Israel falls into the "Vietnam trap": Increasingly brutal tactics will only lead to disaster

Israel's military once won dramatic victories with agile commando tactics. But since 1973, it has all gone wrong

Published October 28, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

A Skyhawk levels for a ground attack to aid an Israeli infantry column during the battle for the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War. (Keystone/Getty Images)
A Skyhawk levels for a ground attack to aid an Israeli infantry column during the battle for the Golan Heights in the Yom Kippur War. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Orde Wingate, a legendary and eccentric British Army officer who was born in India (and died there) and was not Jewish, is widely regarded as the father of the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF. David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, said that if Wingate had not died fighting the Japanese in 1944, he would surely have become the IDF’s first chief of staff. 

Wingate, a special operations officer and intelligence expert, became best known for his sabotage and guerrilla tactics against the Japanese in Burma, and is widely regarded by military historians as one of the best commando fighters ever. 

From 1936 to 1939, Wingate was stationed in Palestine, then governed by the British under a mandate established by the League of Nations in the wake of World War I and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. He was instrumental in training Jewish paramilitary groups to use guerrilla tactics against Palestinian insurgents who staged attacks both against the British authorities and Jewish communities. 

Moshe Dayan, Israel’s most famous military commander, wrote with affection in his biography about Wingate’s idiosyncrasies: He seldom bathed and was known to eat raw onions tied to his shoulder, from time to time turning his head like a snake to seize them with his teeth. His behavior delighted the Jews, but annoyed or alienated both his British superiors and the Palestinian Arab community. 

An accomplished horseman raised in a British aristocratic family and trained at the Royal Military Academy, Wingate was also something of a rebel. He was a Christian Zionist and bibliophile, who by all accounts knew the land of Israel better than many of the Jews who lived there. He has also been described as “sadistic” by Israeli historian and author Tom Segev, and often expressed overt anti-Arab bigotry (although he spoke fluent Arabic).  

Orde Wingate's commando tactics dominated Israeli strategy through the dramatic victory of the Six-Day War in 1967. Then came a fateful change: The IDF was "Vietnamized."

Wingate had been dead for four years by the time of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, but his nimble approach to warfare was central to the newborn state’s defeat of the combined armies of Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Most military analysts would agree that Wingate’s approach still dominated Israeli strategy and tactics in the Sinai campaign of 1956 and the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel once again conclusively defeated the combined armies of the hostile Arab nations on its borders. After that, however, came a fateful change: Wingate’s lessons were forgotten, and the IDF became “Vietnamized.”

That ambiguous term has a number of interpretations. It was initially used to describe the strategy of reducing U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War by devolving most military responsibilities to South Vietnam. That was also a failure, but I use “Vietnamization” in a different sense, to describe the use of overwhelming and often unnecessary brute force, leading to unintended and frequently disastrous consequences. 

Consider that during World War II, roughly 3 million tons of explosives were used against the Axis powers, which comprised three large and heavily militarized nations. During the Vietnam War, 4 million tons were used against a much smaller enemy force, much of it a guerrilla army spread out across densely forested and difficult terrain.  

Another aspect of Vietnamization was the repugnant use of terminology such as “body count” to describe enemy casualties, not to mention the U.S. military’s infamous use of euphemisms, outright lies and doublespeak: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” All of that fueled increasingly large protests against the war at home in America, and turned the entire world’s public opinion against the war, leading to the humiliating U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973.

Why did America go to war in Vietnam in the first place? George Friedman, an author on international affairs and the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, says in one of his YouTube videos that European leaders, especially French President Charles de Gaulle, were skeptical of America’s Cold War promises to provide a “nuclear umbrella” in the event of a Soviet attack on Western Europe. To convince de Gaulle that America was serious, Friedman suggests, the U.S. wanted to show that it was willing to wage war halfway around the world in order to prevent the communist regime of North Vietnam from spreading into neighboring states, as postulated by the famous “domino theory.”

It’s clear enough in hindsight that America fell into a trap with Vietnamization, employing ever more aggressive tactics and ever-larger amounts of ordnance and military hardware. Israel has already fallen into the same trap in its military ventures since 1973. It is about to fall even deeper in the current war against Hamas, where a ground invasion of Gaza — with no clear or achievable objectives, and a high probability of disaster — now appears to be underway. 

When the initial stages of “Vietnamized” warfare failed in the 1960s, the U.S. military felt compelled to use even more lethal force, which again failed, driving a vicious cycle of atrocious, overwhelming force and vast civilian casualties: Best estimates hold that more than 1.3 million people died in North and South Vietnam between 1965 and 1974.

Israel has already fallen into a version of America's Vietnam trap: a cycle of ever more aggressive tactics and ever-larger amounts of military hardware. That's about to get much worse in a ground invasion of Gaza.

Charles de Gaulle died in 1969, five years before the end of the war in Vietnam. There was effectively no one left to convince of the supposed U.S. commitment to stop the spread of communism. Nevertheless, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, even after he received the Nobel Peace Prize (a grotesque travesty in itself), was determined to continue the war, although the Pentagon Papers released by Daniel Ellsberg made clear that the U.S. defense establishment had known for years that the war was unwinnable.

We can also look to the example of Afghanistan, which has been called the “graveyard of empires.” Overwhelming use of force by the British failed there in the 19th century, and the Soviet Union was similarly defeated in the 1980s, surely a factor in its subsequent collapse. America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan occurred just two years ago, as an early black mark in Joe Biden’s presidency. In Vietnam, as de Gaulle could have testified, the French had suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a seemingly inconsequential enemy in the early 1950s, a historical lesson the Americans studiously avoided. 

So why did the IDF “Vietnamize” itself prior to the 1973 Yom Kippur War — a near-catastrophe that in some ways prefigured the devastating Hamas attack of early October? There are several possible explanations. The first is that Israel’s leading enemies, Egypt and Syria, had themselves been “Vietnamized” by huge supplies of arms from the Soviets, and the Americans felt that they needed to respond in kind. Noam Chomsky provides a second plausible explanation, arguing that U.S. military aid to Israel essentially amounts to real-world testing of state-of-the-art weaponry as it is used live for the first time.

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But massive rearmament and “Vietnamization” were not adequate to meet the challenges of the Yom Kippur War, in which Egyptian and Syrian forces at first overran the IDF, rapidly depleting Israel’s stock of arms. Richard Nixon, despite the antisemitic views he expressed in private, felt the need to respond to the massive Soviet arms shipments to the Arab nations, and the U.S. bailed out Israel with 23,000 tons of arms delivered by aerial shipment in the middle of the conflict. 

In the subsequent decades, Israel has repeatedly used these kinds of heavy-handed overkill tactics against the Palestinians. That has done little or nothing to resolve the conflict or to suppress militant groups like Hamas or Hezbollah, as recent events have made clear. Worse yet, it has led to many civilian casualties that inevitably fuel ever-deeper hatred among every new generation of Palestinians, leading to recurring acts of terror and increasingly dangerous war. Revenge is a strong theme in Middle Eastern culture, certainly for Jews and perhaps even more so for Arabs. Virtually every Palestinian, no matter their class background, religion or political affiliation, has a father, a son, a brother, an uncle or a classmate who was killed, wounded or imprisoned by Israel.

The Palestinian people are much fewer than the Israelis, and their militant groups — despite the dramatic recent success of Hamas — are small in number and have nowhere near the training, capacity or hardware of the IDF. Palestinian casualties will inevitably exceed Israeli casualties by several orders of magnitude; at this writing, the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza is at least four times higher than the number of Israelis killed by Hamas. Israel was severely traumatized by the attacks of Oct. 7, but that doesn’t change the fact that the relative impact of war on the Palestinians is much greater than the impact on Israelis. 

What math can justify such a deepening cycle of violence? I do not advocate war and militarism, but if war against Hamas is inevitable, IDF top brass should go back and study Orde Wingate’s wars in Burma and Palestine. In his recent visit to Israel, Joe Biden cautioned against repeating America’s mistakes after 9/11, when the desire for vengeance led to the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and then to two decades of pointless, wasteful bloodshed. If Israel is overcome by rage in response to the crimes of Hamas, the consequences for its future could be even worse. The lessons of the past should be clear enough; the stakes are far too high. 

By Moshe Alamaro

Moshe Alamaro served as an Israeli naval officer in the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. He is a retired atmospheric scientist at MIT.

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