Wars are not won by brave warriors. In 480 BCE 300 Spartan soldiers and their allies stood against the vast army of Xerxes, King of Persia, at Thermopylae in northern Greece. In the fascinating book Gates of Fire (Bantam, 1998), by former US Marine Steven Pressfield, there is a speech given by Leonidas, the Spartan king who led the force: “You are the commanders, your men will look to you and act as you do. Let no officer keep to himself or his brother officers, but circulate daylong among his men. Let them see you and see you unafraid. Where there is work to do, turn your hand to it first; the men will follow. Some of you, I see, have erected tents.
Strike them at once. We will all sleep as I do, in the open. Keep your men busy. If there is no work, make it up, for when soldiers have time to talk, their talk turns to fear. Action, on the other hand, produces the appetite for more action” (Page 258).
Just as he ordered, Leonidas and his men fought valiantly, buying with their lives the time needed for the rest of Greece city-states to regroup and form a force that stopped the Persian armies and defeated them.
But their heroism didn’t win the war.
The war was won by Athenians and Spartan generals who carefully designed their plan, and fought the Persians where it was convenient for them. At the naval battle of Salamis the Greek fleet, led by Themistocles, lured the Persians to enter straits between the mainland and Salamis, where they were easily defeated. Such was also the case later on, at the battle at the plains of Plataea, where the Greeks, led by Pausanias (Leonidas’s nephew), used precious intelligence about the Persian battle plan to prepare accordingly in advance, and win the battle and consequently the war.
Skilled, determined and courageous soldiers and commanders have managed to win battles, even when facing overwhelming odds like the Spartans faced at Thermopylae. For armies it is imperative to nurture and preserve these values. However, wars are won by generalship and by proper preparation of the nation.
In the Six Day War Israel’s soldiers preformed wonderfully, demonstrating the ability, professionalism and daring for which the war has become textbook material for armies around the world. But that victory was gained through a process of force build-up, of intelligence gathering and a great deal of planning that led to a relevant operational concept, which combined successfully an aggressive ground maneuver and a surprise air attack. In addition the Israeli leadership understood that war was immanent and took the necessary steps to make sure the nation was ready.
One of the books dealing with this issue is To the best of our knowledge (Sifrei Aliyat Hagag and Yediot Books, 2011) by IDF Brig.-Gen. (res.) Dov Tamari, who in 1956 as a young Paratroopers platoon leader received the Medal of Courage for his actions in the Kalkilya operation, and later on commanded special forces and armor units, and Gen. (res.) Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, former chief of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate.
In the book, Tamari says that “statements, which praise the soldiers on the battlefield, have been uttered since the War of Independence, and their validity is problematic in my view, even though through all our wars, our fighting ability was, on an average basis, sometimes better, sometimes less, but in total reasonable.
But this is not the measure for assessing wars for the purpose of studying in the present and future, but simply the military results of the war. The heroism of the soldiers alone does not produce good results. In order to achieve good results, it is also necessary for the designers of the operations and the wars, namely governments, chiefs of staff, and senior officers” (Page 208).
This brings to mind the second episode of the Channel 1 documentary series The Chiefs of General Staff, that tells the story of the IDF’s top commanders from its founding to the present. In the episode, Tamari said that during the Yom Kippur War the IDF chief of general staff, David Elazar, made two critical decisions that decided the war in favor of Israel. The first was to dispatch the 146th Armored Division to the northern front, and the second was the decision to cross the Suez Canal that led to the encircling of the Egyptian 3rd Army. Elazar, a former member of the Palmach (that always taught its members to think like generals, even as squad leaders), was also the man who convinced the Israeli government to approve the crossing of the Suez Canal.
Today, the tension on Israel’s borders is high. In Syria, an Iran-Hezbollah-Syria alliance, backed by Russia, is using chemical weapons against civilians and threatens to form a line of Iranian outposts in the Syrian Golan Heights. In the south, in the Gaza Strip, Hamas is arming and organizing for war, using tunnels, rockets and mortars, and at the same time its leaders employ belligerent rhetoric.
IDF forces are preparing, but what about the government? Half a year before the Six Day War the chief of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Gen. Aharon Yariv, presented to the general staff and to prime minister Levi Eshkol the directorate’s assessment for the following year. According to Yariv, Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, would not initiate a war when 30,000 of his troops were fighting in Yemen.
“How long would it take for him to bring them back and deploy them in Sinai?” asked Eshkol.
Six months, answered IDF chief of general staff Yitzhak Rabin (also a former Palmach member).
“And what if he decides to hurry?” Eshkol asked.
The IDF can deploy its forces in 72 hours, answered Rabin.
Eshkol’s lesson was clear – it takes more time to prepare the nation, the government, the public, the US and the international community to the war than to prepare the military. Israel’s government should take that lesson to heart.The author is the coordinator of the Military and Strategic Affairs program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and the founder and operator of the blog In the Crosshairs on military, security vision, strategy and practice.