Jean Paul Sartre, a French philosopher of the 20th century has a frightening quote, which begins an article by a Dutch Colonel named E.A. de Landmeter, written for the Dutch military science journal named Militaire Spectator (created in 1830!):
‘Once you hear the details of victory, it is hard to distinguish it from a defeat.’ Jean Paul Sartre, Essays in Aesthetics, 1964.
The article explores contemporary theories on war and asks that today, in modern warfare where the notion of an enemy simply raising a white flag and accepting defeat is outdated, where those armies that do surrender sometimes end up winning in the long run and vice versa—what constitutes a victory?
The word victory, de Landmeter writes, is taken from the Latin root vinco victus, to conquer. But is the intended goal of every war to conquer the opposing nation? Is Israel’s? He posits that there are two primary objectives in any war—a military defeat and a political resolution; centuries later, military strategists still try to balance that dichotomy. Israel had no luxury to consider stage 2; it was fighting for survival and still is. It was Churchill in 1940 who answered the question of his aim with one word: “Victory – victory at all costs, victory despite all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival”.
And yet, hovering over the war is the question of the day after.
Carl von Clausewitz, a 19th-century Prussian general and war theorist, wrote a book called On War, and in it, he presciently states that ‘one side winning the war does not necessarily mean that the other side lost hugely; it may not even mean that the other side lost at all!’ What if Hamas is not using the same calculus to determine success and failure, winning or losing?
Clausewitz posits a tripartite definition of victory: the enemy must 1. Have a greater loss of military resources and capacity; 2. Have a loss of morale; and 3. Have an open admission of the above by giving up his intentions. The question of who is the enemy must play into this discussion as well. Is it Ismail Haniyeh living in Qatar? Yahya Sinwar, in a tunnel in Gaza? Or is it the Gazan population? Either way, history has taught us that Hamas does not plan on giving up their intentions and it is unclear if the leaders have lost their morale. Perhaps Gazans have but nobody seems to care.
After the overwhelming power of the US in the first war in Iraq, Saddam Hussein claimed victory just because he survived, regardless of the effect it had on his kingdom, citizens, or his own wealth. Similarly, states the 21st-century military theorist, Boone Bartholomees Jr., Egypt claimed victory after the Yom Kippur War despite having been pushed back well beyond the original starting point. And so, we will have to contend with yet another defeat/victory from our enemy and the ramifications it will have on future peace.
Captain Lidell Hart, a 20th-century military theorist, astutely writes that the object of war is to achieve a better state of peace—even if it is only from your point of view. Will Gazans respond to this war with a feeling that they are better off than on October 6th? Will Israel? And what about all the other players in the region?
Bartholomees speaks about the fact that in war what matters are not just the facts but perceptions. Both might have been speaking about our war where despite the plethora of videos and reports, both sides seem to be living a different narrative—and the world is confused.
And then there is the pain of loss. Other than the miraculous nature of Israel’s conquest of Canaan, wars involve casualties even by the winning side. It takes its toll on us, and pervades our nation’s psyche like a vicious cancer, sneaking into the crevices of our unity, our national pride, and even our spiritual stamina. The library of Yeshivat Har Etzion (my spiritual home) is peaceful and inspiring, but also solemn and somber, as each bookshelf memorializes a picture of a student who fell in battle over the course of Israel’s wars. I fear more bookshelves will have to be made to honor all those who have fallen.
And so even in victory, (and we are winning) Sartre’s prophecy peaks out from the past and gives us great pause.
That pause, according to a famous midrash, is manifest in this week’s parsha, Beshalach, at least according to one novel interpretation. The Song of the Sea Moses sang together with Israel was the ideal response to the conclusion of the battle with Egypt. Upon seeing Pharaoh’s chariots drowning in the sea with the soldiers, Israel turns to God and sings out of joy, gratitude, of relief – indeed there is no better reaction to victory than to praise God for fighting this battle and soundly defeating the enemy. Upon our victory, we too will sing out a song of praise – to God and to our valiant soldiers, who together fought this war and won.
But the Gemara in Megila 10b brings a midrash in which God’s angels were interested in joining the song of Israel, praising God for the victory. God coolly responds, ‘My creations have drowned in the sea, and you choose to sing songs?’ Rav Heshyl, a former chief rabbi of Krakow, teacher of the great luminaries, Shach and Taz, and author of the sefer Chanukat HaTorah, explains that the ‘creations’ who ‘had drowned’ were not referring to the Egyptians – after all, one must rejoice at the fall of one’s enemies – rather, it referred to the Israelites who perished along the way.
God tells the angels that for the decisive victory the victims themselves are permitted and even obligated to sing and rejoice; but the angels, cannot sing praise because there are Israelite mothers who despite the victory are mourning the loss of their loved ones.
Israel emerged from slavery and from the great battle that God waged against Pharaoh, but they did not emerge unscathed. Victory, yes; absolute, unfettered bliss? Definitely not.
Maase avot siman lebanim (actions of our ancestors are a harbinger for our own lives). We must all contend with what it means to be a Zionist today, living in this land and being ready to sacrifice our lives, and our children’s, towards realizing the visions of our ancient prophets. We are sometimes drunk with ecstasy in the notion of raising our children in this miraculous existence but quickly sober when we suffer the reality of an enemy amongst us, aiming to destroy us, and how we must constantly be alert, be prepared, and send our sons and daughters to guard us day and night.
Even in victory, we are not complete; there is still work to be done internally and with our neighbors. We ask God for strength to win this war, to understand what victory means and what is incumbent upon us to do in order to continue to merit being the guardians of the land of Israel.