The ‘Operational Art’ of Fighting BDS
General Norman Schwarzkopf, at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, summed up Saddam Hussein’s military prowess by pointing out, “He is neither a strategist, nor is he schooled in the operational art, nor is he a tactician, nor is he a general, nor is he a soldier.” [emphasis added]
While the world focused on a scoffing harrumph that preceded Schwarzkopf’s list of his opponent’s shortcomings, the inclusion of “operational art” in the list highlights that within the highest echelons of military planning, mastery of operational detail often plays a bigger role than even factors like bravery or skill-at-arms in determining who wins and who loses.
Operational arts can be thought of as the combination of planning and logistics, and the best military plans are not static — that is, they do not assume a single sequence of moves both sides will make. Rather, they are dynamic, including multiple branches that take into account different choices an enemy might make. And the best plans include enough flexibility to allow a general to pivot if (or, more often, when) a foe does something unexpected.
Logistics involve making sure soldiers, weapons, equipment and supplies will be available for any of the alternatives that are part of a plan, as well as the rapid transportation needed if none of those alternatives comes to pass and personnel and gear are needed elsewhere.
Fortunately, fighting against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement does not require the same level of operational artistry as does organizing one giant army to kick another giant army out of Kuwait. But the multi-step planning and pre-positioning of material before the battle associated with the “operational art” does have an analog in propaganda warfare.
By way of illustration, one of the best counter-attacks of the now predictable Israel-Apartheid Weeks took place at Columbia University this Spring when a group of pro-Israel students erected a 12-foot-high inflatable Pinocchio right next to the BDS-ers “Apartheid Wall,” causing the boycotters to fly into a panic and run to the administration to get the “threatening” puppet pulled down.
As described earlier, this was a brilliant use of surprise that pushed the enemy off-balance. And now that Columbia’s experience has taught us what that enemy will do in response (i.e., demand administrative action to get an opposing displayed removed), there are different combinations of planning and logistics that can be done to take advantage of likely repeats of this scenario. For instance:
- A pro-Israel campus group can research the official steps needed to set up their counter-display and, if appropriate, start the process of obtaining appropriate permissions. This will obviously eliminate the element of surprise we saw at Columbia, but it also gives our side the chance to mirror the exact same steps the boycotters have taken to set up their displays, restricting the choices of the powers-that-be to permitting or rejecting both displays (either of which is a victory for our side).
- If our side chooses to repeat a surprise display, having an attorney and reporters (or, better yet, several of each) ready to challenge any attempt to take down Pinocchio (or whatever else we come up with) can tie up decision-makers long enough to ensure no action is taken until “Apartheid Week” is over. This tactic takes advantage of the generally timid nature of administrators who will do whatever they can to avoid either a lawsuit or bad press.
- When Pinocchio came down at Columbia, the students behind that political action immediately began a “#FreePinocchio” campaign on Twitter that had some impact on campus discourse over the issue. So imagine what can happen if other groups prepare a full-on campaign along these lines in advance, papering campus with fliers, running articles and letters in the newspaper, and making sure the only subject under discussion during “Israel Apartheid Week” is how thin-skinned censors of the BDS “movement” ran to daddy to stop other people from exposing their lies.
Each of these sets of tactics reflects different elements of fighting wars discussed in this series to date, such as knowing the landscape of battle (which includes a predictable enemy and feckless administrators) and using compelling narratives (such as the story of BDS censorship and cowardice) to control debate.
Notice also that with two of the options listed above (#1 and #3), reusing the Pinocchio display is actually not the main campaign but rather a feint which disguises the real goal of preventing an “Apartheid Wall” from being permitted (tactic #1) or triggering a “Free Pinocchio” communication strategy that leaves the boycotters defending themselves during a week when they’d rather act as accusers (tactic #3).
These examples are not meant as specific recommendations for action, much less checklists for future activism. Rather, they should serve to illustrate the kind of creative, multi-faceted tactics we could be deploying against our foes, rather than simply reacting to their provocations, often emotionally, and then fighting over whether such unplanned and ineffective responses represented “playing defense” vs. “going on the offensive,” a familiar fight to be addressed next time.