At the 1945 Potsdam Conference the U.S. agreed to the forcible removal of about 12 million Germans, again largely civilian and many children and elderly, from lands their ancestors had inhabited for centuries. Many of the expulsions took place in winter amid terrible scenes of hunger and deprivation, all while mass rapes of German women slowly subsided across the Soviet zone of Germany.
Lawyers and legislators can debate whether these actions constitute war crimes, but as Cicero put it more than two thousand years ago, “inter arma enim silent leges.” Roughly, that translates as the “laws go silent when armies clash.” Or as William Tecumseh Sherman put it more succinctly, “War is hell.”
One reason the news from Gaza has so massively affected the younger generation is that they have grown up considering peace to be normal and natural. The war in Gaza hasn’t merely introduced young Americans to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also has shown them the face of war.
After the horrors of World War II, Americans did everything to build a stable and at least relatively peaceful world order. This order was far from perfect. It tolerated and, in some cases, protected gross economic, social, racial and national injustices. And some of the little wars Americans fought to defend it, as policy makers at the time believed, were as brutal as the world wars of the 20th century.
But the world order prevented the eruption of global conflicts on the scale of the great wars with casualties reckoned by the tens of millions. It also permitted generations of Americans to grow up in a bubble. For younger generations, war was passé. Foreign policy henceforth would involve promoting equitable development in poor countries, extending the definition of human rights, promoting global public health, fighting climate change and perfecting the body of international law.
War has other ideas. The American-led world order is under attack abroad, even as Americans have increasingly abandoned their commitment to preserving it. The result, inevitably, is a gradual and perhaps sudden return to the lawlessness and violence that marks a world at war.
Israelis and Palestinians don’t live in the post-historical bubble. More than 300,000 Syrian civilians are believed to have been killed during a decade of civil war, and millions more have been driven from their homes. Elsewhere, an estimated 100,000 Armenians fled their homes in terror this year. Roughly six million Sudanese have done so in the current civil war. Industrial-scale slaughters of the innocent, and the flight of millions of refugees are the new normal in their neighborhood. Jihadi bands and Wagner mercenaries are sowing chaos and death across the Sahel. About 370,000 have died in the Yemen war.
Gaza introduced Gen Z to the true horror of war. In the short run, Hamas’s propaganda machine is enlisting images of suffering Palestinians to foil Israeli efforts to break its power in Gaza.
The real question, though, for the future of America and the world isn’t whether hot-headed college students will march for Hamas. It’s whether as they mature, they come to understand how fragile and important peace is and take up the task of defending it. If not, war won’t be something they see on cellphones and spout slogans about. It will be the force that shapes and determines their lives.