Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Reflections on Sharon: The Battle of the Chinese Farm, and Other Mad Adventures

Ariel Sharon’s identity as a politician has always been tied to his reputation as a soldier. Definitely by Israel’s enemies, for whom any Israeli soldier is a monster and a war criminal and will therefore be a monster as a statesman, too. Some liberals – including some in Israel – barely stop short of that assessment themselves, at least in Sharon’s case. Their idea of a “good” Israeli soldier is one who promotes a Palestinian homeland, like Rabin did. (At least that used to be the ideal; in order to pass muster today you’d probably have to be in favor of abolishing Israel, too.) So Sharon represents the dark heart of Israel: the soldier who does not apologize for fighting; arrogant and contemptuous of law; and who is at bottom a butcher with no regard for human life, especially the life of an Arab. For them he personifies the caricature of Israel that her enemies have devised, and this is greatly troubling to them because in their own hearts they more than half believe in that caricature themselves.

Sharon’s problematic reputation goes back to the 1948 war, when he first made his bones in the Palmach strike battalions of the Haganah. By the age of 22 he was a major in command of Unit 101, Israel’s first special forces unit. His critics point back to this time when they call him a maverick who ignored or exceeded orders at will, and who acted with disregard for civilians and human life in general.

In irregular warfare, the problem of telling soldiers from civilians is not a trivial one. Especially when the enemy routinely operates from civilian-occupied areas, and makes no attempt to protect or evacuate civilians even when given plenty of opportunity to do so. It doesn’t help when your enemies get the benefit of every doubt, even from your so-called friends. Technically, the Jordanian police at Kalkiliah were civilians, and the Palestinian fedayeen they were protecting could be called “civilians” too. But those fedayeen were crossing the border to kill Israelis, after which they would fall back behind a shield of other civilians. Unit 101 took them out (violating Jordanian sovereignty in the process, horror of horrors) to stop their operations, not because Sharon wanted to maliciously kill some noncombatants.

Sharon’s supposed insubordination (and general beastliness) during those early years of struggle have never been specifically established, and never could be. The operations of the Haganah and of Unit 101, during those most precarious days of Israel’s existence, were generally secret. They were often carried out without written orders, in situations where command authority was either unclear or was deliberately obscured for purposes of deniability. Compared to our own covert ops in Vietnam, Sharon’s shadow war was relatively mild. Compared to French measures in Vietnam and Algeria, it was laughable. Compared to standard PLO practice, it was a model of humane restraint. Finally, it took place during a time in which – as David Ben Gurion well recognized – it was absolutely vital that Israel show that she would defend herself in deadly earnest, or she would never have a moment’s peace.

Far from being an undesirable loose cannon, Ariel Sharon was the ideal man to conduct such operations. The more “maverick” he was, the better suited he was. Ideal for his critics, too – those who can’t stomach what it takes to survive in the face of an utterly ruthless foe can pretend that the efforts which keep them safe in their homes are the work of an irresponsible madman. So they can have their safety without taking moral responsibility for it. In short, Ariel Sharon was exactly the kind of man that his nation needed him to be, right across the political spectrum.

During the Sinai Campaign of 1956, Sharon was criticized for provoking an unnecessary (but fairly minor) battle at the Mitla Pass. Classic Sharon, his critics would say. After having been denied permission to attack the pass, Sharon was allowed to scout it, and his overly aggressive reconnaissance led to a fight. Therefore, he “disobeyed” orders. The successful efforts that allowed his brigade to reach the pass in the first place were overshadowed, and his military career was nearly ended. If this is insubordination or incompetence, there are many famous generals in history who could cite better examples from their own experience. Fortunately for Israel, Sharon was not finished. In 1967 he led Israeli forces to a brilliant victory at Abu Ageila that literally ended the war on the Sinai front: when the Egyptian chief of staff learned about this defeat he panicked and ordered a general retreat, taking Egypt right out of the fight.

Which brings us to the 1973 war, and Sharon’s most infamous feats of mad dog behavior. Driving towards the Suez Canal in typical Patton style, Sharon’s tanks and paratroopers collided with heavily fortified Egyptian infantry at the so-called Chinese Farm. Rather than another neat Abu Ageila, the Israelis endured three days of fighting and heavy casualties before Sharon crossed the canal and ripped through the Egyptian rear, completing a fatal encirclement of the Egyptian Third Army. Again, in defiance of orders!

Taking the Chinese Farm battle first: Sharon’s enemies called it a huge blunder, and accused him of leading an entire brigade into an Egyptian trap. (Sharon’s enemies can’t make up their minds whether Sharon is too good at killing people, or not good enough.) A three-day pitched battle is nobody’s idea of a good time, and grinding it out in the face of a superior enemy position is not the classic IDF style. No doubt (like Gettysburg, Waterloo, Stalingrad, and Marathon) it could have been done better. During the Six Day War, Israeli armored forces had moved virtually at will, destroying anything in their path. One of the lessons of 1973 was that those days were over. For the first time in history, a country faced an army that had been literally custom-built to destroy them. The Soviets built Egypt a new army from scratch after 1967, and then trained it for two years behind a screen of UN peacekeepers – which then rolled out of their way as neatly as a sliding door. They hurled this army at Israel on the tenth day of Ramadan, that notorious Islamic peace-fest, and when Israel reeled back and then moved to counterattack, they found that all the rules had changed. The Egyptian forces were protected by an umbrella of first-class SAMs that took a heavy toll of Israeli aircraft. It was no longer possible for a fighter-bomber squadron to route an entire Arab armored division. And Egyptian troops were now equipped with superb wire-guided Soviet anti-tank missiles that were ideally suited to desert warfare. Under these circumstances, it was ridiculous to expect that IDF forces could encircle the enemy without a brutally hard fight, and it was almost a miracle that they were able to succeed at all.

But the enemy’s deadliest weapon against Israel, as always, was diplomacy. The sort of diplomacy, that is, where the enemy gets to call a time-out whenever things start to go against him. Israel is expected to obey every whim of the allegedly peace-loving world community, while her enemies get to raise hell until they get themselves into so much trouble that they need another ceasefire to save their bacon. It was during one such plea for “peace” that Sharon continued to pound nails into the Third Army’s coffin, ensuring that the Egyptians and their Soviet sponsors would have to call the show off for good. Kissinger scolded the ambassadors, and the Soviets went into a purple fit, while Golda Meir just shrugged her shoulders: What could she do, with that lunatic Sharon running loose and disobeying orders? I doubt if any prime minister was ever happier to be disobeyed.

Once again, as in 1948, Sharon was exactly the sort of loose cannon that his nation needed him to be, and thank God for that. Lincoln famously observed that he wished other generals would drink some of Grant’s whiskey, and so long as Israel must operate under the lopsided restraints that no other nation on earth is expected to observe, she ought to hope that she will always have a few mavericks like Ariel Sharon. And the liberals can sit safe in their homes and curse him. Everybody wins.

[Cross-posted at lgc, just because I felt like it for some reason. After writing about Sharon, I feel the need to break some sort of rule, however unwritten it may be.]