The Israeli defense: Military success in the age of terrorist armies hinges on public education, too
(Published in Security Times, Feb. 22 2019)
Democratic nations constrain their militaries in line with a moral code developed over centuries, forged in the face of the horrors of war and enshrined in the Law of Armed Conflict. However, recent history has shown that much of the fighting Western armies and their democratic allies have had to engage in has been against adversaries who abuse these rules purposefully for battlefield gains. This is particularly prominent in relation to hybrid terrorist armies making unlawful tactical and strategic gains through the abuse of civilians and the special protections they are afforded. In many cases, the enemy sees civilian deaths as a tactical success.
Our High Level Military Group of senior retired military personnel from ten democratic nations, including the former German, Italian and Canadian chiefs of the defense staff, has examined this challenging new reality through the lens of their own operational experience. We studied Israel’s military operations in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon, as well as campaigns by Western and allied militaries in Afghanistan, Colombia, Iraq, Mali and Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
Adversaries in these conflicts all share an approach to warfare that has war crimes built into its basic premises. The deliberate failure to distinguish between combatants and civilians, placing them at the center of military operations and thus exploiting the protections Western militaries will adhere to, is a studied tactic. They use human shields, protected locations such as hospitals as well as civilian housing as bases, weapons stores and command and control centers. Advances in communications technology have also had a major impact on the fight against irregular and terrorist adversaries, who often display a highly developed ability to exploit social and traditional media in order to influence the battle over political narratives with real strategic effect. As such, ill-informed political and social narratives, particularly where enemy messages meet receptive amplifiers in our own civic arenas, inflict serious harm on the ability to prevail in such conflicts.
International institutions and human rights organizations also too often engage in misleading or politicized narratives around core concepts of warfare and international law, while governments fail to assert to their publics what such warfare entails. The unwarranted legal pursuit of troops post-conflict in some countries has compounded their uncertainty over whether our nations will continue to stand behind them as they seek to defend us.
Yet the militaries of all the democracies we examined in detail go to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties by using strict rules of engagement and command and control in the face of terror armies. In many cases, the measures employed to protect civilians constitute a grave tactical disadvantage on the battlefield and go above the requirements of the law of armed conflict.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Israel, a nation slandered so widely that its allies in Europe are nearly as reticent as its traditional adversaries in the Arab world to admit that it needs its world-class intelligence and technological assistance. Yet our work shows that in clear contrast to the global campaign of propaganda against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the country has developed the most sophisticated mechanisms of any democracy to prevent the loss of civilian life when it fights adversaries such as Hamas, which hides behind civilians in Gaza, and Hezbollah, which has worked with Iran to capture Lebanon and turn the entire southern border of that country into a military enclave hidden in plain sight among innocent civilians.
Israeli tactics to preserve civilian life exceed similar attempts by other democratic nations because they are based on battlefield intelligence resources that other militaries cannot match in the war zones in which they are called upon to operate. Military commanders from other democratic nations would thus be gravely concerned if the standards Israel sets become customary norms, no matter that their own standards adhere to and, in some cases, also exceed applicable laws.
We have reached a point where our terrorist enemies fight without any restraints, yet our own soldiers are placed in ever greater danger while having to worry ever more about the legitimacy of their military actions. Our conclusion: We must educate our publics about the military, strategic, political and, above, all moral realities of our actions.