Behind the Israel-Hamas war, a war over the lessons of history

Behind the Israel-Hamas war, a war over the lessons of history

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Just over a week after Oct. 7, while Israel was still reeling from the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust, President Joe Biden landed in Tel Aviv with a warning: Don’t repeat America’s mistakes. Biden was thinking of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the series of U.S. military interventions — some would say misadventures — that followed. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also worried that Israel faced the prospect of “strategic defeat” in its war against Hamas, adding, “You know, I learned a thing or two about urban warfare from my time fighting in Iraq and leading the campaign to defeat ISIS.” Israel has seemingly not heeded the advice of its strongest ally. Why?

Because Israeli officials have another analogy in mind. While America’s missteps in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past generation have haunted U.S. policymakers during the last two months of the Israel-Hamas war, Israeli leaders envision a different end state. They compare the war against Hamas to the war against Nazi Germany and argue that postwar Gaza should follow the path of postwar Germany.

In his brilliant book, “Analogies at War,” Yuen Foong Khong examines how policymakers use analogies to justify their actions and rationalize difficult decisions. While Israel is at war with Hamas, these analogies are also at war. Understanding them is essential to understanding how the war is being fought and how it might end.

The war of analogies has surfaced in the debate over Israeli tactics and strategy. Both the Americans and Israelis are using analogies to advance their own narrative and preferred positions. Chastened by U.S. experiences, American officials, including members of Congress who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, have encouraged the Israelis to use less aggressive tactics in conducting urban warfare in Gaza, one of the world’s most densely populated areas. As Israel planned the ground campaign in Gaza, the U.S. sent Marine General James Glynn to Israel as an advisor, citing his experience in Iraq. Ironically, American policymakers widely perceive the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as strategic failures, but they are recommending that the Israelis adopt similar tactics.

Meanwhile, the campaign against ISIS, which U.S. military commanders compared to the destructive urban combat of World War Two and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis described as a “war of annihilation,” has somehow become America’s example of how to successfully conduct counterterrorism and urban warfare even though it required displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians and turning cities like Raqqa and Mosul to rubble. Moreover, under mounting public and international pressure, Biden accused Israel of “indiscriminate bombing” in Gaza, which invokes images of the Second World War. American officials are comparing Israel’s tactics to the Second World War while warning that it faces a strategic defeat comparable to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Israelis have reached the opposite conclusion. In their own defense, they are citing American and Western military operations in urban environments from the Second World War to the present. They analogize the IDF’s tactics in Gaza to U.S. tactics in Iraq and Syria, insisting that the ratio of civilians to combatants killed is comparable. Israeli leaders have also reminded their American counterparts that the Allies indiscriminately bombed German and Japanese cities in their effort to win the Second World War. Notably, the Israelis reject the comparison in terms of tactics but still use it as evidence of their strategic end state, recently re-articulated by former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

The current analogy dominating the minds of American officials is itself the product of a war of analogies during the U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like the Israelis, George W. Bush referenced the Second World War to explain his decisions. However, Barack Obama, Bush’s successor, viewed the wars through the lens of Vietnam. America’s own experience with analogies at war can therefore provide a foundation for what General H.R. McMaster calls “strategic empathy” and should inform the dialogue occurring between American and Israeli officials.

The real challenge for both America and Israel is the power that analogies have over policymakers and the public. The Americans are using the Iraq and Afghanistan wars to try to pressure Israel to change its tactics and revisit its strategy. The Israelis are using the Second World War to justify the war and defend their decisions. Through their choice of analogies, they are also revealing their sense of optimism or pessimism about the outcome of the war. If American officials continue to view the war through the analogy of Iraq and Afghanistan, they are more likely to endorse a ceasefire or take other measures to try to change Israeli actions. If Israeli officials remain committed to the Second World War model, the war will likely go on much as it has. 

As the war in Gaza rages, so does the war over analogies. We must remember they are only analogies. The reality of those wars was far more complex, and their outcomes not predetermined. In fact, in the fullness of time, the Israel-Hamas war may one day become an analogy itself.

Jeff Rogg is an assistant professor at Joint Special Operations University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, U.S. Special Operations Command, or Joint Special Operations University.

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