March 07, 2008

The Lebanon Narrative

How did the US Army originally come to a doctrine that disregarded our history of small wars? They came to it by looking to the 1973 Israeli Yom Kippur war where the Israelis had an entire Egyptian Army surrounded and cut off.

We missed the point of that war, which Anwar Sadat or one of his generals once quipped was the "6 minute" war, the approximate length of time it took Egyptian forces to overcome the Suez defenses. Israeli narrative to the contrary, Sadat was not looking to deal a death blow to Israel; Israel's nuclear arsenal made that impossible. Rather, as George Gawrych's excellently researched account, the Albatross of Decisive Victory, makes clear, Sadat was creating a corrective to the Israeli's 1967 narrative of invincibility that would allow him to eventually overcome the Arab summit's "three no's." (no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with Israel).

Although Egypt would have liked to end the war with the Suez in its control rather than with its Army surrounded, the war did solve a number of the underlying political problems for Sadat and allowed him to negotiate with Begin, who was in power due in major part to the war.

Israel also took many of the same lessons as the United States from the war. Israel ignored the almost continuous low-level conflict of its early years and sought solace in firepower and maneuver. In 1982, this led it to the suburbs of Beirut, to a national crisis in Sabra and Shatila that shook the nation to its core, and finally to a long Shiite dominated insurgency that finally sent the Israelis packing from southern Lebanon after 18 years.

The US meanwhile didn't bother to learn from Lebanon even as it left its own blood-soaked sojourn in the country's capital. Instead, it found solace in the next decade in its 1973 lessons, which were falsely re-affirmed by Panama and the Gulf War.

Today after our own rush to Baghdad, followed by our own national crisis in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and long insurgencies with no end in sight in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I fear that men like LTC Gentile will have us looking to learn the wrong lessons again from the Israelis. Already, a small cadre of the authors of FM 3-0 are touting it around the country as the salve to an Army grown too focused on counterinsurgency as proven by the Israelis in 2006.

If anything is proven by that war, it is the dangers of failing to adapt as an institution to defeat or co-opt a threatening irregular enemy. It was the Israelis inability to deal with the underlying causes of conflict in Lebanon from 1982-2000, their relative ineptitude in developing a comprehensive approach to the war that recognized the military as the servant of the political, that set the conditions for 2006. It was Hassan Nasrallah's excellence in information operations that allowed Hezbollah to "win the war" not his successful infantry tactics. What 2006 shows is for how long a nation can be made to pay for its unsuccessful counterinsurgencies, not that we need a corrective balm when we remain so far from equipping and organizing an Army that can effectively pursue large stability operations.

One need look no further than the Army's quixotic efforts at combat advising than to know that we aren't yet ready for the wars of today.