Lessons of recent wars

(Updated 2114 PDT)

I’ve recently been reading Anthony Cordesman’s  “Lessons of the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War”. There are many lessons, and the performance of the IDF in Gaza last winter showed that it has learned several of the technical ones.

But one of the things Cordesman emphasizes is the need to pay as much attention to the information war that is fought in the world’s media parallel to the military one.

In particular he says that,

Israel fought its media battle largely in terms of an effort to influence its own political parties and public as well as its strongest outside supporters. Its information operations were parochial and were based on the assumption that it could not alter the perception of Arab, European, and other neutral and hostile media [p. 40].

He discusses what he considers the overriding importance of minimizing civilian casualties and damage, as well as justifying the use of force and the degree of force used. He calls for real-time response to inaccurate reports of collateral damage and atrocity stories, but also an entirely new way of fighting aimed as much at not hurting civilians as it is at killing the enemy.

Cordesman suggests that the information war is important because wars are fought to attain political objectives. If you defeat your enemy in every battle but the political situation after the war has not improved, you have failed. And the information aspect may have as much or more effect on the political outcome of a war as the actual fighting.

There is no doubt in my mind that these considerations were taken very seriously by decision-makers in the government and the IDF before the recent Gaza war. Absolutely unprecedented efforts were made to warn civilians away from targets before they were bombed; the IDF spokesperson’s office implemented a video blog that very effectively showed how weapons were hidden in mosques and rockets were fired from schoolyards. Although there were some failures — Palestinian casualty figures were disputed but inadequate documentation was provided, sometimes responses were agonizingly slow, etc. — there was a huge improvement since 2006.

And yet…

Israel’s information defeat in the Gaza war was total. Where there were PR failures, they were exploited. Where there were not, Israeli-provided information was simply ignored. The IDF spokesperson’s video blog wasn’t even close to a match for Al-Jazeerah (it didn’t help that Israel was trying to present verifiable facts and the other side just made things up).

It might even be the case that Israel’s hesitancy about the political consequences of its actions was partly responsible for the way the war stalled without entering ‘phase 3’, the deep penetration into the Hamas strongholds in Gaza City, which might have been successful in eliminating Hamas as a military threat. In other words, Israel might have taken PR concerns too seriously, to the point of failing to achieve important objectives.

Israel really is in a special situation in the world, completely isolated politically from so many other nations and at a PR disadvantage after years of continuous vilification by a multiplicity of enemies. What Israel actually does may not matter at this point. Cordesman asssumes that the propaganda battle can be won, both by changing the way the army fights and by improved PR techniques. But what if he’s wrong? Then the very attempt to win the information war works against the effort to win the military one.

Part of the strategy of asymmetric war is to take advantage of a modern army’s need to pull punches for political/information reasons. A force like the IDF is thus forced to fight on the level of Hezbollah or Hamas. But if the propaganda battle is essentially unwinnable, maybe the way to win such wars is to ignore the PR considerations and apply overwhelming force; to play to one’s strength and the enemy’s weakness. It seems to have worked for the regime in Sri Lanka.

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2 Responses to “Lessons of recent wars”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    This is a very astute article. The idea that Israel cannot win the PR war no matter what it does, and that efforts to win that war may actually prevent it winning from the war in the field seems to me to speak to the truth of our situation. Israel is in a situation in which no matter what it does it is always wrong. Of course there can be little wrongs and big wrongs, and it is advisable to limit the damage as much as possible.
    The question of whether Israel should have in fact ‘completed the war’ gone through the third- stage , thoroughly defeated ‘Hamas’ is an interesting one. In one sense one might say that so long as ‘Hamas’ rules there is no chance for real peace. But it is also might be thought that so long as ‘Hamas’ is in power it will be difficult for the U.S. and others to put great pressure on Israel for territorial concessions. There is also the question of what we would have done had we taken over Gaza completely again. Perhaps we could have done this in seventy- two hours but then there would begin the impossible business of ruling it.
    My guess is that therefore it is not only for P.R. reasons that we did not take over Gaza again.

  2. Vic Rosenthal says:

    Another of Cordesman’s lessons was that you need to have clear, achievable objectives, objectives that will lead to a good political outcome when the fighting stops. I presume that the power vacuum created by the destruction of Hamas would have to be filled somehow, and if there’s no solution to this then…what?
    On the other hand, if one of the war’s aims was to stop the rocket fire, it’s hard to see how this can be accomplished while Hamas is in control.