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Contentions

The Importance of Being Victorious

Last week, the New York Times published an interesting piece about the current state of the civil war that has been raging in Sri Lanka for what seems like forever.

The good news (for those of you who have not been following this endless and bloody conflict between the government of that island nation and ethnic Tamil rebels, called the Tamil Tigers) is that the war may soon be over. This is a surprising development since for many years it seemed as if the rebels’ hold on parts of the island was permanent, making the central government’s refusal to give in to the Tigers appear foolish. Had the government listened to the sort of advice that the State of Israel constantly gets from its friends and enemies alike — namely, that military victory over an insurgency is impossible and that force cannot settle such conflicts — they probably would have just given up.

But they didn’t. Instead, they marshaled their forces and have launched what appears to be a devastating offensive. Government forces have routed the Tigers, who are now apparently suing for peace. I take no sides in that war, but it does show that the conventional wisdom we hear so much about these days regarding the futility of force appears to be true only when it is applied to Israel or the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jerusalem Post columnist Evelyn Gordon has an interesting take on the same theme, writing about the failures of British General Sir William Howe during the American Revolution.

Howe thought that attempting a complete military victory over George Washington and the Continental Army would be a mistake, as it might make peace negotiations more difficult. So after his rout of the Patriots in New York, he held back and allowed Washington and the Continentals to escape to New Jersey and then Pennsylvania in the fall of 1776. The result of Howe’s folly was, thank heaven, that Washington used the respite to recover before launching his Christmas Day attack on Trenton — a small battle that changed the course of history.

The point of all this is that those who counsel Israel to repeat Howe’s mistakes in Gaza aren’t heeding the verdicts of military history. The way to real peace is usually found only after one side in the conflict wins a decisive military victory. But of course they don’t teach much military history in schools anymore, do they?

As for reading on the battle of Trenton, Evelyn Gordon cites David McCullough’s popular 1776, but I prefer David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing or John Ferling’s more comprehensive account of the Revolutionary War, Almost a Miracle. 


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