The Collateral Damage of Holy Wars
I met Major Paeta "Wolf" Hess-von Kruedener on December 31, 2005 at an opulent New Year's Eve party at CFB Kingston. The party was a formal affair with military officers in full-dress uniforms and their civilian friends in suits or tuxes, all enjoying a night of buffet-style fine dining followed by dancing (as best we could with our bellies bursting). My wife and I attended, as well as my father; my father is friends with the organizer of the party.
Our group ended up sitting at a table with Wolf and his wife, Cynthia. He was a large man, exceedingly friendly, happy, and warm. He was career military, but had in recent years dedicated his work to UN peacekeeping missions, trying to make the world a better place by being the watchdog that ensures ceasefires are upheld and human rights are not violated.
We listened intently as he told us stories about his career: how he was stationed in the war zones of Cyprus, Zaire, Bosnia twice, and, most recently, in Lebanon, to observe the ongoing battles between Israel and various middle-eastern military groups, each dedicated to wiping the other out. When I asked, he said his most frightening moment was when he and his team abandoned their jeep, taking cover in a ditch, as mortar shells, thousands of rounds of bullets, and a few RPGs criss-crossed overhead from Israeli and Hezbollah forces fighting each other from either side of the road.
He was only in town for the holidays, and was shipping back to Lebanon in a week or so. I remember when we had left, my wife and I discussed it amongst ourselves and agreed that Wolf was a pretty cool person. So why am I telling you about meeting this man who I only talked to for a few hours between mouthfuls of shrimp and prime rib?
Major Hess-von Kruedener was one of the four UN observers killed on July 25th, 2006 when the Israeli airforce mistakenly bombed a UN base while trying to get at Hezbollah.
When I heard this, I felt like my stomach sank. I felt queasy. Other people I had known in life had died, including the grade 9 religion teacher I talked about here, but all were from illness and age. I had never known anyone who was killed suddenly in an act of violence or in an accident, and that Wolf was an admirable person made it that much worse. It is a life lost not because of nature, but because people choose, directly or indirectly, for it to happen.
I have my opinions on friendly fire deaths and how military organizations can seemingly condone reckless actions so as to encourage bloodlust; this is not the forum for it here. Wolf also told us that he was sickened by the mismatch of the fighters: on one hand, zealously dedicated, highly-trained would-be martyrs; on the other, too young conscripts, hastily trained and outfitted with the most modern technology available. All too often, it's the young Israelis dying in ambushes, so it's understandable that when the opportunity arises to use 1000 lb bombs and heavy artillery on the enemy, the Israelis use it indiscriminately, often with extreme collateral damage. This was likely the case here, as Hezbollah was probably using the UN post as a shield; the IAF repeatedly tried to make a precision shot and missed, with tragic consequences.
It's understandable, but hardly right.
It takes a special kind of people to repeatedly kill civilians and UN peacekeepers in attacks against an enemy whose territory you are currently occupying. Simply, the impetus was biblical.
How many times do we see in the Old Testament God commanding genocide? The repeated killings of women and children, bystanders, and anyone trying to maintain human decency all have precedents in the Bible.
Even more fundamental than Holy wars, all this boils down to the one of the worst concepts in human history: righteousness. Apparent in all religions of the Judeo-Christian system, being righteous is a status claimed by those who have the faith, meaning that they in right-standing in the eyes of God. Righteousness is basically a blank cheque to do anything: You are right; you are holy; in everything you do, you are vindicated by God.
Political considerations aside, this sense of righteousness is where the whole conflict started. The people who created the new state of Israel felt that they were promised that land by God and the claims of the other people who have inhabited that land for ages are immaterial. Even the name "Israel" itself can be translated as "upright with God."
Similarly, the local inhabitants, Muslims primarily, had the same sense of righteousness in denying Israel the right to exist. Understandably peeved about a bunch of Jews coming in and taking their land, the extent of the hatred goes beyond that, as many Arab countries not geographically affected by Israel have joined in the conflict. Hezbollah means "Party of God."
It is righteousness that makes you think you can impose your will on your neighbours. It is righteousness that encourages terrorism and suicide bombing. And it is righteousness that allows you to repeatedly neglect the tremendous harm you cause when you kill hundreds of noncombatants in your campaigns.
You can almost hear leaders on either side of the conflict: "The deaths of noncombatants is unfortunate but we are not sorry. We are doing God's will."
So what of his family? In the hours after the attack while her husband's status was still unknown, Cynthia Hess-von Kruedener and her family appealed to Canadians to "pray for his safe return" while accusing Israel of targeting a United Nations base housing unarmed observers. Indeed, some critics have suggested the IAF targeted the base to dissuade further international involvement, though I don't think this was likely.
The prayer? Well, God certainly didn't answer it. I have to wonder what rationalizing his family is doing regarding God's will and Wolf's death.
He leaves behind two teenaged children.
For more information:
Major Hess-von Kruedener's report to CTV news on July 18th