a surgeon, an amputation is not out of the question when trying to save a patient. Sometimes our own men had to be sacrificed to achieve military goals. Germany’s and Japan’s generals were every bit as intelligent as ours and as dedicated to destroying us as our own military planners were to destroying them. Compared with the goal of winning each battle, perhaps smashing our enemy mercilessly, individual soldiers’ deaths were not of primary concern. A factor for sure, but those generals who are too concerned with their army’s safety are not up to the job. At the beginning of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had to replace one general after another who had kept their armies safe from combat. It was nice of them to care about their men. But they were useless as generals. In World War II, there were men like Patton, tigers, warriors, half animal–half man, thrilled by victory, contemptuous of frailty, not someone to a call a friend, even a vile anti-Semite as Patton was. What mattered was distinguishing yourself in the art of killing the enemy. Clumsy personalities and making ill-conceived outbursts were, by necessity, tolerated. What counted was results. Dwight David Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the effort, knew he needed warriors to beat the Germans. There were more than enough beasts on the other side.

In the calculus of war strategy, collateral damage was not high on the list of concerns. Similar to what’s being done in Gaza, every island that our Marines were asked to retake from the Japanese was hit with heavy bombing and artillery fire before America went in on the ground. It was, and is, standard military practice, softening resistance to cut down on the number of our men who would be lost in the invasion. Residents of the islands were simply out of luck. No one would deny their casualties were real, but focusing on that seemed off-point. Same argument. There was a war to be won, an island to take. Perhaps the Japanese weren’t as cruel as Hamas and didn’t use the islanders as shields, but perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered. The bombs and artillery would have come anyway. And if island casualties were a regular part of the reporting after a battle, perhaps our military planners comforted themselves with the thought that we were freeing those who survived on the islands from Japanese occupation. But probably not—after all, bombing was highly inaccurate. We were worse than a bull in a china shop, only it wasn’t china we were destroying. It was people and homes. Before our troops went storming in to free France, we threw high explosives everywhere, killing mothers and children with relatively few misgivings. You can’t do what needs to be done if you think about that too much. The French, nevertheless, lined the streets cheering as our soldiers passed before them. That kind of glory was not particularly on the minds of our generals. As much as they might have enjoyed it, their focus was not on public relations for the American military. That needed no bolstering. As it should be, the focus was on military aims.

We are all familiar with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the massacres of civilians on a scale that had never occurred before. Less publicized were the 100,000 Japanese civilians killed in our fire-bombing of Tokyo five months earlier. It, too, was unprecedented. At that point, it was the largest number of casualties from an aerial bombardment in history. Our leaders felt that the innocence of those we slayed was not a moral priority. Yes, we killed mothers and children, grandparents, uncles and aunts, perhaps a future great artist, composer, or poet, perhaps a scientist who might have discovered a cure for cancer. But speculations of that nature were not relevant. We firebombed Tokyo, and the Japanese did not surrender. And so Americans had to invade Okinawa. Fifty thousand American boys were casualties on the island. And 100,000 Okinawan civilians died as a result of our invasion. The Japanese fought to the last soldier. The general in charge of our assault, Simon Buckner, was killed, as was the war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

On the basis of our experience at Okinawa, our leaders estimated that between 250,000 to 1 million American soldiers would die if an invasion of Japan proved necessary. Dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a no-brainer for President Truman. We acted as any other nation at war. We cared about our own men first. The prospect of 1 million Americans remaining alive overruled any other considerations. Criticism of what we had done only came months after, when those looking back felt totally secure about their own safety. That criticism has heightened in the decades since, expressed as it is by people who could not imagine a time when Americans did not feel safe, when there was a possibility that we could lose the war.

Israel is just over 70 miles at its widest. America is a vast country. We have two oceans to protect us, but with the outbreak of World War II, Americans were afraid. Germany had been building up its military might for years and years. Its factories were humming. Ours weren’t. Influential orators reminded Americans of the horrors of World War I, how we had been dragged into a European war by militarists who never tired of the glories of war. When we finally entered World War II, the horror facing us was evident, our fear appropriate to the danger we faced. Hitler led the most powerful nation on earth. We were not its equal when the war began. German scientists and engineers were among the world’s finest. Germany easily conquered every nation it attacked.

No one was certain that Hitler could be stopped. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese supremacy in the Pacific was nearly absolute. Our soldiers had to flee the Philippines. Barbed-wire fences were erected on Australia’s beaches. Singapore, the center of England’s Pacific empire, had been overrun. That didn’t simply mean a change in Singapore’s government. With Japan’s victory, 25,000 to 50,000 Chinese men were soon lined up and machine-gunned. Eighty thousand British, Indian, Australian, and local troops became prisoners of war joining the 50,000 taken in Malaya; many died of neglect, abuse, or forced labor. During the Sandakan Death Marches, which began in March 1945, more than 2,700 British and Australian soldiers were forced to march through the steamy jungles of Borneo only to be shot when they reached their destination. During another death march, Japanese soldiers gleefully rode their trucks over the heads of Americans who had fallen, too weak to continue on. And we all know how the Germans treated their captive nations and their prisoners. America was up against ruthless leaders who saw no boundaries.

Fear was daily reflected in the news. Sometimes what was reported was bad, very bad, a naval defeat, a battle that hadn’t gone well. But we were not about to roll over and die. General Douglas MacArthur had to flee the Philippines with his family, but he vowed to return, and most Americans believed, or at least prayed, that he would. Given our decimated Pacific fleet, Hawaii’s vulnerability was obvious. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was put under military rule. FBI and military agents rounded up suspected spies and “suspicious persons.” The Army imposed a strict curfew. Habeas corpus was suspended. The military took control of labor, and trial by jury was temporarily abolished. More than 2,000 people were arrested in the first 48 hours alone.

Every person on Oahu, with the exception of children, was fingerprinted and issued identification papers that they had to produce on demand. Civilians were banned from photographing any coastal location. We have since learned that before the war, as our relationship with Japan was deteriorating, Hawaii’s Japanese Americans had been under surveillance by federal and military intelligence agencies that feared they would side with Japan should there be a war. This approach intensified after the Japanese attack. Unlike on America’s West Coast, the Japanese in Hawaii were not moved to internment camps. That would have totally destroyed Hawaii’s ability to function. One-third of the population was Japanese, but if that had not been the case, internment certainly would have been practiced.

Many of our suspicions focused specifically on those who had been born in Japan. Japanese-born people couldn’t own shortwave radios, gather in groups of more than 10 people, or move without requesting official permission. They were labeled “enemy aliens.” During martial law, the media was censored, and press outlets were allowed to use only English. The same applied to people placing long-distance calls. A Japanese-language ban affected many of Hawaii’s schools, which were forced to close. Hawaii’s Japanese population had long been subjected to English-only campaigns, but they had never been successful. Now, pressure to speak only English came from both the military and from Japanese groups desperate to prove their loyalty to the United States.

Modern moralists would be outraged if we allowed our government to do what was thought necessary in Hawaii. In their worldview, such behavior is inconceivable, unless MAGA Republicans were to grab control of America. But was it racist back then? There was probably some of that. Few Americans had Japanese friends. Given Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Malaya, and the Philippines, who knew what Japanese people would be capable of doing? Xenophobia is frowned upon today, but an instinctive fear of strangers is the norm in human history, especially during a time when people tended to trust their own kind.

There were similar suspicions of Italian and German Americans, and a governmentally supported campaign against them was put in place in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor. The FBI searched houses for contraband, confiscating radios and other items, and forced Italians, even those who were naturalized citizens, to report changes of address and employment. The government restricted the employment and movement of Italian fishermen, confiscating their boats and cutting off their access to the waters that provided their livelihood. And though the federal government officially discouraged refusing Italians employment, it looked the other way when employers such as Southern Pacific Railroad terminated them en masse. More than 10,000 Italian Americans were forced from their homes, and hundreds of thousands suffered curfews, confiscations, and mass surveillance during the war. The grandmother of future New York Governor Mario Cuomo was placed in a camp. Eleven thousand German Americans were also committed to internment camps.

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Harshly judging American morality during the war is a luxury only possible with the security and complacency we enjoy today. During the war, people living on the West Coast were afraid of an impending invasion. In California, there were many panicky sightings of the Japanese navy. And any time there was an explosion in L.A., it meant sleepless nights for the wary. There were actual attacks on the United States along the Pacific coast, including against the Ellwood Oil Field, located near Santa Barbara, Fort Stevens in Oregon, and the Lookout Air Raids near Brookings, Oregon. Blackout drills were instituted in most cities, with air-raid wardens going from home to home trying to enforce the blackout rules. Those volunteering their time to be a warden were not mocked as scaredy-cats but treated as partners trying to keep their neighbors safe.

One other piece of information is often ignored by those who today attack America’s racism and paranoia. David Lowman documents in his book Magic (2000) that President Roosevelt, in deciding to move Japanese Americans from the West Coast, was not acting on unverified rumors. Our cryptologists had given him abundant evidence of widespread espionage by Japanese Americans, including actual messages to Japan. This and some of the book’s other claims have been challenged, but even if the book were not entirely correct even if—as most people, including me, believe—the great majority of Japanese Americans were loyal to the United States, the argument still holds. We were justifiably frightened by the reality of holding a weakened position in a war against fierce enemies. There probably were spies, and chances could not be taken. It wasn’t only paranoia or racism or other villainous motives that led to the internment camps. It was actual danger.

War is war, a horrible time demanding attention to impossible possibilities. Those making decisions do not have the time that scholars have, after the fact, to carefully contemplate choices that could have been made. We expect our generals to be decent men but not overburdened by moral complexities. Being distracted by them gets in the way of decision-making, which must often be quick. We hope, we pray, we count on them to do what they have been chosen to do, to win our war, to not let our enemies defeat us. That is priority one, two, and three. We can only hope they are making good choices. If they have given extra thought to moral concerns, that is a plus, but we shouldn’t expect it from them. Their other purposes are too important. Whatever flaws they may have, our generals must satisfy the reason that we need them, to guard the country, to protect us, to win the war. 

What’s most extraordinary is that Israel is fighting a war for its existence while employing measures to reduce civilian casualties so extensive and laborious that our own World War II generals—and civilians—would have deemed them preposterous: dropping millions of leaflets and placing millions of phone calls urging Gazans to evacuate in advance of military strikes, observing pauses to allow for aid delivery and safe civilian passage, strategically deploying munitions in ways that reduce their maximum effectiveness so as to spare civilian life in Gaza. Yes, the fight is vicious and the IDF is fierce in battle. But Israel bears no sign of the indifference to civilian casualties that was a simple, accepted fact of American warfighting in World War II.

Despite terrible press throughout the world describing Israel’s war on Hamas, despite President Biden’s criticism, most Israelis agree that their safety depends on Hamas being eliminated. They are today a nation of 9 million, 75 percent are Jews, on a small piece of land 85 miles at its widest. They don’t have oceans to protect them. No Israeli can ignore the repeated history of Jews being successfully slaughtered. Their fear is justified, as is their rightful fury. Never again. The phrase has been repeated so often that it may have lost its sting. But not its meaning. Jews will never again simply submit to those wanting to eliminate them. Whatever it takes, those intent on seeing them dead will pay the price, and others will think a thousand times over whether they want to arouse the sleeping giant. Yes, giant. Not many men, not much land, but a giant. Cruel experience has taught that a Jewish image less than that invites disaster from those looking for trouble.

Jews in Israel sit on a keg of dynamite. What happened on October 7, 2023, happened on August 16, 1929, the day after Tisha B’Av. Muslims were told that it was their duty to take revenge. “Defend the Holy Places” became the battle cry. Mobs of armed Arab worshippers inflamed by anti-Jewish sermons fell upon Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall, destroying Jewish prayer books and notes placed between the stones of the Wall. Soon after, more than 1,000 Arabs launched attacks on Jews throughout Jerusalem. Forty-seven people were killed. This was followed by widespread attacks on Jews throughout Palestine.

It isn’t coincidence that Israel has one of the great military forces in the world. Some of this may be due to savvy, but it is foremost an illustration that necessity is the mother of invention. Israelis cannot
ignore danger. Ten miles away, their neighbors’ offspring are taught from an early age that Jews are evil and must be eliminated. In Iran, they don’t mince words. Mobs chant “Death to Israel” as they conclude their prayers. They also chant “Death to America.” But even if the very worst were to happen, and we were attacked, we—unlike Israel—wouldn’t fear annihilation.

Even in times of relative calm, there have been unimaginable reminders that Israeli citizens are not safe. Their enemy doesn’t care about projecting a respectable image. Quite the opposite. As with the Nazis and ISIS, inducing terror is the centerpiece of their public-relations initiatives. No other nation has had its athletes murdered at the Olympics. Trampling on the Olympic ideal, a moment of peaceful competition, these murders were almost as unthinkable as an attack on a sacred temple or church filled with congregants who had placed themselves in God’s hands. Correction: Synagogues, churches, and mosques are favorite places for terrorists to attack. The more revered the site and the moment, the greater pleasure it gives terrorists. Egypt and Syria deliberately chose Yom Kippur, the holiest Jewish holiday, to initiate a war. Their hatred becomes clarified and total when expressed at the most sacred time and place. Choosing death at the finish line of the Boston Marathon was also no coincidence. Terrorists find the greatest bliss in killing when those they hate are joyful in the bosom of their finest moments. Israelis are reminded again and again that it is not paranoid to recognize this. They are not being oversensitive. Evil, the most perfect expression of hatred their enemies can conceive, is even worse than our imaginations can conjure. The task of combating it to preserve oneself, one’s family, one’s country, and one’s civilization combines self-interest and nobility. We did right in World War II, notwithstanding all the wrongs. And Israel is doing right right now.

Photo: AP Photo/U.S. COAST GUARD

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