A reader writes:
Here's a suggestion for an iSteve piece: New new thing - perception - factoid - and perhaps reality: Israel is militarily weak.
Why? because the much-celebrated Israeli Defense Force, after days of repeated efforts to do so, can't defeat Party of Allah guerrillas fighting within
actual sight of the border of Israel.
There is no good strategic military or diplomatic reason for the Israelis' rather diffident efforts to capture Assembly of Allah [Hezbollah] villages within 155 mm artillery range of Israel. Diplomatically, the Israelis gain almost zero good will by holding off their ground attacks but bombing the bejeebers out of Lebanon.
At the strategic and operational military level, the Israelis would have been smarter to launch a fast moving blitzkrieg ground invasion of southern Lebanon, to first cut off the Assembly of Allah fighters near the border from escape or reinforcement and disrupt rocket launching from deeper within Lebanon. Later, as a second step, the IDF should have taken on the A. of A. defensive strongpoint nearer the border.
And getting the dirty work done as soon as possible in southern Lebanon would have been a smart move both diplomatically and militarily.
At the tactical military level, the Israelis made the mistake of not assigning a sufficient quantity of infantry to retake the Arab village where the IF suffered thirty or so killed or wounded. US Army doctrine specifies a least a 3:1 ratio of attackers to defenders if determined defense is expected. The IDF sent in their soi-disant Golani brigade of roughly 2,000 men against approximately the same number of A. of A. fighters. This was a tactical mistake plain and simple. ( On paper, a US Army brigade would have about 4,800 soldiers, btw. )
... What's a deeper reason for the Israeli Defense Forces problems? One school of thought is that the IDF has always been overrated because the IDF has always fought patsies in the past. Arabs are incompetent when they try to fight in the highly mechanized Western mode.
Another possible reason for Israel's timorousness is that Israel doesn't have many men of prime military age. They Israelis have been trying to keep their demographic problem hushed up, but it may be that Israel has been experiencing net out-migration during the past six or eight years ... lots of dudes moving back to Brooklyn or to Pasadena. Yes, Israel had a few good recruiting years during the 1990's when a lot of Russians wanted to get out of the disintegrating USSR, but that's in the past. The Jewish Israeli population is now aging and shrinking in absolute size. This would explain why Israel seems to be extremely averse to suffering too many IDF casualties.
I'm not sure if it's really that dire. I see an estimate of a total fertility rate of 2.7 babies per Jewish Israeli woman, which is high for a first world population. But I wonder what proportion of the population is now made up of ultra-orthodox who won't fight? A paper by Dov Friedlander divvies up Israel's fertility in the late 1990s like this:
The Jewish non-religious group of both ethnicities (67 per cent-70 per cent) with TFR of 2.0-2.2
The Jewish ultra-orthodox, and the National Orthodox (12 per cent-15 per cent) with TFR 6.0-7.0
The Arab Christian population (2 per cent) with TFR of 2.6
Arab Moslems and Druze (16 per cent) with TFR of 4.0
Israel’s overall TFR 2.9
(Of course, what counts for cannon fodder at present are birth rates in the 1980s, not in the late 1990s.)
On the other hand, the Palestinian total fertility rates are sky high -- both sides are are fighting a Battle of the Cradle. But the Palestinians don't have much in the way of weapons, so they have been forced to rely on tactics like suicide bombing.
I don't know what the fertility rate of the Lebanese Shia is, but for Lebanon as a whole, it's only 1.9. Strikingly, the Iranian total fertility rate is only 1.8, lower than America's. The Iranian birthrate fell sharply in the early 1990s, when the ruling clerics endorsed population limitation. However, due to "population momentum," the population of Iran will continue growing for several more decades.
The other thing to keep in mind is are the small sizes of the countries: the total population of Israel and Lebanon combined is just over half that of Southern California: Lebanon 3.9 million and Israel 6.4 million. Lebanon's #1 secret is what % are Shi'ites (the Christians haven't allowed a census since 1932, when they were a majority), but there are no more than 2 million and probably fewer. So, this isn't exactly Japan vs. China or Germany vs. Russia.
Israel's demographic shrinkage might explain its reluctance to launch larger ground war in Lebanon. However, demographic problems do not explain or excuse the IDF's tactical mistake of suffering more casualties during the past week by attacking with an insufficient quantity of infantrymen ... unless the IDF fears that only a small percentage of its ground forces, its elite units, are up to the task of fighting Allah's Faction within plain sight of the border of Israel. This does not bode well for the future of Israel.
Now, the War Nerd makes the same argument. Gary Brecher writes:
July in Fresno, and yet I'm happy. In a mean way, the only way I know. For once I don't care how hot and miserable it is, because I've got something waiting for me at home: AC and CNN. God, I love watching CNN right now. Watching that needlenose whiner Anderson Cooper, trying not to state the obvious: Hezbollah is not only winning every round of this fight, but it was bound to win from the start. Get Jane Fonda out in the streets again, spray some pain relief on her saggy old throat, stuff a bullhorn in her liver-spotted hand and have her sing out: "Who needs Ho Chi Minh/Hezbollah is gonna win!"
The rest of you idiots actually seem to take Cooper seriously when he talks about how the IDF is going to "expel Hezbollah from Southern Lebanon." Christ, Hezbollah IS Southern Lebanon. You might as well try to expel ants.
I said in a column 16 months ago that Lebanon was due for a slow but unstoppable warming trend, finishing up with a hot war.
Like I said in that column, we're not dealing with a few bad apples or bad luck. We're dealing with demographics, and demographics has no more mercy than a glacier. For a hundred years Lebanon has been shifting from a Maronite-Christian country with a bunch of non-Christian minorities (the Druze -- my personal favorites, the Sunni, the Shia) to a Muslim country with a Christian minority that's trying to emigrate as fast as it can fake up its resume for Uncle Sam's Migras. That part of the war is over, and Islam won. All that's left to see now is which Islam ends up in power: the Shia, with Syria and Iran backing them, or the Sunni, who have the backing of...well, nobody, actually.
Add in a couple of real important facts nobody ever mentions on CNN -- birthrate and morale. The Shia, who cluster in the slums of S and E Beirut and in the rural south of Lebanon, have the highest birthrate in Lebanon and have always been the poorest, most death-hungry people around. That's the stuff you make great soldiers from.
And Hezbollah has great soldiers. That's one reason I can't help liking them. They're some of the most underrated soldiers on earth facing what I consider the most overrated military force on earth, the IDF. The Israelis have been coasting on their reputation for a long time, but way back in Gulf War I it was clear they made their record like a Don King fighter, padding their Win column against a bunch of bums. When I saw those pitiful Arab "soldiers" crawling toward US camera crews on their hands and knees to surrender, the first thing that went through my head was, "Whoa, so that's the kind of opponent the Israelis have been showboating against?...
But we're talking demographics again, dude. Passage of time, plus difference in birthrate, means that by now the IDF has a thin, real thin, crust of Ashkenazi brains'n'brawn on top and a bunch of flabby mama's boys under them....
Casualties. That's the key here. Every war, every army has a different population base, different demographics, and a different take on casualties. Israel's biggest weakness has always been that it hates to take casualties. You can see that in their famous prisoner exchanges, giving away hundreds of Islamic prisoners to get back one IDF guy, or in one case just the bodies of a couple of dead IDF guys. You can see it in the design of the Merkava -- a brilliant design, one that gives infantry the full protection of MBT armor, but also an indication that this army is terrified its guys might get hurt.
Compare that to the Hezbollah attitude to death, which is basically extreme eagerness. Death? Hell yes, can I have seconds? The sooner the better! I've talked about the Shia and their whole Gimme Martyrdom deal before.
Like I said in that column, killing Shi'ites a few at a time is pointless. ...
The way Israel is conducting the war right now is the worst of both worlds: it's too bloody and not bloody enough at the same time. Give me a second to explain what I mean by that. At the moment that skinny nasal-voiced jerk Anderson Cooper is saying Israel's killed about 320 Lebanese, vs. 36 Israelis dead. Now actually that's a perfectly standard count for asymmetrical warfare; the technologically superior force usually kills about ten of the guerrillas for every one of its own losses. But in PR terms, this war has been a disaster for Israel, a can't win scenario. Just try this experiment: watch CNN with the sound off for a few minutes. Without that non-stop pro-Israel commentary, you'll see what the whole world outside the US sees: non-stop video feed of terrified Lebanese civvies fleeing in terror, crying on camera, hugging their bloodied-up kids. Then there's a shot of the IDF zooming around in their Merkavas and US-supplied SP 155mms, blasting dry hills or doing dirt donuts on some local's wrecked house.
An Israeli reader responds:
Are demographics dragging the IDF down?
Simply said, no.
How do I know this?
Because demographics are not something that is being hushed up in Israel. It's talked about all the time and the needs of the army are talked about all the time. The fact is that the army has enough recruits and volunteers for combat units to meet its needs and to cause the following changes in the past few years: service in the reserves has been reduced by approximately five years recently and more of the burden is placed on the standing army. There are economic considerations as well. The chances of getting called up (other than at times of war) has also been reduced. The duration of military service may also be reduced from three years to two and a half years. Women are now being used (voluntarily) in combat roles. I'm not sure what impact that has had.
Look at your numbers by Friedlander. They don't tell the whole story. "The Jewish ultra-orthodox, and the National Orthodox (12 per cent-15 per cent) with TFR 6.0-7.0" These two camps were lumped together. But the National Orthodox do serve in the army, are highly motivated and their women have lots of babies. Also the Druze serve in the army.
Israel's Achilles heel is its low tolerance for casualties. Israelis just don't like it when its 18-21 year old men die. We're funny that way.
As General Patton said: "No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country."
Israel's combat units are manned by the best and the brightest. Getting into a good unit is for Israelis like getting into a good college is for Americans. That means their parents make up Israel's political, media and business elites (They themselves were also most likely in combat units). Israel's most influential sectors have kids in combat units, and they use their influence to affect policies in a way that protects their children (in their view).
That's why Israeli elites prefers Kassam rockets landing randomly on Sderot (a town with no elites, except Israel's minister of Defence is from there but that's an anomaly) than having their sons in the Gaza strip fighting Hamas, which is the real reason for the disengagement.
Israel is not losing this round of fighting. Hezbollah will come out of this weaker than it started. Syria will also be weakened by this. Patience.
BTW: Israel has called up a lot of reserves for this war and compliance has been 110%. That's because many people who weren't called up showed up at their units to volunteer or because they figured they were accidentally forgotten.