Gwynne Dyer: Wars in Gaza & Burma—Will They Ever End?

By Gwynne Dyer,  December 21, 2023

#1 – Gaza: The Bombed, the Bombers, The Limits?

Today (or yesterday, or tomorrow), the known death toll of Palestinians in Gaza since October 7th will reach 20,000.

The deaths of Hamas fighters are included in the numbers that the Hamas-run health ministry releases, and in past clashes with Israel the overall statistics have not been inflated. Hamas understands that accuracy builds credibility. So let’s say 5,000 of the dead are Hamas fighters, although it’s an implausibly high number.

That’s counter-balanced by the number of civilian dead still unfound and uncounted, especially where whole families lie buried deep in the rubble of pancaked buildings. So let’s say 5,000 of them too. It’s still 20,000 dead civilians.

That’s a big number, ranking with the worst air raids over Germany in the Second World War: the firestorm in Dresden in 1945 killed at least 25,000 German civilians, and the one in Hamburg in 1943 (the first ‘thousand-bomber raid’) killed an estimated 40,000.

A better comparison might be civilian deaths over the whole war. About one in one hundred of the residents of Gaza has been killed by rockets, bombs or artillery fire in the past 2 months. Up to half a million German civilians (highest estimate) were killed in the Allied bombing campaign 1942-45, which works out at one in 160 over four years.

Palestinian civilians are therefore having a much worse time now than German civilians had under the British and American thousand-bomber raids. But there is a real difference in the experience of those who did the killing then, and those who are doing it now.

I once did a television series about war that involved interviewing a lot of former aircrew who flew in Bomber Command. They were already in their 60s or 70s, but their memories of the Second World War were still clear and strong: it had been the formative event of their young lives.

They were especially clear about the fear, which was constant. There can be few experiences more terrifying than flying in the dark with enemy night-fighters behind and enemy flak ahead, strapped into a flimsy metal box that gives you as much protection from the bullets and the shrapnel as wet cardboard.

They were eloquent about that, because if they flew twenty-five missions they survived – but more than half of them did not survive. Another quarter were shot down and taken prisoner or were badly wounded in the air and taken off operations. Only 27% completed their twenty-five missions unscathed.

So when you asked them about the innocent women and children under their bombs – because most of the fit adult men in Germany were away in the army – they had no reply. Some of them felt a little guilt long afterwards, looking back, but none could recall any hesitation about bombing civilians at the time.

Fair enough: the constant presence of imminent death tends to focus your attention tightly on your own situation. But what should people in Britain, Canada (which provided 18% of Bomber Command’s aircrew) and the United States (which used the same tactics against Japan even before the atomic bombs) think about it now?

The answer is that they don’t think about it at all. People get very upset even now if you bring it up in public, as if discussing the subject is unfair to those who did the bombing.

But questioning those who took the command decisions is not.

I once interviewed Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, who ran Bomber Command in 1942-45. Either he had no imagination, or he just didn’t care. Maybe both. I came away with the sense that I had met a war criminal.

So what is the relevance of all this to the Israel Defence Forces today? Firstly, the Israeli pilots and gunners who are actually doing the killing face almost no risk of death themselves. I’m not sure why that makes a difference, but I’m less inclined to make exceptions for them than for the doomed aircrews of World War II.

As for those who give them their orders, they are professionals who should know that this is a completely futile strategy. Nobody has ever bombed an organisation like Hamas into submission. It would require a much more extensive and aggressive use of Israeli ground troops, and imply far higher Israeli casualties – and it probably still wouldn’t work.

US President Joe Biden calls it “indiscriminate bombing” and former British defence secretary Ben Wallace calls it “a killing rage”. It continues because a) the war keeps Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyu in power, and b) it reassures ordinary Israelis who were shocked and frightened by the massacre of the innocent on 7 October.

But it has to stop, and soon. Biden can stop it just by pulling the plug, and he should. Even if Netanyahu then winds up in jail.

#2 – Burma’s Long Civil War: A Turn of the Tide?


The Burmese army is a leading candidate for Nastiest Army in the World.

Even more than Pakistan’s army, it is the tail that wags the dog: rather than the army serving the country, it’s the other way around.

Its record for massacring civilians whenever they protest is unmatched anywhere. Yet it’s now losing its war against the people.

There were the usual massacres and mass arrests in the capital when the army seized power back from a fledgling elected civilian government two years ago.

The military junta then confidently set about hunting down and eliminating pro-democracy activists who had taken refuge in the country’s many minority regions, and that’s where things went wrong.

Two-thirds of Burma’s people belong to the Bamar ethnic group (that’s where the name comes from), and it’s Bamars who control the fertile lowlands, the big rivers, the coasts and the cities.

But this is not some ethnic tyranny: the army is a closed society, and most Bamars are also victims.

Which explains why, when the most recent round of massacres started in Burmese cities two years ago, tens of thousands of Bamars fled to the hills and mountain valleys where the other third of the population lives – and were welcomed there by the Shans, Karens, Mons, Chins and myriad smaller ethnic groups that have long been targeted by the army.

Indeed, some of the minority groups are even helping to arm and train the urban refugees, for the hill peoples have been fighting the Burmese army for a long time.

The army’s main excuse for existing is its claim that it is protecting the country’s “unity” from the separatist tendencies of the various ethnic minorities.

Those “separatist tendencies” are usually nothing more than a demand for a federal system that would give them some local control.

However, the wars have been going on for decades and by now most of the bigger ethnic groups have their own experienced militia forces.

A humanitarian group moves relief supplies to refugees near the border.. Guardian photo.

They were already holding their own against the Burmese army, and the addition of National Unity Government forces (pro-democracy Bamar activists) is stretching the junta’s army thin. It’s actually starting to lose battles

In late October, the Three Brotherhood Alliance, including the armies of three small ethnic groups near the Chinese border, launched an offensive that drove the regime’s army out of a substantial part of Shan State. The alliance obviously needed China’s permission to attack, but it’s not known how far they were told they could go.

It’s too early to predict that the military junta will be driven from power, and it’s not even clear that China has decided to back the rebels in general.

The Shan offensive may have been just an action to punish local criminal families who ignored a Chinese order to shut down an operation that used enslaved Chinese-speaking Burmese to scam Chinese citizens.

With Chinese support or without it, however, the various anti-junta armed groups in Burma now have the military initiative, and that sort of thing can spread.

The possibility now exists that the Burmese army could actually be driven from power permanently, rather than just negotiating temporary deals to withdraw from power until it regains the upper hand.

What would become of Burma then?

The country has not known a day of internal peace since independence in 1948: it’s the world’s longest-running civil war, though mostly confined to the highlands.

Even now the ethnic minorities are seeking to expand their territories with an eye to their eventual boundaries in a federal state – or, perhaps, the borders of an independent one.

Some people are writing draft federal constitutions, and others are seeking allies for the coming struggle over boundaries, but it’s all very premature.

The core fact is that China will have huge influence on the outcome – it’s Burma’s biggest trading partner – and China will want a stable, intact country on its southern border.

Beijing probably doesn’t mind if post-junta Burma is a democratic country or not, but it definitely doesn’t want half a dozen squabbling successor states, so that won’t happen.
China also doesn’t care if the current junta survives or not, so long as whatever replaces it is friendly. If the Burmese want their democracy back, they’ll have to do the heavy lifting themselves.

And if they want Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi back as the first president of their new democracy, they’ll have to hurry: she’s 78, and her health is not doing well in prison.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. His new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.

One thought on “Gwynne Dyer: Wars in Gaza & Burma—Will They Ever End?”

  1. These words don’t get to the root of Friendly frustrations, namely: What, exactly, about Hamas is equivalent to the Israeli Defense Force? Israel is a nation. Hamas is an organization. If an organization is obliterated by a nation, is the nation de facto justified? For example, if the inmates of German concentration camps had organized to slaughter their guards AND rape, kill and desecrate their families, what kind of conversation would we be having about that? Should we call it justifiable that the Luftwaffe then proceeded to bomb the hell out of those concentration camps, burying uncounted corpses in the rubble? Consider this: no less a Nobel Peace Prize winner than Jimmy Carter, in his book PALESTINE Peace not Apartheid, called both Gaza and the West Bank open-air prisons controlling Palestinians under military rule. We might say, actually, these are concentration camps controlled by the IDF through the unjust uses of force and fear despite international disapproval. The question still remains: Is retaliatory slaughter justifiable under Judaic, Islamic and Christian law? Still better to ask: Is “evil” a matter of spirit or of spiritual condition or is it a matter of genetic material in certain races, therefore best controlled by extermination of such non-human beings? Quakers need to decide answers to tough questions. We cannot just kick the questions into the future for traumatized children to figure out if they can. Adults, now, must ask the right questions before arguing the wrong answers. Thanks for hosting this important discussion. Keep it honest and open!

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