What Comes After War? The Problem of Reconstruction by Kirk W. Goodlet

Four weeks ago I successfully defended my PhD dissertation. Over the last several years, I had been rapt with exploring the history of post-war reconstruction in northwest Europe, particularly in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, and the many challenges civilians of this region faced both during and after the Second World War. These included civil-military issues, institutional problems, as well as socio-economic problems that hindered recovery once the war came to an end. What I found most interesting was that the weeks leading up to my defence were filled with media bytes about Israel’s renewed offensive against Hamas-controlled Gaza. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and Israeli Air Force (IAF) were killing civilians by the score, but they were also targeting known Hamas militants who had orchestrated attacks on Israel. I couldn’t help but draw some parallels between the civilians I had been so concerned about over the course of researching and writing my dissertation, and the people of Gaza who were caught in the crossfire and subject to the awesome power of Israeli air superiority.

This was a point not missed by one of my external examiners, who, incidentally, is a specialist in Israeli-Palestinian issues. My research on the Second World War in the southern Netherlands demonstrated just how destructive liberation was—in fact, it was infinitely more destructive than Nazi occupation and left an indelible print on the Province of Zeeland. In short, Allied liberation was more harmful than Nazi occupation itself. As we have explored in a previous post, the Allied liberation of the southern Netherlands was extremely destructive and, while the aerial bombardment of the region effectively dislodged German armed forces, it also destroyed countless homes, killed civilians, and flooded thousands of hectares of arable land with salt water, rendering an expeditious recovery impossible.

In the case of aerial bombardment during the Second World War, much like today’s use of “strategic bombing” in Gaza against Hamas, in Iraq against ISIS, and elsewhere, military and strategic exigencies supersede the physical, psychological, or historical costs of reconstruction. The question of “exit strategy” or post-war reconstruction is rarely discussed among policy makers in serious ways. Allied reconstruction teams and Civil Affairs existed only to facilitate the prosecution of war while it continued during the winter and spring of 1945. Once the war was won, the Allies transferred responsibility to the autochthonous government.

Journalist Ian Buruma wrote a recent article that posed a simple question: why bomb civilians? Using the example of the Allied air war over Nazi Germany, Buruma suggests that “strategic bombing” never really worked to achieve goals of defeating Nazi Germany, but rather sought to erode civilian morale by killing countless people and destroying vital infrastructure. Was aerial bombardment a way to convince Germans, and German-occupied states, that supporting Hitler’s regime would only result in further devastation?

One lesson that modern warfare has taught us is that air power alone does not win wars. But the unpopular alternative, especially in the context of America’s failed war in Iraq and, to a lesser extent, NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, is to put “boots on the ground.” This has proved costly and unfavourable, especially as casualties began to mount and political support for the campaign waned. While the air war over Nazi-occupied Europe was extremely costly for the Allied air forces, modern air forces face few threats from the territories over which they fly. Bombing from the skies offers a much safer environment in modern, asymmetrical warfare.

This, of course, comes from a military point of view. Air forces seek to destroy vital infrastructure like facilities or roads that prove invaluable to militants. In Gaza, a densely populated territory of some 360 square kilometers, any attack will necessarily inflict civilian casualties. Yet, and perhaps unsurprisingly, any discussion about Israel’s offensive in Gaza rarely considers the degree to which operations will affect the recovery and reconstruction of the region. How will the civilians wade through the rubble, attend schools, or seek medical attention? These issues lay on the periphery, but they are also at the crux of a meaningful ceasefire or even peace.

In 2009, after Israel’s three-week long military offensive, authorities met in Egypt to discuss the recovery of Gaza. During that offensive, Israel inflicted damages on infrastructure and property that were estimated to cost around $502 million to repair. Report after report from NGOs or the United Nations tacitly suggest that the key to long-lasting peace lay in recovering the sectors of society which have been badly damaged or non-existent as a result of war. On 19 August 2014, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA) claimed that the most recent Israeli attacks on Hamas have inflicted an “unprecedented scale of destruction.”

In the past, we’ve mentioned how dangerous uninformed historical parallels may be. However, the difficult lesson learned from civil-military affairs is that a meaningful end to conflict will not be achieved without a commitment to regeneration and recovery. Make no mistake—this is not a debate about whether Hamas or Israel is morally “right” in their operations, but rather the foresight to consider what effects destruction will have on the future of the region.

The wake of destruction left by any conflict must be measured on multiple levels, and it’s important to remember that human and economic suffering extend beyond the boundaries of time and physical space. Victims are plagued by the horrors of conflict long after those involved declare its conclusion. News media often perpetuate some version of events by chronicling the aftermath in a conflict postmortem, but stories of recovery too seldom make an affective imprint or lead to action. These are issues that deserve more attention in public and political circles alike, and only open discussion will yield both recognition and change. Far too often it is the process of recovery that exceeds the duration nations are subjected to war.