Sunday, May 03, 2009

Solder Thoughts

A post-action analysis of the Israeli invasion into Gaza, known as Operation Cast Lead, tells a lot about the mindset of soldiers. Reading it, everything the Israeli Defense Forces did made perfect sense. As one General said, “"The other side understands that firing rockets is not worth it and we will make sure it remains that way." When you are fighting for your life, you do all you can to prevent the danger at hand but also look to keep it from happening again. For Israel, that logic requires a counter-attack with even greater force, again and again until the attacks end.

We did pretty much the same in Vietnam. Since our adversary had the home field advantage, we applied as much brute force to wreck that home base as we could. If ever a nation can be said to have warred against the land as much as against an enemy, it was US forces in Vietnam. Our aerial bombardment, artillery and chemical assault turned large swaths of Vietnam into wastelands and gave birth to a generation of deformed children.

My unit operated in a similar, if much smaller scale, manner. Virtually every encounter with NVA or VC ended with airstrikes or artillery. It seemed, like the Israeli General says, that we wanted to make sure that the other side knew that it was positively and totally insane to come anywhere near us. From a soldier’s perspective, the violence and mayhem of combat is not only sensible but necessary.

My inner grunt agrees fully. As a soldier, I have two responsibilities: to support my unit by performing a variety of assigned duties and to protect myself and unit members from harm. What keeps us alive is good. What absolutely destroys the enemy and renders him incapable of further harm is even better. An Israeli major mater-of-factly explains why he destroyed a house that offered no evidence of immediate threat,

"A suspicious house between two platoons? I could not leave it. We took risks to avoid civilian damage, but we tried to make the risks as low as we could. I needed to complete my mission and bring my soldiers back to their families."

To a soldier in the extremes of combat, everything is suspicious unless known otherwise. In circumstances where time does not afford a definitive answer, the logic is to just eliminate the possibility, “ to light it up". Uncertainty and hesitation kill. Fuck the other stuff.

The article clearly reflects the satisfaction of IDF leadership and achievement after the debacle of the 2006 Lebanon invasion. The fact that Hamas put up no serious resistance certainly contributed to Israeli tactical success but it appears that after 2006, IDF was fully cognizant that its opponents could be well organized and prepared for attack. Unlike civilian organizations (or even the militaries of nations not facing immediate, existential threat), the IDF has little or no margin and must learn from its experiences quickly. The same holds true for the individual soldier: learn or die. It’s that simple.

But all this is tactical and operational. It bears little relevance to the broader problem: the hatred and animosity that puts two societies at such a deadly impasse. Most soldiers will tell you, “That’s above my pay grade”. It most certainly is but the issue is no less important. Moreover, that issue will render any tactical success largely irrelevant. Which is why Israel will only be secure when its neighbors no longer hate it. As long as Palestinians consider Israelis to be 20th century ”crusaders” who have displaced the legitimate rights of the indigenous population, Israel will find no security. Continuing to dispossess Palestinians will do nothing to reduce that hatred.

In the run up to the 1967 Seven Day War, I recall hearing Israel arguing that it lacked defensible borders and was threatened by vastly larger Arab armies on all sides. Forty years on, Arab armies are no longer a threat but Palestinian resistance will deprive Israel of its longed-for secure borders. Only two options offer solutions. One is a Final Solution where one side wholly destroys the other, an act of genocide that would be a pyrrhic victory even if it were possible. The other solution are the two societies to come to terms with each other. In the meantime war will continue, sometimes furious, sometimes episodic but always.

And soldiers will continue to be soldiers, doing what they can and what they must.

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Blogger cile said...

"...The other solution are the two societies to come to terms with each other..." Ay, there's the rub, Mark....finding what element is valuable to BOTH societies as the mutual benefit to cease fighting. Providing a tipping point of mutual value in peace may involve extricating a bucket load of private agendas. Sadly, those agendas seem still firmly entrenched.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

You capture well the relentless, grinding pace of life there, as well as the universal job of the soldier.

The movie "Beaufort" about Israeli soldiers manning an outpost in southern Lebanon depicts your thoughts well.

You say, "Israel will only be secure when its neighbors no longer hate it," but until the lion lays down with the lamb, that is an impossibility. However, in lieu of that, how about "recognition"? Just that, and the parties could engage in actual negotiation.

How does one come to the table with an entity that does not recognize you? As I believe Indira Ghandi said, you cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.

11:03 PM  

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