War and the Gears of Society

I was driving my son to basketball the other day and – as fathers ought to do once in a while – I asked him how school was. I got the usual non-informative answer. Then I asked if any of his usual teachers were back (many were called up for military service). He said, “Yes, a few, and they’re bringing really interesting guns to class*.” 

It struck me then. The Israeli army is bringing soldiers back from the front. They aren’t bringing them back for R&R, they are bringing them back to try to keep the economy and society afloat.  Once I realized it, I saw it all around me. The physicist who showed up in synagogue with three weeks of beard and a rifle. The architect sent back to his office for four days to catch up. The doctor who came home to work in a hospital for a couple nights. The 45-year-old man in civilian dress – carrying a rifle to dinner at Roza.

The rifle (or other weapon) is an obvious that somebody is on active duty. To try to cut down on weapons theft, those issued guns are required to keep them on their persons at all times. The system doesn’t work, the Bedouin tribes and many Palestinian militants are armed with stolen Israeli guns. And, as you’d expect given the ad-hoc nature of reality here, the army doesn’t actually have armories that can be utilized to easily and continually check-in and check-out weapons. It is easier if people just bring them home.

As I look around, I realize our economy is being kept afloat on the 4-day work-month. It is this, not international pressure, that limits how long we can maintain the conflict. Irrespective of international pressure, we will do what we need to do to crush Hamas. But the social cost – not just in human lives – is enormous.

Throughout our offensive, I’ve been reading headlines that practically scream “HAMAS COMMANDER KILLED!” Then you open the article and discover that it was some company commander in the Khan Younis Brigade or something. Cynically, I imagined that the army (or society) was so desperately in need of good news that we were pumping up the irrelevant. Then, last night, I read an interesting article about the killing of company commanders. The army is practicing – really, for the first time – fully integrated urban warfare. Command trailers show where every vehicle, aircraft, ship and individual infantry squad (or even individual soldier) is located. They also show every known Hamas position. It has allowed for unprecedented level of coordination. Of course, we didn’t really know it would work. We have a tendency to build technological systems without the human systems to match. Just look at the released photos of one of the rooms. Ad hoc comes to mind. Just compare it to the Russian equivalent.

At first, Hamas showed a decent level of response to our activities. Working from unseen tunnels, they could coordinate activities we could not see. Sealing off these tunnels has limited this. Killing these mid-level commanders has had a profound effect. Their squads and platoons and companies stopped coordinating their actions. The effect on the Hamas military has been devastating. They’ve got from a coordinated assault by a vicious animal to the occasional claw that rips forward of its own volition. Certainly it is dangerous – but it is more likely to hurt than to kill. (15 IDF soldiers were killed in the two days of our counter offensive, 34 in the first week (~5/day). Another 14 have died in the 10 days since (~1.4/day).)

The killing of these mid-level commanders has a far greater effect than the killing of the ultimate leaders would have. Hassan Nasrallah is where he is because Israel assassinated his predecessor. Israel’s own military lost one of its most senior commanders (the commander of the whole southern front on October 7th.  The military has recovered well and quickly. The U.S. churned through the senior leadership of ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban with mixed results in terms of their on-the-ground capability.

I rewatched Mission Impossible, Fallout recently. Late in the movie, Tom Cruise (aka Ethan Hunt) kicks the pilot out of the helicopter and then takes over. Within a few minutes, he’s doing a passable job flying the thing (Tom Cruise actually learned how to fly a helicopter for the movie). Then the villain pumps a couple bullets into the drivetrain, all the orange lights go off, and the helicopter is doomed.

Those senior leaders are like Tom Cruise. They can drive their military machines with a bit of practice behind the wheel. Some will crash, some (like Nasrallah) will be superstars. But, for the most part, the commanders will do a passable job. Those mid-level commanders? They are the drivetrain. An army depends on its logistics and its sergeants. Once those are knocked out, everything goes wonky and there’s nothing left for the senior commanders to command.

Israel has been knocking out pieces of the Hamas drivetrain and the results have been overwhelming. Many battles have been like mop-up campaigns – with 150 or 200 Hamas fighters killed without managing to even injure a single Israeli soldier.

Of course, while Israel has a very large military, it isn’t really a military state. While a large number of people join the military and it is woven into everyday life, military spending is about 4-5% of GDP. This is very high, but far from North Korea high (26%) or whatever the unknowable Palestinian figure is.

Because of this, the soldiers on the front lines, by and large, have better places to be. They are the drivetrain of a productive civilian reality rather than a destructive military reality. A group of five solders were killed last week when a tunnel blew up beneath them. One of them was a Sergeant Major in the reserves. He was also the Principal of a High School in Jerusalem. Standing next to him, and also killed, was a producer on the show Fauda (a Master Sergeant). A third, the company commander, was starting his residency in medicine.

These people are the sergeants of civilian society. While they are gone, fruit isn’t being picked, businesses are stalling, construction has stopped and education is ad-hoc. 250,000 thousand people are internally displaced (the equivalent of 9 million in the U.S.) and 300,000 have been called up (the equivalent of 10 million). It is like 19 million Americans have just dropped out of regular life, and their wives, parents and children are doing their best to fill in the gap (although, of course, some of those fighters are wives). And, of course, the missing pieces aren’t just Jews or Arab-Israelis. A close friend of ours is a senior nurse at Shaarei Tzedek – her Palestinian secretary was arrested after trying to stab soldiers in Jerusalem. 

The entire society is at war and so our economic and social drivetrain is missing an enormous number of its critical pieces. Despite the massive displacement and destruction in Gaza, the effect isn’t the same there. The Gaza economy isn’t driven by local productivity. Fully 30% of the Palestinian GDP comes from above-the-table international aid. Still more is provided under-the-table by the likes of Iran and Qatar. Their economy is more like a gas fire than a gas turbine – so long as you pour more fuel on it will keep burning.

 The war is likely to go on for several more months. The North of Gaza has to be overcome, and then the South – and then some sort of formal occupation will be established for a period of time. The critical thing for Israel -and the future of Palestine – is Israel maintaining a healthy civil society during this period.

Where people in America like to talk about work-life balance, our society is going to have to figure out a work-fight balance. Being Israel, that approach will be ad-hoc and deeply personal. Every commander will have to balance their soldiers’ civilian obligations against their military ones. A friend is an architect (really more of a program manager for architecture). His organizational skills were critical in the early stages of the war because, while the army had technology, it didn’t really have the human structure to use it well. He was sent home for 4 days – after a month of absence – to catch up on his day job. I guess architecture didn’t rank that highly in his commander’s sense of civic priority.

So how can the world help as we carry out our campaign against barbarian destroyers? (I use the term quite intentionally, as related in the link)

First, stop telling us to slow down. The faster this is done, the faster we can get back to our regular lives. The same applies on the Palestinian side. The sooner Hamas is erased, the faster the rebuild can begin and (hopefully) a society and economy more complex than a human gas fire can be built (read that article too, if you haven’t).

Second, and I know it sounds hokey, buy Israel Bonds or invest in Israeli companies (I imagine valuations are pretty attractive at the moment). Yes, it is just cash. But there’s little point in having you buy fruit we can’t pick or irrigation systems we can’t produce. We need a little gas for our own fire – but just for a little while.

Third, if you’re really into it, make like a cowboy and come on down. You may not maintain our high-tech industry, but crops still need picking. Plus, even in wartime Israel is a remarkable place. Our dinner at Roza was great – although the restaurant that closed earlier because of the war might have been even better.

As I sit in my home-office, I am in awe of how our society has adjusted to this war.

250,000 displaced and they have places to stay and food to eat. Not only that, but they have relived the day they wish October 7th had been while effectively setting up entirely new school systems and support networks. Read that link… the municipality of evacuated Sderot is actually functioning as a municipality within an entirely different city (Eilat).

By and large, we haven’t sent our people out. We haven’t thrown up our arms and declared a break from normal life. Our airport is still open, Amazon still delivers.

Our drivetrain is screaming under the pressure, but we are making it work.

I’m proud of what we’re accomplishing.

Most of all, though? Most of all, I’m proud of those teachers who bring their ‘interesting’ guns to work. Can you imagine taking part in the horror of urban warfare one day and then literally the next day taking your time to teach math to 15-year-olds?

If that seems hard, imagine this: another of my sons has been having Zoom classes with one of his teachers. Not because because the school was closed, but because his teacher has been stationed at the front. He’s stationed at the front, an active combat soldier in a specialized infantry team, but he is still managing to find the time (and the means) to teach his students online.

Our society – and these teachers – are living for tomorrow even despite the terror of today.

I’m proud of these teachers. I may not agree with their politics or their vision – but I’m proud of them. I’m proud, and I’m delighted that I’m raising my children here – where the role models are among the finest in the world.

May we find peace and may Palestine be liberated from the violent thieves of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

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