Only in retrospect is it easier to read the 1973 war. Israel had been caught by surprise because perfectly good intelligence was misinterpreted in a climate of arrogant over-confidence. The fronts, left almost unguarded, were largely overrun. The Egyptians had an excellent war plan and fought well, Syrian tanks advanced boldly and, even where a lone Israeli brigade held out, they kept attacking in wave after wave for three days and nights. Within 48 hours, Israel seemed on the verge of defeat on both fronts. But as soon as its army was fully mobilised, as soon as the reservist brigades that made up nine-tenths of its strength were ready to deploy for battle, it turned out that they could stop both the Egyptian and Syrian armies in their tracks, and start their own advance almost immediately.
The war ended with Israeli forces 70 miles from Cairo, and less than 20 miles from Damascus. As for the Israeli air force, its strength over the battlefields was certainly blunted by concentrated anti-aircraft missiles and guns, but its air-combat supremacy prevented almost all attacks by the large Egyptian and Syrian air forces, while allowing it to bomb heavily almost at will. That was the real military balance of the 1973 war, which was obscured at the time by an over-reaction to Israel being taken by surprise and the usual fog of war.
The situation today, with the Lebanon war just ended, is the same. Future historians will no doubt see things much more clearly, but some gross misperceptions are perfectly obvious even now. That even the heaviest and best protected of tanks are sometimes penetrated by the latest anti-tank missiles should really not surprise anyone - they cannot be invulnerable, but still did well enough in limiting Israeli casualties. Likewise, the lack of defences against short-range rockets with small warheads is unsurprising. Such weapons are just not powerful enough to justify the expenditure of many billions of dollars for laser weapon systems the size of football fields.
Many commentators repeated and endorsed Nasrallah's claim that his Hezbollah fighters fought much more bravely than the regular soldiers of Arab states in previous wars with Israel. In 1973 after crossing the Suez Canal, Egyptian infantrymen by the thousand stood their ground unflinchingly against advancing 50-ton Israeli tanks, attacking them successfully with their puny hand-held weapons. They were in the open, flat desert, with none of the cover and protection that the Hezbollah had in their stone-built villages in Lebanon's rugged terrain. Later, within the few square miles of the so-called "Chinese farm" near the Suez Canal, the Israelis lost more soldiers against the Egyptians in a single day and night than the 116 - including the victims of accidents and friendly fire killed in a month of war in Lebanon. Hezbollah certainly did not run away and did hold their ground, but their mediocrity is revealed by the casualties they inflicted, which were very few. When an Israeli reconnaissance company attacked the mountain town of Bint Jbail losing eight men in one night, that number was perceived in Israel and broadcast around the world as a disastrous loss. Any Allied veteran of the second world war's 1943-1945 Italian campaign must have been amazed by this reaction. There too it was one stone-built village and hilltop town after another and, though the Germans were outnumbered, outgunned and poorly supplied, a company that went against them would consider the loss of only eight men fortunate; attacking forces could suffer massive casualties. Israeli casualty figures in this month's war in the Lebanon demonstrate that Hezbollah did not fight as fiercely as the Egyptians in 1973 or the Jordanians in 1967.
What is perfectly true is that the Israelis lacked a coherent war plan, so that even their most purposeful bombing came off as brutally destructive, while the ground actions were hesitant and inconclusive. There was, of course, a fully developed plan in the contingency folders - a sophisticated blend of swift amphibious, airborne and ground penetrations to reach deep behind the front, before rolling back, so as to destroy Hezbollah positions one by one from the rear, all the way to the Israeli border.
That plan was not implemented because of the lack of casualties among Israeli civilians. It had been a fair assumption that thousands of Hezbollah rockets fired in concentrated barrages would kill many civilians, perhaps hundreds of them each day. Barrages compensate for the inaccuracy of unguided rockets, and produce powerful compound blast effects. That would have made a large-scale offensive by more than 45,000 soldiers a compelling necessity, politically justifying the hundreds of casualties that it would cost.
Hezbollah, however, distributed its rockets to village militias, which were very good at hiding them from air attacks, and sheltering them from artillery and probing Israeli unmanned air vehicles, but quite incapable of launching them effectively, in waves against common targets.
Instead of hundreds of dead civilians, the Israelis were therefore losing one or two a day; and even after three weeks, the grand total was less than that caused by some one-man suicide bombings. That made it politically unacceptable to launch the planned offensive: which would have incurred many more casualties and would not have eradicated Hezbollah anyway since it is a political movement in arms, and not just an army or a bunch of gunmen.
For that very reason, the outcome of the war is likely to be viewed in the long term as more satisfactory than many now seem to believe it. Nasrallah is not another Arafat, who was fighting for eternal Palestine rather than the present generation of Palestinians (whose prosperity and safety he was always willing to sacrifice for the cause). Nasrallah has a political constituency, and it happens to be centered in southern Lebanon. Implicitly accepting responsibility for having started the war, Nasrallah has directed his Hezbollah to focus on rapid reconstruction in villages and towns, right up to the Israeli border. He cannot start another round of fighting because that would destroy everything again. Yet another unexpected result of the war is that Nasrallah's power-base in southern Lebanon is now a hostage to Hezbollah's good behaviour.
FIRST POSTED AUGUST 18, 2006