And on paper, they’re right. Israel could kill every single man, woman and child in Gaza if it wanted to. And Hell, it probably does want to. So why doesn’t it? America could wipe the Sunni Triangle off the map easily, nuke the whole place or use neutron bombs—Hell, nerve gas, even—if we were worried about limiting damage.
But nobody does this stuff. Why not? That’s the big question. That’s what drives the frustration you’re hearing when these old-school war buffs try to deal with war circa 2008: they think in terms of hardware, and the hardware—the nukes—doesn’t seem to apply, somehow. So why not?
The first key fact is that we’re living in a lull, a pause in longterm military history. We live in the hangover after a wild night, the first half of the twentieth century. That was a binge to end all binges, an era of great, total, merciless warfare. Everybody thinks of the Western Front in the First World War when they think of total war, but there were plenty of other fronts just as merciless, just as brutal, like the Russian Civil War or the Greek-Turkish war in western Anatolia, which was even nastier, if that’s possible, than the Russian fighting. No quarter asked or given on either side.
In this phase, nationalism wasn’t a bad word yet. People were willing to die, more like eager to die, for their countries. Even countries like Italy had a real over-the-top mentality in WW I. Like I’ve said many times, Europe before 1945 was an alien planet that has about as much to do with Europe today as Abba has to do with the dead German guy who did the helicopter music in Apocalypse Now.
The first go-round, from 1914-1918, took a lot out of them, so when the sequel rolled around in 1939, a lot of countries were already moaning and groaning that nobody was going to get them out on the dance-floor again. England and France were going, "Aw no, jus’ lemme set a spell, my lumbago’s actin’ up….” But there were the younger, braver countries like Japan, the US, Germany and the USSR who had that "C’mon, the night is young!” spirit and dragged them up for a second waltz.
That little number lasted until 1945, and it got a little hectic even for the hotshot kids. By the end it was like one of those Itchy and Scratchy cartoons where the cat and the mouse face off with knives and escalate to bigger and bigger guns til the last shot is of a giant pistol blowing up the earth.
And that’s when Phase 2, the Hangover starts. After 1945 everything is different. Until you face that fact you won’t understand modern war at all. We’re living in a lull. Nobody wants to admit that; everybody wants their time on the planet to be the big moment of history, but militarily, this is not a great era. We’re waiting, hedging our bets. Nobody’s willing to play the nukes, and until somebody does, big-time, we’re like old ladies playing the slots, one quarter thrown away at a time, nobody willing to roll big at the craps tables.
When you live in a lull like we do, you think everything’s happening for the first time, when what you really have is the same plays called with different rules. What made me realize that was this article I saw in the Israeli paper Haaretz that summed up a US Army report on the 2006 war between the IDF and Hezbollah. According to this report, Hezbollah had scored some kind of tactical breakthrough by fighting almost like a conventional army, fighting from bunkers instead of relying on mobile warfare. They claimed this was a first in history, a "non-state actor” fighting a successful conventional war.
Well, of course it’s not new at all. What’s new is the squeamish, namby-pamby set of rules that operate since 1945. Those rules are why Hezbollah was able to win. Unless you understand that, you won’t understand how wars work these days.
So let’s take a look at a pre-1945 war for a parallel. Let’s see, where can we find a "non-state actor” trying to use conventional military strategy? About a million places, actually, but my favorite example is one of the biggest and most unknown wars around: Mao’s communists vs. the Nationalists in China in the 1930s. Not many people realize what a huge, ruthless war this was. And almost nobody realizes that it wasn’t a bunch of ignorant peasants duking it out; both sides had expensive foreign advisors, usually Germans for obvious reasons, telling them how to fight.
Mao’s military advisor was a German communist cadre named Otto Braun. He took a Chinese name, Li De, but as you can imagine he wasn’t likely to pass for a local, being a classic German military type, a long skinny skeleton with big glasses and even bigger plans. Mao had been fighting the kind of brilliant rural guerrilla warfare he’d learned from the Hunan bandit chiefs. One of these bandit chiefs told Mao, "All you need to know about war is: circle around, circle around, circle around.” Mao took that lesson to heart, because he discovered if his guerrillas didn’t keep moving away from the Nationalists’ front, they’d get ground up.
Otto Braun convinced the Chinese Communist leadership that these bandit tactics were too low-down and no-count for the People’s Liberation Army. He got them to adopt a "Blockhouse Strategy” which was basically exactly what Hezbollah’s "bunker strategy” was. Only it didn’t work. The Nationalist forces attacked Mao’s bunkers, sustained huge losses but kept attacking, and eventually wore down the Communist defenses. That was the pattern of warfare up to 1945: accept huge losses to take enemy territory, because when you do, you will be able to neutralize those territories for good. So it pays off. You lose, say, 300 men taking a section of Maoist territory by overrunning those blockhouses. You’ve now gained a peasant population of, say, 100,000. You now get the return on your losses: you immediately kill any Communist sympathizers in the region and force all the young men to sign up with your army at bayonet-point. You’ve made good your casualties because, once you control the enemy territory, you change it for good, turn it from red to blue.
You can’t do that now, except once in a while, in remote places like Sudan or Congo where none of the locals have friends in the media. For most other places, where the news cameras are willing to go, this is the era of squeamishness.
Now let me say, before people start writing in with horror stories from Nam or Africa, I’m not saying we’re nice. We’re no nicer than Foch or Kitchener or Ataturk or Chiang or Budyonnov or any of those early 20th-c. maneaters. We’re just more sly and cautious about it, because we’re squeamish, we’re scared, we’re edging back from the cliff out of pure selfish fear. We still do plenty of nasty stuff but only where the locals can’t dish it out in return, like the Brits in Kenya or the French in Algeria in the 1950s or us in Nam in the 1960s or the Russians in Chechnya. What we’re not usually ready to do is what made sacrificing soldiers’ lives worthwhile for attacking armies pre-1945: total, ruthless, unashamed wipe-out of any opposition once the territory was taken.
The best-known case in the Middle Eastern theatre, post-1945, was what the Israelis’ Phalangist allies did in Sabra and Shatilla outside Beirut in 1982. What you saw there was an attempt to do early-20th-century warfare in the wrong era. I repeat: what they did there, wiping out enemy civilians once they’d taken the territory, would have been standard policy for any European army pre-’45. But in 1982 it backfired completely and gave the IDF a bad name it’s never managed to lose.
What that means is that the IDF had to rethink its planning for the next war. The arithmetic was just plain different—the New Math for casualties, you could call it. There was no longer much point in spending soldiers’ lives to gain territory because once you had it, you couldn’t neutralize it in any permanent way. You could hold onto it for a while but so what? You’d lose troops in small ambushes and in the meantime every reporter in the world would be filming every attempt you made to cleanse the neighborhood. So all your losses in taking the ground, overcoming those blockhouses, would be wasted.
With that difference in mind, let’s replay the war in South Lebanon in 2006 as if it happened in the 1930s. Hezbollah has dug in along the border, set up a network of bunkers, and they fight hard and well in them. But the Merkavas of the IDF still roll over the defenses eventually, and when they do the IDF follows with military police and intelligence to round up all Shia civilians. Some are deported, some are thrown in prison camps, and a lot more are shot and bulldozed into mass graves. That would have been standard practice pre-1945, and it would have justified almost any casualties the IDF suffered in the initial advance. The ethnic composition of Southern Lebanon would change for good.
Now look at what actually happened. The IDF knew from the start that it couldn’t wipe out the enemy civilian population, the Shia of Southern Lebanon. So its goal was to "wipe out Hezbollah,” which even the IDF itself must have known was total nonsense. You can’t wipe out the guerrillas without wiping out their civilian base; you can’t hope to make some neat distinction between bad, evil Hezbollah and nice, harmless Shia civilians. It just doesn’t work that way. So the IDF was doomed from the start. When they tilted toward old-school total destruction, the media was there to film every wounded kid; when they veered over to squeamishness they lost soldiers for no reason. And the Israeli public knew these troops died for nothing, so when Israeli TV showed a dead soldier’s mother collapsing on his coffin, the real cost to the government was huge. You have to factor in press coverage from the start in war these days: how much is one Hezbollah bunker worth, vs. the TV coverage of the mothers of the soldiers killed taking it? Under the new Squeamish rules, that arithmetic very rarely works out to make the attack worth doing.
That’s why Hezbollah’s bunker strategy seemed so brilliant; under the new rules it works. If you don’t understand how the rules have changed, you’ll never get anywhere applying Stalingrad rules to Lebanon news.
You can still ask, "Why don’t they just wipe them out?” In terms of military tech, it’s a better question now than ever, because we have a million ways of wiping whole populations off the map with minimum mess. But until we get an event like August 1914, we won’t know what that new set of rules looks like. And when we do, I guess it’s likely to be a real quick, brief look. "I saw the liii-iiight, I saw the light….”
By Gary Brecher