Despite its brutality, war is–at least for some western nations–a delicate balancing act. Use of excessive force often brings international condemnation, potentially under-cutting support, both at home and abroad. On the other hand, insufficient force may please the politicians and diplomats, but it can cause severe headaches on the battlefield.
We beginning to hear that sort of claim in Israeli military circles. Some soldiers returning from the hard fighting in Lebanon have accused their leaders of committing insufficient military power to the battle. They have complained that Israeli airpower has been used sparingly, and the IDF should have leveled any buildings used by Hizballah fighters–after civilians had been warned to leave the battle area.
Are the Israelis being over-cautious in their operations against the terrorists? At this point, it’s probably too early to tell, and a few background points are in order. First, it’s quite common for soliders returning from the battlefield to complain about tactics they perceive as poor, or problems in military planning. Seeing your friends die in combat tends to have that effect. Talk to a U.S. veteran of Kasserine Pass, Anzio, or Tarawa, and you’ll hear justifiable complaints about ineffective planning and incompetent leadership that resulted in unnecessary casualties. No military has a shortage of commanders who develop bad plans, or wither under fire. That may not be the case in south Lebanon, but Israeli soldiers are expressing frustrations that are common in combat.
Secondly, the Israeli military has always allowed a degree of candor in the ranks that some Americans would view as undisciplined or even insubordinate. In that regard, many IDF units maintain an atomsphere akin to U.S. special forces teams, where members of all ranks are encourage to speak their minds, in order to improve overall performance. That tendency is reinforced by Israel’s heavy reliance on reserves. As citizen soldiers, Israeli troops are less concerned about the demands of career, or achieving their next promotion, making them less timid about sharing their frustrations.
It’s also worth noting that Hizballah is not exactly the terrorist “C” team. At least one U.S. military analyst has described them as “some of the finest light infantry in the world.” I’m not sure I concur with that gushing assessment, but the typical Hizballah fighter is better trained than his Palestinian counterpart in Gaza, or Al Qaida terrorists in Iraq. Hizballah’s battle “skills” are further enhanced by other factors, including fighting on familiar terrain, years of battlespace preparation (including extensive construction of fortifications) and the indiscriminate use of civilians (and protected facilities) as shields for their operations. Describing the battlefields of southern Lebanon as complex would be an understatement.
Finally, it’s sometimes difficult in the heat of battle to see the bigger picture, and understand how the fight for tactical objectives serves wider operational and strategic purposes. If you’re an Israeli paratrooper, caught in a Hizballah ambush, your over-arching concern is your short-term survival, and that of your comrades. Beyond that, you begin to worry about immediate tactical objectives, with less regard for how the current firefight is part of a larger plan to prepare the battlefield for follow-on engagements, using more Israeli units. Before more IDF brigades can be committed to the battle, its necessary to clear entry corridors and eliminate terrorist strong-holds–the very type of fighting that is going on right now. The struggle for a particular village–or even a few blocks within a village–is actually a prelude to a larger campaign, assuming that Israel actually decides to expand its offensive. Earlier today, the Israeli government officially decided against that action, while approving the call-up of more than 30,000 additional soldiers. If I were Hizballah, I wouldn’t pin my hopes on Israel sustaining this apparent level of restraint.
As we’ve noted previously, the IDF will eventually carry the day. The only questions are how long it will take, the price Israel is willing to pay, and the political willingness to see the mission through.