5 Vietnam War Lessons Israel Should Remember When Battling Hamas

The Vietnam War should have taught Americans that waging counterinsurgency wars anywhere isn’t a good idea. Instead of remembering the lessons of Vietnam, we reacted to 9/11 with over a decade of costly endeavors in Iraq and Afghanistan. This latest Gaza War has led to the death of 73 IDF soldiers primarily because in the ground war, terrorists lured a far greater power into scenarios that mitigated IDF advantages. For a country of Israel’s size, such a loss and especially the prospect of further losses (potentially even greater in number depending on the scope of the next potential conflict) are not sustainable and neither is the economic costs of perpetual war. There are five lessons learned and quickly forgotten by Americans pertaining to our Vietnam experience that can help Israel defeat terrorist groups. These Vietnam War lessons will help Israel achieve long-term security without bankrupting the Israeli economy, losing a great number of soldiers every four or five years, or damaging global opinion and U.S. support from the loss of Palestinian civilian lives killed in the crossfire.

1. The insurgent, terrorist, or smaller adversary uses asymmetric and irregular warfare aimed at mitigating the overwhelming military advantages possessed by the greater power.

According the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation, 58,202 Americans died and there were over 303,704 Americans wounded in Vietnam. Around 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Vietcong died in the war. Because of the inability to differentiate civilian from enemy, about 2 million civilians died in Vietnam. The U.S. dropped 7.8 million tons of munitions over Vietnam, more than the total bombing of Germany and Japan in WWII, and was still unable to destroy the Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army.

Despite the massive bombing campaigns, Saigon, the capitol of South Vietnam, fell to the communists on April 30, 1975.

The lesson Israel should learn is that no amount of bombing Gaza will destroy Hamas, just like all the bombs dropped in the 1982 Lebanon War never destroyed the PLO. Why? As stated by Vietnam Veteran Pat Jasper in a war letter home, even highly skilled American Marines were ambushed by weaker forces in Vietnam:

I won’t go into all the details of what happened, you might say we got wiped out. Out of the 14 of us on the hill, 8 are dead and 3 of us are in the hospital. I’ve got a hole in my leg about as big as my fist plus some small pieces of shrapnel in my foot and my shoulder blade. I feel pretty lucky — when I was on that hill with all those dead Marines around me I felt like the luckiest person in the world.

While the 1967 and 1973 Wars were short, conventional military encounters that Israel could win with greater military leaders and innovative strategies, protracted conflicts against Hamas or terror groups allow them to inflict damage in ways that weaken democracies. Only a negotiated peace, rather than constant battles against suicidal terror groups who don’t care about losses, will achieve Israeli long-term security.

2. Insurgents and terrorists can turn devastating losses into further support for their ideologies.

As stated by Yale University’s Bomb’s over Cambodia, “If the Cambodian experience teaches us anything, it is that miscalculation of the consequences of civilian casualties stems partly from a failure to understand how insurgencies thrive.” If one thinks of the over 2,000 Palestinians who died in Gaza, including 253 Palestinian woman and 493 Palestinian children who were among the civilians killed in Gaza, the sad reality is that more Hamas recruits were created from this conflict (in the form of mourning family members and people wanting retribution for the death of their children). This should be a lesson learned that correlates to the Vietnam War.

Like the Vietcong in Vietnam, Hamas was devastated militarily, but in many respects, achieved several strategic objectives from this loss.

Popularity has spiked up for Hamas among Palestinians after the Gaza War, which is exactly what a terrorist group wants after a war it lost militarily. Contrast this reality to the fact that even U.S. support has been damaged by the recent war, the weaker force still achieved some of its objectives in this latest Gaza War. According to Haaretz, even Israel’s defense establishment recommends easing its stance against Gaza to prevent further hostilities:

Israel’s defense establishment will recommend to politicians that they show generosity in indirect negotiations with Hamas when discussing the conditions for a permanent cease-fire, in order to forestall renewed hostilities at the end of September.

…  “If we can assist by expanding fishing grounds and easing restrictions on border crossings of people and goods into and from Israel, this will help maintain the quiet,” the source said.

3. The Cold War and The War on Terror helped the traditional enemies of the U.S. and Israel wage proxy wars without firing a shot.

Iran not only funds Hamas, but according to The Wall Street Journal, Tehran is also the major backer of a second Palestinian militia, Islamic Jihad, which has joined Hamas in firing rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip over the past three weeks. Syria also funds Hamas, as do other countries throughout the Middle East. Like the Soviets funding the Vietcong and NVA, Israel’s enemies haven’t fired a shot, but wage war against the Jewish state through Hamas and other groups. A focus on a negotiated, lasting peace would not only remove the appeal of Hamas within Gaza, but also remove the ability of Iran and others to hurt Israel militarily, through the use of terrorists launching rockets or suicide bombings.

4. Neither the U.S. nor Israel have the economies to sustain never-ending war.

As in the 2008 war with Hamas where Israel’s economy suffered, according to an NPR article titled, Hamas Conflict Could Have Lingering Impact on Israel’s Economy, this latest war could cost over $3 billion for Israel. Haaretz states that not only could the Gaza war lead to a recession, but in terms of investment, “in the current climate of uncertainty, it would be a surprise if companies invest in Israel at the same pace as in the past.”

Like the economic stagnation that occurred for years after Vietnam, Israel is feeling dire economic consequences, as evident by budget cuts to fund the latest war. Even education funding is being cut, with “The Education Ministry is set to suffer a 695 million shekel ($195 million).” If Hamas can lose a war militarily, but still force Israel to cut education funding and bring it closer to recession, Iran has won an economic victory, as have terrorist organizations in Gaza.

5. After all the sacrifice in Vietnam, Saigon fell in 1975. After all the wars with Hamas and others –2002, 2006, 2008, 2012, 2014-Israel has not destroyed Hamas or any other terror group.

In the timeline of war between Israel and its enemies, peace with Egypt has gained infinitely more security than temporarily weakening terrorist organizations through overwhelming firepower. With all the lives and overwhelming firepower in Vietnam, the overall objective was not achieved, and similarly, rockets were still being fired into Israel even days before the latest ceasefire. The PLO is now Fatah, and Hamas is still in Gaza, so a new path to security should be addressed other than continual war that leads to momentary lapses of “peace.”

Finally, people who adhere to euphemisms like “Stand With” and “pro,” or disagree with opposing viewpoints by yelling “anti-Israel” might have good intentions, but such groupthink only helps ignore the real strategies of terrorists who wage irregular warfare. If you view this article as “anti-Israel,”  take one moment away from self-righteousness to learn the lessons of Vietnam, and the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan learned by Americans after fighting costly wars against far weaker enemies. “But you mean sacrificing land and giving into terrorists!” is the natural reaction by some who can’t grasp that never-ending conflict isn’t in Israel’s security goals. Nonetheless, the reality is that military force, as illustrated in Vietnam, will not defeat smaller, weaker, insurgents or terror groups who wage war differently from greater armies and powerful democracies. Economically, militarily, and diplomatically, Israel can’t sustain such unending conflict and a focus on a lasting, negotiated peace (just look at this photo and ask if this PM is “anti-Israel” for shaking a terrorist’s hand) should be the primary goal of Israel’s leaders. Perpetual wars with a far weaker Hamas only serve to embolden the terrorist’s long term strategy of weakening Israel’s economy, international support, and other current aspects of Israel’s power.

About the Author
H. A. Goodman is an author and columnist published in numerous publications and websites.