This John Kifner piece is on the New York Times wire tonight:
The Hezbollah guerrilla campaign that ended Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 was in many ways a precursor to the kind of asymmetrical warfare U.S. troops are facing in Iraq — and Israeli troops would face again if they entered Lebanon in large numbers.
Suicide bombers, roadside explosives and ambushes were the weapons the shadowy force that called itself the resistance used to drive out a superior conventional army.
“By limiting the firing, we were able to keep the cards in our hands,” said Sheik Nabil Qaouk, then and now the Hezbollah commander in the south, in a rare interview six years ago, shortly after the Israeli withdrawal.
“We were able to do small, little battles where we had the advantage,” the sheik, a Shiite imam who is also referred to as a general, said at the time in Tyre, Lebanon.
Now, as Israel contemplates the possibility of another land invasion of Lebanon, its commando reconnaissance teams are meeting stiff fighting as they discover that Hezbollah has spent much of the past six years constructing networks of fortified bunkers and tunnels and amassing stores of thousands of rockets.
This article, “Why the Strong Lose,” by Jeffrey Record, turned up in the winter 2005 edition of “Parameters.” It might be worth a re-visit.
[A]ll major failed US uses of force since 1945 — in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia — have been against materially weaker enemies. In wars both hot and cold, the United States has fared consistently well against such powerful enemies as Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union, but the record against lesser foes is decidedly mixed. … In each case the American Goliath was militarily stalemated or politically defeated by the local David.
The phenomenon of the weak defeating the strong, though exceptional, is as old as war itself. Sparta finally beat Athens; Frederick the Great always punched well above his weight; American rebels overturned British rule in the Thirteen Colonies; the Spanish guerrilla bled Napoleon white; Jewish terrorists forced the British out of Palestine; Vietnamese communists drove France and then the United States out of Indochina; and mujahideen handed the Soviet Union its own “Vietnam” in Afghanistan. Relative military power is hardly a reliable predictor of war outcomes.
Record’s piece summarizes observations that others have made — tentatively, perhaps because they are so disturbing to us. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to losing “protracted conflicts against irregular foes.” He cites Gil Merom’s observation that “democracies fail in small wars because they find it extremely difficult to escalate the level of violence and brutality to that which can secure victory.”
True. And an honorable military tradition in a free people, even when they face defeat, also recoils from such brutality. The Confederate generals in the Civil War, West Pointers, deliberately rejected the option of guerrilla warfare, though many saw it as their best chance for independence. Forrest, a private man with no military education, proved how effective insurgency could be against the Yankees in Mississippi in 1862. But Lee did not follow his path. After the war, Forrest proved it again by founding the Klan. Americans today routinely list him among the nation’s 10 greatest villains.
But the cruel truth is, barbarism works — if by “works” you means defeats the insurgents at a horrific cost in innocent human lives. The French learned that in Algeria, and they also learned the consequence; a free and democratic state with an civilized population simply cannot sustain such a war.
By 1955, the revolutionary FLN was pursuing a policy of open genocide in Algeria: Kill all the French. Civilians of all ages and conditions were hacked to pieces, infants ripped from the womb and dashed to pieces in front of dying mothers, all the depths of depravity of terrorism. If it managed to kill a French official, it then tried to bomb his funeral, too.
The violence spiraled in 1956. The French got tough. In January 1957, Gen. Jacques Massu and his 4,600 men got carte blanche to clean the insurgents out of Algiers. Torture, which had been banned to French soldiers since the Revolution, crept back into use.
The argument was that successful interrogation saved lives, chiefly of Arabs; that Arabs who gave information would be tortured to death, without restraint, by the FLN, and it was vital for the French to make themselves feared more. It was the Arab belief that Massu operated without restraint, as much as the torture itself, which caused prisoners to talk. [Paul Johnson, “Modern Times”]
Torture was not the end of it. According to one French official in a position to know, some 3,000 prisoners “disappeared” during the Algiers battle.
It was the one battle in the insurgency that the French clearly won. Fighting the FLN near its own level, with matching weapons of terror, Massu won the fight for Algiers. But civilized France all but tore itself to pieces in the process.
On the one hand, by freeing army units from political control and stressing the personalities of commanders, it encouraged private armies: colonels increasingly regarded themselves as proprietors of their regiments, as under the monarchy, and began to manipulate their generals into disobedience. In the moral confusion, officers began to see their primary obligation as towards their own men rather than the state.
At the same time, news leaking out of what the army had done in Algiers began to turn French liberal and centre opinion against the war. From 1957 onward, many Frenchmen came to regard Algerian independence, however distasteful, as preferable to the total corruption of the French public conscience. Thus the demand for the restoration of political control of the war — including negotiations with the FLN — intensified just as the French army was, as it believed, winning by asserting its independence.
This irreconcilable conflict produced the explosion of May 1958 which collapsed the Fourth Republic and returned de Gaulle to power.
For democracies, the strategy of “barbarism” against the weaker side’s noncombatant social and political support base is neither morally acceptable nor, over time, politically sustainable. Since 1945, wars against colonial or ex-colonial peoples have become increasingly unacceptable to most democratic states’ political and moral sensibilities. Merom says that “what fails democracies in small wars is the interaction of sensitivity to casualties, repugnance to brutal military behavior, and commitment to democratic life.”
Democracies fail in small wars because, more specifically, they are unable to resolve three related dilemmas: “how to reconcile the humanitarian values of a portion of the educated class with the brutal requirements of counterinsurgency warfare, … how to find a domestically acceptable trade-off between brutality and sacrifice, [and] how to preserve support for the war without undermining the democratic order.”
Dictatorships, of course, have no such constraint. And insurgents seem instinctively to grasp this weakness in their democratic foes. Record introduces Robert Pape’s landmark study of suicide terrorism from 1980 through 2003, which speculated that suicide terrorism, like guerrilla warfare, is “a strategy of coercion, a means to compel a target government to change policy.” It is felt to be especially effective against democracies, Record notes, for three reasons:
First, democracies “are thought to be especially vulnerable to coercive punishment.” Their threshold of intolerable pain is lower than that of dictatorships. Second, democracies are believed to be more restrained than authoritarian regimes in their use of force, especially against noncombatants. “Democracies are widely perceived as less likely to harm civilians, and no democratic regime has committed genocide in the twentieth century.” Third, “suicide attacks may also be harder to organize or publicize in authoritarian police states.”
Do you think Israel has learned all this? They could teach us the lessons. Every time the Americans make a military display then pull back rather than bringing down the hammer, as they did in Fallujah in April 2004, the jihadis surge. They make sure the message gets through: We defeated the infidel Marines. We are strong, they are weak. And when they do so they draw power, they suck in thousands of young men with their mirage of victory. And more blood and carnage follows.
The image of America pulling back from a fight is what inspired bin Laden in the first place:
“After leaving Afghanistan, the Muslim fighters headed for Somalia and prepared for a long battle, thinking that the Americans were like the Russians. The youth were surprised at the low morale of the American soldiers and realized more than before that the American soldier was a paper tiger and after a few blows ran in defeat. And America forgot all the hoopla and media propaganda … about being the world leader and the leader of the New World Order, and after a few blows they forgot about this title and left, dragging their corpses and their shameful defeat.”
And … well, I’ll let the interviewer tell the rest of the story:
The Somalia operation, in some ways, made bin Laden. During the Afghan war, the CIA had been very aware of him (although the agency now insists it never “controlled” him), but in Somalia, bin Laden had taken a swing at the biggest kid in the school yard and given him a black eye.
This is no secret. CNN’s Jeff Greenfield, for example, has connect the same three dots:
It began as a peacekeeping mission in March, 1983. U.S. Marines were sent to Lebanon to try to stop a bloody civil war. Seven months later, 20 years ago today, a massive truck bomb blew up the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. servicemen — the worst single-day loss of life for the American military since Korea.
Grim as the news was, it was, in part, overshadowed by the U.S. invasion of Grenada two days later, to overthrow a hard-left pro-Cuban government.
And when President Reagan ordered the Marines to leave Lebanon in January, 1984, not many Americans paid attention.
But by some accounts, others did pay attention. That terrorist act of 20 years ago may have helped to convince some of America’s adversaries that the United States, for all of its might, was vulnerable, that heavy losses could be inflicted upon it at a relatively low price.
After all, the reasoning went, the U.S. had lost a war in Vietnam, not because it was militarily weak, but because it did not have the political will to bear the costs. And over the years, these adversaries seemed to take heart from what they saw as American weakness, from what the U.S. did not do when it left Saddam Hussein in power after the first Gulf War, when it pulled troops out of Somalia in 1993 after 18 Americans were killed — the Black Hawk down incident — when it failed to strike hard after the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing or the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa that killed 19 Americans, or the attack in 2000 on the USS Cole that left 17 dead.
That history may have been what Osama bin Laden had in mind when he said, three months after 9/11: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” Indeed, one of the principle arguments made for American military action in Afghanistan and in Iraq was that the U.S. had to prove by direct action that America was not a weak horse, that al Qaeda and its allies were misreading America’s resolve. If that’s true, that Beirut bombing of 20 years ago may have been where that miscalculation began.