8:40 p.m. November 18, 2012

The War Nerd: Lucian Truscott IV Is Four Times As Stupid As Israel, And Israel Is Pretty Fucking Stupid

It’s been a scary weekend in war news. Not scary the way peace-lovers think — “the madness of war” doesn’t scare me at all. Reading ATM receipts, that scares me, especially the "current balance" number. Applying for jobs scares me. Getting on a scale scares me. The madness of war is comedy relief compared to civilian life.

But stupidity does scare me, and this weekend a new kind of stupid seemed to barf onto the street like a broken sewer, flooding everything from Gaza to the OpEd pages of the New York Times, where some fool with the ridiculous name of Lucian Truscott IV—that’s “the fourth,” got it? Don’t go around calling him “Lucian Truscott the third” or he’ll raise his eyebrow at you—published a hit piece on Petraeus that for sheer, obvious, you-gotta-be-kidding stupid tops anything I’ve ever seen.

Somehow, though, Gaza is ground zero for this explosion of stupid. The Israelis have decided to go hard into Gaza again, for no reason that makes any sense—unless this is actually just a sideshow for them, a way of making a point somewhere else.

The strangest thing about the Israeli attack is that even right-wing Israeli media were reporting as late as November 11 that Egyptian Intelligence was working hard to arrange a truce between Israel and Hamas.

Between Nov. 11 and Nov. 13, there was something close to all quiet on the Gaza front. Then on Nov. 14 Israel killed the military commander of Hamas, Ahmad Al Jabari. You’ve probably seen the drone’s-eye video of the killing, with Jabari’s car moving down a crowded Gaza street and suddenly turning into a mini-sun for a second or two.

Why kill al Jabari when you’re about to negotiate a truce with his group? The simplest answer is: you don’t want a truce. And it may be that simple: Israel wants Gaza as a punching bag, a way to show off its military power. Israel has two mini-states on its borders: Hezbollah in the North and Hamas in Gaza. And it can’t work out so easily on Hezbollah because Hezbollah defeated the IDF easily when Israel tried to move on it in 2006.

Hezbollah recruits tough Shi’ite Lebanese peasants, a much tougher demographic than the Palestinians, who started out as docile farmers and intellectuals. The Israelis found that out in 2006. Hezbollah was able to stop the IDF cold with one brigade, the Nasr Brigade, roughly 3000 men. They fought smart, hunkering down in hardened bunkers to wait out Israel’s air power, then picking off Israeli ground forces when they advanced.

The IDF has one obvious weakness: it can’t take casualties. You see that in the design of Israel’s best weapons, like the Merkava II tank. It’s a great tank, combining APC and MBT features, but above all it’s up-armored to prevent casualties. Israel’s two biggest weapons now are the Iron Dome missiles and the Merkava II, and they both show a defensive mindset, a fear of taking casualties above all. It’s as if Israel’s propaganda over the years, where one Israeli casualty gets more publicity than 100 Arab KIA, has come back to bite them in the ass, made them gun-shy.

Of course, the Arabs are also very good at posting gory pictures of bombed kids – and to be honest, Israel provides them with a lot more bombed kids to take pictures of – but those pictures never reach the US or the Israeli markets, and those are the only ones Netanyahu has to worry about. I had no idea of how many gory photos of dead Palestinian kids there are on the web until I worked in Saudi Arabia.

There’s also been a serious erosion in the quality of Israel’s ground troops. Hezbollah reports said that most Israeli units fought very badly, flinching away from contact, with the exception of the Goliad Brigade.

This is a pattern you see in a lot of decaying military powers: the air force is still good, but the grunts just won’t engage any more. Think of the Argentine air force, which fought well, vs. the totally pathetic Argentine conscripts on the ground in the Falklands. Israel is facing something like that, and an attack on Hezbollah, which would mean making the infantry get out of their Merkavas, would probably just make the IDF look even weaker.

So working out on Hezbollah is not a possibility; it’s not going to be a morale booster, as they say.

That leaves Hamas, which doesn’t have anything close to the combat power of Hezbollah. The people jammed up in Gaza are Palestinians, way less warlike than the Lebanese Shia, and hemmed in like goats between Israel, the Mediterranean Sea, and Egypt — which in Mubarak’s time wanted nothing to do with them. So they make good victims, with no strategic depth, no safe havens, no allies. If you’re going to show off your air power, they’re perfect.

So killing Al Jabari may have been meant to set off a war where Israel could show off its strength against a safe opponent. Netanyahu, a sleazy guy in charge of some even sleazier coalition partners, would have no trouble ordering the strike for that reason alone, especially because there’s an election coming up in Israel and the peacenik vote consists of about a half dozen scruffy intellectuals in Tel Aviv. The rest of Israel is absolutely in favor of pretty much any war against anybody.

Of course, there are other reasons to order a high-risk assassination like this one. You might decide to do it if Al Jabari was an exceptional figure, an irreplaceable box on the organization chart, the kind of guy who, once you’ve crossed off his box at the top of the pyramid, will send the whole thing crumbling.

But there’s no sign he was anything like that. In fact, guys like that are rare in any organization and especially urban guerrilla forces like Hamas. Al Jabari was, by all accounts, a good, smart, disciplined guerrilla commander, but so were the men he replaced, who were also assassinated by Israel without even slowing down Hamas. Like most guerrilla bosses, Al Jabari’s commitment ran in the family—guerrilla war always runs in families and easily survives the death of any one family member. In fact, those deaths become what you might call motivators, better than any poster of a cat hanging from a rope by its claws—and a great way to ensure that talent gets promoted up the ranks fast.

That’s what happened to Al Jabari. In 2002, Israel killed the military head of Hamas, Saleh Shehadeh. A few years later, Al Jabari married Shehadeh’s daughter and eventually stepped—for a few years—into her dad’s job. There’s no indication that Al Jabari was better than the dead guys who came before him, or the new guy who will replace him (briefly). They know it’s a short life expectancy, running the military side—or for that matter the “spiritual” side—of Hamas, and they’re all pretty similar: tough, smart guys who grew up attending funerals for kinfolk blown up by the IDF and take death in their stride.

So Al Jabari wasn’t killed for any special genius or charisma. He was killed either to stop the truce, or to win Netanyahu a few points before the election, or maybe to woof at Iran. Iran is Israel’s obsession these days, and they’ve spent years trying to get the US to hit the Iranian nuclear facilities for them, in their own endearing little way. It didn’t work, for once, partly because their own intelligence bosses went public to say it was a stupid idea.

With his own intelligence professionals standing up to spit on the idea of attacking Iran, and Hezbollah way too tough a target, Netanyahu only has one chance left to start “a splendid little war,” the kind politicians like before elections: Gaza. It might seem too stupid to believe that Israel would attack Gaza because it won’t attack Iran, but if you’ll recall a country called the United States, you’ll remember that it got into a huge, even stupider war in Viet Nam basically to look tough on Cuba. This is war as a gesture, and people on the ground might have nothing to do with the real reasons—which is kinda bad luck for them.

If Netanyahu was just looking for a reason to attack somebody, Hamas/Gaza was perfect in another way: guaranteed provocation. Israel is like what Hunter Thompson said about the Hell’s Angels: they say they never start trouble, but they sure do manage to be provoked on a regular basis. And Hamas can always be counted on to lob a few Qassam II unguided rockets more or less in the direction of Israel’s southern towns, providing perfect provocation, from pure frustrated rage at the people who’ve been keeping them penned in the world’s biggest refugee camp for more than fifty years. This is something you’ll remember from kid-hood, if you’re being honest—the way you can drive your little sister or brother totally insane so they take an amateurish whack at you, and then beating the shit out of them because “s/he hit me.”

When you look at the volume of rockets launched at Israel from Gaza, it’s impressive: 8600 since the barrage started in 2001.

Then you look at the casualties: 28 dead, total, over the last decade, a one-third of one percent effectiveness rate. Not much to show for all that whooshing and kabooming. Well, here again, we’re looking at a kind of war that your typical hardware-obsessed war nerd just won’t get: war as a way of making a point, maybe to people who are nowhere near the place where the bombs are falling.

But gestures are tricky things. When the miserable Palestinians trapped in Gaza send a rocket blasting toward Israel, it’s a gesture that makes them feel a little better. But at the same time it gives Israel the right to say “Gaza hit me first,” and as far as the US press is concerned, that entitles the IDF to hit back with real weapons, guided, world-class munitions that actually kill people.

But Israel isn’t out to kill everybody in Gaza. With weapons as good as the ones they’re using, they can decide exactly how many people they want to kill. The last time they attacked Gaza, starting in late December 2008, they meant to kill a lot of people, and they did. The official death toll was 1400, most of them civilians. A lot of the dead-kid pictures circulating around the Arab world came from that attack, “Operation Cast Lead” as the IDF called it.

The IDF wanted to run up a big kill score back then because they’d been humiliated by Hezbollah and in that neighborhood, it really doesn’t pay to look weak. And they had no trouble at all doing it. Hamas is just not as serious a military force as Hezbollah, and with its geographical problems probably never will be.

What the IDF is doing in Gaza now is clearly meant to make the same gesture—looking tough for the home folks before the elections, showing Iran that Israel can still bite, and maybe even letting Netanyahu show a re-elected Obama that it’s Israel calling the shots, not some Peace Corps baby in the White House.

But they’ve clearly decided they’re going to adapt the killing to a new media/political situation. The first clue to that is the change in operation names. “Operation Cast Lead”—well, that kinda says it all, doesn’t it? “We’re gonna kill you guys.” But that operation didn’t go over well with the press, and for the first time, even the American media flinched at the gore shots coming out of bombed apartment buildings in Gaza City.

So the IDF has named this latest Gaza attack “Operation Pillar of Defense.” You’ll notice the emphasis on defense this time, and the “pillar” has some nice Biblical echoes for us American Bible-thumpers, if you remember your Exodus 13:21:

“By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night.”

(But to tell you the truth I had to look that one up; it’s been a long time since Youth Bible Study Group.) You Paul Newman fans will remember that Exodus has always been a lucky book for IDF propaganda.

IDF strategy this time is to look tough, kill some Hamas fighters, totally destroy Hamas’s infrastructure in Gaza, but do it without providing too many opportunities for those dead-child-pulled-from-rubble pictures. So, before they blasted the house of Hamas’s civilian leader, they launched dud rockets into the house to warn the family to leave. Again, this is not war that makes any sense if you still think in terms of Stalingrad, but it makes sense when you think in terms of full-spectrum media war. The IDF’s slogan in Gaza this time around ought to be like a diet drink ad: “All the rubble with X fewer casualties.”

We don’t know what number “X” is going to be yet, though. It’s not like the IDF wants an attack with no dead Gazans. That’d defeat the whole purpose. They’ve hit the Arab media HQ, and probably wouldn’t mind a few dead reporters, as long as they’re not from the English-language media; they’d like to kill a few more Hamas soldiers just while they’ve got the chance; and they might even want a few dead civilians, just to remind the Middle East in general that they still can if they want to. But it’s clear they don’t want to hit 1400 dead this time around—and thanks to the precision of all those US-designed and IDF-copied weapons they’re using, they can dial up something close to the exact number of casualties they want, and even the civilian/Hamas breakdown within that number.

This may not be pretty, but it’s pretty standard in war now. The all-out war just doesn’t feature in contemporary military reality, even though it still owns the little-kid imaginations of a whole lot of war buffs out there.

Case in point, “Lucian Truscott IV,” the author of the stupidest article on contemporary war I’ve ever read.

I don’t say that casually, and there are a lot of other contenders, such as everything ever written in the lead-up to the Iraq Invasion. But those cheerleading lies seem like Tacitus or Xenophon compared to Ivy’s article. I’ve decided to call him “Ivy,” because calling him “Lucian” would be mean, and to be honest I want to rub his snooty nose in that IV a few more times. It’s called attrition, Ivy.

Ivy gets right down to business, titling his article “A Phony General for A Phony War.” Meaning, y’see, Petraeus as phony general and Iraq as phony war. This will come as a surprise to all the G.I. widows produced in Iraq, not to mention the Iraqis who happened to be under the phony bombs and phony bullets of this phony war. I bet it seemed pretty real to them.

But no, Ivy is here to tell us that wasn’t a real war. Ivy has nothing but contempt for every war since WW II. It’s such a perfect example of the stupidity of the typical American war fan that it’s like a comedy skit. Y’see, all wars since the last great all-out war between western powers are not really wars at all, and the generals who ran them weren’t real generals, either.

And why, you ax? Because they dressed too well. Ivy starts his genius hit piece with this gem: “Fastidiousness is never a good sign in a general officer.” In other words, a general should dress for casual D-Day, not get all gussied up. He admits that there are exceptions to this rule, like Alexander the Great. What he doesn’t tell you is that every damn commander in history is an exception to it. Generals are notorious for being vainer than catwalk models, vainer than rockstars, vainer than Mariah Carey. And what about that hairmetal band the Spartans? Always combing their hair.

MacArthur, a well known dandy, might strike you as a decent commander, but Ivy soon sets you right about that:

“…MacArthur, who seemed at times to care more about how much gold braid decorated the brim of his cap than he did about how many bodies he left on beachheads across the Pacific.”

Yes, “at times” MacArthur was a dandy. I love that phrase, “at times.” At times, MacArthur was asleep! At times, MacArthur was on the toilet! While men were dying! Yeah, and at other times he presided over the Pacific Campaign and the Inchon landing.

Ivy’s real point is simple: the world’s gone straight to Hell since 1945. You just can’t get decent wars anymore. He says so straight out:

“The fact is that none of our generals have led us to a victory since men like Patton and my grandfather, Lucian King Truscott Jr., stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds.”

This is crap on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start. Two words for you, Ivy: Norman Schwartzkopf. Last I heard, Iraq 1991 was exactly the kind of traditional, conventional all-out war middlebrow hicks like you admire. God knows why Ivy doesn’t remember Schwartzkopf; maybe Stormin’ Norman didn’t strut the catwalk properly, being kind of a full-figured guy. (But then so was Subotai, and so was George Thomas, best of the bunch).

And since Ivy likes to talk about fashion, let’s remember how Patton felt about getting dressed. For starters, Patton was a joke in the Army because he designed a special uniform for American tank crews that featured a tunic and a space helmet. The Army didn’t just reject it, they laughed it off the table and started calling Patton “Flash Gordon.” Patton was also famous for fining men in combat zones $25 for improper dress, and went around with a pair of ivory-handled revolvers (when a reporter called them “pearl-handled”, Patton said “Only pimps wear pearl-handled revolvers”).

And there’s Ivy’s poster boy for the “good generals don’t dress up” line. Just plain ridiculous, total nonsense. Besides, Ivy’s real problem is that any war that isn’t total doesn’t count as a war at all. This idea is stupid, sure—but it’s common, more common than you might think. Everybody from West Point to the amateurs venting on military sites is in love with a few total wars, like the Eastern Front, or the Civil War. Which is odd, actually, because the North fought the Civil War with some of the tightest rules of engagement and lowest civilian kill rates of any war in human history. But that doesn’t even occur to Ivy, because like all these hicks he thinks it’s just natural to be nicer to one’s fellow Americans than a bunch a foreigners, who we should just carpet bomb and be done with it. And for him, like all these idiots, everything always comes back to the most overrated war in history, WW II:

“The generals who won World War II were the kind of men who, as it was said at the time, chewed nails for breakfast, spit tacks at lunch and picked their teeth with their pistol barrels. General Petraeus probably flosses. He didn’t chew nails and spit tacks, but rather challenged privates to push-up contests and went out on five-mile reveille runs with biographers. His greatest accomplishment was merely personal: he transformed himself from an intellectual nerd into a rock star military man.”

OK, this is just... dumb. Like, dumb beyond anything I’ve seen. It’s kinda awesome in its dumbness, especially because somebody at the New York Times was impressed enough by Lucian Truscott the Ivy’th to publish it. It’s wrong all over the place, even about our generals in WW II, who were a pretty mild-mannered bunch of guys with the exception of that gussied-up Patton.

Nobody ever saw Marshall or Eisenhower or Bradley spit up a tack. They’d’ve been embarrassed by that high-school crap. They were grownups, who worked late and worried. Their Soviet counterparts were the same type, overworked super-executives. Patton was like the hit man they sent out; the grownups kept nail-spitters like him on a tight leash.

It isn’t really clothes that Ivy’s upset about, though. It’s the way we play war these days. We don’t go for the kill, and that upsets boneheads like Ivy. The simplest way to show the problem with his Stalingrad approach is to ask him what he, or Patton, would do with Gaza. Nuke’em? Expel’em all? Not feasible, Ivy. Those happy days when Patton or Zhukov or Bomber Harris could just wipe out whole quadrants of the map are pretty much gone, I’m sorry to say. So what would Patton do in Gaza? Or, for that matter, in Iraq?

It’s something called Couterinsurgency warfare, and Ivy refuses to admit it exists. But Patton practiced it too, Ivy baby. Against Pancho Villa, in northern Mexico, under Pershing. Didn’t cover himself with glory, but did the slow, messy, un-glorious job Petreaus got stuck with in Iraq. Because we weren’t in Iraq to destroy the place and kill the people, although we did a pretty good job of both. Officially, we were “liberating” them, remember? So if you want the WW II example all the time, Iraq was supposed to be more like France than Germany or Japan. And that’s the problem: war in a place you’re supposed to be helping is too much for dumb jocks like Ivy. (I’m still trying to get my head around the idea of a dumb jock who calls himself “Lucian Truscott IV,” but maybe things were different where he went to school.)

It’s pure high school; for Ivy, Petraeus is an “intellectual nerd” who didn’t know his place and got promoted over the snake-eaters or nail-biters or sword-swallowers that Ivy likes. Ivy somehow forgets that we had a few of them in charge in Iraq before Petraeaus got the job nobody much wanted—Sanchez, anybody? Franks?—and they didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory.

But it’s foolish, wasting time on his article. What it really does prove is that the stupidity level is rising dangerously fast and high. And the thing is, stupidity isn’t easy to figure out. Attacking Gaza is stupid, as far as I can see, but the guys doing this stupid thing aren’t stupid, so maybe I’m not getting something. That’s how stupidity freaks you out: what are they really doing?

Same thing with Ivy’s article. You can’t tell me the NYT would be stupid enough to print that thing, when an intern proofreader who’s read a few war books could tear it apart. It can’t be that the American elite has gotten that dumb. It’s gotta be a parody or something. Even the author’s name is like a parody, and his whole point is a perfect satire on the dumbness of US war buffs.

But what if there’s no trick to it? What if Israel, and Truscott, and the NYT, really are that stupid? See, that’s what I mean by “scary.”