100 Years’ War

The term headlining this post refers to a century-long conflict in European history when England and France fought what were really a series of wars over the course of more than a century (from 1337-1453).

The phrase “100 Years’ War” was later applied by historians to cover a period in which the cause of specific flareups varied (succession battles, fights over lands, military ambition and hubris) as two powerful and dynastically entangled European powers battled for dominance, forming distinct national identities as “England” and “France” in the process. 

Remind you of anything? 

When most people describe the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict (or, as Ruth Wisse prefers, the Arab War Against the Jews), they tend to highlight specific armed conflicts between nation states that broke out in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 (occasionally including the 1982 Lebanon war against the PLO in the mix), with skirmishes and terrorism marking every year between “real wars” involving the armies of nation states.

Over the last two decades, full-scale wars attached to specific years and ongoing small-scale assaults on civilians have been supplemented by organized non-state militaries in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and Gaza (Hamas) attacking Israel with missiles and – most recently – attempting at large-scale infiltration through tunneling.  Because clashes between the Israeli army and Hezbollah (2006) and Hamas (2008, 2012 and 2014) did not involve wars between states, these fights tend to not be grouped in with 1948, 1967, etc.

Our tendency to use the term “war” to describe certain types of conflicts blurs the reality that the war between Israel and its neighbors should really be seen as another 100 Years’ War, one declared against the Jews decades before Israeli became a reality in which even major wars like 1967 can be seen as battles in a single, large, ongoing conflict.

If you use the term “war” not to describe any event involving people shooting at one another, but reserve it for a specific conflict or set of conflicts designed to accomplish political goals, then wars can only end with the victory of one side over the other or, in some cases, reconciliation between belligerents (often motivated by exhaustion or a new internal or external threat).

When clear victory and defeat is not present, the end of one conflict is better thought of as a cease fire, during which belligerents take a time out to repair damage, heal wounds, and prepare for another go when timing is right.  In the case of England v. France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, there was very little reason to end the war entirely, given that no victory was ever definitive enough to cause one or the other party to surrender.  So it continued generation after generation until civil war in one nation (England) led to new leaders finally calling it quits.

Such unending multi-generational conflict can seem unworldly in a modern age when not squandering resources and lives in warfare confers so many human and material benefits.  Who would sacrifice not just themselves but their children, their children’s children and their children’s children’s children in a century of military conflict when ending it would increase prosperity and hope for so many?

But as we have learned over the centuries, the ambition of leaders – especially in unfree societies – tends to trump factors such as the good of citizen/subjects. 

And why not?  Kings and tyrants tend to be the last ones to lose their fortunes or lives in the wars they instigate – and only when they are defeated.  In the case of every war that’s racked the Middle East over the last century (including those that did not involve Israel), how many Middle East kings, military dictators or mullahs fell in battle, or even fell from power after losing the many wars they began? With the possible exception of Saddam Hussein, I’m hard pressed to think of a single tyrant who started a war dying of anything other than a coup or natural causes.

As we learned in the last century, ideology (both secular and religious) can motivate a population to continue a multi-generational conflict.  If you think of the Cold War as an actual war, with so-called “wars” like Korea and Vietnam (as well as surrogate superpower conflicts between Israel and the Arab states) serving as battles in that larger conflict, then it was ideology – good and ill – that motivated the parties to fight it out until one of them collapsed.

The reality that we might be in a conflict ready to enter its second century can be both bewildering and disheartening to those of us who can easily see how much suffering would end if Israel’s enemies simply accepted the fact that a non-Arab, non-Muslim polity was destined to continue on a tiny sliver of land in the region.

This dynamic distorts perception, leading to the situation we are in now in which a subset of Israelis, American Jews and non-Jews (and others) are unwilling to believe in the true source of a century-long conflict, instead adopt false “narratives” (such as the war being the result of the Jews not allowing an Arab presence in the land they control) to avoid having the contemplate being at war with societies ready to throw a fourth generation onto the bonfire.

Given all this, the most powerful weapons Israel and her friends can bring to the battlefield are patience and historic understanding, psychological resources ultimately more important than the latest military gadgetry.

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