The Lessons of Lebanon

— Uri Avnery

SO WHAT HAS happened to the Israeli army? This question is now being raised not only around the world, but also in Israel itself. Clearly, there is a huge gap between the army's boastful arrogance, on which generations of Israelis have grown up, and the picture presented by this war.

Before the choir of generals utters their expected cries of being stabbed in the back "The government has shackled our hands! The politicians did not allow the army to win! The political leadership is to blame for everything!" it is worthwhile to examine this war from a professional military point of view.

(Who am I to speak about strategic matters? What am I, a general? Well I was 16 years old when World War II broke out. I decided then to study military theory in order to be able to follow events. I read a few hundred books from Sun Tzu to Clausewitz to Liddel-Hart and on. Later, in the 1948 war, I saw the other side of the medal, as a soldier and squad-leader. I have written two books on the war. That does not make me a great strategist, but it does allow me to voice an informed opinion.)

The facts speak for themselves:

  • On the 32nd day of the war, Hizbullah is still standing and fighting. That by itself is a stunning feat: a small guerilla organization, with a few thousand fighters, is standing up to one of the strongest armies in the world and has not been broken after a month of "pulverizing." Since 1948, the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan have repeatedly been beaten in wars that were much shorter.

    As I have already said: if a light-weight boxer is fighting a heavy-weight champion and is still standing in the 12th round, the victory is his whatever the count of points says.

  • In the test of results the only one that counts in war the strategic and tactical command of Hizbullah is decidedly better than that of our own army. All along, our army's strategy has been primitive, brutal and unsophisticated.

  • Clearly, Hizbullah has prepared well for this war while the Israeli command has prepared for a quite different war.

  • On the level of individual fighters, the Hizbullah are not inferior to our soldiers, either in bravery nor in initiative.

Guilt for Failure

The main guilt for the failure belongs with General Dan Halutz. I say "guilt" and not merely "responsibility," which comes with the job. He is living proof of the fact that an inflated ego and a brutal attitude are not enough to create a competent Chief-of-Staff. The opposite may be true.

Halutz gained fame (or notoriety) when he was asked what he felt when he drops a one-ton bomb on a residential quarter [in Gaza ed.] and answered: "a slight bump on the wing." He added that afterwards he sleeps well at night. (In the same interview he also called me and my friends "traitors" who should be prosecuted.)

Halutz started this war with the bluster of an Air-Force officer. He believed that it was possible to crush Hizbullah by aerial bombardment, supplemented by artillery shelling from land and sea. He believed that if he destroyed the towns, neighborhoods, roads and ports of Lebanon, the Lebanese people would rise and compel their government to remove Hizbullah. For a week he killed and devastated, until it became clear to everybody that this method achieves the opposite strengthens Hizbullah, weakens its opponents within Lebanon and throughout the Arab world and destroys the worldwide sympathy Israel enjoyed at the beginning of the war.

When he reached this point, Halutz did not know what to do next. For three weeks he sent his soldiers into Lebanon on senseless and hopeless missions. Even in the battles that were fought in villages right on the border, no significant victories were achieved. After the fourth week, when he was requested to submit a plan to the government, it was unbelievably primitive.

If the "enemy" had been a regular army, it would have been a bad plan. Just pushing the enemy back is hardly a strategy at all. But when the other side is a guerilla force, this is simply foolish. It may cause the death of many soldiers, for no practical result.

Now [August 13 ed.] he is trying to achieve a token victory, occupying empty space as far from the border as possible, after the UN has already called for an end to the hostilities. (As in almost all previous Israeli wars, this call is being ignored, in the hope of snatching some gains at the last moment.) Behind this line, Hizbullah remains intact in their bunkers.

However, the Chief-of-Staff does not act in a vacuum. As Commander-in-Chief he has indeed a huge influence, but he is also merely the top of the military pyramid. This war casts a dark shadow on the whole upper echelon of our army. Almost all the many officers that have appeared on TV are unimpressive, uninspiring professionals, experts on covering their behinds, repeating empty clichés like parrots. The ex-generals, who have been crowding out everybody else in the TV and radio studios, have also mostly surprised us with their mediocrity, limited intelligence and general ignorance.

More than once it has been said in this column that an army that has been acting for many years as a colonial police force against the Palestinian population "terrorists," women and children and spending its time running after stone-throwing boys, cannot remain an efficient army. The test of results confirms this.

Corrupted by Occupation & Racism

After every failure of our military, the intelligence community is quick to cover its ass. Their chiefs declare they knew everything--they provided the troops with full and accurate information; they are not to blame if the army did not act on it.

That does not sound reasonable. Judging from the reactions of the commanders in the field, they clearly were completely unaware of the defense system built by Hizbullah in South Lebanon. The complex infrastructure of hidden bunkers, stocked with modern equipment and stockpiles of food and weapons was a complete surprise for the army. It was not ready for these bunkers, including those built two or three kilometers from the border. They are reminiscent of the tunnels in Vietnam.

The intelligence community has also been corrupted by the long occupation of the Palestinian territories. They have gotten used to relying on the thousands of collaborators that have been recruited in the course of 39 years by torture, bribery and extortion (junkies needing drugs, someone begging to be allowed to visit his dying mother, someone desiring a chunk from the cake of corruption, etc.) Clearly, no collaborators were found among the Hizbullah, and without them intelligence is blind.

It is also clear that Intelligence, and the army in general, was not ready for the deadly efficiency of Hizbullah's anti-tank weapons. Hard to believe, but according to official figures, more than 20 tanks were hit.

The common denominator of all the failures is the disdain for Arabs, a contempt that has dire consequences. It has caused total misunderstanding, a kind of blindness of Hizbullah's motives, attitudes, standing in Lebanese society, etc.

I am convinced that today's soldiers are in no way inferior to their predecessors. Their motivation is high, they have shown great bravery in the evacuation of the wounded under fire. But the best soldiers cannot succeed when the command is incompetent.

Lessons for the Future

History teaches that defeat can be a great blessing for an army. A victorious army rests on its laurels, it has no motive for self-criticism, it degenerates, its commanders become careless and lose the next war (see: The Six-day war leading to the Yom Kippur war). A defeated army, on the other side, knows that it must rehabilitate itself. On one condition--that it admits defeat.

After this war, the Chief-of-Staff must be dismissed and the senior officer corps overhauled. For that, a Minister of Defense is needed who is not a marionette of the Chief-of-Staff. (But that concerns the political leadership, about whose failures and sins we shall speak another time.)

We [the Israeli peace camp] have a great interest in changing the military leadership. First, because it has a huge impact on the forming of policy and, as we just saw, irresponsible commanders can easily drag the government into dangerous adventures. And second, because even after achieving peace we shall need an efficient army at least until the wolf lies down with the lamb, as the prophet Isaiah promised. (And not in the Israeli version: "No problem. One only has to bring a new lamb every day.")

The main lesson of the war, beyond all military analysis, lies in the five words we inscribed on our banner from the very first day: "There is no military solution!"

Even a strong army cannot defeat a guerilla organization, because the guerilla is a political phenomenon. Perhaps the opposite is true: the stronger the army, the better equipped with advanced technology, the smaller are its chances of winning such a confrontation. Our conflict in the North, the Center and the South is a political conflict, and can only be resolved by political means. The army is the instrument worst suited for that.

The war has proved that Hizbullah is a strong opponent, and any political solution in the North must include it. Since Syria is its strong ally, it must also be included. The settlement must be worthwhile for them too, otherwise it will not last. The price is the return of the Golan Heights [Syrian territory captured in 1967 ed.]

What is true in the North is also true in the South. The army will not defeat the Palestinians, because such a victory is altogether impossible. For the good of the army, it must be extricated from the quagmire. If that now enters the consciousness of the Israeli public, something good may yet have come out of this war.

ATC 124, September-October 2006