The Fog of War: What Gaza and the Ukraine Have in Common

Gaza Bombardment

Photo by Hatem Moussa for Associated Press

The Fog of War: What Gaza and the Ukraine Have in Common
| published July 29, 2014 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Bad things happen in the fog of war. The concept and the quote are generally attributed to Carl von Clausewitz, a Prussian military historian and analyst writing in his posthumous book, Vom Kriege (published in 1837 in German, and again in English under the title On War).

“War is an area of uncertainty,” Clausewitz wrote, “three quarters of the things on which all action in war is based are lying in a fog of uncertainty.” Indeed, truth has taken a beating lately on the world stage.

Eastern Ukraine is a war zone, with Ukrainian forces loyal to Kiev battling heavily-armed pro-Russian separatists with open allegiances to Moscow. Despite heavy pressure from several European nations, and the possibility that the European Union may—against its own economic self-interest—impose harsher sanctions on Russian, the violence in Eastern Ukraine has grown fiercer in recent days. What began as a political crisis in Kiev in December and January has escalated into all-out war.

Truth has suffered mightily along the way.

Weeks ago, a Malaysian jetliner carrying 294 passengers from the Netherlands to Kuala Lumpur was shot down by a high-altitude rocket using a system designed and built by the Russians, and all electronic and digital evidence show that pro-Russian militants have the exact BuK-11 launching system and the exact Gadfly rockets in their possession. U.S. and British spy satellites indicated the heat signature of just such a rocket launch only seconds before the Malaysian airliner exploded in midair, sending parts of the plane showering down across a five-mile area of rural Ukraine.

Still, the pro-Russian separatists—who had already boasted of shooting down Ukrainian military planes—say they had nothing to do with the downing of the airliner.

Reporters from around the world gained almost immediate access to the crash site, where they—along with local civilians, militants, militiamen, photographers and videographers, and even petty thieves—strolled around without regard to the crime scene and with little concern for the integrity of any potential investigation. Bags were stolen, wallets opened, credit cards taken and used within hours to obtain cash. Someone used a chain saw to cut open critical sections of the plane, including the cockpit. Avionic equipment and other materials are taken.

Meanwhile, international crash investigators, U.N. authorities, and aviation authorities were denied all but a few minutes of access each day. And the militants have allowed only three Malaysians to examine the scene—representatives armed with only the contents of small backpacks and a couple of digital cameras.

In the hours and days after the destruction of the plane, the separatists denied involvement, and fell back on the Russian explanation that the plane was in fact shot down by the Ukrainian military. The Ukrainians produced audio recordings that seemed to indicate that the militants who pulled the trigger may have been in direct communication with Russian handlers just across the border. Moscow said that it has evidence that shows Ukrainian jet fighters in that same vicinity—only a few miles from the civilian airplane when it was shot from the sky.

Eventually, some bodies were dragged clumsily from the wreckage and from the rolling hills and idyllic fields of sunflowers, even as the fighting intensified in nearby towns and the sounds of gunfire and rockets could be heard in the distance.

Instead of using the tragedy as a catalyst for de-escalation, both sides use it as an opportunity to increase the violence and ramp up the accusations and the war of words. In Donetsk, in the center of the area controlled by the insurgents, shelling by heavy weapons has left a school destroyed and a home for the elderly shattered. Dozens may be dead, and scores more may be badly injured. The Ukrainian army, now in its third week of turning up the heat on the militants, has gained ground, and in response, the militants have also intensified their efforts to hold on to their positions.

U.S. satellite images show what appear to be formations of Russian artillery pieces—arrayed in a neat firing line—just a few miles across the border, firing upon advancing Ukrainian troops in Eastern Ukraine. Still, Russian President Vladimir Putin says that any troop activity on his side of the border is part of military exercises only, the state position of Moscow since the crisis began seven months ago. Today, Ukrainian forces have raised the ante, rolling in medium-range ballistic missile launchers in an effort to keep the militants on the run.

Meanwhile, even now, the crash site remains largely off-limits to official crash investigators—the result of increased violence in the surrounding areas, and also in large part, because the militants are restricting access to sanctioned investigators and observers. This is despite the fact that Putin and the militants say they are willing to let investigators into the area to perform their grim but necessary tasks.

Truth suffers on the battlefield.

A thousand miles away, a decades-old war between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors to the south has erupted—slowly at first.

In the early days of this round of fighting, mainstream media sources like NBC and CBS intoned that the fighting is something “short of all-out war.” Israel launched reprisals against Hamas positions inside isolated Gaza, and Hamas militants—more heavily equipped than during their last dustups with Israel—fired unguided rockets at Israel. Predictably, the fighting escalated, as Hamas fired dozens of rockets each day and Israel responded in kind with heavy bombardments of areas inside Gaza.

Equally predictable, was the asymmetrical outcome after a few days: Israel has suffered only a handful of casualties, roughly 55 (most of those are military personnel); Palestinians have suffered mightily despite Israel’s claim of surgical accuracy to its weapons and its stated position that it is merely trying to de-militarize Gaza by decimating Hamas fighters.

Rockets and missiles have been fired back and forth in a growing battle of wills, with the terrible result of more than a thousand deaths—mostly civilians—inside the densely-packed and tightly controlled Gaza strip. The carnage has included a grim procession of horrific imagery: civilians and children wounded or killed, many by Israeli strikes, others simply caught in the intense crossfire. Schools have been destroyed, playgrounds hit, hospitals and medical centers torn asunder by explosions and rockets. In some cases, Israel and Hamas have traded accusations over who fired which rocket in what direction, and which mortar shell or missile killed children or hospital patients.

As of this start of this week, several truce plans and ceasefire initiatives have fallen aside. And, predictably, both sides claim the other is at fault.

Truth suffers.

As the death toll rises to nearly 1300 total, the conflict seems to have little chance of de-escalating on its own. Multiple interventions by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry have produced little movement. Pressure by U.S. President Barack Obama seems pointless: there is no love lost between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, two world leaders whose previous attempts at conversation have been strained, to say the least. Egyptian proposals for a ceasefire have been rejected by Hamas, and as of Sunday Netanyahu told the people of Israel to prepare for a long, protracted battle: more Israeli boots on the ground, more shelling, more explosions in the sky above Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For the Palestinians crowded into Gaza, the nightmare is inescapable, for indeed—despite multiple decrees by Israeli defense forces that civilians move away from the fighting—there are no truly safe places within Gaza.

Last week, in a strange and surreal media show of solidarity with the Israeli people, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv to show that the skies above Israel are safe. His goal was to thumb his nose at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) moratorium on flights into Israel during a time of siege and open war. When questioned by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who asked the mayor did he not think that the FAA had a job to protect lives and ensure a degree of reasonable safety, the mayor grew testy, and suggested that the FAA supervisors were acting as patsies and apparatchiks for a hostile Obama administration seeking to pressure Israel during its peak travel and vacation season.

The next day the ban was lifted.

Weeks before, there were widespread questions as to why just such a ban had not been more forcefully employed in the skies across eastern Ukraine, where militants with high-altitude rockets had already shot down Ukrainian fighters and transport planes.

Some bodies from the downed Malaysian jetliner remain unaccounted for, and there has been further degradation of the crash site in the last few days. This increases the possibility that there may never be a satisfactory resolution to the question of the cause of the crash, and for hundreds of families in a dozen countries, there may never be closure.

Meanwhile, Israel and Hamas battle so fiercely that the fires now seem to rage continuously across a pockmarked landscape. Israel accuses Hamas of hiding it weapons among civilians and children. Hamas accuses Israel of strangling the Palestinian people. Truth suffers as thousands die in a war for which the terrible consequences are aimed almost entirely at civilians.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Information is War; Truth is its Casualty; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; July 23, 2014.

No Conflict is Local, No War is Regional; Thursday Review; July 19, 2014.