Civil Fights: William Howe echoes down the ages

The fatal mistakes made by Britain during America's War of Independence are being repeated by Israel.

william howe 88 (photo credit: )
william howe 88
(photo credit: )
One of the most oft-repeated mantras about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that there is no military solution; the only solution is to talk with our enemies. This mantra also has a popular corollary: Because we must ultimately negotiate with the Palestinians, decisive military action is counterproductive - it merely sows hatred that makes the inevitable dialogue that much harder. It is ironic that the leading proponents of these theories are Jews and Europeans - two groups well acquainted with the obvious counterexample: The Allies never negotiated with the Nazis either during or after World War II; they destroyed Nazi Germany and executed its leaders. The same went for Tojo's Japan. But World War II was a state-to-state conflict fought by regular armies; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not. And many people deem that difference crucial. That why I found David McCullough's history of an earlier nonstate conflict, America's War of Independence, so illuminating. McCullough's 1776 describes the war's first year, when America's Continental Army was a ragtag collection of men with almost no military training or discipline, few uniforms, only the most basic weapons and insufficient ammunition for them. George Washington recognized that given this reality, frontal combat with the well-trained, well-equipped British army would be suicidal, so he essentially conducted a guerrilla war: lightning strikes followed by swift retreats rather than capturing and holding territory. What was noteworthy, however, was Britain's attitude toward the war. The British commanders, Admiral Richard Howe and General William Howe, believed that their goal was not to defeat Washington's army, but to promote reconciliation with the American colonies. They even worried that killing too many American soldiers might foment hatred that would impede reconciliation. Hence at several critical junctures during that first year, the British army failed to exploit opportunities to destroy Washington's forces, preferring instead to dialogue. IN SEPTEMBER 1776, for instance, the British had completely routed American forces on Long Island, forcing the battered remnants to retreat to indefensible positions in New York City. But instead of pursuing and wiping out the Continental Army, Richard Howe decided this was the perfect opportunity for peace talks. The peace conference achieved nothing for Britain, McCullough noted, but it did buy Washington time to regroup: "The British had suspended operations during what could have been a golden opportunity to attack, as one perfect, late-summer day followed another." Eventually, the British did chase the Americans from New York and then New Jersey. But at numerous points along the way, when a final push could have destroyed Washington's army, William Howe held back, because he did not see defeating the army as his goal. He simply wanted "to keep the Americans on the run," McCullough wrote, in the hope that chasing them out of more and more territory "would bring the deluded American people and their political leaders to their senses and end their demonstrably futile rebellion." You can hear Howe echoing down the ages in Israeli leaders who explain that the goal is not to "defeat" the Palestinians, but to "sear their consciousness" and make them understand that dialogue is preferable to terror. ULTIMATELY, HOWE'S STRATEGY gave Washington time to achieve two militarily insignificant but morale-boosting victories, in Princeton and Trenton, at the tail end of that year. That was critical, because the American soldiers' enlistments all expired on December 31, 1776. It was these victories that convinced them to keep fighting rather than quit, as thousands of deserters had done during the months when the war looked hopeless. And that preserved the army to fight another day. Moreover, as the war dragged on without Britain achieving decisive victory, its European enemies, who had initially sat on the fence, decided that helping the Americans made sense. First came desperately needed financial aid from both France and Holland, and then assistance from the French navy, without which the final defeat of British forces at Yorktown in 1781 would have been impossible. In 1776, the British could have ended the revolution. But they wasted numerous opportunities to decisively defeat the Continental Army, and that army, as McCullough noted, was "the key to victory." Thus what should have been an easy win over the American "rabble" became a humiliating defeat - not because Britain could not have won, but because it repeatedly chose not to, since its goal was not victory but dialogue and reconciliation. The crucial point that Britain failed to understand was that dialogue was not possible without first achieving victory, because the Americans had no interest in dialogue as long as they had any hope of achieving victory themselves. Hence at the September peace talks, American envoys refused to discuss anything except full independence - which, of course, was unacceptable to Britain. THE PARALLELS to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are obvious. Over and over, our leaders have refrained from seeking a decisive defeat of hostile Palestinian forces, either because they themselves believed it would undermine the ultimate goal of reconciliation, or because the world believed it, and pressured us to comply. This began with the First Lebanon War in 1982, when we had a chance to wipe out the entire PLO leadership but instead let it escape to Tunis due to American pressure. And it continued right through the recent Gaza operation, when the IDF was ordered to stop well short of destroying Hamas forces. But by refusing to seek victory, Israel has also effectively prevented dialogue - because as long as Palestinians believe that they have a chance of achieving victory, meaning the eradication of the Jewish state, dialogue and reconciliation will be impossible. That is why even the "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas refuses to concede the "right of return," a euphemism for destroying the Jewish state demographically by flooding it with millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants. Hence if this country, or the world, truly wants an Israeli-Palestinian peace, the necessary first step is not negotiation, but victory - because, as America's history shows, only decisive victory by one side can convince the other to concede its own dreams of victory. And until the Palestinians concede their dreams of destroying the Jewish state, no compromise will be possible.