Judy Halper
Left is not a dirty word

The three-body problem in our war

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Here’s a thought experiment:

Take a strip of land 365 km (141 mi) squared, one that’s populated with over 2 million people. Close it off with fences on three sides and patrol the fourth border, the sea.

You have kept that strip of land under various states of siege for the past decade or so, and you control its access to employment, funds, water, fuel, electricity and more.

But the fence was just made of string and cardboard; the natives – even the ones who don’t mean to slaughter you in your beds — are not exactly friendly.

“That’s it!” you say. “We’re cutting them off!”

Question one: How will you cut them off?

Will you build a wall so high, rockets cannot pass over it, so low that tunnels cannot be dug under, so thick hammers cannot break through? And once you’ve completed this giant prison, who will you bring in to guard over it? Or will you manage to carve out a no-man’s land from this densely-populated area and keep it guarded 24-7 with tanks and snipers? Who will supply employment, water, food, electricity and new apartment buildings to replace the ones you smashed to pieces? How will you ensure the large land to the east – the one whose evil leaders have sworn to wipe you off the map – won’t sneak back to lure the unsuspecting citizens with bags of flour, cement and steel rods?

To continue the thought experiment: You are holding several thousand enemy prisoners inside your country. As for those still on the other side of the fence, you have declared that all the ones you have put on a special list of terrorists will be killed. But those terrorists are elusive, hidden in deep caves, and they are holding a great many hostages. They are releasing them a few at a time, just enough that it would take two years to release them all. Some of those hostages will be undoubtedly be offered freedom in exchange for the enemy prisoners.

The evil mastermind of atrocities against those on your side of the fence was once an inmate who was released in a previous prisoner swap. You cannot kill all the prisoners in your prisons, and you need to return those hostages to their homes. If you have killed numerous enemies on the other side of the fence but also release prisoners, they might simply end up filling the vacuum you created.

This leads to question two: How can you kill your enemies, hold on to your prisoners, and regain the hostages, all at the same time? To use a physics term, you now have a three-body problem that is inherently unpredictable and difficult to solve.

There is already international pressure to hold off on a ground invasion you are planning, and to start cease-fire negotiations. But you have sworn to wipe the enemy off the map and end their rule in that strip of land. Can you kill your enemies, hold on to prisoners, regain hostages and bring this war to an end? How will you ensure the rockets or terrorist incursions will not start up again once the war is declared over?

How can you kill your enemies, hold on to your prisoners, and regain the hostages, all at the same time?

You are a general whose directive is to “win.” Or maybe you are a head of state, who must navigate between the army, citizens, allies, real and potential enemies. Will your decisions as to how to proceed be affected by your position?

Possibly you are a general who has been shamed into admitting failure, leading a war from a country whose government is barely functioning; or a head of state who knows your personal head will roll once the fighting comes to an end. How does this affect your decisions?

The American president came to the country. He presented a version of this thought experiment to its leaders and proposed to bring it to Arab leaders as well. He left with no answers – not even the beginnings of deliberations on the questions.

The solutions I have heard espoused, at least to the first set of questions, is that we will reconquer the country and then bring in leaders from wealthy Arab countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia to rebuild and rule over Gaza. In this scenario, the emirs and sheiks will tow suitcases of money after them, and pay Gazans to clean up the mess, assemble water desalination systems and throw up a new power plant or two. We’ll ignore the niggling voice that reminds us that extreme hatred doesn’t disappear in a day. A puppet government might succeed, or it might fail miserably. Think Iraq. The once-legitimate government on our opposite border? We’ve ensured they do not have the resources or support to take on Gaza.

As to the second set, I heard one of the ex-generals, now a fixture on the 24-7 news, say that sometimes in war you end up choosing the least bad options from a bunch of pretty bad ones. I believe this is one of the more honest statements I’ve heard in the past few weeks.

The question is: Do you choose your options as a general out to win, or as the head of state whose first priority is the safety of your own citizens, including hostages?

Remember: Some of your decisions may lead to a regional war, including against that large, well-armed country to the east, or even WWIII. Some of your decisions may lead to the deaths of hostages and/or the wholesale deaths of innocent civilians. Nearly all of your choices are bad ones. Will you have the courage to choose?

About the Author
Judy Halper is a member of a kibbutz in the center of the country. She has worked as a dairywoman, plumber and veggie cook, and as a science writer. Today she volunteers in Na'am Arab Women in the Center and works part time for Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom.
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