The Magazine

The Second Lebanon War

It probably won't be the last.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By MAX BOOT
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Not only are Israelis averse to suffering combat losses. They are also, in another parallel with America, reluctant to inflict too many casualties on the other side. While the world's press and politicians decried Israeli soldiers as butchers--some even compared the IDF action in Lebanon, obscenely enough, to the Nazi destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto--the IDF actually showed tremendous restraint. Some Lebanese infrastructure was hit, but only enough to prevent the resupply of Hezbollah and to send a message to Lebanese society about the costs of turning over a large chunk of their country to a terrorist organization. The IDF bombed the runway at Beirut airport but not the new terminal. Bridges and roads leading south, which could have been used to ferry supplies from Iran and Syria, were taken out. So were Hezbollah headquarters in the Shiite suburbs of Beirut. But electricity, water, cellular communications, and other infrastructure in the capital remained intact. Sunni and Christian areas were for the most part spared.

The total civilian toll claimed by the Lebanese government--around 1,000 dead--was lower than the total (1,200 to 5,700 dead) claimed by the Serbian government after the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. (Human Rights Watch later estimated that 500 civilians died in the Kosovo war. In Lebanon, the real casualty count is also probably lower than the official figures released by a government that includes Hezbollah representatives).

In the IDF, as in the U.S. armed forces, targeting decisions that may involve collateral damage are reviewed by military lawyers and approved by multiple layers of command. Some targets are judged off- limits altogether. This laudable humanitarianism is, unfortunately, cynically exploited by non-Western enemies with no respect for the rules of "civilized" warfare devised by European rationalists. Groups like Hezbollah and Hamas fire their rockets from civilian neighborhoods precisely because they know that Israeli commanders will be reluctant to bomb those areas.

Given the American-style reluctance of Israel to suffer or inflict casualties, it is not surprising that the Second Lebanon War ended unsatisfactorily. Surveying the results, many Israelis now lament that the frontier spirit that kept their country strong through decades of adversity has disappeared, killed by rampant individualism and materialism and liberalism. In the pages of Haaretz, Ari Shavit, a moderate liberal and one of the country's most respected columnists, rages about the wrong turn that Israeli society took in the past few decades:

Any national idea was rejected because of the sanctity of the private sphere. Every cooperative ethos was dismantled in favor of the individual. Power was identified with fascism. Masculinity was publicly condemned. The pursuit of absolute justice was mixed with the pursuit of absolute pleasure and turned the reigning discourse from a discourse of commitment and enlistment to one of protest and pampering.

There is some truth to this. And yet it would be a mistake to conclude from Israel's experience--or from the even more severe setbacks suffered by the United States in Iraq--that postmodern societies lack the will to wage war effectively against enemies animated by ancient religious hatreds.

Even the most placid bourgeois communities can display heart-breaking self-sacrifice when necessary. Americans saw this on 9/11 when hundreds of firefighters and police officers rushed into the collapsing Twin Towers. Since then, U.S. soldiers and Marines have fought as bravely and skillfully in Iraq and Afghanistan as their forefathers did in World War II and the Civil War. Likewise, Israeli soldiers fought tenaciously and gallantly when finally given the opportunity to close in on and destroy Hezbollah. The most notable account of courage concerns a major in the Golani Brigade, Roi Klein, who was said to have jumped on a live grenade, sacrificing his own life to save his men.

The fact remains, for all the losses that IDF tanks and infantry suffered at the hands of Hezbollah fighters armed with sophisticated anti-tank missiles, Israeli soldiers won every tactical engagement. There is no doubt that, if given the necessary time and freedom, the IDF would have eviscerated Hezbollah. That was the preferred course of the Israeli public: Polls show a majority wanted to continue fighting rather than accept the U.N. cease-fire. That sentiment was shared by the mayors of towns in the north who met with a group of visitors on August 10 after having been under incessant rocket attack for a month. Over dinner on the Golan Heights, as Israeli artillery shells roared overhead and as Israeli attack jets and helicopters streaked through the night sky popping flares, local leaders told me that they were willing to stay in their shelters as long as it took to eradicate the terrorist menace across the border.

The failure (or, if you like, incomplete success) of this summer's Second Lebanon War was not the fault of ordinary Israeli soldiers and civilians. It was the fault of Israel's current leaders, civil and military, who were shortsighted and irresponsible in their lack of preparation for this war and vacillating and irresolute in its conduct. Those complaints should sound familiar to anyone who has followed the dispiriting course of the conflict in Iraq.

No doubt our jihadist enemies will conclude from the setbacks suffered by Israel and America in Lebanon and Iraq that the West is, as Osama bin Laden once put it, a "paper tiger." Such misapprehensions have long bedeviled liberal democracies. Recall the contempt that Napoleon expressed for Britain as a "nation of shopkeepers." Or the widespread assumption in the 1930s that liberal democracies were finished: that they were too degenerate and decadent to compete with such vibrant ideologies as Nazism, fascism, and communism. That illusion was buried in the rubble of Dresden and Hiroshima. As Dwight Eisenhower wrote his brother on the day that World War II began, "Hitler should beware of the fury of an aroused democracy." By the time the fighting ended six years later, American and British bombers had incinerated more than 600,000 German and Japanese men, women, and children.

Today this might be condemned as a "disproportionate response." The attack on Pearl Harbor, after all, left "only" 2,403 American dead. Yet I sense that even now America, Israel, even Europe would be capable of perpetrating violence on a similar scale if sufficiently provoked. Unfortunately, the way things are going, with Iran and its terrorist proxies growing powerful and increasingly impudent while the Western democracies lick their wounds, we may see this proposition put to the test before long.

Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD. He is author of the forthcoming War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today (Gotham Books).