In the most recent episode of The Levy & Counsell Show (which has so far been fascinating) I was struck by Judith Levy's account of the failure of Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system to sell abroad. Other buyers said, in effect, “We don’t need it. If anyone shot missiles at us, we would cross the border and kill them all.” That makes a lot of sense. A nation that can afford Iron Dome can certainly afford lower-tech tanks, artillery, and infantry.
I was reminded that the ultimate purpose of war is psychological – convincing the enemy that further belligerence is futile. The physical manifestations, the number dead, the targets destroyed, are all simply tactical means to the psychological end. The enemy’s will to fight must be crushed.
I was reminded that in World War II, the U.S. fire bombed Dresden -- killing over 10,000 civilians. We were busily engaged in doing the same thing to Tokyo when the development of nuclear weapons gave us a shortcut. Those who decry the non-military nature of the targets forget the purpose of war. If melting a city makes the enemy realize that he can’t win, then it’s a reasonable tactic.
How have we fallen so far from this simple understanding? The folly of international law may be part of the answer. But I think we may have done some of the damage to ourselves. In Israel’s strikes in Gaza, meticulous care was taken not to harm civilians. Ditto in U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This seems to be motivated by (1) a sincere belief that gratuitous harm to civilians is wrong and (2) wishing to avoid the PR debacle that invariably follows unintended civilian fatalities, with dead innocents paraded before CNN cameras and credulous reporters.
But the unintended side effects of this policy seem multiple and pernicious. First, it raises the world’s expectations of our conduct. We say we’re trying not to kill civilians, so every errant bomb is an occasion for anti-Western demonstration. Second, it encourages the enemy to hide among civilians, paradoxically putting civilians in harm’s way because of our efforts to protect them.
What if Israel and the U.S. (and whoever else is in the anti-Islamist battle nowadays ... perhaps nobody, now that I think of it) changed their publicly stated military policy to be entirely silent on civilian casualties? They could say that we will pursue our objective without regard to civilian harm. To the extent that civilians are harmed, we consider it the enemy’s fault for operating in civilian areas. If it is safer for our forces to flatten a city block rather than develop the intelligence for a pinpoint strike, then we will flatten a city block.
That might get civilians to be more resistant to terrorists in their midst, it might give anti-Western protesters less to hand-wring about (a single dead girl is a great CNN story, hundreds killed day after day is boring), and it might actually serve the strategic purpose of demoralizing the enemy.
Durable peace is never based on mutual understanding. It’s based on an enemy that believes deeply that it shouldn't fight.
I'd especially love to hear the thoughts of people with actual military knowledge (unlike me), though I suspect law and PR have much to do with this too. (Can we page Dr. Victor Davis Hanson?)