Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Virtues of Restraint

I have been reading One Minute to Midnight, Michael Dobbs's hour-by-hour account of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Trying to process the terrible events that occurred after Israeli forces boarded blockade-running ships to Gaza this weekend,  I imagined what would have happened had violence of that sort broken out on any of the ships headed for Cuba in October of 1962.  When the U.S. Navy imposed its blockade of Cuba (which we called a quarantine to sound less provocative), the legality of that blockade, like the Israeli blockade of Gaza, was questioned in many quarters.  The U.S. Navy, while insisting on its right to enforce the blockade, was careful not to be unduly provocative.  In boarding the freighter Marcula, for example, they did so in dress uniforms.  Some freighters and tankers were allowed to pass without inspection.  And Russian ships for the most part agreed to turn back, and did not challenge U.S. Navy ships.  Kennedy had shown restraint by refusing to accept some of his generals' recommendations for an airstrike or invasion of Cuba, and Khrushchev showed restraint in deciding that he did not want to risk war to maintain missiles in Cuba.   However, even after these decisions were made, both sides recognized that events could still easily spin out of control if all confrontations were not handled very carefully.  One false move or misunderstood incident could easily have led to nuclear war between the superpowers.  Fortunately, incidents during the crisis never quite spun out of control, and nuclear war between the superpowers was averted.

I wonder about the level of care shown in the preparation for this weekend's attempted running of Israel's blockade of Gaza.  Clearly both sides made detailed preparations for this confrontation, but the results suggest that both sides may have acted in a deliberately provocative way, rather than a restrained way.  The blockade runners refused to heed Israeli warnings.  The IDF chose to board the ships by using armed commandos rappelling down from helicopters.  And the passengers apparently responded by attacking the Israeli soldiers with sticks and knives and perhaps pistols.

In this year's incident, unlike 1962, the thought of avoiding any sort of violence did not appear to be uppermost in the minds of the parties involved.  Perhaps that is because unlike in 1962, they knew that an outbreak of violence would probably not trigger global thermonuclear conflict.  Even so, the consequences of this incident are still severe.  Violence does not seem likely to lead to a solution to Gaza's problems.

(photo from William Rush.org)


  1. Thanks for your comment at "On My Mind." I had forgotten that we did board one ship; did not know of it at the time as we were not in the area and I only read of it later. My ship did not see any Soviets. We were tense, but mostly bored, which was actually rather typical.

    I think you would, perhaps, agree that "firing at the propeller and rudder" to disable a ship would be both impractical and highly provocative?

  2. Thanks for visiting, Jayhawk. Firing at the propeller does sound provocative, and maybe the best way to board a ship is by rappelling down from helicopters. I have enough boating experience to know that pulling up alongside or sending dinghies over is not a simple maneuver either. But since I have no Navy experience, I'd prefer not to comment on what would have been the smartest and least provocative way to stop a ship from a tactical point of view, other than to say that to my mind the best way would be to hail the ship to stop and have them agree to stop. That did not happen obviously.

  3. Joe, thanks for your thoughtful piece. I hate that shooting and death occurred during this event, but it is hard for me to condemn the Israeli decision to drop armed soldiers onto the boat, as opposed to soldiers in dress uniform. Watching two videos of the event, one apparently taken from a nearby watercraft, and the other taken by an Israeli soldier, it seems readily apparent that things happened in VERY fast order. The first soldiers onto the boat did not even touch their feet to the deck, let alone have time to pull a weapon, before they were grabbed by the on-board crowd and beaten. The noise suggests shots were fired rather rapidly (although by which side, who knows?). Dress uniforms would only have made a difference if Israel could have dropped a fashion show runway ahead of its soldiers. Perhaps that's an idea for next time.

  4. I'm not sure I was suggesting that the IDF forces should have worn different uniforms or dropped down unarmed. I was only wishing that all parties would show the same kind of reluctance to engage in violence that saved the world in 1962. Thanks for visiting and commenting, Sandy.

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