Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Decorated Artillery Shells, Words, Images, and the Kids of Qana and Qiryat Shmonah

Children Signing Artillery Shells near Qiryat Shmona, Roughly Two Weeks Ago

I have been following with some interest a discussion here on the marginal world of Kishkushim comments generated by Uri’s article, posted last week. Uri's article analyzed the failure of IDF public relations and, in this context, referred briefly to the "release to the foreign media of photographs of Israeli children 'decorating' IDF artillery shells."

The debate began with a critical response by Seth Kimmel, our man in Damascus, to Uri’s piece and some of the feedback it received. Seth’s main point was that we should see the fact that Israeli children were writing messages on artillery shells as an ethical lapse rather than a public relations blunder. In other words, according to Seth, those who encouraged the kids to write the messages or the children themselves were guilty of some serious moral transgression. His implication was that people (like Uri) who cared only about the PR-aspects of this episode, i.e., who interpreted it as damaging for Israel in the war of images, were ethically callous. From there, he went on to make a larger claim that words and images are not mere instruments circulated through global media in public relations battles. Rather, Seth concluded, “they both represent and shape political/military agendas whose consequences are anything but symbolic.”

Seth reached the conclusion above through a tangent – the apparently meaning-laden phrase “new Middle East,” used by Condoleeza Rice. The only link that exists between the image (of the kids) and the Secretary’s phrase, however, is the demagogical one created by a Syrian daily, which printed Rice's words next to a photograph of the Israeli children. But the kids, many of whom had been living in bunkers for several days and seen homes and community centers in their towns destroyed, were writing messages aimed at Nasrallah and the Hizbullah, clearly legitimate targets for anger and ridicule. Neither they, nor their parents, were enacting or advancing Rice's vision (which, by the way, I find far more comforting than the Middle East of Hizbullah, Iran, and Syria).

Seth also managed to link this episode of kids writing on “American-made, rush-shipped” bombs to the tragic events in Qana, to which he turned next in his comments. After condemning Rice for refusing to demand an immediate cease-fire (condemnation which I find misplaced as such a step would prove disastrous for the security of Israeli citizens), he warns that the consequences of words and images “are anything but symbolic.” But the image (photograph) of the Israeli kids did not in any way represent or shape the political or military agendas that led to the deaths in Qana. This is the case in part because no agenda that includes the deaths of innocent civilians exists on the Israeli side. But more importantly, because such a link has no basis outside the demagoguery of Syrian newspapers. The reference to the provenance of the artillery shells (“American, rush-shipped”) is also a spurious connection, as the armaments in question were not the precision-guided bombs that the US is delivering to Israel.

Thus, I have to agree with John that Seth exaggerated the significance of this entire episode. I think the causes of this exaggeration, however, are not so much political as methodological. As a cultural historian, I, too, have become very invested in the importance that cultural artifacts play as not just as expressions but as determinants of developments in the political, military, and economic spheres. In my undergraduate days, I also attended a number of literature seminars where professors insisted on the importance of language as more than a mere vessel for ideas or positions. Today I wonder how sound these sacred premises are. It seems to me that people who have devoted their professional (and often personal) lives to the interpretation of jarring words and images sometimes have an interest in over-rating their importance.


Delana said...

well said Amos, although as a mom i feel whoever took those pics should have shown more tact and tucked them away. but that would be a perfect world.you know what i dont want a perfect world. I know that sounds stupid and polliticaly inncorrect. id go for a vegetable garden and nations that practice humillity. love reading your post. take care.

Proletariat said...

Why didn´t you choose the picture where the children are laughing?

Laughing about death.
One week later, I'm still shocked.

(I also think that this war it's just in the beggining, in fact no one envolved wants peace)


Berry said...

Many of us looked upon the photo as but yet another example of the commendable "Take Your Kid to Work" program, and were pleased to see it had expanded to embrace families beyond the U.S.

[Hi guys. Glad you're OK. Do keep in mind that a hallway is not a bomb shelter, please. Day one of school here. Have charged my Taser and am headed out the door. Take care.]

Kieran said...

"...no agenda that includes the deaths of innocent civilians exists on the Israeli side"

A weak excuse for the bombing of Qana. All this phrase offers is an excuse for the IDF & IAF to say it was an "accident". They want to appear to be on a higher moral ground than Hizbollah by saying their targeting of civilians was "accidental" when it appears to be deliberate. Hizbollah for all their atrocities at least make no claim they are not targeting civilians, thus sparing us the frustration of acts contradicting their stated "agenda". Hence my frustration at the IDF & IAF when they say they have no such agenda yet the evidence points against it.

In short both sides deserve each other. Both want to wipe the other out but Israel haven't explicitly stated it whereas Hizbollah have as a stated goal the eradication of the Israeli nation. Does this make them more wrong? Yes. Does it mean Israel's response is right? Hell no.

John said...

Kieran, what evidence is there that proves that Israel wants to kill large numbers Lebanese civilians? Do you really think the death of civilians in air strikes proves intent? Would you agree if I were to tell you that the NATO air strikes against Serbia in the Kosovo war had the goal of wiping out Serbia's civilian population? Many civilians died in that short air campaign and Serbia's infrastructure was hit hard. Is that "evidence" of a murderous agenda?

There is absolutely no incentive for Israel to kill civilians. On the contrary, disasters such as Qana have increased pressure on Israel to cease its military operations.

The Israeli raids into Lebanon are not about wiping out Lebanese citizens. They're about eliminating rocket launchers that have the lives of more than half a million Israelis to a stand still.
It's so easy for someone on the outside to say that "both sides deserve each other." What would your country do if it were in the unenviable position of having to fight non-state actors that seem oblivious to any of the restraints that face their state sponsors (Syria and Iran) on two fronts (Gaza and Lebanon)?

Oli said...

I don't think the importance of this pictures has been exaggerated. These pictures quite clearly demonstrate the quite sickening approach of Israel (and indeed the whole region) to death. It is a sad state of affairs when children, who presumably don't really understand the implications of their actions, are so flagrantly advocating the efficacy and justice of war. The very idea that a state could get itself into a position to encourage this kind of behaviour to its own children is, to me, a very good indication that its propagandaist tactics have run too deep. These girls seem to have been led to believe that weaponary is the best response. The Lebanese have subsquently been vilified, a fact that is likely to encourage this conflict to continue throughout these girls lives. Psychologically this is not only dangerous for these girls but for all those who see these images.


Dr Victorino de la Vega said...

Turning a man into a pliant “social” animal takes several years of “upbringing”: you have to remove all traces of humanity from him to produce a full-fledged Israeli sicari swordsman, a passionate Persian pasdaran or a fanatical fascist freak.

Then, and only then, can he join the great horde

For machine-men prefer to hunt in packs

Just like urban gangsters and wild beasts

And they always submit to the pack leader

Be he High Priest, Imam, POTUS or Fuhrer


Noah S. said...


Good post. Just one quick remark before work: As much as I share your misgivings about the use and overuse of (what I suppose we should call) discourse analysis in the university, I would be surprised if you wanted to deny the significance of the specific language Condy (and other leaders) use to describe, condemn, or justify events. I suspect you took particular issue with Seth's use of the word "shape." Language has many powers, but "shaping military agendas" is probably not one of them. If anything, it shapes the public's perception of the military agenda. It is clearly over-rated to say that language causes politics, if that's what Seth was saying... But I am not so sure it follows that the methodology you refer to (unclear what it is, exactly) is faulty simply because Seth's logic was inconsistent.

John said...

You missed an important point in the post. None of the messages written on the shell express hostility against the Lebanese people. They do convey the anger that the parents of these kids feel towards Hizbullah (the kids are too young to have written those messages as far as I can tell). In your place, I would be very careful about jumping to conclusions about Israeli attitudes towards death. Israeli culture does not worship death or martyrdom. Kids are also never involved in the types of organized political demonstrations that you might see in other places in the Middle East. One reason is that the Israeli government doesn't organize marches and rallies in condemnation of other states. Your premise, according to which the state of Israel encouraged those kids to write those messages, is totally unbased. Read up on the issue and you will find that it was an initiative of their parents.

In general, your comment betrays a rather naive view of the world. No state cherishes the thought of going to war, but sometimes it is left with no other choice. You presumably live in a part of the world where you feel safe enough to pontificate to less fortunate people about the folly of their government's attempt to protect them.

Seth Kimmel said...

you are absolutely right that i have emphasized the ways in which words (and images) are determinants of political, military, and social agendas, as opposed to simply representations of them. my interest in doing so, however, is not so much to make what most (me included!) would find obscure literary and cultural theory relevant, but rather to actually affect a change in those political, military and social agendas themselves.

and so perhaps i am blowing my cover here, but if i have exaggerated the importance of this photo episode (and yes, i have), the reasons cannot but be political (as opposed to merely methedological), no? i disagree with the current israeli campaign in lebanon, and so i used the connection between rice's rhetoric and israeli photos (both allow me to demonstrate the power of representation) in order to argue that if we represented -- talked about and photographed -- this war differently, it would ultimately change death toll numbers, to choose only the most "real" affect i can think of.

you are also right that i cherry-picked the idea for this connection from a "demagogic" syrian paper (though not quite as demagogic as the new york post, for example). but does the fact that syria is a repressive state, with tightly controlled media then automatically undermine my own use of that connection, which is, precisely, anti-demagogic, i.e. to draw critical attention rather than appeal to popular emotion? although assad is calling for an immediate cease-fire, this does not mean that everyone making a similar call should falted.

[on a side note, since my last post i have realized that the caption and photo are part of a running series, which includes changing pictures and arabic puns on rice's use of term, the "new middle east." today's picture, for example, was of some nameless bloody (muslim) women. i suppose the destruction in northern israeli towns won't be tomorrow's picture...)

and finally, i was using qana as a way of talking about lebanese civilian death more generally over the past three weeks, deaths that rice and bush seem more than just a little bit too comfortable with. the connection between the israeli kid photos and the qana deaths is not, of course, a direct one, though i do to believe that if american and israeli media changed the way the war is represented more generally, then the war itself would be very different, if not impossible.

in any case, amos, thank you for following me through my comment so carefully, even if you disagree with the methodology (and the politics, for that matter). to be honest i am much more comfortable with the diversity of political views, than i am with the suggestion that what noah called "discourse analysis" (is that what i am up to?) is dead. i really believe that changing the way we represent directly affects horizons of expectation and acceptability; which is to say, many forms of violence and inequality eventually become not only illegal, but perhaps even unthinkable, as we transform the ways that violence is represented.

Noah S. said...

Seth - yes, that's what your up to! And that's ok. (As long as it's done carefully.)

Asaf Kedar said...


Focusing the debate on whether or not it's Israel's INTENTION to kill civilians is misleading. It misses the main point, which is that the death of civilians is built into the very logic of Israel's military operations. When you bomb entire villages indiscriminately day after day, when every van or truck on the road is automatically a missile target, you're going to end up killing civilians, and lots of them. Moreover, the Israeli civilian and military are perfectly aware of this. This simply regard it as an "inevitable" price of their war. And it's been exactly the same in the Palestinian territories ever since the second Intifada started. The (pro-)Israeli discourse (yes, DISCOURSE!) of intentions only serves to mask the deadly structural logic of Israel's militaristic mindset, which simply places the achievement of dry military objectives way before the respect for human lives. And that's ethically callous.

sher said...

i live in the philippines and i am very much concerned about what is happening in the middle east. we have a volcano tragedy last 1991, it erupted and because of careful planning and quick evacuation, only 300 or so perished instead of thousands. i believe that if those civilians were allowed to leave on their own, and had help from the lebanese government, they would have done so after having read the leaflets asking them to evacuate. no man living and healthy with babies and wives will stay and wait for their deaths which is inevitable in a situation like that. they know what israel is capable of, so i don't believe that these tragic deaths are intentional at all. but sad to say, these pictures do turn the table against israel. our local program here last night pitted the lebanese consul against the israeli ambassador and the ambassador was eaten alive immediately after the consul showed the pictures of the burned victims in Qana. the consul was so excellent in his attempt to draw the filipino viewers into his side by sounding so sympathetic to the plight of the filipinas trapped in south lebanon, he even read a letter from his friend classmate in the philippines to show the public how this friend of his support lebanon. the letter went on to belittle, mock and call israel names and all sorts of accusations that all the ambassador can say is, i can also produce a letter..... incidentally, they have already sparred in the same channel on a different program where these missile writing pictures were shown by the lebanese consul. i feel like jumping into the screen. the ambassador, and i pity him, didn't do much to counter the attacks leveled against israel.
i pray for peace in israel, i pray that no more lives be sacrificed, lebanese or israelis alike. the strikes may have caused deaths, sad and unbearable to look at, but in a conflict like this, i doubt whether israel would deliberately kill civilians. it is hezbollah's strategy, and boy, is he winning this war or not?

Amos said...

Dear Asaf,

I simply cannot agree with you that intention does not matter here. Your equation of Israeli army and Hizbullah tactics seems very popular in some quarters, but it flies in the face of all my intuitions about morality. Furthermore, I think it would be more accurate to say that "the death of civilians is built into the logic of ALL military operations."

Having said that, I think Israel has actually shown remarkable CARE considering all the circumstances. It is great to take the moral high road and to insist that civilian deaths are always unacceptable and that anyone who accepts them as an inevitability is ethically callous. But can you really show me a military operation in history where more care was taken to protect civilians? I know that you have referred previously to bold political initiatives that would circumvent the use of violent force. Maybe you're right - a peace deal involving Syria perhaps, some major territorial concessions on Israel's part - perhaps these could have avoided these deaths. But I find it hard to believe that. I am just not that optimistic about human nature, and certainly not about the aims and policies of the enemy in this conflict.

Do you really think that Israeli society places dry military objectives before respect for human lives? Have these objectives really become the ends which they were once supposed to achieve (as Adorno & Horkheimer might say)? Don't the military objectives here also ultimately serve to protect human lives - granted, the lives of Israeli citizens above all?

Even in our daily lives there are many instances where you might think that the cold, rational accounting of human lives has replaced humanist appreciations of the individual as an inviolable, unique entity. Think for example about law suits involving compensation for deaths or injury, life insurance, and the decisions made my medical researchers every day about funding certain treatments at the expense of others, or of conducting experiments which they know will, statistics predict, lead to the death of a certain number of people. I am just not sure that the critics of modernity have offered an alternative that is any better than this set of circumstances.

I am also not sure whether it is fair to single out "ISRAEL'S militaristic mindset" without any reference to some of the other actors. I found it rather amusing to read in an interview elsewhere about an Israeli Arab's disgust for Israel's hyper-militarism. The same man expressed his sympathies for Nasrallah - rather peculiar given that Hizbullah's flag features an AK-47.

Ultimately, I just don't buy the larger argument (it's a cliche by now) that pops up in so many post-structuralist and post-colonial
critiques of liberalism and of modernity - namely, that modernity (or "the West," i.e., those opposed by the great anti-colonialist, anti-liberal resistance) conceals its repression behind noble intentions, therefore rendering it EVEN MORE INSIDIOUS than those who have no compunctions about announcing their terroristic means and ends. We've seen this logic on several comments here too - Hizbullah is more moral than Israel because it does not lie about its use of violence to terrorize civilians. Sounds pretty twisted to me.

I will see you soon - so we will continue the discussion.

Noah S. said...


Well said!


Am I wrong to conclude from your comment that you are speaking as a pacifist, or anti-militarist, when you refer specifically to the Israeli case? If not, then I'm curious to know what kinds of state military operations ARE justified. Is it only when all creative political moves have been blocked or exhausted? As Amos correctly said, avoiding civilian deaths altogether clearly cannot be a criterion for an "ethical" military operation. In the Holocaust history seminar we both attended, do you remember the amount of civilians that needlessly perished in Berlin purely due to the Nazis' decision to manufacture and store artillery in residential apartments? (Not that I want to take the parallel too much further than that.)

Amos argues both that military operations CAN be ethical, and that the current Israeli operation in particular is proceeding ethically. There are some who say that all killings of civilians, whether accidental (IDF-incurred) or intentional (Hizbollah-incurred), constitute war crimes. This is a pacifistic position. That's fine, but pacifists would then be misusing the term "war crime," a category that was created with the assumption that wars theoretically can be waged in a non-criminal fashion. Needless to say, I find the pacifistic position utopian.

But the question of intention is not the final word on this matter, and here I think Amos and Asaf are speaking past each other. Asaf seems to be arguing that focusing on intention assumes the inevitability of the use of violence in the first place. This is the same critique leveled against the U.S. government in its last two operations, in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Indeed, the left-wing discourse - Kishkushim's word of the week! - surrounding American militarism has deeply colored our perception of Israeli action.) Bush justified his operations with the logic that in order to ferret out terrorist organizations - who often use civilians as shields - one must accept that a significant number of non-combatants will perish. We saw how U.S. planes dropped both bombs and food - a "humanitarian war." The dissonance sounded by such an idea angered many Americans and maybe rightly so. But in theory, there is nothing inherently offensive about it (again, unless you are a pacifist, and then you're allowed to be offended): it was a war against the bad guys, and a humanitarian cause for the good guys (the innocent Afghans and Iraqis). The idea that these two things have to go together in wartime is a very 20th-century idea. But the question of whether or not the wars should have been waged in the first place was lost in most of the U.S. media, which chose to focus instead of strategy, creating the impression, ex post facto, that the war was inevitable.

Your respective remarks are not irreconcilable - one could admit both 1) that the Israeli government could have plausibly acted (at least at the beginning) without involving the military, AND 2) that the current military operation is being handled with as much care as possible - that is, to limit as much as possible the number of non-combatant deaths.

Asaf Kedar said...

Hi Amos and Noah,

Thank you both for your detailed comments on my comments to Amos’s comments on Seth’s comments…. This interesting dynamic seems to vindicate the idea, inspired by certain post-structuralist theories, that sometimes the margins of discourse have the power to shape the center (even sometimes ARE the center), rather than vice versa.

To the point:
1. Amos, unfortunately you have chosen to attribute to me views that I don’t hold and that I never expressed. Strongly criticizing the Israeli government doesn’t necessarily mean supporting the Hizbollah, and I’ve never expressed such support. The current conflict is analogous in certain ways to a fight between mob gangs. As an Israeli, however, I feel personally, emotionally, and politically much more invested in what Israel is doing. Also, since I think that the violence and destruction wreaked by Israel (and yes, by the US in Iraq and by France in Algeria etc etc) is no better and no more justified that Hizbollah’s violence, it is more important for me to try and debunk the attempts to portray Israel here as the “good guys” fighting a “moral” war, rather than conducting a balanced critique of both sides.

2. “Israel has actually shown remarkable CARE”: Amos, do you really believe that 500 or so civilian deaths in just 2 weeks is evidence of not just “care” but “remarkable CARE”?? Take just one example, that of Qana: I’ve recently read in Haaretz that, contrary to what Israeli officials were saying at the beginning, it appears that there were no rocket launches from the building itself that crashed and led to all the deaths. The IDF simply bombed a whole radius spanning a large number of houses around the site of a certain rocket launching. Is that “surgical bombing”? is that “remarkable care”?

3. Yes Amos, I do believe that many in Israeli society places dry military objectives before respect for human lives. You just need to read readers’ responses to articles in Ynet to get the sense of it. But I’m also speaking out of intimate acquaintance with Israeli society. Anyway, you don’t need to go to Ynet; you can read it off the IDF’s actions in Lebanon, provided that you approach them with a modicum of critical sensibility.

4. Noah’s right that I was critiquing the persistently unquestioned assumption that this war was inevitable. There was virtually no debate, at either public or decision-making levels, about whether going to war was the right move in the circumstances that arose. It was actually even worse than that: as in many similar cases in the past, the consensus demanded silence as long as the guns are roaring. Opposition to the war was largely delegitimized, discredited, branded by many as verging on treason. But yes, I do think that Israel’s decision to go to war was disastrous, not only for Lebanon but also for Israel itself. This is a long discussion in itself and I won’t go into details. I will just note that some (sadly rare) explications of this view have been articulated in Haaretz in articles by Gideon Levy, Zeev Sternhell, and a few others. What I want to emphasize here is that there’s no reason to assume a-priori that the more (indeed, most) violent response is necessarily the appropriate one. The debate over whether war is desirable or not should not be silenced.

5. Noah: yes, I do have strong pacifistic tendencies, though I haven’t yet quite figured out all the details about the precise contours and limits of my abhorrence towards the use of violence. I do think that many many conflicts can be handled much better and less disastrously without resort to weapons. I believe this is the case in the current conflict as well. And I believe that no serious public discussion has ever been taken in Israel (or anywhere else) to even try to engage this view theoretically, let alone try it on the ground.

I have many more things to say, but my comment is already suffering from “disproportionality” as it is.

see you guys soon-

Noah S. said...


Interesting points. Your refusal to differentiate ethically between different types of violence - in this case Israeli and Hizbollah - confirms the tendency toward pacificism you admit. I'm curious to know if you think that all acts of violence in history have been equivalent irrespective of the intention behind them. Does the simple tally of mortalities provide the sole evidence for our judgment? (I seem to remember you expressing a distaste for the cold quantification of death in the past?) The contours you have yet to define are the walls that protect us against utopianism. "Out of the crooked timber of humanity..."

I'm confused and troubled by your comment: "the violence and destruction wreaked by Israel (and yes, by the US in Iraq and by France in Algeria etc etc) is no better and no more justified that Hizbollah’s violence." Because the logic behind this statement is not readily apparent (in fact to me it seems abhorrent) it requires convincing argument. As far as I see it, such a statement only makes sense if we adhere to a strict relativism concerning ideology and intention that throws the idea of categories like hate crimes and genocide out the window, not to mention puts the entire process of criminal judgment based on intention into question.

To put this simply: How is targeting civilians not more morally reprehensible than targeting combatants? I just don't understand.

Asaf Kedar said...


You're assuming again that Israel is innocently "targeting combatants", whereas Israel in fact has chosen to conduct its war in such a way that enormous civilian casualties were inevitable. Israel has not only been killing hundreds of civilians but also destroying the entire fabric of life for hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of others. This isn't what I call "targeting combatants". The harm done by Israel to the Lebanese civilian population is by far greater that the harm done by Hizbullah to the Israeli population. I'm saying all this not to exonerate Hizbullah but to condemn Israel. Both sides are guilty of war crimes and of unjustified violence.

Israel's violence is no more justified than Hizbullah's not because the latter's actions aren't reprehensible, but because Israel could have reacted differently to those actions. It could have chosen a less violent, less destructive path. (Or at the very least, it didn't even pause to consider more moderate alternatives, slipping with intolerable ease into full-scale war). For example, Israel could have:

(a) sought a political solution to the kidnapping crisis. It didn't even try.

(b) combined political moves w/ limited military retaliation against Hizbullah positions. Again, it didn't even try.

(c) carried out a military operation focused against Hizbullah positions w/ minimum disruption to civilian life. This option, too, wasn't even tried.

In short, Israel chose a thug-type reaction rather than a more sober one, without even considering the alternatives.

Obviously, not "all acts of violence in history have been equivalent irrespective of the intention". My critique is against violence as a norm for handling international crises (or any other type of crisis, for that matter). In the past, many people in the West regarded an occasional slap in the face of one's child as an indispensable component of education. They would probably regard a completely non-violent education as "utopian". Perhaps in some future time, people would look back at our own time's violent conflicts in the same way as we do at those violent educators of the past. You may, if you want, call this "utopian"; I say that this "utopian" alternative hasn't even been tried out in any serious way.

Back to the equivalence issue: a slap in a child's face is obviously not equivalent to, say, homicide. Does that mean we need to tolerate violence against children? Similarly, Israel's violence in Lebanon today is far from being equivalent to, say, genocide. Does that mean we need to tolerate that violence, to view it as an appropriate way of handling crisis?