Dalton Delan: We owe an unflinching look to the horrors of war and our own history
“Politics makes strange bedfellows,” wrote Mark Twain’s friend Charles Dudley Warner in 1870. Here it is a century-and-a-half later, and the bedbugs are still biting the strange and the estranged.
At the center of critical help being withheld from Ukraine lie two nations linked by genocidal past and present: Germany and Israel. Both are hesitant to engage Russia and Putin.
German chancellor Angela Merkel championed the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in addition to leaning into the first, binding her country to Russia by gas. Germany has now halted pipeline construction, but with half its gas Russian, it has stonewalled sanction of Russia’s largest bank. Until this is done, despite sanction by the U.S., the European Union’s partial inaction will continue to prop up Putin. Israel’s Prime Minister Bennett “walks between the raindrops,” keeping his powder dry. Bordering Syria is tantamount to abutting Russia, so Bennett has staunchly resisted any role in covert or overt arms flow to Ukraine. In their caution, Germany and Israel are outnumbered but not alone. Former pariah South Africa and India also cautiously bestride political picket fences.
Even in the changed world of the 21st century, in responding tepidly to Putin’s genocide it would be hard to find two more unlikely brethren than Germany and Israel. For Israel, the very continuance of the state — threatened from birth — is ever at risk in its surrounded geography, while Germany is in the throes of an entirely self-made dilemma due to Merkel’s decision to pay at Putin’s pump. Squaring the circle, our nation is on historically shaky ground calling out war crimes, however warranted the accusation. What is troubling is the high horse we ride righteously, oblivious to the past, as we condemn Putin.
Our uncomfortable similarity to Lady Macbeth dates not only to the treatment of Native Americans, driven by our vision of Manifest Destiny, but the brutal battle against Germany and its ally Japan in World War II. We turned away ships carrying victims of the Holocaust, and ended the war raining Armageddon on civilians on two continents. It is not that we should refrain from crying “J’accuse” in the face of Putin’s atrocities; it is that we have never admitted our own complicity in what many historians would judge war crimes when we were in the fight. Is there a moral distinction if we were not the aggressor? Does it matter to innocent victims?
When I was developing a documentary on the plight of what I then termed “war’s children,” I reached out to writer Kurt Vonnegut and received a reply of interest.
I was pleased but not surprised, as his novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” tells the semi-autobiographical story of his personal experience as a POW enduring the Allied firebombing of Dresden.
Over four raids in 1945, American and British bombers dropped 3,900 tons of high-explosives and incendiary devices on the city, killing nearly 25,000 women, children and men in the resulting firestorm. A month later, in two nights known as Operation Meetinghouse, we delivered arguably the single largest assault from the skies in human history, firebombing Tokyo and killing 100,000 people, with another million made homeless.
We are not even speaking here of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where perhaps 200,000 civilians perished. When Putin threatens tactical nuclear strikes, he is not the first to cross that bright line. No false equivalency here. Our past in no way justifies Putin’s present, or invalidates our pursuit of war criminals devastating the peoples and cities of southern and eastern Ukraine. In every century, often in the name of self-defense, nations descend a slippery slope into war crimes.
Glass houses everywhere. When limited soft power sanctions fail to deliver the civilians of Ukraine from devastation and death, it is a second tragedy that nations must calibrate their responses due to the exigencies of economy, politics and those pesky little bedfellows. That both Germany, perpetrator of past genocide, and Israel, sanctuary for survivors, now find themselves afloat in something of the same boat seems torn from a Vonnegut galaxy of riddles wrapped in enigmas, like Russian dolls nestled into one another, layer-upon-layer of irony.
It is not that people’s hearts are misplaced or missing like the Tin Man. Yet it is hard to measure human lives by price at the pump. Diplomacy is seldom simple, and countries must protect their unique interests and ensure their citizens’ survival in a Manichaean world where freedom and fascism face off as if in end times. That Putin set out to “denazify” a country led by a Jew is a marker that George Orwell is alive and well. As we unite against such insanity, let us recall that we ourselves are not done with trumpets of Orwellianism, as we saw on Jan. 6.
For the sleep of the just, we must wake to the fight.