My Country at War

My country has just gone through a war. This was not the kind of war where (on the Israeli side) there are very many casualties; let alone one in which it is a question of life and death. Nevertheless it was war. So let me try to tell my readers a little about the way an ordinary citizen experienced it.

Israelis have always been a nation of news junkies. As one would expect, during wartime this is even more the case. Many people checked the news several times an hour. Almost everybody did so several times a day. The media dealt with little else. Modern war is enormously wasteful in terms of ammunition and the present one is no exception. But compared to the number of images displayed, words uttered, and ink spilt, that of bullets, shells and missiles fired was as nothing.

Many of the images, words and ink were occasioned by the rockets. There is no defense against the short-range mortar shells and they have caused quite some casualties. That apart, though, the alarm system functioned very well. Depending on how far from the Gaza Strip one lives or works, the time one has to seek shelter varied from about thirty seconds to a couple of minutes. Israeli houses built after 1991 are obliged by law to provide a so-called mamad, a room made of reinforced concrete and provided with a heavy steel window. People, presumably the majority, who inhabit older structures had to be content with strairwells etc. Drivers caught on the road were told to “stop safely” on the shoulders (which quite some roads do not have). Though doing so was against the regulations, many used the opportunity to get out of their cars and watch the show in the sky. How typical.

As I have written before, the combination of effective civil defense and the by now famous Iron Dome system explains the small number of civilian casualties. In fact more people were killed and injured while rushing to shelter than by the rockets themselves. The impact varied with distance. Most heavily hit were the twenty or so kibbutzim along the border. They became ghost villages, deserted by practically all their inhabitants except for a handful of caretakers. Towns within a 25-mile range of the border, such as Ashkelon, were targeted sufficiently heavily to make normal life all but impossible and force the evacuation of children. Elsewhere the impact was sporadic, even negligible. Further to the north there was hardly any impact at all.

Each night the Army spokesperson announced the number of soldiers who had died that day. It has long been the Israeli method not to release names until the families are informed. Informing them is the task of so-called Hiob Patrols. Though their composition varies, normally they consist of an officer, a physician and a rabbi. They receive special training for the job. Seen from the outside the system seems as well-thought out and as humane as it can be made. What it feels like from the inside only those who participate in it or receive the news it brings know.

Each day there were funerals, a few of civilians, the majority of soldiers. Most dead soldiers were young, even very young. War has always been, and still remains, what the Germans call Kindermord. How does one describe the pain? The military funerals followed the normal rules, more or less. However, ceremonial has never been the strength of the Israeli army or, for that matter, the rather undisciplined character of the people in which it is rooted. During previous conflicts TV used to show the dead soldiers’ comrades crying like babies over the graves. This time they did not do so. Good.

In much of the country life was and remains far quieter than usual. There was less traffic. Normally driving from Jerusalem to Mevasseret Zion (the town where I live, some four miles away) can take half an hour and more. During the war one could cover the road in a few minutes. Supermarkets, restaurants, movie houses and hotels were half empty. Nor is it only Jewish facilities that suffered. A town like Abu Gosh, a mile away, which in ordinary days makes it living by catering to Jerusalemites on Saturdays when their own everything is closed, was also hard hit. Safety considerations forced the cancellation of many cultural events. Almost every day one heard of some foreign artist or group that decided to skip.

Crime seemed to go down. The number of patients visiting doctors definitely went down. War has a way of making people forget many minor and some major problems. By way of compensation, quite some cars suddenly sprouted flags. Normally they are limited to the days before Independence Day. One saw signs carrying slogans such as “Mevasseret Zion hugs its solders” and the like.

Intolerance, even fanaticism, was and remains in the air. Some self-appointed vigilantes tried to shut up their less hawkish opponents. More than one person who dared say anything against the Israeli Operation, or in favor of the Palestinians, was disciplined and fired. Considering that it is the first duty of universities to protect freedom of speech, one of the ugliest incidents took place at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv. When a faculty member dared say that he was sorry not only for Israeli children but for the Palestinian ones as well, he was formally reprimanded by the dean. To be fair, a kindergarten mistress who wrote “death to the Arabs” on Facebook is also supposed to be tried for incitement.

Here and there words turned into violence as Jews attacked Arabs and Arabs, Jews. Thank goodness, though, the number and scope of such incidents has been limited. Furthermore the situation is better than in Gaza where there has never been any form of democracy and where Hamas simply executes whoever dares protest against it.

What will the outcome be? Here I can only repeat what I have been saying ever since the war broke out. The war will end with a triumph for Hamas. Not in a military sense, but in the sense that they will be able to push through some of their political demands. To this I would add, as I wrote last week, that such an outcome would not necessarily be bad either for Israel or for the Middle East. Eventually it might lead, if not to peace then at any rate to calm.

A final word. Since 1990 or so Israel’s feminist lobby has become one of the most virulent on earth. Probably this is not unconnected with the fact that, while the country still has its problems, the days when it fought for its existence against overwhelming odds are long gone. The Israeli army in peacetime is 25-30 percent female. Since there are few female reservists and few of them are ever called up, in wartime the figure goes down very sharply.

Nobody doubts that female soldiers do their jobs properly. Still the war caused attention to be focused almost entirely on the fighting formations, and rightly so. It is they who suffer casualties and deserve to be celebrated. As the fact that no female Israeli soldier so far has been killed shows, where there were bullets there were no women and where there were women there were no bullets. As a result the feminist “discourse,” consisting of endless complaints about everybody and everything, suddenly became muted.

Unfortunately it won’t last.



Stuck in Gaza

The good news is that, here in Mevasseret Zion not far from Jerusalem, things have been less exciting than during the first week of Operation “Firm Rock.” The same applies to many other Israeli cities located relatively far away from Gaza. Possibly this is due to the fact that Hamas has a problem with its long-range rockets which, owing to their size, are harder to conceal and take longer to launch. The bad news is that elsewhere, and especially in the Israeli districts that surround the Gaza Strip, the rockets keep falling. Thus it would appear that the struggle, which has now lasted for two weeks, is far from over.

In this situation it is interesting to take a fresh look at what Clausewitz—I assume readers of this website will know who he was—has to say about wars of this kind. As I have written elsewhere, most of On War is couched in terms of the classic division of labor between the government that directs, the armed forces that fight, kill and die, and the people who pay and suffer. Still the maestro did include a short chapter—five pages out of over five hundred—dealing with what he calls “the People in Arms,” (Volksbewaffnung), AKA terrorism, AKA guerrilla, AKA insurgency, AKA asymmetric war. Drawing upon the wars in Russia, which he witnessed in person, and in Spain, which he did not, he lists the following as “the only conditions under which a general uprising can be effective:”

  1. The war must be fought in the interior of the country.
  2. It must not be decided by a single stroke.
  3. The theater of operations must be fairly large.
  4. The national character must be suited to that kind of war.
  5. The country must be rough and inaccessible, because of mountains, or forests, marshes, or the local methods of cultivation.

To which one might add:

  1. A country that borders on another from which the terrorists/guerrillas/insurgents can be resupplied and which will afford them refuge when they need it.

To what extent does the war Hamas is waging against Israel meet these conditions, and what are its prospects of gaining a victory? To answer this question it is perhaps best to change the order in which Clausewitz proceeds. Let us start with condition No. 2 as the most obvious of all. Elsewhere in On War Clausewitz says, quite rightly, that war consists of the interaction between the belligerents. A war that is decided by a single stroke to which the opponent has no answer is, by this interpretation, not a war at all. So weak is Hamas that, starting on the first day of the war, it and the people of Gaza whom it claims to represent have been taking roughly a hundred casualties for every one the Israelis suffered. Nevertheless, of the latter ending the struggle by a single blow there can be no question.

For as long as guerrilla and its relatives have existed, one very important way of making sure the struggle cannot be decided by a single stroke is to rely on No. 6. Alas for Hamas, in this respect its situation is well-nigh hopeless. The sea- and land routes to and from Gaza are blocked by the Israeli navy and army respectively. The Egyptians, who police their own border with Gaza, do the rest. Only the fact that the Israelis allow 200 or so truckloads per day to cross keeps Hamas and the population of Gaza going. Israel has even deployed a field hospital where the sick and wounded of the other side can be treated. But for these and similar measures hunger and disease would have spread very quickly. The probable outcome would have been the disintegration of Hamas rule and the creation of chaotic conditions like those prevailing in large parts of Iraq.

All this enhances the importance of proposition No. 4 (the role played by national character.) As both the history of the Arab-Israeli wars and the two Gulf Wars have shown, Arabs are not very good at waging modern conventional war against similar opponents. The question why this is so deserves to be considered in depth but is beyond the scope of the present article. Arabs have, however, done much better in waging guerrilla struggles. Even without considering wars such as the one in Yemen (1962-70), during which they chased away the British, they have forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon and the Americans, from Iraq.

Whatever else may be said about the current war in Gaza, so far Hamas troops—not the leaders, who hide in bunkers deep underground—have been fighting courageously in spite of the overwhelming odds they face. Here and there, as in their attempts to penetrate Israel either by sea or by way of tunnels that pass under the border, their courage has been well-nigh suicidal. In part because the Israelis, who have good cause to worry about international reaction, do their best not to inflict too many civilian casualties, the population of Gaza has also been holding up well. Judging by events so far, if a ceasefire is finally established it will not be because the population forced Hamas to accept it.

“The theater of operations must be fairly large,” reads proposition No. 3. Generally speaking, that is true. A large territory will make it hard for the counterinsurgent to focus on one point while affording the insurgents many opportunities to escape, disperse, and hide. But by no stretch of the imagination can the Gaza Strip, 32 miles long and just 6.8 wide, be considered “large.” In the entire Strip, there is probably not a single target the Israelis, had they wanted to and been prepared to take the necessary casualties, could not have reached in an hour or less. To say nothing of the ever-present fighter-bombers and drones that can reach those targets in minutes if not in seconds. That is why, in Operation Firm Rock, proposition No. 2—regarding the inaccessibility of the country in which the guerrillas must operate—is as important as it is. Though in this case it is urban terrain and its plentiful civilians, not “mountains, or forests, marshes, or the local methods of cultivation,” which obstruct the Israelis.

Considering these factors, which side is more likely to win? In the absence of a ceasefire, the outcome is likely to be a struggle of attrition from which the side with the last ounce of willpower will emerge triumphant.

Yet there remains one very important point Clausewitz does not mention. Henry Kissinger, with Vietnam in mind, once said that the counterinsurgent, as long as he does not win, loses. The insurgent, as long as he does not lose, wins. Even if—which, at the moment, seems unlikely—Israel succeeds in forcing the other side to accept a ceasefire based on a return to the status quo ante, Hamas leaders will be able to claim that taking on the worst its enemy can do, standing like a firm rock, and surviving represents a triumph which will enable them to look into the future with some confidence.

And in making this claim they will not be very wrong.

The Fall and Rise of History

I well remember the time when I fell in love with history. This was 1956 and I was ten years old, living with my parents in Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv. While rummaging in a storage room, I came across a book with the title (in Dutch), World-History in a Nutshell. Greatly impressed by the story of the small, but brave, ancient Greek people fighting and defeating the far more numerous Persian army, I quickly read it from cover to cover. Much later I learnt that the volume was part of a series issued by the Dutch ministry of education and updated every few years. To the best of my memory the one in my hands did mention World War I but not Hitler; hence it must have dated to the 1920s when my parents went to school.

It was World-History in a Nutshell and the wonderful tales it contained that made me decide I wanted to study history. In 1964 this wish took me to the Hebrew University where I started thinking seriously about what I was trying to do. From beginning to end, my aim was always to understand what happened and why it happened. Though it took me a long time to realize the fact, in doing so I, like countless other modern historians, was following in the footsteps of the German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).

Hegel’s most important propositions, as I came to understand them, could be summed up as follows. First, the past had a real, objective existence. It was, so to speak, solidified present, more or less covered by the sands of time; which meant that, given sufficient effort was devoted to removing the sand, “the truth” about it could be discovered. Second, in the main it consisted not of the more or less accidental, more or less cranky deeds of individuals but was pushed ever-onward by vast, mostly anonymous, spiritual, economic—this was Marx’s particular contribution—social and technological forces none could control. Men and women were carried along by it like corks floating on a stream; now using it to swim in the right direction, now vainly trying to resist it and being overwhelmed by it. Third, the past mattered. It was only by studying the past that both individuals and groups of every kind could gain an understanding as to who they were, where they had come from, and where they wanted to go and might be going.

Starting around the time of Hegel’s death, these assumptions were widely shared. All three of the most important ideologies of the period 1830-1945, i.e. liberalism, socialism/communism and fascism subscribed to it. None more so than Winston Churchill, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Adolf Hitler. The last-named once said that a person who did not know history was like a person without a face. As religion declined in front of secularism history, with Hegel as its high priest, became the source of truth, no less.

To be sure, there were always those who cast doubt on the enterprise. Whether seriously and out of ignorance, as when Henry Ford famously said that history was bunk; or only half-so, as in Walter Sellar’s hilariously funny 1931 best-seller, 1066 and All That. The outcome was a vast outpouring of written works—later, movies as well—and an ever greater increase in the number of students both in- and outside academia.

At the time I took on my studies in 1960s, few people doubted that finding out the historical truth was an important objective in itself. Then, around 1970, things started changing. This time the herald of change was a Frenchman, Michel Foucault (1926-84). The way Foucault saw it, post Hegelian historians—and, looming behind them, his own countryman Rene Descartes—were wrong. Contrary to their delusions, such thing as an objective fact, event, process or text did not exist. Rather, each person interpreted—“read” was the term Foucault’s followers invented for this—each text, process, event and fact in his or own way. Assuming, that is, that these things had any kind of objective existence at all and were not imposed on history ex post facto. The choice of interpretation was determined by each person’s experience and personality; in reality, therefore, the number of possible interpretations was infinite. If, as sometimes happened, this interpretation or that was widely accepted, then this fact only showed that it suited the psychological needs of many people, not that it was more “correct” than any others.

Since then this view has been eating up the study of history like a worm eating up an apple from within. Previously people had written learned tomes about, say, Greek antiquity; how it came into being, what its main characteristics were, how it unfolded, expanded, passed away, and so on. Now they did the same about the way historians had “discovered” or “invented” that antiquity. The same applies to “the middle ages,” “the renaissance,” “the enlightenment,” “the industrial revolution,” and so on and so on. This came dangerously close to saying that history was but a fairy tale and any attempt to write about it was not “science” but fiction—good or bad.

The implications of this view were tremendous. If all the study of history was capable of yielding was some kind of subjective tale, then of what use could it be in establishing “the truth”? And if it could not help in establishing “the truth,” then what could be the purpose of engaging in it? And how about the remaining social sciences such as political science, international relations, sociology, and so on? Weren’t they, too, based on the assumption that an “objective” past did exist and could be used to understand the present?

For a century and a half it had been assumed that a firm grasp of these subjects would qualify those who had it for many kinds of work not only in academia but in both the public and the private sphere. Now, increasingly degrees in these fields were seen as useless. The more useless they appeared to be, the less capable they were of providing their owners with a reasonable income as well as an acceptable position in society. The less capable they were of providing their owners with an acceptable position in society and a reasonable income, the smaller their perceived uselessness.

And so began the decline of the humanities and many of the social sciences that we see all around us. The lives of an entire generation of young academics have been blighted, given that nobody any more is interested in whatever they may have to say. Finding work outside the universities is even harder; instead of degrees, prospective employers demand “experience” above everything else.

Does that mean that books and movies that deal with the past will soon disappear? Of course not. Rather, it means that the purpose of reading those works has shifted. Instead of analyzing underlying factors and trying to extract “lessons,” people started looking for stories with heroes and villains in them. Instead of looking for the general picture they took an interest in the details; often, needless to say, the juicier the better. Instead of asking, “how we got to where we are now,” they wanted to know what life in the past had felt like. Nowhere was this more true than in my own field, military history. The reason, presumably, being that the vast majority of people in advanced countries no longer had any personal experience of warfare.

Where the demand exists supply will follow. Contrary to the situation as it existed a few decades ago, the most important historians writing today are not academics. They are popular writers, with his difference that the adjective “popular” is now as likely to be used in a complimentary way as in a derogatory one. By and large they do not reflect on underlying theoretical principles, create frameworks, or provide deep analysis. Yet from Antony Beevor in Stalingrad through Max Hastings in Catastrophe to Keith Lowe in Savage Continent, they have a vivid sense for detail and know how to spin a tale. Those tales may be useless in the classroom—having tried to use them there, I know. Yet judging by sales they seem to be filling the psychological needs of many people.

The king is dead; long live the king.    

Under Fire

My wife and I live on our own in a townhouse a few miles west of Jerusalem, within range of the rockets from Gaza. Several times over the last few days the alarm was sounded. We react by leaving the living room, which has glass doors facing the garden. Should a rocket explode nearby, then flying shards will cut us to ribbons. So we move into the stairwell which, made of reinforced concrete, offers good protection. We are lucky to have it, for my wife has just had her knee operated on and could not run if her life depended on it. I suppose something similar would apply to hundreds of thousands of others both in Israel and in Gaza. We wait until the sirens stop wailing—a hateful sound—and we have heard a few booms. Then we check, on the news, whether the booms originated in rockets being intercepted by Iron Dome or in such as have not been intercepted hitting the earth. A few telephone calls to or from our children, and everything returns to normal until the next time.

And so it goes. One gets up each morning, sees that the surroundings look much as usual, heaves a sigh of relief, and prepares for the coming day. Yet for several days now, much of Israel has been under fire. That is especially true of the southern part of the country. Over there ranges are short and incoming rockets smaller, harder to intercept, and much more numerous. There are several dozen wounded—most of them hurt not by incoming rockets but while in a hurry to find shelter. As of the evening of Tuesday, 19 July, following eight days of fighting, just one Israeli, a civilian, has been killed by Hamas fire.

Several factors explain the low number of casualties. First, the rockets coming from Gaza are enormously inaccurate. They hit targets, if they do, almost at random. Second, the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system works better than anyone had expected. The system has the inestimable advantage in that it can calculate the places where the rockets will land. Consequently it only goes into action against those—approximately one in five or six—that are clearly about to hit an inhabited area. The outcome is vast savings; in some cases, realizing that the incoming rockets are not going to hit anybody or anything, the authorities do not even bother to sound the alarm. Third, civil defense seems to be working well; people obey instructions and are, in any case, getting used to this kind of thing. Fourth, as always in war, one needs luck.

In turn, the small number of casualties and the limited amount of damage inflicted has enabled the government of Israel to keep the lid on its own actions in the face of extremist demands. Fewer than two hundred people in Gaza, about a hundred of them civilians, have been killed. Given how densely populated the Strip is, and that the Israelis claim to attack several hundred targets each day, that is a surprisingly low number. It suggests a degree of control and precision never before attained or maintained in any war in history. But while the Israelis have been extremely effective in avoiding collateral deaths, the impact of their strikes against Hamas’ short-range rockets in particular is limited. Many targets known to harbor military installations but located in or under hospitals and schools have not been attacked at all. Others were hit and destroyed, but only after IDF operatives called their inhabitants or used a small missile to warn them and order them to get out. Strangest of all, throughout this about 200 trucks keep crossing from Israel into Gaza every day. They carry food, fuel, and medicines without which the Strip could not survive for long.

But Israel’s lucky run will not last forever. Sooner or later, a Hamas rocket that for one reason or another has not been intercepted is bound to hit a real target in Israel and cause real damage. Imagine a school or kindergarten being hit, resulting in numerous deaths. In that case public pressure on the government and the Israel Defense Forces “to do something” will mount until it becomes intolerable.

What can the IDF do? Not much, it would seem. It can give up some restraints and kill more—far more—people in Gaza in the hope of terrorizing Hamas into surrender. However, such a solution, if that is the proper term, will not necessarily yield results while certainly drawing the ire of much of the world. It can send in ground troops to tackle the kind of targets, such as tunnls, that cannot be reached from the air. However, doing so will almost certainly lead to just the kind of friendly casualties that the IDF, by striking from the air, has sought to avoid.

Whether a ground operation can kill or capture sufficient Hamas members to break the backbone of the organization is also doubtful. Even supposing it can do so, the outcome may well be the kind of political vacuum in which other, perhaps more extreme, organizations such as the Islamic Jihad will flourish. Either way, how long will such an operation last? And how are the forces ever going to withdraw, given the likelihood that, by doing so, they will only be preparing for the next round?

And so the most likely outcome is a struggle of attrition. It may last for weeks, perhaps more. Humanitarian efforts to help the population of Gaza, however well meant, may just prolong the agony. In such a struggle the stakes would hardly be symmetrical. On one hand there are the inhabitants of Gaza. Increasingly they have their lives turned upside down by the constant alarms, strikes, and people who are wounded or killed. On the other are those of Israel who, though their lives have also been affected, have so far remained remarkably calm and resilient under fire. Though some areas are badly affected, the Israeli economy has also been holding up well.

Perhaps because the number of Gazans killed and wounded is fairly small, international reaction, which is always hostile to Israel, has been relatively muted. One reason for this appears to be that no outsiders have what it takes to push either side towards a ceasefire. In a struggle of attrition it is the last ounce of willpower on both sides that will decide the issue. So far, it does not seem that the willpower in question has been exhausted on either side.

Why American Kids Kill

American kids keep killing each other, their teachers, and any other adults who happen to be present when they go berserk. Since December 2012 alone there have been some 74 school shootings, more than two a month on the average. Each time something of the kind happens the media go even more berserk than the children themselves. So far neither metal detectors at the gates nor armed guards in the corridors seem to have made much of a difference. Proposals for dealing with the problem have ranged from providing teachers with handguns to covering students with bullet-proof blankets.

As a foreigner who has spent some years in the U.S while his children went to school there, and who has written a book (in Russian) about the U.S, I may be in a better position than many others to shed some light on this question. Here, then, are my observations.

* Owing to the way the healthcare system is constructed, American infants are more likely than some others to die during their early months or years. For many years now, even the States that do best in this respect tend to lag behind many other developed countries, including some that are much poorer. Though America’s fertility rate may be the highest among developed countries, its kids are skimped on before they are born as well as immediately after birth. Arguably the fact that the problem affects lower-class socio-economic families much more than it does those above them only makes things worse.

* Compared to many other developed countries, America spends relatively little of its public wealth on raising its children. Family payments, measured in absolute numbers, are lower than in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, and the U.K. They are also much lower than the OECD average. Relative to the earned incomes of employed single mothers, the overall value of cash transfers per family is low and declining. As a result, the percentage of children who live in poverty is higher than in most other developed countries.

* As if to make up for these shortcomings, American parents, and society in general, are extremely demanding on their children. At school they are supposed to get straight A’s. At home they are supposed to perform “chores,” meaning unpleasant tasks adults do not want to do. In addition they have to excel at sports—the reason being that, doing so, they may be able to get through college with the aid of scholarships and thus save their parents tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. I personally knew some perfectly nice middle-class parents who more or less compelled their teenage daughter have an operation on her knees, which were hurting, so she could to go on playing basketball. If all this were not enough, during their vacations they are expected to hold a job—the kind of job, needless to say, that pays so little that nobody else would want it—so as to cover at least part of their expenses.

The outcome is that many teenagers are busier, and enjoy less leisure, than in any of the many other countries I have visited or in which I have lived. Talking to some of them, I never understood how they managed it. Inevitably, some fail to do so. All this is done in the name of teaching children how to cope with “life”—yet judging by the results, it is often counter-productive.

* Even as they encourage their children to grow up in a competitive world, American parents and society in general put them under any number of restrictions. If American adults are greedy for an endless supply of high-quality goods and services, then the American Psychological Association will commission a study on the effect of advertising on children with the goal of making them less so. If many Americans swear, then an American seven year old will be punished by his school principal for telling a classmate that his mother was gay, as indeed she was. If Americans supposedly smoke too much, then American youths up to age 21 are forbidden to smoke and may, indeed, be sent to jail for buying a pack of cigarettes. If not enough Americans join the Armed Forces so they can be sent to get killed in useless wars on the other side of the world, then any school that receives federal money must admit Pentagon recruiters and must provide those recruiters with students’ contact addresses even without their knowledge, or that of their parents. Ironically this requirement, which was enacted in 2001, was part of a law known as “no child left behind.

If American adults like to drink while riding in stretch limousines, then out of fear that kids may do the same they are prohibited from using those limousines for their coming-out parties and must content themselves by being bused instead. If over sixty percent of American adults are overweight, then one can be certain that their children, far fewer of whom are, will be made to pay the price by having sweets, snacks, candy and various soft drinks banned from their schools’ vending machines. The list is endless.

Thus children are caught in a vise. From the moment of birth on, they are taught they must grow up so as to make their way in society. But that very society also puts them under endless prohibitions and, claiming that they “cannot handle it” (whatever “it” may be) infantilizes them. As one American told me, that explains why American children are so keen on sport. It is the only adult activity on which they are allowed to engage.

* Finally, American parents, and society in general, have never learnt how to spare the rod. I well remember how, on first visiting the home of a prominent and extremely well educated lawyer, I was told that his two sons had been “grounded” for quarrelling and would not be allowed to leave their room for a couple of days. I well remember how my son, then thirteen years old and following his first day at an American school, came home with a fifty-page booklet listing all the things he was prohibited from doing and the punishments attached to each; and yet, as he said between tears, he had done nothing wrong yet! Worse still, with computers around no offense committed by a child, however trivial, is ever left unregistered or forgotten. It is as if the term “forgiveness” did not exist.

Some parents go so far as to send their rebellions children to a kind of bootcamp where they are supposed to learn what is what. Others even allow those children to be kidnapped by personnel who work for the firms that operate the camps and take them there by force. Others still consult doctors who then prescribe Prozac, Ritalin and other chemical compounds to keep the children quiet. Wherever one goes one hears the advice, “talk to your children.” But how can American parents, especially busy career mothers who often work as hard as fathers and are always desperately trying to juggle career and housework, ever find the time and energy to do so the way it should be done? Instead, all they seem to do is nag their offspring about homework.

As the Roman philosopher Seneca used to say, repeated punishment crushes the spirit of some of those subject to it. At the same time it stirs up hatred among all the rest. Is it any wonder that some children, caught in an impossible world, take up a gun and kill everybody they meet?