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We Don't Know How to Fight Wars Anymore

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
Courtesy of Myra Kahn Adams

Israel’s recent dust-up with Palestinian Islamic Jihad shows everything wrong with war-fighting in the twenty-first century.

Israel just finished another round of war with terrorists in Gaza. The conflagration lasted five days, with cease-fires promised from day 2 forward. Israel succeeded in separating Hamas from Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), as the former did not participate in rocket fire, while the latter had six of its commanders assassinated. PIJ fired over 1,100 rockets towards Israel during the fighting.


When I woke up the morning after PIJ started shooting, there was a picture of a building in Gaza. The top floor of the building had a huge, blackened gaping hole where a terrorist once lived with his family. Israel took out three top PIJ leaders simultaneously, and the picture was of one of the strikes. On the one hand, one might marvel at the extraordinary accuracy. It was only a few years ago that when a Hamas team fired a rocket from the top of a building in Gaza a plane-fired missile took down the entire building only a few seconds later. Now we can choose floors, rooms, and even windows of entry. All of us remember the bombs going down the Iraqi “AT&T Building” in Baghdad, but thirty years of smart munitions have progressed to the point where 90% of the attacked building looked untouched. And herein lies one of the major problems in modern Western warfare.

During World War II, hundreds of bombers—sometimes a thousand—would be sent against a target, each plane dropping a few tons of explosives with the hopes that some small percentage of the total tonnage dropped would hit the target—say a ball bearing factory or fighter engine plant—and remove it from production. So if one looks at 1940’s vintage attacks with hundreds of planes, thousands of crew and thousands of tons of bombs to today, a single plane, possibly one pilot, maybe two, and a single bomb and near-perfect accuracy, wouldn’t that be considered an enormous sign of progress from the crude area bombing of General Curtis LeMay to today’s American and Israeli pinpoint perfection? The US is heading towards smaller bombs (including nuclear warheads) and there even seems to be evidence of a Hellfire missile converted into a bunch of knives instead of explosives, all to reduce collateral damage. Israel even posted a video of an air strike called off because of the presence of children. All of this progress is ultimately a disaster for the West for two reasons.


The first reason is legal. As attacks become more precise, both civilians and legal bodies like the International Criminal Court at the Hague expect perfect execution of warfare from Israel and Western countries. Both Israel and the US have lawyers who have a say in operations, something that should be left to the warrior fighters and their leaders. But those leaders have nightmares of being dragged to the Hague to explain how a bomb from an F-16 hit the wrong house or why a tank shell overshot its target and hit a school. My wife and I were once walking a few years ago by the governmental quarter here in Jerusalem and there was a protest from the Left. We asked what the issue was, and sure enough it was a tank shell that had missed in Gaza and hit a house, where 19 people died. The protesters were demanding action and punishment. A detailed investigation found a technical fault in the fire control system—something that is not so unusual during warfare. I thought to myself, since when did we demand that war be so sterile, so perfect? How many thousands of Frenchmen died from American and British bombs, when aerial bombing was used to loosen the Nazi grip on France and prepare for the Normandy landings? People no longer differentiate between collateral—and thus, unintended harm—and intentional attacks. PIJ shoots to kill civilians. They do not pretend to aim at IDF bases and overshoot them. No, they shoot to kill Israeli civilians--Jews. Many of their rockets fell in Gaza. Others fell in unpopulated areas. Many of those heading towards town and cities were shot down by the Iron Dome system, but lo and behold, one battery had a malfunction, and a rocket hit a house in Rehovot, where an elderly woman was killed and ten people were wounded. And this leads to the second problem with our modern warfare.


Since we make warfare so “clean”, it never ends. Israel in the past used to drop dud bombs on buildings to give the tenants time to run away before the building was leveled. Alternatively, they sent SMS messages to the tenants to get out. This sounds humanitarian but the bad guys can also get out of the building. As long as the general population has no fear of being killed or seriously harmed due to the highly accurate weaponry and the international demand that attacks be near-perfect, the people of Gaza will have no reason to make peace with Israel. I remember in 1991, Iraqi soldiers describing the absolute panic of US B-52’s dropping bombs over their bunkers and the sheer fear as the bombing never seemed to end. Those were the soldiers who came running towards a US reporter while waving a white flag and begging him to take them prisoner. As long as war is too clean, Gazans will never feel that they need to make peace with Israel, and as long as Israelis rely on Iron Dome, David’s Sling and other anti-rocket defenses, Israelis will see the barrage of over a thousand rockets as a mere nuisance, instead of a life-threatening event that needs to be dealt with for once and for all.

I have always wanted to ask General LeMay one question, if he were still alive: what do you think of smart munitions, and do you think that perfectly putting a single, small warhead bomb into the window of choice is better than the area bombing of your generation? I am not looking for dead civilians, but the more tidy war is, the longer it will go on and the more often it will return. I remember reading a story of General Stanley McChrystal, then head of forces in Afghanistan before President Obama removed him, thundering in a meeting of generals as to who gave the order to drop a bomb from a plane, said bomb having missed its target and instead killing an Afghani family. Curtis LeMay did not lose sleep over the 100,000 people who died from his fire-bombing of Tokyo in the Spring of 1945—his job was to get Japan to surrender, and such bombing was part of the program; General McChrystal could not accept that one family might be killed by a stray coalition bomb. A French general sheepishly admitted to have given the order.


Israelis are already bracing for the next round of rockets—whether it be in a month or two years from now. The highly accurate attacks on PIJ (without touching Hamas targets) look great in a newspaper but did nothing to convince Gazans that they would be better off with peace with Israel.

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