As these lines are being written, IDF gunmen have killed over 40 Palestinians near the Gaza fence, and injured 2,200 more; a dozen are considered to be mortally wounded. When you read these words, the numbers are likely to have jumped higher. The IDF Spokesman is in the habit of claiming its gunmen were “in danger.” When you hear these words, turn your thoughts back to Operation Speedy Express.
Speedy Express was carried out by the Ninth Infantry Division of the US army in the Mekong Delta in 1969. The US army claimed it killed 10,899 enemy combatants. It suffered only 244 casualties. Sitting in Saigon, a young genius named Alexander Demitri Shimkin, a veteran of the civil rights marches, baffled his fellow journalists with a strange hobby: he actually bothered to read the official communiques, and tabulated what written in them.
After several months, Shimkin came up with a strange statistic: the 9th Division claimed to have killed 10,899 combatants, but captured only 748 weapons. Shimkin’s conclusion was simple: the disparity between the dead and the captured weapons means most of the people killed in Speedy Express were not combatants but civilians. Shimkin had a problem getting his early example of data journalism published, and Newsweek only published it in 1972. Yet the publication caused a political firestorm, with the US army having to retreat to the desperate claim that “many of the guerilla units were not armed with weapons.”
Speedy Express should be a lesson to all journalists when they have to deal with information supplied by a military (any military): look closely at the data, and ask the necessary if unpleasant questions. The questions any journalist talking to the IDF Spokesman should be:
- How many casualties did the IDF suffer in Gaza? If the number is zero (as it is when these lines were written) or close to it, then the forces were not in danger, and this was not a military action but a massacre.
- How many weapons did the IDF capture, or at least documented used by the Palestinians? If the number is zero (and currently it is), or less than the number of people killed or wounded, then at least some of those shot were not a danger to the IDF. Given that currently the number is zero, it’s fair to assume none of those shot presented the IDF gunmen with mortal danger.
Israeli leftists on social media wondered today why the IDF always has a particularly gun-happy posture when it comes to Gazans. The answer, I’m afraid, comes from the nether realms of national psychology: Gazans remind Israelis of the Nakba by their very existence, they are the ghost which keeps haunting the silenced “great nights of horror” of 1948. They are ghosts reminding Israelis that their country is built on a massive graveyard; hence they must be silenced, in any way possible.
When the IDF claims it faces “a threat” from Gazans, it does not mean a mundane, physical threat: some improvised guns or a few homemade bombs. Beneath the drivel about “a threat”, lurks the tortured conscience of Lady MacBeth: “What, will those hands ne’er be clean?”