This piece is adapted from Moment’s flagship newsletter, Moment Minute. Sign up here.
The spectacle of civilians—some armed, but most unarmed—becoming the target of Russian artillery, air power, tanks and automatic weapon fire in Ukraine has captured the attention of ordinary Americans. You can feel the outrage, the angst, the empathy in a way not seen for many years. There was no such outcry when the Russians raked civilian populations in Chechnya or in Syria. Similarly, Americans never quite gave their full attention to the civilian casualties in the American intervention in Iraq or Afghanistan, at least not in the way they are now.
Why is that? With the end of the draft, only a minority of Americans pay much attention to the fact that we call on our soldiers to take human life. But even combat against hostile soldiers runs straight into our basic Jewish principles about the sanctity of life, with deep and lasting effects even on those trained to fight.
These are lessons I learned close up, 54 years ago, in Vietnam.
I signed up to become an officer as a freshman in college; it was peace time. Eight years later, after finishing law school, my time to serve came. It was the height of the Vietnam War. I found myself in the rural villages of Cu Chi District in South Vietnam. It was war, and I, too, was a target. My task: to find and “neutralize” the Viet Cong’s civilian political infrastructure. I often came face-to-face with Vietnamese civilians, many just minding their own business, some helping the Viet Cong. It was difficult to know the difference. As a Jew, I knew my people had often experienced similar individual and group roundups. The conflict between doing my duty and doing the right thing was always present. After 50 years, I decided to tell my story. “When One’s Duty and the Right Thing Are Not the Same” was originally published on April 30, 2020, the 45th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. It is a story that, unfortunately, will be told again.
As we think about the unfolding war in Ukraine, I would also recommend returning to my 2017 interview with Daniel B. Schwartz, a professor of modern Jewish intellectual and cultural history at George Washington University. My interview with Schwartz concerns a war that happened a century ago, but there is much to learn about just how many unpredictable forces can be unleashed by war. By the end of World War I, the four great empires that had dominated the world scene for centuries—the British, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman empires—were gone. And for Jews, the die was cast for two epoch-changing events: the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. This revealing interview suggests that we should be prepared for the unexpected.
Speaking of the impacts of war, extraordinary scenes of hesed (“lovingkindness”) are unfolding across Europe, and families who themselves suffered as refugees not that long ago are rallying to accept refugees into their homes. There are precedents for such acts of lovingkindness; I had the privilege to hear about one of these acts in 2017, when Adas Israel Congregation, in Washington, DC, honored a non-Jewish family who sheltered Albanian Jews in their homes when the Nazis started coming for them in 1943. After the event, I wrote about what I learned: how “Besa,” the Albanian code of honor, requires individuals to protect anyone in danger. It is a remarkable story. And, as Russia threatens Europe with darkness, it is an inspiring tale that helps us remember the strength of the human spirit.
Finally, as an American Jew, whose grandparents escaped European antisemitism more than 120 years ago, I am worried about the rise of antisemitism in America. In 2016, I met my wife’s niece, who lives in southern France, for lunch in Brooklyn. Not too long before, there had been several fatal attacks on rabbis and Jewish children in southern France. My niece remarked how wonderful it was to be able to ride in the New York City subway and not be afraid, and I agreed with her. But now, five years later, things have changed, and not for the better. In early 2020, I chronicled the attempt at solidarity with Jews who have become victims of antisemitic terrorism, asking whether our internal divisions are getting in the way of responding effectively. If Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s Jewish president, can rally most of the free world against Russia’s aggression, perhaps it is fair to ask whether Americans could deal more effectively with our own divisions.