The Jewish state has been engaged in sporadic warfare with its Arab neighbors, in various combinations, since 1947, while the U.S. has been fighting its war on terror since 2001 (and al-Qaeda began fighting the U.S. several years prior). Comparing these seemingly interminable wars with such historic conflicts as the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage (264-146 BCE) and the Hundred Years War between France and England (1337-1453), Victor Davis Hanson notes that such conflicts tend to come to an end only when one side is able to inflict a definitive defeat on the other. He applies this precedent to the present:
Tiny Israel has had the power to vanquish its enemies in an existential war, but chose not to use its full military potential—given both internal and external pressures. Israel apparently concluded that the permanent occupations of the Sinai, Gaza, and borderlands of Lebanon, which would have provided permanent demilitarized ground corridors, would be too costly either in terms of policing and stabilizing hostile populations or too politically expensive in alienating key Western allies.
Nor did Israel think it could force a consensual government on the West Bank or change hearts and minds, as happened with the Israeli Arabs, who do not regularly organize and fight Tel Aviv. Nor, in an age of missiles and rockets, did Israel yet have the technological ability to create absolutely safe skies or the global support to retaliate by air [so as to inflict devastation on its enemies]. The result was that Israel is forced into a chronic cycle of defeating regional enemies without the ability to end the perpetual willingness of the defeated to suffer tactical defeat, then rearm and reequip during periods between wars, and then renew the conflict on supposedly better terms.
The American slog in Afghanistan is somewhat similar. Americans feel that the level of force and violence necessary to obliterate the Taliban and impose a lasting settlement is either too costly, or not worth any envisioned victory, or impossible in such absurd tribal landscapes, or would be deemed immoral and contrary to Western values. Therefore, as in most serial wars, the U.S. chooses to fight to prevent defeat rather than to achieve lasting victory. . ..
The bizarre modern Western doctrine of “proportionality” (akin to the tit-for-tat blood feuds of the Icelandic sagas) tends to ensure stalemate. Leisured Western publics are uncomfortable with using their militaries’ full strength, given the collective guilt and bad publicity that accrue when their forces inflict far more losses than they have incurred. Yet, paradoxically, disproportionality was always central to resolving chronic wars: having much more power makes the weaker aggressor suffer so much that it never again tries to undertake another attack. . . .
The result is the present age of serial Punic conflict, perhaps intolerable to the psyche but . . . tolerable so long as casualties are kept to a minimum and defeat is redefined as acceptable strategic wisdom. In the past, such periods of enervating war have gone on for a century and more. Ultimately, they, too, end—and with consequences.
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