War, Crimes, Truth, and Denial
This month’s catastrophic violence in Israel and Gaza — specifically, the contradictory statements from each side on the other’s war crimes — has taken me back to a revealing personal moment almost exactly 18 years ago, recalling a different war in a different part of the world.
That day in the fall of 2005 I was in Yerevan, Armenia, where I was teaching a post-graduate journalism course at the state university. In class that morning, my six students, all of them young women (as was not unusual in that time and place), began discussing the terrible treatment of young recruits in the Armenian army, where the vicious hazing that had been notorious in the Soviet armed forces was still common practice. I don’t remember how the subject came up, but when it did, one student after another chipped in with chilling tales about male relatives and friends who had been savagely treated by other soldiers and their superiors.
Just a few hours later, in an afternoon class with the same six students, someone mentioned Khojaly, the town where, according to the Azeris, Armenian soldiers massacred some 600 Azeri civilians during the Armenia-Azerbaijan war of 1992. My students insisted the story must be false because, as one of them said, “Our boys couldn’t do something like that.”
Only that morning, I reminded them, they had recalled numerous first-hand accounts of horrible things Armenian soldiers did to their own young recruits. Maybe the Khojaly massacre happened, I said, and maybe it didn’t, as Armenia has long insisted, but given the cruelties you spoke about this morning, how can you say Armenians couldn’t do that? For a long silent moment, they looked at me with stunned expressions. Finally, one of them said, “We can’t think that.”
When I heard her words, I realized they were probably the all-too-literal truth. Those young women simply couldn’t think things that didn’t fit the accepted national story about that war, a feeling far more powerful than facts or logic. In the world they lived in, the threat from the enemy was the potential extinction of the Armenian people — a continuation of the attempted genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Taking the Azeri side on anything, including the “facts” on Khojaly or any Armenian atrocity, would be collaborating with the murder of their own people, and that just wasn’t possible.
Echoes from Gaza
If I were in the Middle East today, I’m quite sure I would see the same dynamic playing out on both sides of the current Israeli-Hamas war. Just as my Armenian students couldn’t think that their country’s soldiers were guilty of a serious atrocity, many Israelis and Palestinians are undoubtedly incapable — not just unwilling, but incapable — of recognizing that their side in that conflict might be violating the laws of war and committing crimes against humanity. (The parallel with Israelis is particularly close, since just like Armenians, they have a collective memory of genocide, of facing an enemy that wanted not just to defeat them on some battlefield but to wipe their whole people off the face of the earth.) It also seems a safe assumption that those feelings will not be changed by additional evidence about specific incidents or the broader conduct of the opposing forces.
The conflicting reactions to the October 17th explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza City are an apt example. Palestinians immediately blamed Israeli bombing or missile fire, which they said killed nearly 500 people on the hospital grounds. Israelis argued that the blast was from an off-course Palestinian rocket, while challenging their adversary’s casualty count. (Two days after the explosion, a Jerusalem newspaper reported that estimates from “foreign independent intelligence sources” were far lower — no more than 50 deaths, maybe as few as 10.)
There is no way to know at this writing what additional facts may come to light or if there will ever be a conclusive finding on which side caused the explosion. But even if there is, it’s a safe bet that Palestinians will keep blaming Israel and Israelis will go on accusing Palestinians. Moreover, people on both sides will believe what they’re saying because, like my students in Armenia, they simply can’t think anything else.
The parallels aren’t exact, of course. The Israeli-Hamas conflict is very different from Armenia’s with Azerbaijan — not just geographically but in terms of its history, its circumstances, and most notably its potential to ignite a much wider war with devastating c
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