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On the necessity of violence
And the rough men who commit it
Even before the Hamas attacks on Oct. 7, I probably spent too much time thinking about John Wells.
If you know me mostly from Unreported Truths, you may not be aware I spent a decade writing spy novels. Ironically or not, my only real writing award is for fiction. In 2007, my debut, The Faithful Spy, won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best First Novel. It beat out Sharp Objects from Gillian Flynn, who later sold a few million copies of Gone Girl.
Wells, an American convert to Islam, is the hero of The Faithful Spy, and my next 11 novels, up to The Deceivers, in 2018. Though hero is an interesting word to use, since The Faithful Spy opens as The Deceivers ends, with Wells killing men who pose him no direct threat. In other words, he is an executioner from beginning to end.
(Buy it, you’ll see.)
The Wells novels are called spy novels, but Wells is a soldier as much as a spy. He’s not out of John le Carre. He’s not at home at headquarters. He’s not James Bond, either. He’s not fancy. He and his enemies don’t make long speeches. They rarely even make threats. They don’t need to. When they fight, it’s usually to the death, it’s usually with guns, and it usually doesn’t take long. In other words, the violence in the Wells novels is real, not cinematic.
The only cinematic aspect is that Wells always lives. Or survives, maybe survives is a better word.
When I first thought of Wells, I thought of him as a classic Western character. Think Shane, or High Noon. The fact he’s from Hamilton, Montana, up against the Bitterroot Mountains, is no accident. But he came to life from the soldiers and Marines I saw in Iraq when I was a reporter for the Times in 2003 and 2004.
Back in the day, I heard from a fair number of soldiers about Wells. They liked him. They felt he captured something authentic in their experience, notwithstanding my occasional cringe-inducing technical errors about weapons (no matter how hard I tried, I seemed unable to avoid one per book).
Wells has what the best soldiers do, absolute calm under pressure. This is something deeper than mere physical courage, an almost relaxed acceptance that death is inevitable, that it can be dodged but never beaten, and so it is to be accepted rather than feared.
And the flip side, too, an absolute willingness to kill in battle with no more regret (or joy) than a lion kills a gazelle - an animal knowing only that its choice is to kill or starve.
But those two gifts are nothing, worse than nothing, when they are not paired with the moral courage to use violence only when it is necessary. The difference between psychopath and soldier does not lie in the body count.
And the last four years should have taught us all that courage comes in many different flavors, and they aren’t fungible.
What I mean: the courage to die for a cause is very different than the willingness to judge that cause. Both of those are not the same as the willingness to stand up to poor or misguided leadership. Someone can be very physically brave without having intellectual or moral courage.
A few days ago, the Israeli government showed the world evidence the atrocities that Hamas committed on Oct. 7. Among the videos of executions and photos of mangled corpses was a recording of a Hamas terrorist calling his parents to brag that he had killed 10 Jews.
And a cartoon appeared on Twitter purporting to show the difference between the two sides:
But of course that’s not the real difference.
That’s not the choice Israel faces.
Both sides are killing, and the Israeli army and air force have already killed a lot more Palestinians than Hamas has killed Israelis.
The choice is whether to kill for the sake of killing or for the sake of saving.
A few months ago, I read The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larsen’s history of the Blitz - the year of German air attacks on London and the United Kingdom. Larsen captures the horror of the attacks, which came night after night and killed about 40,000 English civilians before sputtering out as Germany turned its attention to the Soviet campaign.
Here’s what he forgets to mention: in February 1945, Britain and the United States probably killed almost that many Germans in two nights in Dresden.
(25,000? Maybe. Or maybe more.)
And of course the Dresden attack paled in comparison what the United States did to the civilians of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Yet all that killing did not make us evil - or the Nazis good. The Nazi regime needed to be eradicated at any cost, and the Germans needed to learn the cost of supporting a genocidal madman.
Europe had peace for 75 years, peace for so long that it seems to have forgotten that evil still lurks, that violent regimes led by violent men exist. Maybe that’s not surprising, for human beings have a hard time believing what they have not lived themselves. The unremembered past is fiction as much as the unlived future.
What’s more surprising is that Israel seems to have forgotten over the last 20 years that evil lurks. Or maybe the Jews just ate too much of their own cooking, believed too much in their own cleverness, their ability to handle Hamas with artificial intelligence and robot-controlled machine guns and a fence with sensors. Maybe they forgot the most basic lesson of war: the enemy gets a vote.
Or, as Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.
On Oct. 7, Hamas did far more than punch Israel. It made its intentions clear. It will kill Jews, as many Jews it can find, at any cost.
Whether Hamas can be separated from the Palestinians it rules - whether the Arabs who live in Gaza and the West Bank will ever accept the reality that they must coexist with Israel - is a question for another day.
For now, Israel has no choice but to eliminate this version of Hamas as threat, to kill or imprison its leadership and force the unconditional surrender of every Hamas terrorist who participated in the attacks. Only then will Palestinians be able to decide for themselves if they want peace, as Germany and Japan did after World War 2 - or if this war is only prelude to another, and another. (And only then will Israel and its leaders have to reckon with the many terrible choices they have made of late, and stand up to the Jewish settlers who want to entangle Israel so deeply in the West Bank that peace will be impossible. But whatever Israeli’s mistakes, the two sides are not equivalent. Israel, unlike Hamas, is not genocidal.)
The international pressure to preserve civilian life in Gaza that Israel faces will make ending Hamas extraordinarily difficult. Israel seems to have calculated time is not on its side, that it must attack while the wounds of Oct. 7 are still fresh (as opposed to, say, laying siege to Gaza and trying to drive Hamas’s forces into their tunnels for months).
Can Israel win? Can it destroy enough of Hamas to force a reckoning?
That question can have only one answer if Israel intends to survive.
John Wells is fictional. But the need for men like him is all too real.