Misreading the Lebanon war

Hizbullah held its ground, but its mediocrity is revealed by the small number of casualties it inflicted.

yom kippur war 88 (photo credit: )
yom kippur war 88
(photo credit: )
In the immediate aftermath of the 1973 October War, there was much joy in the Arab world because the myth of Israeli invincibility had been shattered by the surprise Egyptian crossing of the Suez Canal, and the Syrian offensive that swept across the Golan Heights. Even unbiased commentators noted the failure of the Israeli air force to repeat its feats of 1967 while losing fully one-quarter of its combat aircraft to ground fire, just as hundreds of Israeli tanks were damaged or destroyed by brave Egyptian infantrymen with their hand-carried missiles and rockets. In Israel, there was harsh criticism of political and military chiefs alike, who were blamed for the loss of 3,000 soldiers in a war that ended without a clear victory. Prime Minister Golda Meir, defense minister Moshe Dayan, the chief of staff, David Elazar and the chief of military intelligence were all discredited and soon replaced. It was only later that a sense of proportion was regained, ironically by the Egyptian and Syrian leaders before anyone else. While commentators in Israel and around the world were still mourning or gloating over Israel's lost military supremacy, both Egypt's president Sadat and Syrian president Assad soberly recognized that their countries had come closer to catastrophic defeat than in 1967, and that it was absolutely imperative to avoid another war. That led to Sadat's peace and Assad's 1974 cease-fire on the Golan Heights, never violated since then. Only in retrospect can the 1973 war be satisfactorily analyzed. Israel had been caught by surprise, because perfectly good Intelligence was misinterpreted in a climate of arrogant over-confidence. The frontal sectors, left almost unguarded, were largely overrun. The Egyptians had an excellent war plan and fought well. Syrian tanks advanced boldly and even where a lone Israeli brigade held out, they kept attacking in wave after wave for three days and nights. Within 48 hours, Israel seemed on the verge of defeat on both fronts. But as soon as its army was fully mobilized, as soon as the reservist brigades that make up nine-tenths of its strength were ready to deploy for battle, it turned out that they could stop both the Egyptian and Syrian armies in their tracks, and start their own advance almost immediately. The war ended with Israeli forces 70 miles from Cairo, and less than 20 miles from Damascus. As for the Israeli air force, its strength over the battlefields was certainly blunted by concentrated anti-aircraft missiles and guns, but its air-combat supremacy prevented almost all attacks by the large Egyptian and Syrian air forces, while itself being able to bomb in depth almost at will. That was the real military balance of the 1973 war, which was obscured by the tremendous shock of surprise, emotional overreaction, and the plain difficulty of seeing things as they are through the fog of war. It is the same now, with the Lebanon war just ended. Future historians will no doubt see things much more clearly, but some gross misperceptions are perfectly obvious even now. That even the heaviest and best-protected of battle tanks are sometimes penetrated by the latest anti-tank missiles should really not surprise anyone; they cannot be invulnerable, and did well enough in limiting Israeli casualties. Likewise, the lack of defenses against short-range rockets with small warheads is merely common sense. They are just not powerful enough to justify the expenditure of many billions of dollars for laser weapon systems the size of football fields. More serious misperceptions are equally obvious. For example, instead of dismissing Nasrallah's boasts, many commentators around the world kept repeating and endorsing his claim that his fighters fought much more bravely than the regular soldiers of Arab states in previous wars with Israel. In 1973, after crossing the Suez Canal, Egyptian infantrymen by the thousands stood their ground unflinchingly against advancing 50-ton Israeli battle tanks, to attack them successfully with their puny hand-held weapons. They were in the open, flat desert, with none of the cover and protection that Hizbullah had in their fortified bunkers or in Lebanon's rugged terrain. Later, within the few square miles of the so-called Chinese farm near the Suez Canal, the Israelis lost more soldiers fighting against the Egyptians in a single day and night than the 116 killed in a month of war in Lebanon - including the victims of vehicle accidents and friendly fire. Even in 1967, the best Israeli troops lost 37 killed in four hours to take less than a mile of trenches on Jerusalem's Ammunition Hill. The defending Jordanian infantry kept fighting until the end, even though they were greatly outnumbered and encircled from the start. Hizbullah certainly did not run away and did hold its ground, but its mediocrity is revealed by the casualties it inflicted, which were very few. When an IDF company attacked the mountain town of Bint Jbail, losing eight men in one night, that number was perceived in Israel - and broadcast around the world - as a disastrous loss. Many a surviving veteran of the 1943-1945 Italian campaign must have been amazed by this reaction. There too it was one stone-built village and hilltop town after another, and though the Germans were outnumbered, outgunned and poorly supplied, a company that went against them would consider the loss of only eight men as very fortunate, because attacking forces could suffer a 150% or even 300% casualty rates - that mathematical impossibility being explained by the need for a second, third or fourth assault wave to take a small village. Even that was not much as compared to the 6,821 Americans who died to conquer the eight square miles of Iwo Jima. Hizbullah should not of course be held to such standards, but on the whole it did not fight as fiercely as the Egyptians in 1973 or the Jordanians in 1967 - as Israeli casualty figures demonstrate. What is perfectly true is that the Israelis lacked a coherent war plan, so that even their most purposeful bombing came off as brutally destructive (though with a deterrence payoff, as Syria's immobility showed), while the ground actions were hesitant and inconclusive from start to finish. There was a fully developed plan, of course, in the contingency folders - a sophisticated blend of amphibious, airborne and ground penetrations to swiftly reach deep behind the front, before rolling back, so as to destroy Hizbullah positions one by one from the rear, all the way to the Israeli border. That plan was not implemented because of the lack of casualties among Israeli civilians. It had been a fair assumption that thousands of Hizbullah rockets fired in concentrated barrages would kill many civilians, perhaps hundreds of them each day. Barrages cancel out the inaccuracy of unguided rockets, and powerfully compound blast effects. That would make a large-scale offensive by more than 45,000 soldiers a compelling necessity, politically justifying the hundreds of casualties that it would certainly have cost. Hizbullah, however, distributed its rockets to village militias that were very good at hiding them from air attacks, sheltering them from artillery and from probing Israeli unmanned air vehicles, but quite incapable of launching them effectively, in simultaneous launches against the same targets. Instead of hundreds of dead civilians, the Israelis were therefore losing one or two a day, and even after three weeks, the grand total was less than in some one-man suicide bombings. That made it politically unacceptable to launch the planned offensive that would kill young soldiers and family men, while not eradicating Hizbullah anyway, because it is a political movement in arms, and not just an army or a bunch of gunmen. For that very reason, the outcome of the war is likely to be more satisfactory than many now seem to believe. Hassan Nasrallah is not another Yasser Arafat, who was fighting for eternal Palestine and not for actually living Palestinians, whose prosperity and safety he was always willing to sacrifice for the cause. Nasrallah has a political constituency, and it happens to be centered in southern Lebanon. Implicitly accepting responsibility for having started the war, Nasrallah has directed his Hizbullah to focus on rapid reconstruction in villages and towns, right up to the Israeli border. He cannot start another round of fighting that would quickly destroy everything again. Yet another unexpected result of the war is that Nasrallah's power-base in southern Lebanon is more than ever a hostage for Hizbullah's good behavior. The writer is a Washington-based military strategist.