Remarks on the general relation between war, war morality and war publicity Ruthless Criticism

Translated excerpt from article in GegenStandpunkt 3-21: Anmerkungen zum allgemeinen Verhältnis von Krieg, Kriegsmoral und Kriegsöffentlichkeit sowie zu einer deutschen Besonderheit

Translator’s note: BILD is a popular German tabloid; the remarks here apply specifically to English language equivalents such as The Sun or the New York Post, as well as to much of the media in general.

On the occasion of BILD’s agitation on the war between Hamas and Israel

Remarks on the general relation between war,
war morality
and war publicity

1. The dispute between Hamas and Israel: On the relation between war and war morality

In the spring of 2021, the time has come once again: with the force of its missiles, Hamas proclaims its standpoint of being the solely entitled claimant to state rule over the Arab kind of people living between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. The state of Israel, which is already completely established on this territory and is the target of this attack, responds with military strikes on the Gaza Strip proportionate with its much greater power and in the spirit of its claim: It will not tolerate a second statehood next to it on this piece of land, even and especially when it does not define a large part of the people living there as its people.[1]

As in any war, it falls to those who are the human basis of these irreconcilable political positions to carry out the killing and destruction of themselves and their kind which is deemed due by the political commanders and organized by the military commanders. They are assigned and/or subjected to every form of organized violence that is otherwise forbidden in daily civilian life with its legal regulations and moral precepts. On their own individual selves and on others they have to carry out the toughest conflict possible – for reasons that could not be more impersonal and far removed from them as human individuals. As “cannon fodder,” they function in their whole real existence as material for a violent confrontation between incompatible political claims to rule.

Their representatives and officials therefore face the challenge of translating their higher political demands and everything they consider necessary in terms of violence into the categories of Shall and Must, which the people planning for it are well versed in; wars are peak times for morality. This makes it plausible that killing, which is otherwise strictly forbidden, is not only okay, but that it is imperative to annihilate the existence of people who one personally has nothing to do with; and that there is a higher meaning in every harm that one has to endure, compared to which the individual’s striving for a decent life or even mere survival, which in civilian life is subject to licenses and limits, represents a petty viewpoint that counts for naught. The content of the respective war morality is in principle arbitrary – in the end, it always takes up the customary local standards by which good is separated from evil and the state-administered national human collective is celebrated as a moral community with or without a direct line to the afterlife – as long as it delivers the decisive achievement: to transfigure the impersonal brutality of war into a personal matter for those affected by it. Residents of the Gaza Strip who do not actually live in East Jerusalem are supposed to see the evictions threatened by the Israeli authorities there as if they themselves were being evicted from their homes; Israelis, and Jews all over the world, are in turn supposed to take the position that they must not put up with the violence of the Palestinians, and do not have to put up with it. And so on...

This anchors the presentation of this as well as every other war provided to the public in our democratic polity by a media that is professionally devoted to it. In the certainty that they belong to an internationally important country, their outlets attach importance – in principle and in degrees – to every violent conflict in the world; they do not accept the point of view that wars “as far away as Turkey” have nothing to do with us. They try rather to turn the power conflicts between warring parties into a moral affair and examine the question of which side has the right to legitimize its own violence with categories derived from the world of human decency and which does not. Of course, this is not naive, because here too morality is the method for helping the audience understand the reasonableness of political partisanship. At the core of this is the nation’s interest in the respective region of the world and the power relations there, either directly or mediated through some world-political configuration. This state interest becomes, if the learning result is achieved, an imperative of human morality that any decent person is willing to respond to, especially in view of the human misery that is necessarily and massively produced in wars.

2. BILD news and its Gaza War: Criteria and techniques of partisan war reporting

BILD pursues this general principle in the specific case as a settled, openly one-sided partisanship for Israel and an equally settled opposition to Hamas. Following this fixed point of view, it constructs the differences between the warring parties and thereby demonstrates in exemplary fashion the theoretical insanity and morally productive power of the relevant stereotypical categories and techniques by which a community of professional democratic journalists works up foreign wars for the sentiments of a humanely compassionate and politically clear-thinking citizen.

In the beginning is the question of who started it, because the bourgeois mind is familiar with hostilities as a problem that turns into open violence when it could be sorted out if everyone were to restrain themselves, which is why the first to stop doing so is to blame for civil relations becoming uncivil. In this sense, BILD knows the score and follows the logically absurd principle that being first to strike is supposed to be a good reason for why the opponent then struck back, so the violence that comes from both sides actually only comes from one. In the case of Hamas and Israel, there is no doubt in BILD’s mind who this is and the corresponding military categories of attack and defense, which are in themselves completely extra-moral, are beaten to death, in dozens of variations on the statement:

“Hamas terrorists fire on Israel, the country defends itself.”

At the same time, as is so evident in this case, the non-objectivity of this criterion leaves it to the discretion of the ideal arbitrator to categorize each act of violence as a reaction to atrocities, whatever it may be, by the other side – which can always be found, according to the status of things, between the disputants. In the same way, it is left to the logical discretion of a completely moral and not at all arbitrary way of thinking to condemn any act by one side as an unacceptable injustice or to simply deny any connection with the subsequent strike by the other side: Anyone who wants to can label Hamas’s first missiles as the beginning, therefore groundless, therefore lawless, which not only justifies strikes by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) on the Gaza Strip, but also compels them, as it were. Whoever wants to – there are plenty who do – can, however, according to the same illogic, view the threatened house evictions as an anti-Arab attack which legitimizes Hamas firing rockets in response. Which is why BILD promptly denies precisely this connection, which Hamas and its supporters invoke and which even ‘balanced’ observers consider Israeli’s at least not very helpful contribution to the violence:

“Cause: a dispute over apartments in Jerusalem. ‘Palestinian families have lived there for several decades,' says Michael Oren, Israel’s ex-ambassador to the USA. ‘The families refuse to pay rent to the Israeli owners, and the case is now in court.’”

The BILD reader knows this from home: anyone who does not pay rent is given notice and kicked out; this does not mean – strictly speaking, in tenancy law – he acquires a permit to got to war. BILD does not bother its readers with the subtleties and obscenities of Israeli land ownership and occupation law, which accompanies and sanctions the ongoing seizure of land to the detriment of the Arabs who Hamas invokes for its autonomous violence; and rightly so. Because the ‘connection’ between the land disputes in East Jerusalem and Hamas’s missiles is just as close, loose or simply non-existent as it establishes or denies or combats ideally or in practice.

BILD does not dwell on this at all, but justifies taking sides with the Israeli war against Hamas in a completely different way and also along the usual topoi of nationally partisan war preparations. The most prominent of these is the figure of the human victim. This figure should not be confused with the people affected by the war, which the political subjects commanding them wage against each other: It is true that it is always the affected people whose death and suffering is referred to, but it is a secondary issue whether they deserve the moral quality of victimhood merely by dying in war, being injured, traumatized for the rest of their lives, or deprived of their material possessions. Because their actual purpose is to put the opposing side in the wrong as perpetrators, thus putting the violence of the enemies of the perpetrators in the right. This moral classification replaces any reflection on the political purposes for which both sides use their means of violence against each other, thus using their own human basis as cannon fodder to destroy the enemy’s.

Because of this quid pro quo, it is never enough to find victims and feel sorry for them. If this is supposed to morally disqualify the perpetrator, then it requires the assurance that at least the victim was innocent. The bourgeois mind, which is compassionate on the one hand, is on the other hand quite familiar with the fact that one sometimes gets into certain forms of violence oneself, which is then sufficient for a regretful shrug of the shoulders at best and in any case no longer sufficient to condemn the one who carried out the violence there. ‘Civilian’ and ‘uniformed’ or ‘unarmed’ and ‘armed’ are characteristics that are just as relevant as age or gender in distinguishing victims and perpetrators, determining innocence or guilt or, at one’s discretion, degrees of either.

With this in mind, BILD sets to work:

– The human suffering on the Israeli side is intensively showcased with large format photos, with reporters’ stories and interviews with those affected and eyewitnesses. In this way, BILD readers and viewers are brought very close to what a missile alert or, even more so, a successful missile hit on Israeli civilian life means for those who live there. The reader is led to empathize with mothers taking their children to kindergarten, fathers holding their newborn in a premature infant ward, people lying on the beach or going to work, families sitting in front of the television...., to put oneself in the shoes of these people – all the human characters in all the situations of civilian-bourgeois work, leisure and family life which are familiar to one – so that one translates this familiarity into human empathy with them and immediately confuses it with partisanship for the state of Israel. Accordingly, the latter functions exclusively as the strong arm of their protective community whose violence against the opponents is per se nothing but the deeply justified defense of the peaceful everyday life of its citizens, which the opposing side wants to disrupt and destroy. Where it notes that

“All Israel weeps for little Ido” or simply “The country weeps,”

it is not simply a state power that is using its citizens as the human basis and means for claims and enmities which go as far as war, but a human collective which is proving its humanity by mourning for a child as one of its own in the middle of war, and thus proving the inhumanity of the enemy. The suffering of the innocent victims and the absence of any political purpose on the part of the state power governing them is matched by the guilt and malice of the other side’s violence, which apparently wants exactly that, namely to bring suffering upon innocent victims: “Terrorist War on Civilians” – “Terrorists Fire More than 400 Rockets at Israel” – “Terror Attack on Tel Aviv” – “Terror Tragedy,” etc. etc.

– Because for BILD the innocence of the Israelis, which is alternately attributed to the human individuals and to the civic collective, and thus the right of the Israeli state to its violence is unequivocally given, the quality of the innocent victim is also transferred to the uniformed functionaries of the military power. With photos of panicked policewomen at the moment of an attack and weeping Israeli soldiers mourning a comrade, BILD demonstrates that, if it suits the ideological purpose, the question of the victim’s innocence can also just as easily be separated from the question of ‘civilian or combatant’ with which it is generally associated. Nothing is easier than to discover the human being inside the wearer of a uniform who is indeed stuck inside it and – uniform or no uniform, weapons or no weapons – as such suffers from death and destruction just like all other human beings.

The portrayal and commentary on the affected people in the Gaza Strip complements this. They are mentioned only in passing, and BILD does not even give them much space to present their suffering and their complaints. However, BILD does not have to keep completely quiet about them, and does not want to. Because anyone who, like BILD, has a morally firm compass is not beholden to any facts and categories of victim-perpetrator or guilt-innocence, but is able to apply these standards quite freely and intentionally in such a way that the result is precisely the verdict that the established partisanship demands. The most defensive option is to purposefully downplay the situation, but this also serves its purpose: Because there is no doubt about Hamas’s evil, any doubt about the numbers of Palestinian victims it disseminates is all the more appropriate:

“200 DEAD PALESTINIANS – What is behind this number?” – BILD might, no, must ask, because it knows that dead Palestinians are used as a legal title by the bad guys, just as it does with dead Israelis in the name of the good guys. And lo and behold:

“The official figures reported by the Ministry of Health in Gaza are censored by Hamas.”

Of course, all the killed Palestinians cannot be doubted – the BILD reader would have to doubt the effectiveness of the Israeli army. However, BILD does not attest to the moral status of the dead, which is, after all, the only thing that matters. Because just as it can highlight the human being inside an Israeli soldier, BILD can make the young person who otherwise stands for innocence disappear behind the recruit in the case of the Palestinian youngsters who have been recruited by Hamas:

“The Israeli army points out that most Hamas fighters are between 16 and 30 years old. And warns: every killed fighter under 18 years is identified by the Ministry of Health in Gaza as a killed child,”

about whom the BILD news reader therefore better not mourn. Which also applies to really real children,

“because the fact is: The Palestinian children, with whom German young people also like to identify, have been brought up for decades to hate, to fight bitterly against Israel. Even in schoolbooks (financed by UN refugee aid and EU money) they are taught: Israel is the enemy and must be destroyed.”

That’s why it is forbidden, or rather BILD forbids, identifying with Palestinian children as children because, according to a universally shared logic, this would at least potentially cast a shadow on the moral incontestability of Israeli violence. Although BILD is not finished here either: in this case too, the quid pro quo between good victim and bad perpetrator follows the preceding bias and not vice versa, so that even in the case of undoubtedly pitiable Palestinian victims it is completely up to the reader to decide whose moral account the relevant debit entry is to be made out to. For BILD, by no means to the Israeli army’s:

“Although the Israeli army makes great efforts to avoid civilian casualties, innocent people – women and children – also die in the airstrikes.”

Note: When the Israeli army carries out airstrikes, the victims of these attacks die not because of the attacks, but despite the efforts to avoid casualties, which is why logically the Palestinian casualties, which are not avoided but produced, are in no way to be blamed on the attackers.


The violence of the good is good violence – this is true for the point of view of settled partisanship, thus completely regardless of the fact that their historical-legal justifications in the ‘who started it?’ department are as flimsy as those of the other side and their humanely pitiable victims are just as obvious. Precisely for this reason, another proven model of argumentation for justifying military violence comes to the fore in BILD’s agitation, which provides Israel’s ordinary violence with a real plus in terms of its morality, i.e. in terms of the credibility of all the mendacious justifications coded into it, which BILD airs so officiously.

Moral statements on war are concerned with the question of the rightness or wrongness of the violence taking place, that is, in this view: with the violent assertion and carrying out of right against wrong. Therefore, the different impact of the respective means of violence has itself a moral quality – the more it results in a clear relation of superiority and inferiority, even more so. With its victorious violence, the superior war waging party has – gives itself, that is – a right in all respects. Its political interests and claims have to be put up with by the opponent and – as the case may be – the rest of the world. And with this, its justifications also win; the moral titles that legitimize its violence are then in turn authenticated by the superior violence, simply by the fact that the opponent, along with its justifications, has been driven to defeat.

Of course, one can also stick with the inferior side; then it is not difficult to turn its inferiority into evidence of its moral goodness.[2] In such cases, however, it always becomes clear that the partisanship – which definitely does not want to be a subjective judgment of taste, but rather claims general validity and demands approval – has to process the contradiction between the lofty values that it claims for its side and their practical invalidity, i.e. the powerlessness of the relevant agents of violence. And vice versa: In the case of the superior, and even more so in the case of the clear winner, assertion on the battlefield confirms all the higher justifications for the goodness and the rightness of its brutalities, morality and factual victory confirm each other: war morality is the morality of the victor.

The programmatically pro-Israel BILD operates on this principle. In point of fact it faces the imbalance between Israel’s massive military superiority and Hamas and its combat troops. It stylizes this into a successful struggle of right against wrong. “Iron Dome,” for example, the almost perfectly functioning missile defense system that Israel has developed and produced on the basis of its material superiority and can also afford financially, therefore makes a good impression on BILD.

“clearly, where the biggest difference is between Israel and its terrorist enemies: while Israel invested in the defense system to protect its citizens, the people of Gaza don’t even have bunkers.”

So the deployment of a heavily armed defense, which follows the strategic logic of a military power and paralyzes the enemy’s potential to attack and thus opens up the freedom to carry out any offensive against it, proves the state’s solicitude for its humans. The coexistence, which is maintained by the state’s overwhelming superiority over its surroundings, of a successful capitalist civilian life, which is comparable with German conditions and therefore so wonderfully familiar to the BILD reader, and a permanent state of war or pre-war becomes, according to the same logic, proof that Israel only wants peace, happiness, beach life, things that its enemies will never allow. And the practice, familiar to every military that is capable of it, of using its own resources as efficiently as possible, i.e. in a very targeted and ‘surgically’ selective way, is transformed, when viewed through this lens, into the humanism of an army that avoids casualties to the best of its abilities, but which is then always forced to produce them by its enemies.

Conversely: In Hamas’s hands, the BILD reader becomes acquainted, on the one hand, with the peculiar class of weapon called “terror missiles.” On the other hand, the absence of even remotely comparable defense and civil defense facilities in the Gaza Strip is not a sign of how hopelessly outgunned Hamas is in its dogged standpoint of autonomous violence which it ruthlessly adheres to against its own base, but of its consistently bad faith:

“... not even bunkers. Hamas wants as many uninvolved people to die as possible. Then they can show the world these pictures and blame Israel.”

In view of the inferiority of the economically starved strip of land vis-à-vis the veritable capitalist state power of Israel, which denies this claim with all its superior might, the Palestinian claim to statehood, to its own right to violence, can only be achieved by totally subsuming all life in the Gaza Strip to this claim and the fanaticism of self-sacrificing activists. Hamas is charged with the cynicism of entrenching itself behind its own people and wantonly victimizing them out of a pointless “pure hate” of Israel. So its inferiority in terms of violence turns into wickedness. The masses are then also included in this judgment, insofar as BILD does not view them as innocent victims, but as the active basis of Palestinian terror – both of which they are, alternately and simultaneously. The practical hopelessness of the other side’s struggle, brought about and ensured by Israeli military force, is morally attributed to them – the people as well as the leadership – and their senselessness and evil: this is the hard semantic core of the vocabulary of terror which the BILD newspaper can’t go three sentences without in its commentary on the war.


So far, so bad, so stinking normal.


[1] The fact that Hamas and Israel are in an unending conflict is just as well known as the fact that it periodically erupts into veritable wars. Anyone who wants to learn about the reason and substance of this irreconcilable hostility rather than the bad joke that a ‘conflict’ continues to exist because its ‘solution’ is being prevented – by one of the two sides or by both and possibly with the connivance or encouragement of third parties – will find it in the article Gaza War 2014: Israel’s Struggle for the One State Solution.

[2] For years this was demonstrated by the media in a war that raged in the immediate vicinity of Israel-Palestine: it accused the Syrian ruler Assad’s superior violence of a mixture of cowardice and ruthlessness, as viciousness against weaker people, which he himself was not even capable of, but only with massive foreign support – which in this case, because it was Russian, was not solidarity, but interference. One could admire the determination and courage of the rebels, and the increasing hopelessness of their struggle spoke for only one thing: how bad life must be under the Assad regime when formerly decent, peaceful people – doctors, plumbers, farmers, students – saw no other way out than armed resistance and would rather accept death than submission. But otherwise the moral force of the real relations of violence must also be assessed in this case: With the semi-final victory of Assad’s troops, achieved with Russian help, the media fuss about his victims and the sympathy for his opponents simply came to an end.