Israel's Strategy: Better a Poor Patton than the Full Monty

Recently, James Lewis posited that Israel's should the use the tactics of Gen. Bernard Montgomery rather than General George S. Patton in the current fight against the Islamofascists.

In order to evaluate which tactics would be better suited to the current conflict in Lebanon — and first admitting that I am neither a military historian by trade nor privy to inside information on the fighting beyond what can be gleaned from news and trusted websites — we must decide whether the situation confronting the two storied generals of World War II bore any resemblance to the situation facing Israel now and, assuming that a worthwhile comparison can be made, which of the tactics would be more effective.

For the sake of easier analysis I confine the time period to post—D—Day, from June 1944 through August, 1944.   Surprisingly, there are a number of similarities between the fight in northern France and Lebanon.

After managing to just barely gain a toehold in northern France, the Allies had to break out against  an extremely well—trained, battle—hardened and well—equipped German army.   If not for the interference of Adolph Hitler in Rommel's defensive plans, the Germans had superior Panzer divisions that could have thrown the Allies back into the sea if committed soon enough in the invasion.  This was not a beaten foe by any means. The Germans were, however, suffering from a certain degree of shock and trying to pull back to defensible positions.  

While Gen. Montgomery slugged away in the northern sector of the beachhead and favored putting all available resources behind a push through the Low Countries into Germany, General Patton favored exploiting the Allies' air superiority and mobility of tank columns by circumventing known, enemy defenses, cutting off the enemy's supply lines from the rear and allowing the slower, infantry and artillery columns to mop up the defenders.

Clearly Hezbollah is not the German Army of 1944.   Hezbollah is a militia on steroids, not an Army per se.  But there are significant similarities:   Hezbollah, like the Germans, has taken a very defensive posture in Lebanon, having spent the last six years creating vast bunker systems, tunnels and minefields.   Like the Germans, Hezbollah has no doubt trained for just such an invasion, knowing that, sooner or later, the Israelis will have to commit ground troops to have any hope of dislodging them.  

Hezbollah is fighting on familiar ground, a sort of home field advantage.  While the Germans were not defending home soil yet, they had occupied France for a full four years—plenty of time to get intimately familiar with the battlespace—and knew that a defeat in France meant an open door to their homeland.   And like the Germans, Hezbollah has relatively short supply lines.  Hezbollah, although not a formally—recognized nation state like Germany, bears many of the earmarks of a modern state with its own taxation system, schools, local government, police and courts, and Hezbollah enjoys the express support of Syria and Iran as well as at least some part of the Lebanese government.

The critical similarity between France of 1944 and Lebanon of 2006 is that both the Germans and Hezbollah have chosen fixed, heavily fortified, defensive positions.  Israel and the Allies, in turn, both faced a difficult choice in how to best overcome this enemy.  Clearly, Gen. Patton had the better approach.

As pointed out by Victor Davis Hanson in The Soul of Battle, General Patton adopted the same tactics as General William T. Sherman:  be ruthless in battle but not foolhardy.  Do not throw away the lives of your men by frontal assaults against fixed, defensive positions.   Whereas Montgomery and the other Allied command (including Eisenhower) favored a bloody war of attrition where infantry were asked to assault fixed, German positions with horrific loss of life, Patton refused to allow his army to be savaged and slowed down by static, German defenses.  Instead, he used the mobility of his flimsy but numerous Sherman tanks to outflank defensive lines and instill panic in the surrounded enemy.   American planes could then be used effectively to decimate the German columns as they fled from their hidden, fortified positions and attempted to escape Patton's trap.

Contrary to what Lewis asserts in his article, Patton's strategy did not depend upon 'limitless resources of the US homeland.'  Quite the opposite.  Patton was the black sheep of Allied generals, reviled by Eisenhower and Patton's army was routinely starved for precious gasoline and ammunition even as they captured huge portions of territory along with thousands of trapped German forces.  By August, 1944, there were chronic shortages of gasoline which forced Patton to literally beg, borrow and steal wherever he could to keep the tanks running.   The statistics on what Patton accomplished as compared with the meager resources he was given are staggering.  There is no question that the German General Staff feared Patton far more than any other Allied general for the very reason that he was the only one who saw that rapid advance, encirclement and ruthless destruction of the enemy could end the war quickly.   Adopting Patton's strategy, therefore, is neither 'flashy' nor prone to high casualties nor does it require abundant resources as Lewis suggests.

Interestingly, Lewis asserts that Montgomery could not/would not attempt high—risk operations that might win a battle but lose an army.   History shows otherwise.  Operation Market Garden, a risky venture if there ever was one, was entirely Montgomery's brain—child and he persuaded Eisenhower to commit all the spare resources of the Allies to its success.  Operation Market Garden was akin to 'betting the farm' as its failure meant that no further offensive operations could be conducted for quite some time thereafter.  At the end of the day, Montgomery managed to lose significant numbers of troops, supplies and armor in a daring but misguided attempt to break the German lines in the Low Countries.

Turning to the situation in Lebanon, Patton's strategy of rapid advance, encirclement and then decimation of the enemy is a far better choice.  Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Lewis is correct that the Israelis have limited resources, Israel can hardly afford the slow, ponderous approach of a  Montgomery.   In reality, Israel is not strapped for resources—they have the clear backing of the United States for as much materiel as they need.  It is public knowledge, thanks to the usual weasels at The New York Times, that the U.S. is rushing shipments of satellite—guided munitions to Israel even now.

The one resource Israel does lack, however, is time.   And this factor heavily favors the Patton approach.

Israel has clear advantages, like the Allies in France of 1944, of air superiority and mobility, particularly armor and helicopters.  Patton would not 'probe' defenses as Lewis suggests but go around those defenses.  In Pattonesque  fashion , Israel should use its armor and air assets to cut off Hezbollah from any hope of re—supply, perhaps by positioning strong, blocking forces at the Litani River and strategic points along the border with Syria.  Once Hezbollah units are completely cut off from re—supply of even water and food, they will be forced to leave their well—prepared defenses in an effort to break out of the encirclement.   The vulnerability to encirclement is the classic weakness of static, defensive positions. And when Hezbollah comes out from hiding, the IAF will be ready and waiting with devastating results.

There is a risk that some might raise to this strategy.  By positioning its forces on the Litani and the Syrian border, it might be argued that Israel would be exposing its forces to attack from the front and rear if the Lebanese Army and/ or the Syrian Army tries to come to the aid of Hezbollah.  Similar objections were raised to Patton's tactics, even as he showed he could reach the Rhine by September, 1944. 

The truth then (as now) is that there were no forces in Germany capable of stopping Patton, had he been given the gasoline and ammunition to continue pushing east into Germany.  In the same way, apart from Hezbollah, there simply isn't a force willing and able to threaten the Israeli army in either Lebanon or Syria.  And should Syria have any thoughts in this regard, they could be told quite bluntly by Secretary Rice that any attack by Syria on Israel would be punished with overwhelming American airstrikes against Syria as well as immediate retaliation by the Israelis.  

(It is an insane reality that Syria cannot be attacked without more than the existing provocation of supplying Hezbollah with missiles being fired into Israel.  In order to permanently dismember Hezbollah, regime change must occur in Syria.  So, in a very sad sense, Israel must, in fact, tempt Syria to attack in order to provide Israel with the necessary justification for bringing down the Assad regime.)

In sum, Israel needs a relatively quick and complete victory over Hezbollah, so complete that there is no doubt in anyone's mind that Hezbollah is finished as a fighting force.  Israel cannot afford to take a Montgomery—like, incremental approach.  Unless Syria blunders into this conflict in some unpredictably stupid fashion, the clock is ticking and Israel cannot spend months or even weeks inching slowly north against lethal, Hezbollah defenses.  Instead, Israel must encircle Hezbollah fighters and force them to attempt a break out where Israel can bring superior firepower to bear.   Anything less than this is defeat and that is the 'full monty' truth.