The Human Side Of History Podcast

Episode 1

Michael Oren, Former Israeli Ambassador To The United States (Pilot Episode)

Runtime: 36 minutes

Featured Guest: Michael Oren, Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States


May 6, 2024

When do democracies go to war and how do leaders navigate wartime decisions in a just way? Host Gil Troy and former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren discuss the moral dilemmas that emerge during modern-day conflict, with a focus on the Israel-Hamas War and Middle-Eastern tensions with Western democracies. Drawing on manuscripts from the American Civil War and WWII, we take a glimpse at how Presidents Lincoln and Truman approached the existential national crises of their day and examine what can be learned from their leadership and choices.


00:00:05 – 00:00:34

Michael Oren

I think it’s what you’re fighting for. And you know who you’re fighting with. My father fought against the Nazis, and fought for freedom. He fought for the salvation of the Jewish people. My children and I fought for Israel. We fought for the Jewish state. Willing to lay down your life if you have to for something in which you deeply believe, it’s a great privilege. It’s a tremendous advantage. It gives you moral clarity.


[Theme Music]


00:00:34 – 00:01:00

Gil Troy

This is Gil Troy, and welcome to the Human Side of History podcast, where we discuss how history helps us understand our current moment. In this initial series, we’re going to use history and historical documents from the Shapell archives to explore some of the most compelling questions raised at this difficult historical moment, especially since Hamas’s horrific invasion of Israel on October 7th.


00:01:00 – 00:01:30

Each episode will feature one or two documents that we’ll read and comment on, and an expert to put them in context. Our guest today will be a leading historian and diplomat who also is the son of a veteran, a veteran himself, and a father who has sent his kids into combat. Michael Oren. 


00:01:30 – 00:01:56

In this, the first episode, we begin with two basic questions. When do democracies go to war and how do they fight it? We’ll look at two of America’s most searing conflicts, World War II and Civil War, and we’ll see how the moral clarity that Americans got at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and Americans got in the North when the South tried to rebel in the name of slavery in the 1860s.


00:01:56 – 00:02:36

And we’ll see how that moral clarity served as a flow-through motivating soldiers and motivating leaders from the very start until the ultimate victory. And we’ll be looking at specifically the conflict of Harry Truman. His dilemma, do I drop two bombs on Japanese civilians in order to save American soldiers? And then we’ll go to our old friend Abraham Lincoln who will help us think more about how we think about the day after, and how we put God and a higher sense of purpose and a greater sense of patriotism into the mix.


00:02:36 – 00:03:05

And how we all try, no matter how difficult the moment is during the war, to come out of the war stronger, more unified with that moral clarity, not just when we’re fighting, but also when we’re living and working together. And this will all be in the context of the difficult dilemmas Israel is facing since October 7th and Americans face every day. Who are we? What do we stand for? What are we willing to live for and what if forced might we be we willing to die for?


[Letter: Harry Truman and World War II]


00:03:10 – 00:03:58

Gil Troy

The White House. Washington, DC, August 11th, 1945. My dear Mr. Cavert, I appreciated very much your telegram of August ninth. Nobody is more disturbed over the use of atomic bombs than I am. But I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable, but nevertheless true. Sincerely yours, Harry Truman.


00:03:58 – 00:04:23

So let’s go back to 1945. It’s been a difficult, difficult four years for the United States of America. Everybody likes to emphasize the end of the war. How America won. People forget not only that Pearl Harbor was devastating and had Americans feeling like they weren’t going to win. But month after month after month until the war effort kicked up. The Japanese especially, were defeating the Americans in the Pacific.


00:04:23 – 00:04:50

Of course, the super hero for the war was Franklin Roosevelt, and in April 1945, he had died and an undistinguished, not well known vice president named Harry Truman is now President of the United States. Facing the greatest of decisions, how do we end the war? How do we end this just war, justly? 


00:04:51 – 00:05:18

And he’s been told, and we’re now all experts because we’ve watched Oppenheimer. He’s been told that he has this powerful force, the atomic bomb, to drop. On August 9th, 1945, four days after the United States dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima, Harry Truman gets a telegram from the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America.


00:05:19 – 00:05:39

Many Christians deeply disturbed over the use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities because their necessarily indiscriminate destructive efforts. Respectfully urge that ample opportunity be given Japan to reconsider ultimatum before any future devastation by atomic bomb is visited upon her people.


00:05:40 – 00:05:50

Truman gets this telegram, knowing full well that he’s already given the green light to bomb Nagasaki. And on August 11th, he responds.


00:05:50 – 00:06:28

My dear Mr. Cavert, I appreciated very much your telegram of August ninth. Nobody is more disturbed over the use of atomic bombs than I am. But I was greatly disturbed by the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we’ve been using to bombard them. And then he has a sentence which might hurt our modern ears. When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable, but nevertheless true. Harry Truman.


00:06:28 – 00:06:55

Now, first of all, when he uses the word beast, notice he isn’t only using it about the Japanese, he’s also using it about himself and his army. He starting with a fundamental fact of war, which is that war is ugly. War unleashes unfathomable forces, immoral forces, evil forces. But sometimes, if it’s done for the right reason, it’s for the greater good. 


00:06:56 – 00:07:34

And it’s fascinating that in the short response, he goes right back to Pearl Harbor. He adds, of course, the prisoners of war who had been tortured and killed. But he goes to the just cause of the war to justify using these unspeakable means in order to win. So that we see, is a series of dilemmas. And clear in Harry Truman’s mind, and he went to his grave saying this, where the intelligence estimates that as many as one million American soldiers would have been killed had they tried to invade Japan.


00:07:34 – 00:07:54

And as a leader, he has a dilemma. What’s my primary moral obligation? To the enemy or to my own soldiers, my own people? And he would dismiss the eggheads, as he called them, who tried to second guess him. One set of dilemmas in a very, very short exchange.


[Letter: Lincoln and the Civil War]


00:08:00- 00:08

Gil Troy

Civil War. Also, for the North, we forget how difficult, how bloody, how painful it was. And how that it was not obvious in 1861, 1862, 1863 that the Union would win. But now it’s March 1865, and Abraham Lincoln has been reelected and gives his second Inaugural Address. It’s an amazing prose poem. It’s less than 800 words that still resonate in the American canon and throughout world history, because he talks about the progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends.


00:08:44- 00:09:02

He recognizes that the most important thing for him right now and for America right now, for the North right now, is to win. When you’re fighting a war, you have to put all other concerns aside to make sure once you’ve gone to war for a just cause, that victory is in reach and victory is achieved. 


00:09:03 – 00:09:30

And he too goes back to the original causes of the war. But first he says something remarkable. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it, to avoid it. He shows that democracies don’t go to war happily, they don’t go to war willingly. They go to war reluctantly. But once they go, they have to amass and deploy and unleash all the power at their disposal. 


00:09:30 – 00:10:10

And he, too, goes to what he calls the cause of the war. Slavery. The injustice that was visited upon one eighth of the whole population of the United States of America. He also says neither party expected for the war the magnitude of the duration which it has already attained. Everyone thinks it’s going to be quick and easy, and it rarely is. And then he goes into the Almighty. And in one of the most theological expressions in an inaugural address in American presidential history, Lincoln wonders what God is thinking and ultimately says the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.


00:10:10 – 00:10:40

And then he finishes with his most famous statement of with malice toward none, with charity toward all reaching out to the Southerners, hoping they’ll be mercy. A few days later, one of the backroom operators of the 19th century, Thurlow Weed, who’d helped establish the Republican Party, the anti-slavery party that Lincoln ultimately led, sends him a fan letter, and Lincoln responds.


00:10:40 – 00:11:12

Executive Mansion, Washington, March 15th, 1865. My dear Sir, everyone likes a compliment. Thank you for yours on my little notification speech, and on the recent inaugural address. I expect the latter to wear as well as, perhaps better than anything I have ever produced. He had a sense that this was really one for the ages. He had hit, as we would say, a grand slam. But he’s a good enough politician to say I believe it is not immediately popular.


00:11:12 – 00:11:35

Men are not flattered by being shown that there’s been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them. He knew in some ways, because he was trying to be more merciful to the South, that he might be putting pressure on some of the northerners who wanted vengeance, who were furious, wanted to destroy the South. And he said, no, we’re going to have to rebuild.


00:11:36 – 00:12:09

In his inaugural address, he said, we pray to the same God. We have the same Bible. And so he’s thinking of the day after, even as he’s saying, first, we must win. To deny it, however, in this case is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told. And as whatever of humiliation there is in it, falls most directly on myself, I thought others might afford for me to tell it. Yours truly, A. Lincoln.


00:12:09 – 00:12:42

He’s saying it’s hard. It’s struggling. He’s struggling with the dilemmas of leadership, both tactically and strategically, how do we win? But also how do we move forward? And I think these two conversations at this moment help us appreciate. It’s so easy to sit from the sidelines and throw thunderbolts of judgment. It’s so easy to sit from the sidelines and read two articles in a newspaper or three things online and say, oh, that’s what we should do.


00:12:42 – 00:13:09

But when you’re sitting there in the presidential chair, in the prime ministerial chair, and you are taking up the moral responsibility for life and death of your own people and others, it’s never clear, and it’s certainly never easy. And to help us understand that, let’s turn to one of the great diplomats and great historians of our day, Michael Oren.


[Introducing Michael Oren]


00:13:10 – 00:14:02

Michael Oren is an American Israeli diplomat. He was born in New York. He’s an essayist, a historian, a novelist, and a politician. He served as Ambassador to the United States from Israel, a former Knesset member, and served as Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. He’s also written extensively on Middle Eastern history, and is the author of the award winning Six Days of War, June 1967, and The Making of the Modern Middle East. He currently has a must-read Substack newsletter, Clarity with Michael Oren, to which I subscribe. I should also add that if you’re lucky enough in life, there’s some people who you read and you read about, and then they become mentors and then they become friends. And Michael, for me, is someone whom I read about, who has taught me a lot and is now a good friend.


[Interview with Michael Oren]


00:14:02- 00:14:17

Gil Troy

Greetings, Michael. It’s great to have you on this podcast and to launch this podcast with you. You’re one of my favorite historians. You’re one of my favorite diplomats and one of my favorite people. So, I’m looking forward to learning with you and from you today.


00:14:17 – 00:14:19

Michael Oren

I’m delighted and honored to be with you. Thank you. Thank you, Gill.


00:14:19 – 00:14:43

Gil Troy

So you’re one of those rare historians in the English language who has not only written about war, but you grew up on the war stories of your father. You fought in war, and you’ve sent your kids to war. Help us understand the differences of being a son of, an actor and the father of. And what’s in your mind, especially when you send your kids off to war.


00:14:43 – 00:15:15

Michael Oren

It’s not just that we fought in war. I mean, being, fighting in war helps you understand, for example, the challenges facing the Israeli soldiers in Gaza right now. I’m in the United States, and I’m dealing with officials in the U.S. government. None of them, as far as I know, has ever held a rifle, had to fight for anything physically. And so, you know, when we talk about what it is to be a soldier in Gaza and what it means to fight an enemy who who’s dug in beneath that and using both the people of Gaza and the landscape of Gaza, as shields, they just simply don’t understand it. 


00:15:15 – 00:15:49

But I think it’s more than that fighting in Gaza. I think it’s what you’re fighting for and, you know, who you’re fighting with. My father fought against the Nazis, and fought for freedom. He fought for the salvation of the Jewish people. My children and I fought for Israel. We fought for the Jewish state. And, at times in very dire circumstances. So not only, it’s not just holding a gun and going out and fighting for your country, it’s also the sense of, you know, willing to lay down your life if you have to for something in which you deeply believe.


00:15:49 – 00:16:02

And that’s a, I think that’s a it is a very rare experience in the world today, particularly in this country. I’m talking to you from America. But more than that, it’s a great privilege. It’s a tremendous advantage. It gives you moral clarity.


00:16:02 – 00:16:21

Gil Troy

And that moral clarity comes from the justification for the war itself. But then you add all this element of fear and chaos. And so the two sides of the coin we’re trying to look at today are both when democracies go to war and how they fight in a way that preserves their souls, even while saving the country.


00:16:21 – 00:16:58

Michael Oren

And for this way, I think that Israel holds one of the many answers for the West of the 21st century. I think we’re the country that is able to, you know, to reconcile East and West, modernity and tradition. But we’re also able to recognize, to reconcile a democracy and a flagrant democracy in the case of Israel, with a country that’s willing to take up arms to defend itself. And those two characteristics are all too frequently in the West, viewed as contradictory today. You can’t be a democracy and be armed and defending yourself. And Israel gives that I think resolves that contradiction, that seeming contradiction. It’s actually not a contradiction.


00:16:58 – 00:17:26

And, and we defend, we go to war, in a very different way also than most countries go to war, because, it’s always a good trivia question Gil, who is the Commander-inChief of the IDF? Because we all know who the Commander Chief of the American Armed Forces is. It’s the President, right? And, but the good trivia question is, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the IDF? People often answer the Prime Minister, the Defense Minister, the Chief of Staff. And the answer is none of the above.


00:17:26 – 00:18:04

The Chief of Staff of the IDF, the Israeli government, cabinet. And the reason is, is because we’re a democracy, is going to war in this country is a consensual affair. It’s not a it’s not a matter of executive fiat. You have to persuade the Israeli people, excuse me, in almost an Athenian way to go out and bear arms and fight for the country. Which means the government itself has to have a tremendous amount of legitimacy, which, unfortunately, the present one doesn’t really have. It is very difficult in our, in our society. So we are actually the ultimate democracy, picking up arms and going to war to defend that democracy in a truly democratic way.


00:18:04 – 00:18:19

Gil Troy

And it’s been quite anomalous because whatever criticisms people have of the government, they put them aside. And you feel on the streets of Israel, and you certainly when you visit military bases, that the Israeli people are behind the Israeli army and behind the Israeli war effort.


00:18:19 – 00:18:40

Michael Oren

Well, we had an event on October 7th and 8th, which I don’t [think] has any parallel in modern history, certainly. That is an entire society rose up without waiting for instructions from the government, without waiting instructions from the state, to pick up arms, to volunteer, to stand up for the State of Israel. I don’t know any example like that.


00:18:40 – 00:19:01

80% of Israelis were volunteering in one way or another. 360,000 reservists reporting for reserve duty. The reserve units reported between 100%-150% response to those call ups. 360,000 Israelis, Gil, would be the equivalent of about 20 million American soldiers. That’s more soldiers than fought in all World War II.


00:19:01 – 00:19:26

Gil Troy

And speaking of World War II, when we read the Harry Truman letter justifying the dropping of both bombs, it’s very interesting that he goes right back to Pearl Harbor. And again and again it’s interesting to see how, as you navigate the questions of the war’s morality, what do I do today? How do I win today? What don’t I do today? He, and I think many of us in Israel, keep on going back to the original just cause of the war.


00:19:26 – 00:19:49

Michael Oren

And I don’t think they can have any cause that’s greater than that. Again, I have to put this in American terms. 1,200 Israeli dead within 12 hours would be the equivalent of about 45,000 Americans dead in 12 hours. That’s many times Pearl Harbor. That’s many times 9/11. And, it was literally, in our heartland is where this occurred.


00:19:49 – 00:20:17

And in the case of Pearl Harbor it wasn’t soldiers, it was civilians. And so in terms of justification, I don’t think there’s any question about the justification. The great question afterward is the, for certainly for many people in this country the United States, is, has Israel overreacted? Over the top? Have we killed entirely too many Palestinians? That strange locution which suggests that there’s actually some number of Palestinians dead that would have been okay.


00:20:18 – 00:20:49

And, and the constant repeating of Hamas numbers, Hamas figures, which in themselves are grossly inflated, but they also include the terrorists who we have killed, include the Palestinians killed by Palestinian rockets that fall short. About 30% of the rockets fall short. And, the big debate in Israel is not whether we are harming Palestinian civilians, but whether we are taking too many risks for our soldiers in trying to prevent greater numbers of Palestinian casualties. But try to make that case here, it’s extremely difficult.


00:20:49 – 00:21:10

Gil Troy

It’s also difficult to think, actually now, to make the case for Harry Truman’s dropping the bomb. It’s very interesting, I think even in Oppenheimer, they kind of work around the issue because more and more Americans look at that as an immoral decision. How do you, as a historian, help Americans understand that Harry Truman felt he was right, and most Americans at the time felt he was right?


00:21:10 – 00:21:38

Michael Oren

Well, the best parity you can make is not revenge for Pearl Harbor, because that has been, in many ways, delegitimized today. They’ll say, well, after World War II we changed the rules of warfare. As a matter of fact, President Biden said it on TV the other day. It’s because we firebombed Tokyo and dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because we firebombed Dresden and Hamburg and Berlin, we’re not going to do that again.


00:21:38 – 00:22:19

So that argument, you know, revenge from Pearl Harbor carries far less weight here. What I think is still pertinent is the explanation for the dropping of the bombs that it in many ways it preempted or eliminated the need for an invasion of Japan. Now, you can make that case with Gaza, too. If we don’t not go in and destroy Hamas, then Hamas will live up to its pledge. And that pledge is made very frequently. That the minute Hamas emerges from the rubble, it will rearm, it will reorganize, it will launch what they say a million new attacks against the State of Israel. So basically, by going into Gaza and defeating Hamas now, whatever the cost, we are saving tens and tens of thousands of lives in the future.


00:22:19 – 00:22:44

Gil Troy

It’s very interesting. Whenever you talk to remote control moralists, they don’t answer the question of what would you have us do? You know, they say we’re for peace, and you have fought in the war and have sent your kids off to war, understand how important it is to have peace. But you can’t have peace when you have an enemy who’s trying to destroy you. It actually ends up leading to more war and leading to the carnage that we saw on October 7th, and that the Americans saw on, in December 1941.


00:22:44 – 00:23:22

Michael Oren

Hm, you know that’s the answer I give to the BBC all the time. What would you have us do? Let me get this straight. You want us to have a cease fire? That’s what they want. You want Hamas to emerge from the rubble and reorganize and rearm and launch more attacks. Is that going to bring peace? And then I have to remind people that, every time we came close to peace or seemed to come close to peace. And I’ve been involved in the peace process for well over 30 years. I started off as an advisor to Yitzhak Rabin. I participated in the last round of negotiations with the Palestinians. I’ve been an advisor to several peace plans. Every time we seem to be coming close to peace, it was Hamas who came out and killed not just Israelis, but killed Palestinians.


00:23:22 – 00:23:48

And to understand that you cannot even think of peace as long as Hamas is in power in Gaza or anywhere. It is a very powerful argument but people don’t remember this. People don’t remember the Hamas bombings that started right after Oslo. And the Hamas bombings that included, you know, after 2005, 2006, 2007 in Gaza. And how many Palestinians Hamas killed. Difficult, difficult arguments to make but we have no choice. We have to make them.


00:23:48 – 00:24:47

Gil Troy

There’s a simplicity to war on a certain level, because you go when there’s a just cause and you go in. But then, of course, every day, as you were mentioning for soldiers, let alone for people who are at the higher levels of the military and the political rank, there are very, very difficult dilemmas. And this marvelous letter from the Shapell Foundation between Thurlow Weed and Abraham Lincoln, where Abraham Lincoln acknowledges that his Second Inaugural might not have hit with a popularity contest, it might not have hit the populace. But actually, he’s thinking the long term and he’s thinking about God. How do you, with all your experience, navigate these questions not just of the moment, but also the bigger questions of the day after, of the greater meaning of war, and perhaps also the greater meaning of life when you’re willing, as you said at the beginning, to put your life on the line, what does it do to your kids, to you in terms of your own spiritual journey, your own ideological journey, your own emotional journey?


00:24:47 – 00:25:07

Michael Oren

I think maybe not the Second Inaugural of Lincoln, but rather his Gettysburg Address is one that speaks to us in Israel today. Because what is he saying? That there’s been, we have sacrificed unspeakably, on these fields of battle, and that sacrifice bestows on us, the living, to make that sacrifice worthwhile, to live up to that sacrifice.


00:25:07- 00:25:38

And I look now at this, this terrible battle that in Gaza and here we have to be very clear. I was in the army for something like 35 years. I participated in several wars. My kids have been in wars, I have one son who was wounded in action. And I look at what’s going on in Gaza today. I don’t think anybody in Israel, maybe since the 1948 war, have experienced anything like that. That’s, that’s combat 24/7 for weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. Where, you know, every everything is booby trapped. The kids are booby trapped. I don’t think we’ve experienced anything like that.


00:25:38 – 00:26:07

This bestows upon us, a great responsibility. First of all, the responsibility to build the covenant that was broken on October 7th. The covenant that says the state of Israel exists to defend the people and state in the Land of Israel. That was broke. We have to restore that. But also bestows on us the, the responsibility to fix many of the fundamental problems in the State of Israel. This is why I actually look at October 7th in a, in a very difficult way but in a very real way, as an opportunity.


00:26:07 – 00:26:32

An opportunity to address the questions of sovereignty in Israel. We have an opportunity here to ensure that Israel has another 100, 200 years of sovereignty and freedom and success. Because we owe it. We owe it to these young people who have gone out and fought day and night, day and night, have bled and have died for us, for our freedom. And I feel that responsibility very acutely.


00:26:32 – 00:27:00

Gil Troy

And exactly was what Abraham Lincoln was doing, both in the Gettysburg Address, speaking of the word nation, nation, nation, and saying, we now we’re not just THESE United States of America, but THE United States of America. And also in the Second Inaugural, he’s doing it in an even more spiritual way when he says, with malice toward none, with charity for all, he’s trying to say, how do we build the day after and how do we rebuild our country? And I think you’re absolutely right. You know, everybody says that people often go to war to protect the status quo, but that’s the first casualty. And –


00:27:00 – 00:27:32

Michael Oren

And he’s saying that, these sacrifices will not have been in vain, he says. And, true. And I say the same thing about our situation in Gaza. I also think about the unity that we’ve achieved. In the Bible, the Jews come to Mount Sinai in the plural. But by the time they’re building the tabernacle, it’s in the singular. We are a people. And I think in that way, you know, this is kind of a Mount Sinai moment. We are not we’re not THESE Jews. We are THE Jews, the Jewish people. And we have to maintain that unity.


00:27:32 – 00: 28:19

Gil Troy

And look where the people were in America in the 1930s and how they emerged from 1945 united, and similarly with the Civil War. But what’s also interesting is we historians, you write these amazing books and long articles and we can, we can go on and on. One of the things I love about reading soldier’s letters is they just zero in on the key. And there’s one amazing letter from the Shapell Collection from June 1862, where Ellis Strauss tells his mother, Should I fall it’ll be fighting for freedom in my country. And you just already said that. Freedom and my country. Our kids are poets, they’re willing to sacrifice their lives but they also have a very clear sense of why they’re doing what they’re doing. And I think that’s the through-line linking World War II, the Civil War, and our current challenge.


00:28:19 – 00:28:56

Michael Oren

And what’s missing today is so much of the West. You know, I have I have to play a mind game, Gil. I put myself in the landing craft that brought my father to Normandy Beach, and I do a little straw poll inside the LST, you know, where are you from? You got the farm boy from Oklahoma, you got the med school student from Harvard. You got the business guy from Philadelphia. And if you go around on the boat and say, you know, why are you about to risk your life on this French beach? I think you’d have overwhelmingly consensus. Consensus within the LST saying, we’re fighting for freedom. We’re fighting for our country. We’re fighting to stop, you know, the evil of Nazism.


00:28:57 – 00:29:21 

You scoot ahead 80 years and you go into that same imaginary LST, you don’t find that same mix of American society. You may still find the Alabama farm boy, but you may not find the Harvard student and the business man for Philadelphia. And you’d have to say, what are you fighting for? You’d have a great sort of variety, maybe even dissension within the LST, maybe people don’t even think these values are worth fighting for.


00:29:22 – 00:29:55

This is something I think we still have. I think if you go down to Gaza and go into these infantry units and ask these people and they come from different backgrounds, they could be Eastern Jews, Western Jews, religious Jews, secular Jews, leftist, rightist, you ask them what they’re fighting for? I think today you’d have an overwhelming consensus of what they’re fighting for. They’re fighting for their homes. They’re fighting for their, for their families. They’re fighting for their country. And they would be coming together again from all these different backgrounds. So we’re having in Israel, in Gaza right now, a Normandy LST moment.


00:29:55 – 00:30:33

Gil Troy

And it’s also a Civil War moment, because in the Second Inaugural, Lincoln said, we didn’t want to do this. We wanted to avoid war. And no Israeli on October 6th wanted war. But once it happened, and I think this is actually one of the powers of democracy. Once it happens and once you have a clear case justifying the action, then you unite and you make the world a better place. And I say, the world a better place not just your country a better place. And that’s why it’s important to learn from these civilizational texts. World War II, Civil War, the challenges and the beautiful language that emerged from Franklin Roosevelt, from Harry Truman, from Abraham Lincoln, from all these greats, which can guide us today.


00:30:33 – 00:30:17

Michael Oren

Indeed. And it’s the case I make here in the United States over and over again. This is not a war between Israel and Hamas. It’s not a war between Israel and Gaza or Israel and the Palestinians, it is a war for our civilization. And what we stand for. It’s certainly a war for democracy. And this is in such a profound way, a democratic war waged by a by a nation at arms. This, I often say that this is not just an LSD moment, it is a Lexington and Concord moment. Perhaps the best example I can find in history, were the Minutemen who went out on their own volition without waiting for instructions from a government, to fight for their freedom. And these moments are very rare in history, but we’re witnessing one right now, with Israel andGaza.


00:31:17 – 00:31:28

Gil Troy

Michael, one last question. What are you working on now? Do you have any big projects? And, what’s keeping you busy beyond the day to day fight?


00:31:28 – 00:31:50

Michael Oren

Well, I’ve been on almost two months speaking tour across the United States, defending the State of Israel in front of various audiences, not just Jewish audiences. And, I have a, an NGO called the Israel Advocacy Group, which defends Israel in the media worldwide. Yesterday, I was on Meet the Press, I was on the BBC. Every day I do multiple interviews during the day and during the night.


00:31:50 – 00:32:32

I have a Substack, a newsletter called Clarity. It’s a free subscription and I write once or twice a week, and I have guest writers there. It’s articles that you will not find anywhere else in the American press with clarity, about Israel, Gaza and the Middle East. And, and lastly I’m preparing to write a book about this war, and have concluded with a major publisher in the United States to do that. They’ll be a two year project and that’s probably the most challenging work of history I’ve ever written, because it’ll be contemporary history. It’s a very different methodology and approach, but, attempt to write the type of book that I wrote about the 1967 war, America in the Middle East, about this current conflict.


00:32:32 – 00:32:36

Gil Troy

Well, let’s hope the war ends soon so you can get to writing that book very quickly. 


00:32:36 – 00:32:38

Michael Oren

Please, God willing.


00:32:38 – 00:32:55

Gil Troy

Thank you, Michael. You traded, you traded your uniforms. You used to walk around back when you were, back when you were a soldier in your green madim, in your green uniform. And now you’re in the uniform of the diplomat and the historian, and you’re still on the front lines. Thank you so much for all you do.


00:32:55 – 00:32:58

Michael Oren

Thank you Gil, thank you for everything you do.


[Musical Interlude]


00:33:03 – 00:33:39

Gil Troy

We historians are always time traveling, going back and forth between the moment and our favorite decades, our favorite centuries, sometimes all the way back to millennia. But this conversation with Michael Oren reminded me that, especially during wartime, it seems like everyone is living on all these different dimensions. Every soldier going to war is thinking, as Michael characterized it, how am I going to survive? Where’s the next bullet going to come from? He’s thinking about the fear, the chaos, the need to survive, and the need to defend his or her country.


00:33:39 – 00:34:34

But at the same time, you can’t help but think about the American Revolution, Lexington and Concord, the Minutemen. You can’t help but think about the 48 war, the 67 war. You can’t help but think about the dilemmas that Harry Truman faced. How do I end this insane war? Do I risk my soldiers, or do I risk civilians on the other side? And then you go back to Lincoln and he gets us thinking not just about different periods of history, but also about the biggest questions in life. Is there a God? And how does having a belief in God, or not, help us soldier on and create the best kind of country we can? I love the fact that Michael was talking about the fact that this had to be a reset moment. This has to be, with all the ugliness, with all the tragedy, a moment to jump forward and make the world a better place.


00:34:35 – 00:34:58

So I want to thank you all for joining us in this discussion about war. And thinking about the moral clarity that’s required to go into war that’s sometimes imposed on us by our enemies. And yes, the moral dilemmas that emerge when you’re fighting for home and homeland. When you’re fighting for your parents, you’re fighting for your brothers and sisters, you’re fighting for yourself.


00:34:59 – 00:35:35

Next up in the series, we’ll build on this, and we’ll actually look more closely at a series of soldiers letters. Some written today from the battlefield and some written during the Civil War, World War II, and other periods in history that we can find in the Shapell Collection. As an extra bonus for today, we’ve listed Michael Oren’s five favorite books in the Show Notes. If you want to know more about the Shapell Foundation and go on an amazing website and just explore through their many, many manuscripts you can go to, one P two L’s. 


00:35:36 – 00:36:05

Also, feel free to visit the Show Notes for more about the manuscripts, events, and everything else we’ve talked about today. And don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review the podcast. Thank you to our extraordinary docyourstory production team. And thanks to all of you for understanding that history can’t determine our future, but it can help us understand the present and make a better future. This is Gil Troy, betting on better days.

Show Notes

Check out Michael Oren’s 5 favorite books:

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant by Ulysses S. Grant

Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein Halevi 

Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth 

Books of the Maccabees

Any book by Elizabeth Strout

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