The Many Fields of Battle
Given public fascination with epic battles such as those at Austerlitz and Stalingrad, where generals tested their strategies and soldiers their courage in the heat of massive clashes of arms, it’s surprising how few wars were ever settled through such decisive engagements. In fact, with the exception of Gulf Wars I and II, I can’t think of any of the dozens of wars in recent decades that have been ended by such mighty battles.
There is a tendency to chalk this up to an erosion in the ethos of war, with “honorable” head-to-head clashes between trained armies being replaced by small-scale unconventional battles and skirmishes, often directed specifically at non-combatants. But war has always been about experimentation and going with what works, which translates to tailoring strategies to battlefields that don’t necessarily resemble flat plains big enough to hold ranks of infantry and columns of tanks.
To cite a well-known example, the generals leading the North Vietnamese army during the Vietnam War understood that they could never best the US military in head-to-head battle, so they chose a different type of battlefield: US public opinion. With a deep understanding of American democracy and the increasing power of televised images to define the news, these generals chose strategies and tactics that made no sense if their goal was to defeat the US Army militarily. But those maneuvers were perfectly logical (even brilliant) with regard to accomplishing their actual goal: turning US opinion against the war by convincing the public it could never be won.
The war against Israel has featured conventional battles between organized armies (notably in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973). But between those named wars, as well as the years since the 1973 Yom Kippur war with Egypt and Syria, Israel’s enemies have chosen unconventional strategies and tactics designed for unconventional battlefields.
The choice to deliberately (and primarily) target civilians, a tactic usually referred to as “terrorism,” is often described as “cowardly” or “evil.” But these terms ignore the strategic nature of choosing a battlefield, such as the shopping mall or public bus, where Israel’s superior military seems to have no effective counter-measure.
The choice of a terror strategy might be in error or counterproductive, given that Israel can and has struck back at the sources of terror (whether in Jenin or Gaza). But this is where another battlefield arises: world opinion, which requires both sides in the conflict to choose a parallel set of strategic and tactical choices.
For Israel’s enemies, the goal is to ensure maximum flexibility of unconventional armies to carry on terror campaigns uninhibited. This requires them to neutralize Israel’s military superiority by making it very difficult for Israeli leaders to choose or sustain a military response. Thus the criticality of propaganda campaigns, which, while calling themselves “peace activists,” do nothing to prevent groups such as Hamas from starting wars but take to the streets in huge numbers the second Israel shoots back.
As mentioned earlier, war is all about experimenting with different things and then doubling down on what works. For instance, the “Peace March” tactic was first rolled out during Israel’s 2006 clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon and turned out to be so effective at limiting Israel’s military choices that it’s been repeated during the Gaza shooting wars in 2008, 2012 and 2014. In fact, with each conflict the stakes have gotten higher – to the point where Israel must now take into account the fact that its military choices might have an impact on the safety of Jews living in Europe or elsewhere in the Diaspora.
Before and after (and in-between) live shooting wars, these propaganda campaigns spend their time preparing the ground for the next clash, by doing everything in their power to create an image of the Jewish state so odious that its destruction will be considered a moral good. This strategy has involved decades-long campaigning to infiltrate and take over the machinery created to fight for human rights around the world, turning the very organizations that are supposed to keep the peace (the UN, human-rights NGOs and the like) into weapons of war, indeed weaponizing the very language of human rights itself.
Recent decisions by the Israeli government to take the fight against “delegitimization” seriously reflect an understanding that the battlefield has shifted from the land, sea and air (i.e., the places military planners spend most of their time thinking about) to places where rounds are not fired, but words are spoken instead.
This puts Israel ahead of other nations (including our own) that have yet to recognize the true nature of the enemy or the war(s) being fought. But it still leaves open the most important question: what to do next?