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During the Vietnam War, American officials argued that any civilian casualties resulting from US military action was the fault of the National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong”) because it operated amidst the population. The US used this line to rationalize “free-fire zones,” carpet-bombing, artillery barrages, and the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people.

One Israel Defense Force argument I keep hearing on TV lately is cut from the same cloth. It goes something like this: “We have to kill all those children and toddlers and babies and elderly women because our ‘targets’ (Hamas ‘militants’) circulate freely among the civilian population.”

This idea ignores not only the nature of guerrilla warfare and the fact that such wars cannot be “resolved” through military violence, but also masks the inherent asymmetry of the opposing forces.

It rests on the absurd premise that people fighting for their lives from their own front porches against an immeasurably more powerful military force should strip off their clothes, paint targets on their backs, and lay in a field somewhere out in the open where they can be more easily mowed down. If the Americans who fought against the British at the time of the battles of Lexington and Concord obeyed this dictum there probably wouldn’t be a nation called the United States of America.

Blowing away large numbers of civilians in pursuit of military “targets,” as the US learned in Vietnam, always generates a lot of refugees (as we are seeing currently in Gaza). These fleeing civilians who are then crammed into makeshift refugee camps disrupt the social fabric and drive up the popular support for those who are fighting back against the enemy that just ruined their lives.

Since what’s happening in Gaza is a political conflict that cannot be solved through military violence, by unleashing its firepower and enlarging the number of refugees the IDF can expect to strengthen Hamas’s political standing inside the Gaza Strip as well as the West Bank (as the demonstrations show).

The IDF actions have also created a really tough “optics” problem for the Netanyahu government. In the current context of social media the Israeli hasbara propaganda methods have grown old and worm-eaten no matter how aggressively they’re pursued on Twitter and Facebook.

Huge protests against the IDF attack on Gaza in European cities and in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco attest to this fact. The “atmospherics” are cutting against the IDF probably more during this “grass mowing” than in the past. All those who championed social media for giving us the “Arab Spring” and Occupy Wall Street should take a hard look at the role social media is playing today in countering the Israeli narrative about the conflict this time around.

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joseph palermo

Another idea I’ve heard on TV from the IDF is that its relentless assault in Gaza is driving a wedge between the people and Hamas because ordinary Palestinians don’t blame Israel for destroying their lives, but Hamas for provoking the IDF. This is a strange assertion given that past guerrilla wars such as the US in Vietnam show exactly the opposite. (Hezbollah arose in Lebanon after the IDF invasion and occupation of the early 1980s.)

In Vietnam, the US’s main advantage over its enemies, like the IDF vis-à-vis Hamas, (besides controlling the air, land, and sea) was its superior firepower. Regarding Vietnam, some people still claim that the Tet Offensive of early 1968 was a US “military victory” because thousands of the guerrilla fighters who rose up ended up exposing themselves and were subsequently killed or taken prisoner. North Vietnamese documents later surfaced indicating that the leadership in Hanoi was concerned about the losses it took after Tet.

But given the war, even by US officials’ own admission, was 80 percent political in nature, the US reclaiming the cities after they had fallen to the NLF during the Tet Offensive, most notably the city of Hue, was so destructive and heavy handed that it created another 200,000 to 300,000 newly displaced people. The new wave of homeless civilians in Vietnam who filled refugee camps became highly critical of the Saigon government for allowing its ally, the US, to destroy their lives. The more innocent Vietnamese the US killed or turned into refugees, the less popular the US-backed government in Saigon became.

Those who believe that Palestinians’ allegiances can be pushed away from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and toward Fatah and “moderation” through brutal military force might want to rethink their assumptions.

Those who believe that Palestinians’ allegiances can be pushed away from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and toward Fatah and “moderation” through brutal military force might want to rethink their assumptions.

In Vietnam, the United States leaned heavily on its advantage of superior firepower in an effort to minimize American casualties. But in the process actually weakened and made more difficult the attainment of its stated political goal of the war: establishing a stable and popular US-backed government in Saigon.

The IDF faces a similar dilemma in Gaza.

By lavishly deploying its overwhelming military superiority in Gaza Israel’s apparent goal of successfully reaching a political settlement only becomes dimmer. Carl von Clausewitz famously called war the continuation of “politics by other means.” He cautioned against waging war without a clear and attainable political objective. If the IDF has no long-term political purpose in mind for its current assault on Gaza, such as a cease-fire agreement that compels Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel, then even with all of its awe-inspiring military prowess and the US backing, we’re witnessing just senseless violence.

Absent a Clausewitzian political objective underlying the IDF’s military assault the current war is nothing more than a tribal bloodbath; it’s Hutus versus Tutsis except one side possesses all of the advantages of 21st Century military technology. The US learned in Vietnam that a nation could be far more technologically advanced and militarily superior compared to its enemies but still lose the war.

joseph palermo

Joseph Palermo