Man, in our age and especially in the West, considers it wholly inappropriate, an aberrant form of conflict, when war visits its depredations on the gentler aspects of society, i.e. women, children, and so-called ‘civilian infrastructure.’ As we look across history, however, and take stock of war as a societal phenomenon, we cannot help but observe how integral that type of activity remains, especially to war when there exists a large disparity between the relative powers of the principal antagonists. I can demonstrate this point by examining two historical vignettes.
During the ‘Archidamian’ phase of the Peloponnesian War, Sparta would habitually invade Attica each year and ravage the countryside. The Athenians, under Pericles’ capable leadership, recognized the Lacedaemonians’ overwhelming superiority on land, and therefore retreated behind Athens’ long walls during those predatory campaigns. Sparta, hoping to draw out the Athenians, despoiled crops and burned homes, but their strategy failed largely because Athens was able to find succor from their overseas empire. Had the Athenians been unable to feed themselves from imported grain, the Spartan strategy might have worked for the Athenians would have been forced to defend their land and face the Spartan war machine. This refusal to fight openly gave the Spartans over to attacking civilian infrastructure in exchange for pitched battle.
We see similar strategies employed during the Middle Ages. That period of history saw actual battle become increasingly rare, as petty lords were often unwilling to risk open combat with their scant forces. The ubiquitous fortification of Europe and the lack of adequate siege-craft also affected the conduct of warfare at this time. In Medieval Europe raising large armies was difficult, but constructing castles, by comparison, was not. Even a minor noble could solidify his power base by erecting a stronghold, and in doing so, attain sufficient power to even defy the king. Though the king might muster far superior forces in the field, the deplorable condition of medieval siege warfare made reducing fortresses at worst an impossiblity, and at best, a long and costly affair. If faced with a recalcitrant noble, the king might call out his army and march on the rebellious territory, but find his designs thwarted by the brick and mortar of the enemy’s keep. In light of this, medieval armies developed a strategy known as the chevauchÃ©e_. This knightly promenade was really a extended raid that sought to draw out enemy forces by subjecting their lands to privation and the sword. The sequestered noble, who did not wish to give battle to superior forces, would perhaps now be compelled to come out and fight, lest he watch his patronage go up in flames. The basic method was, as Clifford Rogers tells us, ‘to devastate the lands unprotected by city walls, so that defenders would have to attack to stop the destruction.’ (_The Age of the Hundred Years War in Medieval Wafrare_, p. 147). It was, in fact, this very technique that allowed the Black PrincePrince to force combat in the campaign that ended in the Battle of Poitiers during the 100 Years War.
If we employ our historical telescope we see that things are not so different today. In Israel’s dealings with Hezbollah, we see one power which far outstrips the other in terms of raw military force. Hezbollah sensibly refuses to fight Israel on its own terms. A rifle-wielding infantryman stands little chance against an organized, disciplined combined arms formation which boasts of modern aircraft, artillery and communications. Instead, Hezbollah shoots and runs, hiding behinds its version of the impenetrable wall of the medieval castle – the general populace. Israel’s massive material superiority is rendered somewhat void, because they cannot wantonly ravage vast tracks of residential neighborhoods without forfeiting international favor.
Faced with this dilemma, Israel chooses a middle road of sorts. They cannot issue a challenge and have Hezbollah come out and fight. They also can’t denude southern Lebanon of life. So they target various aspects of civilian infrastructure, e.g. power plants, airports, etc, because through this they hope to force Hezbollah to come out of their hiding and give battle. At the very least perhaps they hope that they can create such a climate of instability that the population at large will question Hezbollah’s ability to manage things. It also forces Hezbollah into the precarious situation of backing up its rhetoric. The Hezbollah leadership is quick to declare ‘open war,’ but must also realize that coming out and fighting openly is the last thing they want. When Israel rides roughshod over Lebanese towns, the average citizen is forced to ask ‘why isn’t Hezbollah fighting them; they said they would?’ In the end, this policy of targeting civilian infrastructure presents Hezbollah with a quandary: they can fight Israel openly and lose, or not fight and lose credibility with their population. People may disagree with Israel’s methods, but, from a purely military/historcial perspective, these techniques are well-established and beholden to a certain impeccable strategic logic. It is somewhat odd, but both sides in this conflict seem at least intuitively aware, though in different senses, of the observation that the military theorist Vegetius made all those centuries ago: It is much better to overcome an enemy by famine, surprise or terror than by general actions, for in the latter fortune has often a greater share than valor. (De Re Militari, Book III General Maxims)
I think I might also take this opportunity to point out that Israel may have a salutary chance in its current dealings with Hezbollah. Hezbollah is a distinctly Shi’a organization owing much to its patron Iran. In this sense Hezbollah and Iran share a similar future in that a gain for one can be construed as a gain for both. This would be of little significance, except that, of late, the major Sunni powers have grown very wary of the rising tide of Iranian fortune. They fear that developments in Iraq and the burgeoning nuclear program will make a Shi’a Iran the dominant power in the region. Whereas in previous years we might expect Sunni Arabs to sympathize with a Hezbollah struggle with Israel, now Israel has her foes divided. Sunni nations are unlikely to intervene directly to help Hezbollah because they fear the growing power of Iran. In essence, Israel may be able to quash Hezbollah and secure the general acquiescence of the Sunni world which compasses it on every side. I suspect Israel realizes this and will use this opportunity to uproot much of the Hezbollah network, thus buying themselves perhaps a several year respite while Hezbollah reorganizes. Due to this, I expect Israel to pursue their campaign with considerable ardor. Were they willing, they could perhaps break Hezbollah once and for all.
As an addendum, I will mention that I chose rather antiquated historical examples for my comparison because war as it is conducted now, in my estimation, bears closer resemblance to the wars of bygone years than the struggles of recent memory.
Welcome! OmniNerd's content is generated by nerds like you. Learn more.