A small group gathered Sunday at Arlington National Cemetery to commemorate the life and work of British Maj. Gen. Orde Wingate of blessed memory, who is interred there with the Americans with whom he was flying when his plane crashed in Burma in 1945.
Israel and the Jewish War Veterans led the annual commemoration of Wingate, a passionate Zionist and a believer in Jewish military capability long before it was a proven commodity. But it would be unsurprising to find that CIA Director David Petraeus was a Wingate acolyte. His Iraq surge owes much to Wingate’s style of thinking, and the British general might well have lessons for Afghanistan.
Sent to Palestine by the British government in 1936 to put down an Arab insurgency, Wingate was an egalitarian, responsible for the fact that Israeli soldiers don’t salute. He taught the Jews of the Yishuv, as well as his British soldiers, counterinsurgency tactics to defeat marauders who were attacking villages and British installations including the Baghdad-Haifa oil pipeline. Night operations to keep the insurgents off guard; ambushes rather than fixed defense; and living among the people to engender trust and gather intelligence — these were all part of his textbook. Most important, he gave the Jews what remains the battle cry of the IDF: “aharai!” – after me.
Wingate – and especially “aharai” – was a rebuke to the British military hierarchy that sent young soldiers “over the top” in World War I while their officers remained in the trenches. His love of Zion was a rebuke to the British political hierarchy that was uncomfortable with the Mandate to establish a Jewish State in Palestine.
A master at doing more with less – too few soldiers, weapons and supplies, and never enough time – Wingate established the spirit that makes the IDF and Israel leaders in innovative technology and weapons that he could only have dreamed of. It is hard to imagine his response to the rifle that shoots around corners, or to the missile defense system that distinguishes between those that will hit populated areas and those that will fall harmlessly and takes out the former.
A devout Christian, he used the Bible as a map and history as a guide.
An Arabic and Hebrew speaker, he understood the language and the nature of both his adversaries and his friends. Unfortunately, his British superiors believed they needed Arabs more than Jews, and were not pleased that he encouraged this “Night Squads” to undertake offensive operations.
(Perhaps that explains why, although the program announced the appearance of the British Defense Attaché along with Israeli and American representatives, the British Embassy was a complete no-show. Too bad, the children’s choir sang an enthusiastic “God Save the Queen.”)
Removed unhappily from Palestine in 1939 (according to a witness, his passport was stamped, “The holder of this passport is not allowed to enter Palestine or Trans-Jordan”), Wingate went on to serve his country with distinction, creating the Gideon force in Africa, where fewer than 1,700 men in Ethiopia captured more than 20,000 Italian soldiers. In Asia he created the Chindits, airborne jungle units that fought the Japanese far behind the lines. Winston Churchill eulogized him as “a man of great genius who might well have become a man of destiny.”
Professor Nicholas Kittrie of American University met Wingate in Cairo during the War. At Sunday’s memorial service, he brought Wingate into the present, noting the main points of a recent letter of agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. According to the terms, the Americans will no longer take the lead on night missions and American forces will be increasingly confined to bases, rather than operating among the people. These, said Kittrie, violate Wingate’s prescription for winning a war against insurgents. “And this is,” he said, “a war against an insurgency.”
But Wingate need not be applied directly to America’s current wars to be relevant. It should be enough that his work helped to organize and direct the army of the Yishuv – which became the IDF, a model for citizen-soldiers — and became a friend, a partner and an ally to the United States armed forces.