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The War in Lebanon

By Mark Helprin

This essay will appear in the Fall 2006 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.

Imagine an Israeli guerrilla organization based in the Galilee, a power unto itself, with seats in the cabinet, a generous welfare apparatus, and the oft-stated goal of Lebanon's destruction and replacement with a Jewish state governed by Jewish religious law. Upon instructions from its foreign patron and supplier of arms, it crosses the border to capture and kill some Lebanese soldiers. Lebanon, however, is in no mood to tolerate such a provocation, especially in light of the guerrillas' arsenal of 10,000 or so short-range missiles targeted at Lebanese civilians.

For a month, the Lebanese air force ranges freely over all of Israel, and, without losing a single plane, cuts every major bridge and road link in the country, destroys its power plants, bombs ports, airports, military facilities associated with the guerrillas, and the guerrillas themselves, obliterating all but their buried infrastructure. Significant portions of Tel Aviv and Haifa, and many of the small towns of Israel's north, are reduced to rubble.

With the loss of four sailors and minor damage to a frigate, the Lebanese navy blockades Israel's coasts with 100% effectiveness. More than a thousand Israelis are killed, four times that number wounded, and a quarter of the Jewish guerrillas slain in combat. Because the guerrillas choose to fire their rockets amid the civilian population, the homes of almost a million Jews are razed by the Lebanese air force, the Israeli economy comes to a halt, foreigners are evacuated, and the world looks on in horror.

Meanwhile, its own economy humming, Lebanon deploys in the battle zone on average less than 2% of its army, of which 118 fall in combat. Thirty-nine Lebanese die in the Israeli guerrillas' barrage of 4,000 missiles, a kill rate of less than 1%. Lebanon is able to destroy more than 3,000 of the remaining 6,000 missiles, including almost all those of greater range, putting to rest the guerrillas' threat to attack Beirut.

The guerrillas and their supporters repeatedly beg for a cease-fire. The Israeli prime minister cries that his country has been destroyed, and weeps on camera. Israel is blockaded by sea, its other links to the world cut at will by the Lebanese air force. The Lebanese army remains in key positions in the north of the country, and the world's powers, great and small, sympathetic and not, look on both unwilling and unable to intervene, finally coming to Israel's aid only on the stated condition that Israel accept the presence of alien troops on its soil to disarm the guerrillas and protect Lebanon from further incursions.

Who won?

Unrealistic Expectations

To reflect the common wisdom in regard to the real war that has just taken place in Lebanon, one would have to say, absurdly, that in the fictional example Israel won. For the whole world and Israel itself perceives a Hezbollah victory, even if in a blind test as above, the judgment most certainly would be different. This is explicable on many levels.

With the same kind of intellectual lethargy that led to the obligatory description of the proposed international force as robust (I hope never to hear the word again), people who do not pretend to knowledge of either the Arab-Israeli conflict or military affairs habitually declare that Israel is invincible. Insensitive to fact, variation, potential orders of battle, or the effects of nuclear weapons, they have been saying this since the Six-Day War of 1967. That war, the 100-hour 1956 Sinai Campaign, and the 1976 Entebbe operation are responsible for expectations that Israel produces miracles every time it takes to the field.

These decisive victories were a surprise to many, who were shocked that the Jews, whom the Russian Empire's Cantonist Decrees of the 19th century had subjected to 25 years or more compulsory military service, had a military tradition and could hold their own in battle. And thus the swing of the pendulum from irrational contempt to irrational awe.

Irrational because even in 1967, in a war that borders on the miraculous perhaps more than any other, the struggles for Jerusalem and the Golan were hard fought, costly, and closely run. Irrational because for Israel the 1948 War of Independence dragged on with high casualties and much destruction, and left it with borders that were a strategical nightmare. Irrational because the War of Attrition spanned several difficult years and brought Israel no gains whatsoever. Irrational because in the 1973 War Israel came perilously close to extinction. And irrational because none of the campaigns in Lebanon has been anything but slow and bloody, and collectively they have given birth not to miracles but to the Hezbollah garrison that in this war Israel was compelled to reduce.

Perhaps surprisingly, because now and then they pay for it dearly, the Israelis themselves are prone to the same unrealistic expectations. And in this war these were supercharged by their new prime minister, a man of civic rather than military affairs, who, when the most that could be achieved was Hezbollah's reduction, promised its destruction. Contrast this with the 1967 War, in which, in the words of Michael Oren,

"There was no thought of altering...[the] context fundamentally, of eliminating the possibility of similar wars erupting in the future. Rather, all Israel strove for was an end to the immediate threat, and for an indefinite period of quiet thereafter."
And that is all it got. No one may ever know what possessed Israel and the world to imagine after four decades of Fatah ineradicable, many years of Intifada, and the rise of Hamas, that it could in a single strike destroy an organically rooted terrorist organization, but this unreasonable elevation of its aim helps to explain the public's perception of the war.

Perhaps the most serious damage one can do to oneself in a military campaign is to fail to have a clear, disciplined, and consistent set of objectives. In reaching these, improvisation is the highest virtue. In defining them, it is the greatest sin. The lack of conceptual rigor and the resulting fluid and promiscuous adjustment and expansion of America's aims in Iraq have become a continuing tragedy. In a lesser sense, Israel has followed suit in Lebanon.

The war there is not, however, comparable to the war in Iraq. For three and a half years we have been trying to pacify and transform a country of 28 million, larger than California, and many thousand miles distant. The Israelis had a less ambitious objective in a contiguous territory the size of San Antonio, Texas, with perhaps 100,000 people left in it at the peak of hostilities that lasted a month. In Iraq, we expect to compel the lion to lie down with the lamb, and have rejected as inappropriate to our greatness merely holding our enemies at bay, and so, applying this template to the Israelis, we fault them for not fully eradicating theirs--as if they ever did, and as if they ever could. For you beat this strain of guerrilla neither by conversion nor elimination, but only with endurance, patience, an assiduous defense, and well executed punitive measures sometimes timed to enemy attacks and sometimes not.

To some extent we judge the war as we do because our view has been unduly influenced by enemies who feed joyfully on death and have unshakable confidence, while we are no longer certain of the justice of our self-defense. Thus, when Hezbollah says it has won a "historic" victory, large segments of European and American opinion that reflexively defer to hostile judgment, whether Soviet or Arab, simply acquiesce.

And yet Hezbollah is part of a people who claimed on the eve of the 1967 War that, "If the Sixth Fleet intervenes in our struggle...we have the power to turn it into a can of sardines"; who, as their armies were being slaughtered in Sinai, danced in the streets of Cairo; and who, after fleeing Kuneitra without a shot, called it the greatest military action in history, "even greater than the Russian defense of Stalingrad." Theirs is hardly a sober or disinterested assessment, and we have no reason to take them at their word.

Hezbollah has proved that it can survive an Israeli campaign of small scale and limited duration, but it has also proved that this can destroy Lebanon, and that 10,000 carefully accumulated "strategic" weapons--in the main, glorified artillery rounds--were during four weeks of engagement less potent than one suicide bomber.

Damage Report

Although efficiently lamented by many Israelis in interviews with the American press, the war's effect on the economy is not yet statistically apparent at the time of this writing, other than that, in July, exports of goods declined while exports of services grew, and the already thriving composite index of economic health actually advanced. Overall, the shut-downs, dislocations, and damage cannot have been major. The north outside Haifa is primarily yet thinly agricultural, and comprises many "unproductive" Arab villages, park lands, and rocky hills. Most crops were unaffected, and the region within range of (relatively) heavy bombardment accounts for only a small portion of Israel's agricultural production, which itself is only a few percent of GNP. Industrial facilities in the north other than in Haifa, whose heavy industry and refining completely escaped, are simultaneously just a fraction of Israel's capacity, highly dispersed, and unscathed. Tourism was set back, but the month of warfare probably had less effect on the economy as a whole--with its strong growth and remarkable technological thrust--than a traditional French August.

The Washington Post's estimate of $1.3 billion in damage to infrastructure must be viewed vis-à-vis Israel's $120 billion GNP, and in sharp contrast to the Lebanese government's estimate of a $2.5 billion loss to its own GNP of less than $20 billion. Damage to Lebanon's south, Hezbollah's base, is proportionately far greater and of far greater import. For although Hezbollah has won the outward support of the carefully cultivated Shia in southern Lebanon, because it is a political organization more attentive to its constituents than was Tip O'Neill, as a practical matter it cannot subject them either often or soon to what they have just been through.Though Hezbollah has certainly galvanized the Arab street, galvanized no less are the Sunni regimes from the Gulf to Morocco, for whom a de facto Iranian mandate in Lebanon is of no small consequence. Hoping that the presence of the Lebanese army and an international force will discourage Israeli attack, Hezbollah must also deal with the possibility that these contingents, with the backing and encouragement of a naturally coalescing anti-Iranian front among most Arab states and Lebanon itself (in whose interest taming Hezbollah is paramount) may close down or heavily restrict arms traffic from Syria and the sea, and that its reconstitution will be fettered not only by Israeli action but by the planned 15,000 foreign troops. They may not be "robust," but they will be unpredictable.

Hezbollah will rearm, although to what extent is unknown, and one cannot count on the efforts of either Lebanon or the Sunni Arab states to suppress it. But given that its arsenal proved ineffective and that obtaining new weapons will be subject to varying degrees of local, international, and Israeli obstruction, the rearmament is not quite what popular fears suggest.

Israel's Strategy

If one accepts Hezbollah's self-description as a resistance movement, in which case one must, in light of the fact that Hezbollah never ceases to provoke, view Israel's mere existence as a continuing act of aggression, then Hezbollah has indeed shown that it can initiate conflict, resist, and survive. But survival is not its aim. Because by resist what it means is to destroy Israel, one must ask how much closer to its goal the war has brought it. The answer is that Israel faces many existential dangers, but Hezbollah has never been, and--with its arsenals depleted, a quarter of its fighters dead, and its supporters savaged--is not now one of them.

Israel, on the other hand, if it is realistic, aims not to destroy Hezbollah, for Hezbollah can recruit from a bottomless well, blend into the population, and take refuge beyond the Litani or beyond Lebanon itself. Unlike Hezbollah, Israel's more modest aim is to survive, and that it has done.

The notion that Israel was defeated flies below the level of war aims, the complications of regional politics, and long-term effects, and is born from the particularities of battle. The general opinion of a war, which is a very large thing, is at first formed by apprehension of the smallest details. And though at close range the many deficiencies of Israel's campaign may cumulatively suggest failure, even these have often been misjudged.

In the war's early days, when the prime minister met with military advisors who in reversal of the norm were mainly air force officers, it was clear that the campaign--under the direction of an air force general as chief of the general staff--would stress aerial bombardment. The Israelis had had a decade to create with their many means of technical and traditional reconnaissance a detailed and comprehensive picture of the battlefield. This, combined with precision-guided munitions and small, focused raids, seemed appropriate to a highly dispersed, mobile, and well dug-in enemy. The object, a recurring theme in military history, was to avoid high Israeli casualties by relying upon machines instead of men. Hezbollah, however, was eager to fight amid and sacrifice its civilians, and the Israeli picture of the battle space was not what it should have been.

But the strategy was sound. Crossing enemy ground to a launch site, one can destroy everything in the way, as opposed to descending upon the objective from the air and keeping it in isolation. And pop-up targets don't wait around for armored columns to reach them. Had the army gone in en masse, the few thousand Hezbollah regulars would have taken refuge among the population or beyond the Litani, and to the extent that they would have stood their ground, the Israelis would have incurred far more casualties in the kind of "whack-a-mole" war that took place, and inflicted more on the civilians among whom Hezbollah hid, for more or less the same result: guerrillas melt away, but then filter back. The fault lay not in strategy but in extended toleration of Hezbollah's buildup. This very campaign four or five years ago would have looked much different. A subsequent campaign sooner rather than later, and dogged attention from the air until then, will also look different.

Looking to Iran

The lessons for Israel? Not to let things go for so long; to have a better picture of the battlefield (using, for example, ground-penetrating radar); to "up armor" its tanks; to adapt naval point defense systems that, once emplaced, are capable of bringing down "Katyushas" cheaply; to determine carefully, state publicly, and not depart from the aims of the campaign; to calibrate military action to the time limits imposed upon Israel in all its wars; better to inform the Lebanese and the world that Israel has no choice but to strike at missiles launched against it from residential areas if Hezbollah's will is to make Lebanon a free-fire zone; and to be prepared to deal with West Bank and Gaza variations of the Hezbollah technique. For example, the war has been a strong argument for continued Israeli control of the Jordan crossings and the sea and air approaches to a Palestinian state, lest Qassems become Katyushas, and as such is Iran's gift to the Palestinians of yet another setback.

The preeminent lesson is that Israel must create more of a margin of safety in its military operations. It has no alternative but to over-spend, over-prepare, over-fortify, over-stockpile, and over-train. And it must abandon permanently the hubris that arises in part from the world's Manichean view of it, in favor of a garrison mentality that befits its persistent vulnerability.

I believe that history will see that the essence of this war is that it has served as an exchange of messages and proofs in the prelude to an Islamic nuclear confrontation with the West. Nations can and often do speak to one another in a way that transcends the intent of even their highest authorities, and the question Iran has posed to Israel, the Muslims to the Jews, and the East to the West, is, What will you do if we open the door to Armageddon? Israel has provided the answer, and it reads quite simply. To an Iran that calls for its destruction and is proceeding headlong toward nuclear weapons, Israel has stated in the war in Lebanon that it will not go down alone.

This is not the subtext of the July war, it is the prime text. What one commentator after another termed the "disproportionate" destruction of Lebanon was indeed a message about proportion and intentions: that the three or four nuclear detonations in Israel which would be enough to destroy it will yield many, many times that number in Iran and possibly elsewhere. Iran is neither exclusively rational nor irrational, and as rash and determined as it may be, it is yet probing for information.

The United States, in overextending its forces, keeping a dangerous rein on military expenditures, and following Europe into the Russian-Chinese-Iranian diplomatic swamp, has partially answered Iran's query as to what it may do in regard to Iranian nuclear development. Even if in the unlikely event that the immediate Hezbollah provocation was not of Iranian origin, the question exists and Israel has addressed it. In light of Ahmadinejad's fanaticism, some doubt the utility of deterrent signals, but whether or not productive or even received, such signals must be sent, as they are fundamental to survival. And, then, counter to many impressions, Iran is in fact moving with some care.

Both it and Syria possess chemical and biological weapons, Iran's stockpiles being rich and varied. And yet not one of Hezbollah's 10,000 missiles capable of carrying a chemical or biological warhead was so equipped. Without guidance, they would not have achieved maximum impact, and merely turned the public relations battle on its head. But, more importantly, had they been used, they would have given Israel not only the occasion it does not need to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, but reason to attack Iran itself. Iran now knows exactly what kind of game it is in, and will calibrate its moves accordingly: perhaps emphasizing deception all the more, hardening its facilities as never before, or even reaching some sort of deal. Whatever it does, it has been unambiguously put on notice. The dense traffic in symbols and signals among proxies and principals, as in the conduct of the Cold War with a similar language and millions of casualties, has moved all parties closer to the denouement.

What that will be no one can say, but even without the use of nuclear weapons Israel is capable of the certain destruction of the Iranian nuclear project, and the clash in Lebanon, as much a pre-nuclear clarification as anything else, has brought it much closer to this than ever.

To judge the war solely according to its devastation (for which Hezbollah, deliberately sheltering missile launches against Israel among its own people, was entirely responsible and too little condemned), by its tactical efficiency, by numbers and metrics, in view of carelessly stated objectives, or in thrall of the compelling testimony of the participants and victims of both sides, is to overlook its greater import.

It was a war like most of Israel's wars rather than the few, and its egregious missteps beg for correction. But as Churchill said of a weak, 17th-century England that did not enjoy the wealth and power of the Victorians who condemned its immoralities in the affairs of state, "We had to keep ourselves alive and free, and we did so." Israel has lost the battle for public relations but achieved a number of necessary objectives--reducing the growing arsenal arrayed against its civil population, putting a large stick in the spokes of Hezbollah's wheels, perhaps buying a period of relative peace in the north, and holding Lebanon to account for grafting onto its political structure a Spartan state at war with Israel for the purpose of its destruction.

Existential Battles

To the Iranian de facto declaration to Israel, the Arabs, and the West that it possesses a belligerent outpost on the Mediterranean, Israel has weathered world condemnation to reply that the rent for this outpost is high and can be made higher. When Iran spoke to Israel in the language of war, Israel spoke back with absolute clarity even if not with the mythical brilliance attributed to it by friend and foe alike. Which is not to say that it is incapable of fighting the stunning existential battles that once it fought. For it is indeed capable of them, and they are yet to come.

Mark Helprin, who holds degrees from Harvard and Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, served in the Israeli infantry and Air Force, and as an advisor in defense and foreign relations to the American government. He is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute.

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