Above photo: President Bush signing the AUMF into law. Wikimedia commons.
This article is dedicated to the memory of an activist, inspiration, and recent friend: Kevin Zeese. Its scope, sweep, and ambition are meant to match that of Kevin’s outsized influence. At that, it must inevitably fail – and its shortfalls are mine alone. That said, the piece’s attempt at a holistic critique of 19 years worth of war and cultural militarization would, I hope, earn an approving nod from Kevin – if only at the attempt. He will be missed by so many; I count myself lucky to have gotten to know him. – Danny Sjursen
The rubble was still smoldering at Ground Zero when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to essentially transform itself into the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. It was 19 years ago, 11:17pm Washington D.C. time on September 14, 2001 when the People’s Chamber approved House Joint Resolution 64, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) “against those responsible for the recent attacks.” Naturally, that was before the precise identities, and full scope, of “those responsible” were yet known – so the resolution’s rubber-stamp was obscenely open-ended by necessity, but also by design.
The Senate had passed their own version by roll call vote about 12 hours earlier. The combined congressional tally was 518 to one. Only Representative Barbara Lee of California cast a dissenting vote, and even delivered a brief, prescient speech on the House floor. It’s almost hard to watch and listen all these years later as her voice cracks with emotion amidst all that truth-telling:
I am convinced that military action will not prevent further acts of international terrorism against the United States. This is a very complex and complicated matter…
However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, let’s step back for a moment…and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control…
Now I have agonized over this vote. But…I came to grips with opposing this resolution during the very painful, yet very beautiful memorial service. As a member of the clergy so eloquently said, “As we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore.”
For her lone stance – itself courageous, even had she not since been vindicated – Rep. Lee suffered insults and death threats so intense that she needed around-the-clock bodyguards for a time. It’s hard to be right in a room full of the wrong – especially angry, scared, and jingoistic ones. Yet the tragedy is America has become many of the things we purport to deplore: the U.S. now boasts a one-trick-pony foreign policy and a militarized society to boot.
Endless imperial interventions and perennial policing at home and abroad, counterproductive military adventurism, governance by permanent “emergency” fiat, and an ever more martial-society? We’ve seen this movie before; in fact it’s still playing – in Israel. Without implying that Israel, as an entity, is somehow “evil,” theirs was simply not a path the U.S. need or ought to have gone down.
“A Republic, If You Can Keep It”
In the nearly two decades since its passing, the AUMF has been cited at least 41 times in some 17 countries and on the high seas. The specified nations-states included Afghanistan, Cuba (Guantanamo Bay), Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Georgia, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Philippines, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Jordan, Turkey, Niger, Cameroon, and the broader African “Sahel Region” – which presumably also covers the unnamed, but real, U.S. troop presence in Nigeria, Chad and Mali. That’s a lot of unnecessary digressions – missions that haven’t, and couldn’t, have been won. All of that aggression abroad predictably boomeranged back home, in the guise of freedoms constrained, privacy surveilled, plus cops and culture militarized.
Inevitably, just a few days ago, every publication, big and small, carried obligatory and ubiquitous 9/11 commemoration pieces. Far fewer will even note the AUMF anniversary. Yet it was the U.S. government’s response – not the attacks themselves – which most altered American strategy and society. For in dutifully deciding on immediate military retaliation, a “global war,” even, on a tactic (“terror”) and a concept (“evil”) at that, this republic fell prey to the Founders’ great obsession. Unable to agree on much else, they shared fears that the nascent American experiment would suffer Rome’s “ancestral curse” of ambition – and its subsequent path to empire. Hence, Benjamin Franklin’s supposed retort to a crowd question upon exiting the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, on just what they’d just framed: “A republic, if you can keep it!”
Yet perhaps a modern allegory is the more appropriate one: by signing on to an endless cycle of tit-for-tat terror retaliation on 9/14, We the People’s representatives chose the Israeli path. Here was a state forged by the sword that it’s consequently lived by ever since, and may well die by – though the cause of death, no doubt, would likely be self-inflicted. The first statutory step towards Washington transforming into Tel Aviv was that AUMF sanction 19 years ago tonight.
No doubt, some militarist fantasies came far closer on the heels of the September 11th suicide strikes: According to notes taken by aides, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld waited a whole five hours after Flight 77 impacted his Pentagon to instruct subordinates to gather the “best info fast. Judge whether good enough to hit [Saddam Hussein]…at same time…Not only [Osama Bin Laden].” As for the responsive strike plans, “Go massive,” the notes quote Rumsfeld as saying. “Sweep it all up. Things related and not.”
Nonetheless, it was Congress’ dutiful AUMF-acquiescence that made America’s Israeli-metamorphosis official. The endgame that ain’t even ended yet has been dreadful. It’s almost impossible to fathom, in retrospect, but remember that as of September 14, 2001, 7,052 American troops and, very conservatively, at least 800,000 foreigners (335,000 of them civilians) hadn’t yet – and need not have – died in the ensuing AUMF-sanctioned worldwide wars.
Now, U.S. forces didn’t directly kill all of them, but that’s about 112 September 11ths-worth of dead civilians by the very lowest estimates – perishing in wars of (American) choice. That’s worth reckoning with; and needn’t imply a dismissive attitude to our 9/11 fallen. I, for one, certainly take that date rather seriously.
There are more than a dozen t-shirts hanging in my closet right now that are each emblazoned with the phrase “Annual Marty Egan 5K Memorial Run/Walk.” This event is held back in the old neighborhood, honoring a very close family friend – a New York City fire captain killed in the towers’ collapse. As my Uncle Steve’s best bud, he was in and out of my grandparents’ seemingly communal Midland Beach, Staten Island bungalow – before Hurricane Sandy washed many of them away – throughout my childhood. When I was a teenager, just before leaving for West Point, Marty would tease me for being “too skinny for a soldier” in the local YMCA weight-room and broke-balls about my vague fear of heights as I shakily climbed a ladder in Steve’s backyard just weeks before I left for cadet basic training. Always delivered with a smile, of course.
Marty was doing some in-service training on September 11th, and didn’t have to head towards the flames, but he hopped on a passing truck and rode to his death anyway. I doubt anyone who knew him would’ve expected anything less. Mercifully, Marty’s body was one of the first – and at the time, only – recovered, just two days after Congress chose war in his, and 2,976 others’ name. He was found wearing borrowed gear from engine company he’d jumped in with.
I was a freshman cadet at West Point when I heard all of this news – left feeling so very distant from home, family, neighborhood, though I was just a 90 minute drive north. Frankly, I couldn’t wait to get in the fights that followed. It’s no excuse, really: but I was at that moment exactly 18 years and 41 days old. And indeed, I’d spend the next 18 training, prepping, and fighting the wars I then wanted – and, (Apocalypse Now-style) “for my sins” – “they gave me.”
Anyway, Marty’s family – and more so his memory – along with the general 9/11 fallout back home, have swirled in and out of my life ever since. In the immediate term, after the attacks my mother turned into a sort of wake&funeral-hopper, attending literally dozens over that first year. As soon as Marty had a headstone in Moravian Cemetery – where my Uncle Steve once dug graves – I draped a pair of my new dog tags over it on a weekend trip home. It was probably a silly and indulgent gesture, but it felt profound at the time. Then, soon enough, the local street signs started changing to honor fallen first responders – including the intersection outside my church, renamed “Martin J. Egan Jr. Corner.” (Marty used to joke, after all, that he’d graduated from UCLA – that is, the University, corner of Lincoln Avenue, in the neighborhood.)
Five years later, while I was fighting a war in a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, Marty’s mother Pat still worked at the post office from which my own mom shipped me countless care packages. They’d chat; have a few nostalgic laughs; then Pat would wish me well and pass on her regards. When some of my soldiers started getting killed, I remember my mother telling me it was sometimes hard to look Pat in the eye on the post office trips – perhaps she feared an impending kinship of lost sons. But it didn’t go that way.
So, suffice it to say, I don’t take the 9/11 attacks, or the victims, lightly. That doesn’t mean the U.S. responses, and their results, were felicitous…or forgivable. They might even dishonor the dead. I don’t pretend to precisely know, or speak for, the Egan family’s feelings. Still, my own sense is that few among the lost or their loved ones left behind would’ve imagined or desired their deaths be used to justify all of the madness, futility, and liberties-suppression blowback that’s ensued.
Nevertheless, my nineteen Septembers 11th have been experienced in oft-discomfiting ways, and my assessment of the annual commemorations, rather quickly began to change. By the tenth anniversary, a Reuters reporter spent a couple of days on the base I commanded in Afghanistan. At the time the outpost sported a flag gifted by my uncle, which had previously flown above a New York Fire Department house. I suppose headquarters sent the journalist my way because I was the only combat officer from New York City – but the brass got more than they’d bargained for. By then, amidst my second futile war “surge,” and three more of the lives and several more of the limbs of my soldiers lost on this deployment, I wasn’t feeling particularly sentimental. Besides, I’d already turned – ethically and intellectually – against what seemed to me demonstrably hopeless and counterproductive military exercises.
Much to the chagrin of my career-climbing lieutenant colonel, I waxed a bit (un)poetic on the war I was then fighting – “against farm boys with guns,” I not-so-subtly styled it – and my hometown’s late suffering that ostensibly justified it. “When I see this place, I don’t see the towers,” I said, sitting inside my sandbagged operations center near the Taliban’s very birthplace in Kandahar province. Then added: “My family sees it more than I do. They see it dead-on, direct. I’m a professional soldier. It’s not about writing the firehouse number on the bullet. I’m not one for gimmicks.” It was coarse and a bit petulant, sure, but what I meant – what I felt – was that these wars, even this “good” Afghan one (per President Obama), no longer, and may never have, had much to do with 9/11, Marty, or all the other dead.
The global war on terrorism (GWOT, as it was once fashionable to say) was but a reflex for a sick society pre-disposed to violence, symptomatic of a militarist system led by a government absent other ideas or inclinations. Still, I flew that FDNY flag – even skeptical soldiers can be a paradoxical lot.
Origin Myths: Big Lies and Long Cons
Although the final approved AUMF declared that “such acts [as terrorism] continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” that wasn’t then, and isn’t now, even true. The toppled towers, pummeled Pentagon, and flying suicide machines of 9/11 were no doubt an absolute horror; and such visions understandably clouded collective judgment. Still, more sober statistics demonstrate, and sensible strategy demands, the prudence of perspective.
From 1995 to 2016, a total of 3,277 Americans have been killed in terrorist acts on U.S. soil. If we subtract the 9/11 anomaly, that’s just 300 domestic deaths – or 14 per year. Which raises the impolite question: why don’t policymakers talk about terrorism the same way they do shark attacks or lightning strikes? The latter, incidentally, kill an average of 49 Americans annually. Odd, then, that the U.S. hasn’t expended $6.4 trillion, or more than 15,000 soldier and contractor lives, responding to bolts from the blue. Nor has it kicked off or catalyzed global wars that have directly killed – by that conservative estimate – 335,000 civilians.
See, that’s the thing: for Americans, like the Israelis, some lives matter more than others. We can just about calculate the macabre life-value ratios in each society. Take Israel’s 2014 onslaught on the Gaza Strip. In its fifty-day onslaught of Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) killed 2,131 Palestinians – of whom 1,473 were identified as civilians, including 501 children. As for the wildly inaccurate and desperate Hamas rocket strikes that the IDF “edge” ostensibly “protected” against: those killed a whopping four civilians. To review: apparently one Israeli non-combatant is worth 368 Palestinian versions. Now, seeing as everything – including death-dealing is “bigger in Texas” – consider the macro American application. To wit, 3,277 U.S. civilians versus 335,000 foreign innocents equals a cool 102-to-1 quotient of the macabre.
Such formulas become banal realities when one believes the big lies undergirding the entire enterprise. Here, Israel and America share origin myths that frame the long con of forever wars. That is, that acts of terror with stateless origins are best responded to with reflexive and aggressive military force. In my first ever published article – timed for Independence Day 2014 – I argued that America’s post-9/11 “original sin” was framing its response as a war in the first place. As a result, I – then a serving U.S. Army captain – concluded, “In place of sound strategy, we’ve been handed our own set of martyrs: more than 6,500 dead soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines.” More than 500 American troopers have died since, along with who knows how many foreign civilians. It’s staggering how rare such discussions remain in mainstream discourse.
Within that mainstream, often the conjoined Israeli-American twins even share the same cruelty cheerleaders. Take the man that author Belen Fernandez not inaccurately dubs “Harvard Law School’s resident psychopath:” Alan Dershowitz. During Israel’s brutal 2006 assault on Lebanon, this armchair-murderer took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal with a column titled “Arithmetic of Pain.”
Dershowitz argued for a collective “reassessment of the laws of war” in light of increasingly blurred distinctions between combatants and civilians. Thus, offering official “scholarly” sanction for the which-lives-matter calculus, he unveiled the concept of a “continuum of ‘civilianality.” Consider some of his cold and callous language:
Near the most civilian end of this continuum are the pure innocents — babies, hostages…at the more combatant end are civilians who willingly harbor terrorists, provide material resources and serve as human shields; in the middle are those who support the terrorists politically, or spiritually.
Got that? Leaving aside Dershowitz’s absurd assumption that there are loads of Palestinians just itching to volunteer as “human shields,” it’s clear that when conflicts are thus framed – all manner of cruelties become permissible.
In Israel, it begins with stated policies of internationally-prohibited collective punishment. For example, during the 2006 Lebanon War that killed exponentially more innocent Lebanese than Israelis, the IDF chief of staff’s announced intent was to deliver “a clear message to both greater Beirut and Lebanon that they’ve swallowed a cancer [Hezbollah] and have to vomit it up, because if they don’t their country will pay a very high price.” It ends with Tel Aviv’s imposition of an abusive calorie-calculus on Palestinians.
In 2008, Israeli authorities actually drew up a document computing the minimum caloric intake necessary for Gaza’s residents to suffer (until they yield), but avoid outright starvation. Two years earlier, that wonderful wordsmith Dov Weisglass, senior advisor to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, explained that Israeli policy was designed “to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
Lest that sound beyond the pale for we Americans, recall that it was the first female secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who ten years earlier said of 500,000 Iraqi children’s deaths under crippling U.S. sanctions: “we think, the price is worth it.” Furthermore, it’s unclear how the Trump administration’s current sanctions-clampdown on Syrians unlucky enough to live in President Bashar al Assad-controlled territory is altogether different from the “Palestinian diet.”
After all, even one of the Middle East Institute’s resident regime-change-enthusiasts, Charles Lister, recently admitted that America’s criminally-euphemized “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act” may induce a “famine.” In other words, according to two humanitarian experts writing on the national security website War on the Rocks, “hurting the very civilians it aims to protect while largely failing to affect the Syrian government itself.”
It is, and has long been, thus: Israeli prime ministers and American presidents, Bibi and The Donald, Tel Aviv and Washington – are peas in a punishing pod.
Emergencies as Existences
In both Israel and America, frightened populations finagled by their uber-hawkish governments acquiesce to militarized states of “emergencies” as a way of life. In seemingly no time at all, the latest U.S. threshold got so low that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo matter-of-factly declared one to override a congressional-freeze and permit the $8.1 billion sale of munitions to Gulf Arab militaries. When some frustrated lawmakers asked the State Department’s inspector general to investigate, the resultant report found that the agency failed to limit [Yemeni] civilian deaths from the sales – most bombed by the Saudi’s subsequent arsenal of largesse. (As for the inspector general himself? He was “bullied,” then fired, by Machiavelli Mike).
Per the standard, Israel is the more surface-overt partner. As the IDF-veteran author Haim Bresheeth-Zabner writes in his new book, An Army Like No Other: How the Israel Defense Forces Made a Nation, Israel is the “only country in which Emergency Regulations have been in force for every minute of its existence.”
Perhaps more worryingly, such emergency existences boomerang back to militarized Minneapolis and Jerusalem streets alike. It’s worth nothing that just five days after the killing of George Floyd, an Israeli police officer gunned down an unarmed, autistic, Palestinian man on his way to a school for the disabled. Even the 19-year-old killer’s 21-year-old commander (instructive, that) admitted the cornered victim wasn’t a threat. But here’s the rub: when the scared and confused Palestinian man ran from approaching police at 6 a.m., initial officers instinctually reported a potential “terrorist” on the loose.
Talk about global terror coming home to roost on local streets. And why not here in the States? It wasn’t but two months back that President Trump labeled peaceful demonstrators in D.C., and nationwide protesters tearing down Confederate statues, as “terrorists.” That’s more than a tad troubling, since, as noted, almost anything is permissible against terrorists, thus tagged.
In other words, the Israeli-American, post-9/11 (or -9/14) militarized connections go beyond the cosmetic and past sloganeering. Then again, the latter can be instructive. In the wake of the latest Jerusalem police shooting, protestors in Israel’s Occupied Territories held up placards declaring solidarity with Black Lives Matter (BLM). One read: “Palestinians support the black intifada.” Yet the roots of shared systemic injustices run far deeper.
Though it remains impolitic to say so here in the U.S., both “BLM and the Palestinian rights movement are [by their own accounts] fighting settler-colonial states and structures of domination and supremacy that value, respectively, white and Jewish lives over black and Palestinian ones.” They’re hardly wrong. All-but-official apartheid reigns in Occupied Palestine, and a de-facto two-tier system favoring Jewish citizens, prevails within Israel itself. Similarly, the U.S. grapples with chattel slavery’s legacy, lingering effects institutional Jim Crow-apartheid, and its persistent system of gross, if unofficial, socio-economic racial disparity.
Though there are hopeful rumblings in post-Floyd America, neither society has much grappled with the immediacy and intransigency of their established and routine devaluation of (internal and external) Arab and African lives. Instead, in another gross similarity, Israelis and Americans prefer to laud any ruling elites who even pretend towards mildly reformist rhetoric (rather than action) as brave peacemakers.
In fact, two have won the Nobel Peace Prize. In America, there was the untested Obama: he the king of drones and free-press-suppression – whose main qualification for the award was not being named George W. Bush. In Israel, the prize went to late Prime Minister Shimon Peres. According to Bresheeth-Zabner, Peres was the “mind behind the military-industrial complex” in Israel, and also architect of the infamous 1996 massacre of 106 people sheltering at a United Nations compound in South Lebanon. In such societies as ours and Israel’s, and amidst interminable wars, too often politeness passes for principle.
Predictably, social and cultural rot – and strategic delusions – first manifest in a nation’s military. Neither Israel’s nor America’s has a particularly impressive record of late. The IDF won a few important wars in its first 25 years of existence, then came back from a near catastrophic defeat to prevail in the 1973 Yom Kippur War; but since then, it’s at best muddled through near-permanent lower-intensity conflicts after invading Southern Lebanon in 1978. In fact, its 22-year continuous counter-guerilla campaign there – against Palestinian resistance groups and then Lebanese Hezbollah – slowly bled the IDF dry in a quagmire often called “Israel’s Vietnam.” It was, in fact, proportionally more deadly for its troops than America’s Southeast Asian debacle – and ended (in 2000) with an embarrassing unilateral withdrawal.
Additionally, Tel Aviv’s perma-military-occupation of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip hasn’t just flagrantly violated International law and several UN resolutions – but blown up in the IDF’s face. Ever since vast numbers of exasperated and largely abandoned (by Arab armies) Palestinians rose up in the 1987 Intifada – initially peaceful protests – and largely due to the IDF’s counterproductively vicious suppression, Israel has been trapped in endless imperial policing and low-to-mid-level counterinsurgency.
None of its major named military operations in the West Bank and/or Gaza Strip – Operations Defensive Shield (2002), Days of Penitence (2004), Summer Rains (2006), Cast Lead (2008-09), Pillar of Defense (2012), Protective Edge (2014), among others – has defeated or removed Hamas, nor have they halted the launch of inaccurate but persistent Katyusha rockets.
In fact, the wildly disproportionate toll on Palestinian civilians in each and every operation, and the intransigence of Israel’s ironclad occupation has only earned Tel Aviv increased international condemnation and fresh generations of resistors to combat. The IDF counts minor tactical successes and suffers broader strategic failure. As even a fairly sympathetic Rand report on the Gaza operations noted, “Israel’s grand strategy became ‘mowing the grass’ – accepting its inability to permanently solve the problem and instead repeatedly targeting leadership of Palestinian militant organizations to keep violence manageable.”
The American experience has grown increasingly similar over the last three-quarters of a century. Unless one counts modern trumped-up Banana Wars like those in Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989), or the lop-sided 100-hour First Persian Gulf ground campaign (1991), the U.S. military, too, hasn’t won a meaningful victory since 1945. Korea (1950-53) was a grinding and costly draw; Vietnam (1965-72) a quixotic quagmire; Lebanon (1982-84) an unnecessary and muddled mess; Somalia (1992-94) a mission-creeping fiasco; Bosnia/Kosovo (1992-) an over-hyped and unsatisfying diversion. Yet matters deteriorated considerably, and the Israeli-parallels grew considerably, after Congress chose endless war on September 14, 2001.
America’s longest ever war, in Afghanistan, started as a seeming slam dunk but has turned out to be an intractable operational defeat. That lost cause has been a dead war walking for over a decade. Operations Iraqi Freedom (2003-11) and Inherent Resolve (2014-) may prove, respectively, America’s most counterproductive and aimless missions ever. Operation Odyssey Dawn, the 2011 air campaign in pursuit of Libyan regime change, was a debacle – the entire region still grapples with its detritus of jihadi profusion, refugee dispersion. and ongoing proxy war.
U.S. support for the Saudi-led terror war on Yemen hasn’t made an iota of strategic sense, but has left America criminally complicit in immense civilian-suffering. Despite the hype, the relatively young U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) was never really “about Africans,” and its dozen years worth of far-flung campaigns have only further militarized a long-suffering continent and generated more terrorists. Like Israel’s post-1973 operations, America’s post-2001 combat missions have simply been needless, hopeless, and counterproductive.
Consider a few other regrettable U.S.-Israeli military connections over these last two decades:
- Both have set their loudly proclaimed principles aside and made devil’s bargains with the venal Saudis (many of whom really do hate our values), as well as with the cynical military coup-artists in Egypt.
- Both have increasingly engaged in “wars of choice” and grown reliant on the snake oil of “magical” air power to [not] win them. In fact, during the 2006 war there, the IDF’s first-ever air force officer to serve as chief of staff declared his intent to use such sky power to “turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years.” How’s that for the head of a force that still styles itself “the most moral army in the world.” It’s hard to see much moral difference between that and America’s ever-secretive drone program (perhaps 14,000 total strikes) and the U.S. government’s constant and purposeful underreporting of the thousands of civilians they’ve killed.
- Both vaunted militaries broke their supposedly unbreakable backs in ill-advised invasions built on false pretenses. The Israeli historian Martin van Creveld has famously called Israel’s 1982 Lebanon War – and the quagmire that resulted – his country’s “greatest folly.” The mainstream U.S. national security analyst Tom Ricks – hardly a dove himself – went a step further: the 2003 “American military adventure in Iraq” was nothing short of a Fiasco.
- Both armies have seen their conventional war competence and ethical standards measurably deteriorate amidst lengthy militarized-policing campaigns. As van Creveld said of the IDF during the 1982 Lebanon invasion (after it enabled the vicious massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian militiamen: it was reduced from the superb fighting force of a “small but brave people” into a “high-tech, but soft, bloated, strife-ridden, responsibility-shy and dishonest army.”
The wear and tear from the South Lebanon occupation and from decades of beating up on down-trodden and trapped Palestinians damaged Israel’s vaunted military. According to an after-action review, these operations“weakened the IDF’s operational capabilities.” Thus, when Israel’s nose was more than a bit bloodied in the 2006 war with Hezbollah, IDF analysts and retired officers were quick – and not exactly incorrect – to blame the decaying effect of endless low-intensity warfare.
At the time, two general staff members, Major Generals Yishai Bar and Yiftach Ron-Tal, “warned that as a result of the preoccupation with missions in the territories, the IDF had lost its maneuverability and capability to fight in mountainous terrain.” Van Creveld added that: “Among the commanders, the great majority can barely remember when they trained for and engaged in anything more dangerous than police-type operations.”
Similar voices have sounded the alarm about the post-9/11 American military. Perhaps the loudest has been my fellow West Point History faculty alum, retired Colonel Gian Gentile. This former tank battalion commander and Iraq War vet described “America’s deadly embrace of counterinsurgency” as a Wrong Turn. Specifically, he’s argued that “counterinsurgency has perverted [the way of] American war,” pushed the “defense establishment into fanciful thinking,” and thus “atrophying [its] core fighting competencies.”
Instructively, Gentile cited “The Israeli Defense Forces’ recent  experience in Lebanon…There were many reasons for its failure, but one of them,…is that its army had done almost nothing but [counterinsurgency] in the Palestinian territories, and its ability to fight against a strident enemy had atrophied.” Maybe more salient was Gentile’s other rejoinder that, historically, “nation-building operations conducted at gunpoint don’t turn out well” and tend to be as (or more) bloody and brutal as other wars.
- Finally, and related to Gentile’s last point, both militaries fell prey to the brutality and cruelty so common in prolonged counterinsurgency and counter-guerilla combat. Consider the resurrected utility of that infamous adage of absurdity mouthed by a U.S. Army major in Vietnam: “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” He supposedly meant the February 1968 decision to bomb and shell the city of Bến Tre in the Mekong Delta, regardless of the risk to civilians therein.
Fast forward a decade, and Bến Tre’s ghost was born again in the matter-of-fact admission of the IDF’s then chief of staff, General Mordecai Gur. Asked if, during its 1978 invasion of South Lebanon, Israel had bombed civilians “without discrimination,” he fired back: “Since when has the population of South Lebanon been so sacred? They know very well what the terrorists were doing. . . . I had four villages in South Lebanon bombarded without discrimination.” When pressed to confirm that he believed “the civilian population should be punished,” Gur’s retort was “And how!” Should it surprise us then, that 33 years later the concept was rebooted to flatten presumably (though this has been contested) booby-trapped villages in my old stomping grounds of Kandahar, Afghanistan?
In sum, Israel and America are senseless strategy-simpatico. It’s a demonstrably disastrous two-way relationship. Our main exports have been guns – $142.3 billion worth since 1949 (significantly more than any other recipient) – and twin umbrellas of air defense and bottomless diplomatic top-cover for Israel’s abuses. As to the top-cover export, it’s not for nothing that after the U.S. House rubber-stamped – by a vote of 410-8 – a 2006 resolution (written by the Israel Lobby) justifying IDF attacks on Lebanese civilians, the “maverick” Republican Patrick Buchanan labeled the legislative body as “our Knesset.”
Naturally, Tel Aviv responds in kind by shipping America a how-to-guide for societal militarization, a built-in foreign policy script to their benefit, and the unending ire of most people in the Greater Middle East. It’s a timeless and treasured trade – but it benefits neither party in the long run.
“Armies With Countries”
It was once said that Frederick the Great’s 18th century Prussia, was “not a country with an army, but an army with a country.” Israel has long been thus. It’s probably still truer of them than us. The Israelis do, after all, have an immersive system of military conscription – whereas Americans leave the fighting, killing, and dying to a microscopic and unrepresentative Praetorian Guard of professionals. Nevertheless, since 9/11 – or, more accurately, 9/14/2001 – U.S. politics, society, and culture have wildly militarized. To say the least, the outcomes have been unsatisfying: American troops haven’t “won” a significant war 75 years. Now, the U.S. has set appearances aside once and for all and “jumped the shark” towards the gimmick of full-throated imperialism.
There are, of course, real differences in scale and substance between America and Israel. The latter is the size of Massachusetts, with the population of New York City. Its “Defense Force” requires most of its of-age population to wage its offensive wars and perennial policing of illegally occupied Palestinians. Israeli society is more plainly “prussianized.” Yet in broader and bigger – if less blatant – ways, so is the post-AUMF United States. America-the-exceptional leads the world in legalized gun-running and overseas military basing. Rather than the globe’s self-styled “Arsenal of Democracy,” the U.S. has become little more than the arsenal of arsenals. So, given the sway of the behemoth military-industrial-complex and recent Israelification of its political culture, perhaps it’s more accurate to say America is a defense industry with a country – and not the other way around.
As for 17 year-old me, I didn’t think I’d signed up for the Israeli Defense Force on that sunny West Point morning of July 2, 2001. And, for the first two months and 12 days of my military career – maybe I hadn’t. I sure did serve in its farcical facsimile, though: fighting its wars for an ensuing 17 more years.
Yet everyone who entered the U.S. military after September 14, 2001 signed up for just that. Which is a true tragedy.
Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer, contributing editor at antiwar.com, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy (CIP), and director of the soon-to-launch Eisenhower Media Network (EMN). His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, The American Conservative, Mother Jones, ScheerPost and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War (Heyday Books) is available for pre-order. Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet and see his website for speaking/media requests and past publications.