Strategy and Tactics: Offense and Defense

Whenever I hang out with fellow activists, either officially or socially, a subject that inevitably comes up is offense and defense.

“Why are we always on the defensive?” “We can’t win if we just play defense!” “It’s time to go on the attack!” “Even if we win a particular fight, we can’t win long-term if we simply defend while the other side is allowed to always take the initiative.” are just some of the ways the same argument is brought to bear again and again.

Having watched or taken part in various BDS battles for more than half a decade, fights that require our side to turn back or reverse a divestment vote at some university or church (i.e., play defense) that the other side has initiated (offensively), I can understand the frustration behind the offense vs. defense argument in its various guises.

At the same time, the terms “offense” and “defense” only describe tactics, and tactics must be dictated by strategy which, in turn, are supposed to support specific goals. And if your ultimate goals are militant (such as destroying the Jewish state or weakening it to the point where it becomes more vulnerable to destruction), then it is easier to devise strategies to achieve these destructive ends (such as the “Apartheid strategy” designed to weaken support for Israel with its crucial US ally via a campaign of de-legitimization) which require offensive tactics such as BDS to implement.

But if your ultimate goals are NOT destructive, then it becomes more difficult to build or sustain a strategy designed around perpetual attack. For example, despite fantasies that Israel is a genocidal, expansionist power eager to kill every Arab it can reach as it expand its borders from the Nile to the Euphrates (really a description of Israel’s foes which they project onto Israel), the goal of the vast majority of Israelis and their supporters is to find a way to live in peace with not just the Palestinians but the entire Arab world.

Given this, efforts to build a strategy that will involve perpetual attack on those you ultimately want to live in peace with invariably fail to find enough support to become widely used. And even aggressive individual campaigns invariably become impossible to sustain, not because those who initiate them are lazy or lose their nerve, but because they inevitably run into the contradiction of maintaining a non-stop assault on those with whom most of us desire to live alongside without conflict.

The other issue I have with this “offense vs. defense” reasoning derives from what I know as an extremely amateur student of classical battle strategy. For prior to the age of air power, shock and awe, and asymmetrical warfare, the vocabulary of battle was as much about the garrison and the siege as it was about the clash of armies in the field engaged in offensive vs. defensive tactics.

To take one historic example, when the Byzantine army attempted to win back the Italian peninsula from the Ostragoths who had captured it after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantines managed to lay siege to several major cities, capturing some and garrisoning them in the process. These Byzantine-garrisoned cities later came under siege from Ostragothic forces attempting to win them back.

In this example, where the same army may be laying siege to one city, while defending against another siege at a different city a few miles up the road, which side is on the offense and which is playing defense? In a war that involves recapturing territory that may have been lost recently in a previous war, even being an invader does not necessarily put an army in the attacker vs. defender role.

I mention this because the metaphor that best describes Israel’s situation (and by extension the situation of its supporters abroad) is that of the siege. This was the title of Conor Cruise O’Brien’s fabulous history of Israel (the book I recommend to anyone who wants a crash course in the Middle East conflict), and it was no accident that this eloquent man of letters chose the term “siege” as the title of his one work on this subject.

For Israel’s military doctrine is based on fending off an attack from any possible combination of hostile forces that surround it. In other words, they are defending their city (really their nation) against someone else’s attack, which according to the arguments mentioned at the top of this piece would put them in the category of playing perpetual defense. Yet no one would describe the IDF, which maintains the siege walls, as lacking courage for not going on the attack more often. In fact, one of the most frequent reasons for a besieged city being lost was military leaders inside the city getting restless for a pitched battle and leaving the safety of the city walls to engage the enemy unnecessarily in the field.

I say unnecessarily because, historically speaking, the siege is just as hard (sometimes harder) on the besieger than the besieged. While it’s certainly no fun to have your city surrounded by soldiers firing arrows and building battering rams and catapults, it’s also no fun building those siege engines while defenders in the city pelt you with rocks, hot oil, dung and arrows. Besieging armies must survive in camps and forage for food (further and further from home base, the longer the siege goes on), while defenders can live in relative comfort and safety within their walls, presuming they have enough supplies to outlast the army at the gates.

Again, Middle East history bears out this siege parallel. For after 62 years, Israel behind its walls is more prosperous than ever, enjoying six decades of constitutional government. But during that same period, those who have maintained their siege against the Jewish state have watched their societies come apart at the seams with oligarchs and kings giving way to military dictatorships which are now fighting civil wars against religious fanatics, all the while sinking further and further into poverty and despair (despite God’s having planted half the world’s oil reserves under their feet).

The instability of the anti-Israel community described previously is another example where organizations dedicated to laying siege to Israel by proxy are perpetually falling apart while organizations dedicated to defending the Jewish state have gone from strength to strength.

Now fighting siege warfare does not simply involve cowering behind walls hoping your enemy will go away. Clashes at the walls are always part of the picture, as are skirmishes and even (ideally well-thought-out) battles that involve leaving the city to engage the enemy. But we should never lose site of the fact that the metaphor that describes our condition is not the standing army with its offensive and defensive strategies, but the siege which has its own logic, and its own legacy of strategy and tactics which can lead to victory.

Onto Part VI (Conclusion) – Let’s Talk About Us

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