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Gaza Incursion Military Strategy

Destroy the Enemy to Obtain One Hundred Years of Peace

Part I — Epaminondas

“Those who wish to enjoy peace must be ready for war.”

Referring to the democratic reformer Epaminondas, the warrior-philosopher whose Theban army defeated Sparta (370-369), military historian Victor Davis Hanson offers insights that Israeli generals and citizens as well as universities should take most seriously. The excerpts below are taken from Hanson’s The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny (1999):

“I think it is almost axiomatic that if a general of a great democratic march is not hated, is not sacked, tried, or relieved of command by his auditors after his tenure is over, or if he has not been killed [as was Epaminondas] or wounded at the van, he has not utilized the full potential of his men, has not accomplished his strategic goals—in short, he is too representative of the very culture that produced him, too democratic to lead a democratic army …”

“… we of the academic class are sometimes reluctant to equate mastery of military command with sheer intellectual brilliance. But to lead an army of thousands into enemy territory requires mental skills far beyond that of the professor, historian, or journalist—far beyond too the accounting and managerial skill of the deskbound and peacetime officer corps.”

“From Epaminondas’s philosophical training [he was a Pythagorean], the corpus of his adages and sayings that have survived, and his singular idea to take 70,000 men into Laconia and Messinia, it is clear that, like both [William Tecumseh] Sherman and [George S.] Patton, he had a first-class mind and was adept in public speaking and knowledge of human behavior. Perhaps with the exception of Pericles and Scipio, it is hard to find any military leader in some twelve centuries of Gaeco-Roman antiquity who had the natural intelligence, philosophical training, broad knowledge, and recognition of the critical tension between military morale and national ethics as Epaminondas the Theban. In his range of political and strategic thought, he towered over his Greek contemporaries … in precisely the way Sherman did over all the generals of the Civil War, precisely as Patton dwarfed his British and American superiors.

“In short, Epaminondas, the philosopher, may have been the best educated man of the ancient world—an education that stressed logic, mathematics, rhetoric, memorization, philosophy, and literature, an education far more valuable to the leadership of great democratic armies than what is offered in most universities today….”

“There was one key ingredient to Epaminondas’s military career that perhaps stands as an exemplar of democratic leadership. Such generals must not be timid or afraid, must not lead their army in the very manner in which they themselves are audited and held accountable by a democratic consensus. Epaminondas by all accounts was a zealot and fanatic—Sherman and Patton [discussed the in sequel] perhaps even more so. The worst generals in the ancient and modern worlds were those with a constant feel for the pulse of the assembly or board of overseers …”

“Armies are not assemblies. The conduct of war is not a discussion over taxes of public expenditures. The very qualities that make a poor democratic statesman in peacetime—audacity, fatalism, truthfulness, fearlessness, initiative, hatred of compromise, fanaticism, even recklessness—are critical for command of a great egalitarian army, just as the strengths of a politician—affability, consensus-building, retrospection, manners, inactivity even—can prove lethal to a campaign.”

“Would that the American generals Schwarzkopf or Powell had risked resigning for insisting that American troops march into Baghdad to liquidate the [Saddam] Hussein regime [in 1991].”

And what shall we say of various Israeli generals who adhered to the feckless policy of self-restraint vis-à-vis Israel’s implacable but Lilliputian enemy, the PLO-Palestinian Authority?

Part II—William Tecumseh Sherman

In what follows, virtually every a passage has been extracted from military historian Victor Davis Hanson, The Soul of Battle (1999), I have selected these excerpts to illuminate dilemmas involved in Israel’s current war in Gaza, but I alone am responsible for the import of this article.

William Tecumseh Sherman of Civil War fame was professor and college president teaching history six months before the Battle of Bull Run. If Sherman was considered a cruel general, “cruelty was necessary to destroy the evil of slavery.”

“Men go to war to kill,” said Sherman, “and should expect no tenderness.” As he said of the Confederacy: “Thousands of people may perish, but they now realize that war means something else than vain glory and boasting.”

“Marching through an enemy country and destroying its economic infrastructure and social strata—while losing less than 1% of an army—can instill confidence in soldiers in a way that camp life, entrenchment, and even ferocious set battles cannot.”

Sherman’s solders “realized that the quickest way to return … to their families as to follow their mad genius into the heart of the Confederacy and very quickly to wreck its economic and spiritual core.”

As George Patton understood (who was also deemed mad): “The directing mind must be at the head of the army—must be seen there, and the effect of his mind and personal energy must be felt by every officer and men present with it, to secure the best results. Every attempt to make war easy and safe will result in humiliation and disaster.”

Sherman’s soldiers loved and admired their “‘Uncle Billy,’ who could confess of his troops, ‘not a waiver, doubt, or hesitation when I order, and men march to certain death without a murmur if I call on them, because they know I value their lives as much as my own.”

“’Don’t ride too fast, General,’ they would warn him of muddy roads, ‘Pretty slippery going, Uncle Billy …”

One nearly illiterate soldier wrote home: “it is an honor to enney man to have ben on the last campaign with Sherman, you se him a riding a long you would think he was somb plow jogger his head bent a little to one side with an oald stub of a sigar in his mouth.”

As for the quality of Sherman’s army: “When General Peter Osterhaus’s 15th Corp marched past the Washington reviewing stand—they had occupied the southern wing during Sherman’s march to the Sea—the German ambassador remarked, ‘An army like that could whip all Europe.’”

Hanson contrasts Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant: “Sherman’s men had marched, moved hundreds of miles, and survived, whereas too many of Grant’s were fixed and had died. The former had sliced through hostile territory and freed slaves, destroyed property, and brought fire and ruin to the enemy; the latter fought not far from home, pitted against like military kind, and had rarely touched the economy that fueled the enemy [emphasis added]. The South would hate Sherman, whose troops had killed relatively few Confederates, for a century to come, but came to forgive Grant their future president, whose army butchered its best soldiers—a propensity to value property over life [as Machiavelli teaches in The Prince]…”

“Sherman at relatively little human expenditure defeated the very soul of the Confederate citizenry with a force that was mobile, patently ideological, and without experience of defeat.” Ideological—for as Hanson discerns, “the act of emancipation [served] as moral counterweight against the necessary brutality of fire and ruin …”

No Union General liberated more slaves than Sherman. “As blacks themselves acknowledged, Sherman did more to ‘cut them loose’ than any abolitionist.”

This last remark reminds me of a Lebanese journalist who admitted that Lebanon did not breathe the air of freedom until the Israelis expelled the PLO from his country in 1982. With that freedom, he added, the Lebanese experienced the extraordinary humanity of the Jewish state.

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