The stresses and fears of battle fatigue and the body’s natural chemical reactions can lead to excluding or intensifying sounds, tunnel vision, temporary paralysis, events appearing to move faster or more slowly than they actually are, loss, reduction or distortion of memory and distracting thoughts. These affect different people in different ways and can add to the confusion and chaos of battle.
Amid the disorientation, the smoke, the fire, the explosions, the ear-piercing rattle of bullets, the screams of the wounded, the incomplete intelligence picture and the failure of technology commanders and soldiers must strive to achieve their mission, no matter how hard it gets.
* * * These realities apply to any combat situation and the challenges they add are self-evident. But they become that much harder when fighting a tough, skillful enemy one minute shooting at you or setting a landmine to blow up your vehicle and the next minute leaning on the threshold of his compound, smiling at you, dressed indistinguishably from the population.
I have personally witnessed the efforts American forces have been making for years in Iraq and Afghanistan to minimize civilian deaths. These have been impressive but of course have not always worked.
What of the Israel Defense Forces? Not only was Hamas’s military capability deliberately positioned behind the human shield of the civilian population and not only did Hamas employ the range of insurgent tactics mentioned earlier; they also ordered – forced, when necessary – men, women and children from their own population to stay put in places they knew were about to be attacked by the IDF.
So what did the IDF do in Gaza to meet its obligation to operate within the laws of war?
When possible the IDF gave at least four hours’ notice to civilians to leave areas targeted for attack. Attack helicopter pilots, tasked with destroying Hamas mobile weapons platforms, had total discretion to abort a strike if there was too great a risk of civilian casualties in the area. Many missions that could have taken out Hamas’s military capability were cancelled because of this.
During the conflict, the IDF allowed huge amounts of humanitarian aid into Gaza. This sort of task is regarded by military tacticians as risky and dangerous at the best of times. To mount such operations, to deliver aid virtually into your enemy’s hands, is to the military tactician normally quite unthinkable.
But the IDF took on those risks.
In the latter stages of Cast Lead, the IDF unilaterally announced a daily three-hour cease-fire. The IDF dropped over 900,000 leaflets warning the population of impending attacks to allow them to leave designated areas. A complete air squadron was dedicated to this task alone.
Leaflets also urged civilians to phone in information to pinpoint Hamas fighters – vital intelligence that could save innocent lives.
The IDF phoned thousands of Palestinian households in Gaza, urging them in Arabic to leave homes where Hamas might have stashed weapons or be preparing to fight. Similar messages were passed in Arabic on Israeli radio broadcasts warning the civilian population of forthcoming operations.
Despite Israel’s extraordinary measures, innocent civilians were, of course, killed and wounded. That was due to the frictions of war and even more as an inevitable consequence of Hamas’s way of fighting.
But by taking these actions and many other significant measures during Operation Cast Lead, the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.
Yet the IDF still did not win the war of opinion, especially in Europe.
* * * The lessons from that campaign apply to the British and American armies and to other Western forces as well as to the IDF. We are in the era of information warfare. The kind of tactics used by Hamas and Hizbullah and by the Taliban and Jaish al Mahdi work well for them. As they see it, they have no other choice. And they will continue to use it.
How do we counter it? We must not adopt the approach that because they flout the laws of war, we will do so too. Quite the reverse. We must be and remain whiter than white.