The war that was led astray
Why was Israel prevented from trouncing a relatively minor terror organization, like Hezbollah, operating from the smallest, weakest nation in the region? How did we fail, not only to achieve our declared objectives, but in the far more vital effort of protecting the State of Israel from a missile and rocket attack for more than four weeks? Was this a specific failure of an inexperienced political leadership? Or perhaps the product of haughty, arrogant Israel Defense Force top brass, who closed its ears to criticism of exaggerated dependence on air power? Or perhaps, are these all symptoms of a far more serious disease: the culture of war we adopted since the first war in Lebanon in 1982.
In his book, "Carnage and Culture" (Doubleday, 2002), American military historian Victor Hanson explores the question of why the West (nearly) always wins? For 2,500 years, from ancient Greece to the present day, Western armies vanquished their non-Western adversaries in almost every war, with rare exceptions when the West was caught completely by surprise or was exceptionally outnumbered
A comprehensive examination of important battles, from the Battle of Salamis in which the Athenians defeated the Persian fleet to the Battle of Midway in World War II in which the Americans defeated Japan refutes widespread assumptions that Western military superiority is explained by greater valor, military-technology advantage or greater economic strength. Hanson argues that the secret is that Western military forces are more effective killers. This results from the "citizens' army" model created in a Western "open society," which was born in the ancient Greek tradition of storming the enemy.
Whie Ancient, Eastern monarchs considered war a sport, a game of balance between forces, ancient Greek democracy gave rise to an utterly unsportsmanlike perception of war. It viewed war as a fight for liberty and freedom of community and citizen, an existential fight to the death. Its primary objective was not to defend city and homeland but, to the greatest extent possible, to prevent the enemy from recovering in time for another round. While non-Western forces strive to gain points, their Western adversaries strive for a knockout.
Emanuel Kant said that the nature of democratic nations prevents them from seeking superfluous wars and causes them to seek peace with their neighbors. Democracies strive for peace, Kant says, because their citizenry are unprepared to risk lives and property for marginal issues. But free citizens also have considerable interest in achieving a victory that would prevent or delay their adversaries' recovery and prevent or delay the next war.
Ben-Gurion and Sharon
The culture of war, handed down by David Ben-Gurion and expressed most aptly in the '70s and '80s by Ariel Sharon, was a Western culture of storming, siege and frontal confrontation with the enemy. This was also true when the price of daring military action was seemingly unbearable loss. With Ben-Gurion the Israel Defense Forces rushed to take advantage of every opportunity to trip up the enemy, in an effort to surround and destroy the enemy as an attacking force.
Ben-Gurion declared: "Even if Israel wins 50 wars, it will not defeat the Arab world, but the Arabs have to win only one war to destroy the State of Israel." Ben-Gurion emphasized this asymmetry to explain the need to deliver the fiercest, most painful, blows to delay the strategic and psychological recovery of the other side.
Even in the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion did not make do with thwarting enemy goals and respectable, defensive achievement. Though Israel stopped the Egyptian army at Ashdod and gradually pushed it beyond Israeli borders, Ben-Gurion ordered an exhausted IDF to repeatedly isolate the invading army as it withdrew and confront its withdrawing forces again and again.
Nor did the IDF limit itself to defensive action in 1956 and 1967, but the most interesting examples of this Ben-Gurionesque culture of war were implemented in 1973 and 1982 by first-major general and then-minister of defense Ariel Sharon. The crossing of the Suez Canal in the Yom Kippur War was a clear example of the Western culture of war: Sharon swept military and political leaders with him to a definitive victory. By means of daring and inordinately difficult maneuvers, a surprised and beaten IDF, penetrated front lines to isolate and surround the Egyptian Second and Third Armies and destroy them by means of fire, starvation and thirst.
The unprecedented public debate that surrounded the first war in Lebanon and its objectives actually represented profound debate of the culture of war. The Israeli public and media led the Knesset and cabinet to argue the wisdom of a tactical war (code-named "Little Pines") to defend the Galilee from cannon and Katyusha fire versus a strategic war (code-named "Big Pines") to defeat the enemy, aka the PLO, as a military force in Lebanon.
Defending the Galilee from artillery fire, then as now, required pushing the enemy to a line 30-40 kilometers beyond the border. That was the stated objective of the war as defined by the cabinet and Knesset. But the minister of defense had other plans. Sharon saw the war as an opportunity to achieve a two-fold victory: First, a defeat of the PLO as a military force in Lebanon; and second, long-term protection of our northern border by signing Lebanon to a peace agreement.
Treading the limits of legitimacy and democracy, Sharon swept the cabinet and army to a war that was supposed to end in a crushing knockout. Like British Admiral Horatio Nelson, who raised a telescope to his blind eye to ignore orders, Sharon claimed "confusion" upon reading the cabinet decision. Instead of ordering the IDF to push the PLO from South Lebanon to the north, he ordered the IDF to land troops north of Sidon to block the path of the withdrawing PLO and push the PLO back to the South. Thus, the IDF might confront the PLO and destroy its military force.
An examination of military history since the first war in Lebanon reveals gradual disengagement from the traditional Western culture of war. Sometime in the '80s, we ceased to speak of our desire to defeat the enemy or destroy its military capability by means of a knockout and began to nurture a culture willing to settle for a "victory in points" or "engraving" something "in their conscience." In other words, it was enough for the other side to integrate the knowledge that it would be difficult to defeat us. Sometime in the '80s, "victory" became pejorative and we began to speak of the "appearance of victory" or the "effect of victory on the conscience." This presumably could be achieved at a relatively low cost in human life.
During the '90s, we began to replace Ben-Gurionesque doctrine with a new concept of static, low-risk war with few as possible losses on the ground while relying, to an exaggerated extent, on air power to defeat the enemy.
Second war in Lebanon
In the war just ended, Israel behaved as if it viewed the battle as a wrestling match, scored in points: who suffered the heaviest losses in equipment and infrastructure, who displayed the highest morale under fire? This was expressed not only in the management of the war by its leadership but in IDF power structure.
The ambition to deliver a strategic defeat, along the lines of the "Big Pines" plan and requiring an invasion on the ground, has vanished into thin air. The decision to fight a defensive, tactical "Little Pines" war was made only after the cease-fire timing that barred any chance of completion. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert found himself in a perfect reversal of the role played by Ariel Sharon in 1982. Sharon led the people and the government astray by leading the army far beyond the 40 kilometers approved by the government. Olmert, who sought to prevent even a limited ground operation, led the people and the nation astray while preserving the appearance that he was striving for a strategic defeat.
For Olmert, the problem was that, at war's end, the army and the people forced him to surrender to his own rhetoric and the dynamics left in its wake: He was forced to declare a victorious final ground action that would justify expectations he created, and the fact that he sent northern residents into shelters.
At that stage, Olmert led the people and the government astray in an attempt to create the futile display of a near victory snatched from our hands at the last moment by UN involvement. To achieve this, Olmert first presented a decision to the cabinet to implement a would-be "Little Pines" plan to the Litani River, but immediately delayed implementation of that plan until the UN Security Council decision rendered it a "no go." Then, and only then, the IDF received a dazed order to march forward swiftly and without purpose. Thus, the mission to conquer areas south of the Litani was destined to fail, at its inception, because of timing. And that was nothing compared to the failure to complete the mission of destroying Hezbollah forces in the South.
The failure of the Second War in Lebanon is the failure of the new culture of war. Though the PM, the minister of defense and the chief of staff are among its most profound representatives, they are not to be solely blamed for its result. The IDF's plan for war and its current power structure, mainly formulated during the terms of the previous chief of staff and defense minister, teach us that Olmert Peretz, and Halutz represent a profound social and cultural problem in our society.
The rush to victory in battle requires a willingness to take risks of the "he who dares wins" variety. However, even if daring pays off in the long run, it occasionally and naturally leads to resounding failure. Striving for a win on the ground is a risk, as there is no ground battle without casualties. "We count our dead and we are proud of that," Prime Minister Olmert said in his Knesset address at the war's end. But if counting the fallen causes vacillation and indecisiveness, and annihilates ambition to deliver a strategic victory, how could gains become anything but losses, in terms of strategic objectives or loss of life?
This is emphatically true in the IDF power structure. In recent years, a concept of "victory from the air" developed, negating the need for ground maneuvers or improved firepower on ground or in sea. In the case of Lebanon, a specific concept of repelling Katyusha rockets and missile fire in the air was developed - hence, the belief that it was possible to conduct a broad confrontation with Hezbollah with no action on the ground. As a result, infantry, tank, and artillery forces were neglected.
Were it possible to solve every problem by means of air intervention, why continue to empower ground and naval forces? One factor that made neglect in the military power structure more severe was the self-persuasion of senior security force members who believed that conventional warfare had seen its final days. A total of 23 years without frontal conflict between the IDF and Arab armies allowed ministers of defense, chiefs-of-staff and other experts to develop a military version of the "End of History" theory. It was expressed in the belief that the conventional military threat to Israel had been permanently replaced by the threat of unconventional weapons, on one hand, and terror, on the other.
This concept remained intact even though we witnessed a conventional clash between the United States and Iraq; a clash which included broad ground maneuvers alongside the battle in the air. One must wonder, to some extent, how, after witnessing these battles, we permitted ourselves to cut plans to improve capability?
The slap in the face we absorbed, in Ze'ev Schiff's terms, has woken us from our dogmatic slumber. A great miracle happened here in that our weaknesses and our defects were exposed in the face of a relatively small and marginal enemy, incapable of threatening our very existence.
Yet, loud war cries are heard from the direction of Syria, and those who would prepare the army to respond, must immediately implement a few lessons that will not wait for committees of inquiry. I am referring to lessons regarding the reinforcement of ground troops in the Golan, improved ability to mobilize troops and redeploy under fire, the renewal and restocking of inventories and the urgent training of reserve brigades.
As to questions regarding power structure preferences, such as providing armored units equipment to counter anti-tank weaponry, completion of the development of rocket-intercepting weapons, or the development of precision and rapid fire power from land and sea, we will need to refine these. We have just begun to contend with our culture of war and culture of denial, which are at the very heart of the matter. If we bravely and wisely learn the right lessons, we will be able to say with satisfaction that "out of the strong came something sweet." (Judges 14:14)