Arms and the Men

The annual report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute—which in spite of its name, is a strategic studies think-tank much like the rest—makes fascinating reading. Between 1991 and 1998 global defense expenditure fell. Since then it has been rising slowly but steadily; until, calculated as a percentage of global output, it is now as high as it was during the last years of the Cold War. Much the greatest single spender is the U.S with $ 682 billion in 2013. Next come China (166 billion), Russia (91 billion), the UK (61 billion), Japan ($ 59 billion), France ($ 59 billion), Saudi Arabia (58 billion), India (46 billion), Germany (46 billion) and Italy (34 billion). Together these ten countries account for three quarters out of the global total of $ 1,756 billion. The rest is shared by the remaining 184.

Qualitatively speaking, the US remains in the lead. Outspending China 4.1:1, it is the only global power, unique in its ability to intervene anywhere it wants. America’s air force, navy, and network of command, control and communications are unrivalled. So are its capabilities in such critically important fields as intelligence, space warfare, electronic warfare, and cyberwarfare. However, there are problems. First, a considerable part of the US defense budget—as much as $ 100 billion in 2013 alone—has been wasted fighting useless, hopeless, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second, as the national debt balloons, the budget is expected to shrink. These factors have caused US official doctrine to plan for just one regional war at a time, rather than two as used to be the case during the Clinton years. Judging by the recent refusal of Congress and people to intervene in Syria, indeed, it seems that America has lost its appetite for waging any war at all. By contrast, Chinese military spending has been rising and is expected to rise further still. Already today, calculating in terms of parity purchasing power, the difference between it and the U.S shrinks to 1:2.9.

The defense-related map of the world has also been changing. Throughout the Cold War the most heavily armed region was Europe, the “Central Theater,” as the Americans used to call it. It was there that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact concentrated their armies. The collapse of the Soviet Union ended that situation, causing the percentage of GDP most European countries spend on defense to go down. However, if trouble in Ukraine continues and spreads, then surely NATO’s East-European members will feel threatened. A considerable increase in European defense expenditure, aimed primarily at buying electronics, drones and anti-missile defenses, will become inevitable.

Much worse for Russia (and the world), should the Ukraine be engulfed by the war of all against all, as it well may, then Putin may have no option but to send in his forces. Militarily speaking, so weak is the Ukraine that Russia will have little trouble overrunning it. But what comes next? As the Soviet and American campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown only too vividly, in the modern world holding on to an occupied country is anything but simple. Just as the failure in Afghanistan contributed mightily to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, so failure to gain a fairly rapid and fairly bloodless victory in the Ukraine might have dramatic, even existential, consequences for Russia.

Another flashpoint is Southeast Asia. For the time being China is enjoying what may be the greatest economic boom in history. Aware that peace is vital for the continuation of that growth, it has been careful not to provoke is neighbors too much. It even seems content to rein in some of the more crazy initiatives of its North-Korean protégé and play down its long-standing conflict with Taiwan. On the other hand, growth has made it much more dependent on international trade. That explains why it has been building up its navy, including two small aircraft carriers. Beijing also has unresolved border disputes with most of the surrounding countries. Including, above all, the question of sovereignty over what it pleases to call the South China Sea and any riches it may contain. The outcome has been a re-shuffling of alliances and a great increase in defense spending all around.

And how about the Middle East? In recent years, the region has been losing some of its importance. The main reason for this is that fact that, thanks to the discovery of vast gas reserves and new methods (“fracking”) for recovering both gas and oil, America’s dependence on the region is diminishing fast. Conversely fear of an American withdrawal explains the enormous Saudi figure. Yet the Saudis’ enemy, Iran, only spends about $ 6.3 billion (2012 figure) on defense. We may perhaps assume that these figures do not include either the Republican Guard or the nuclear program and that real spending is twice as high. Even so, the country is hardly the juggernaut it is often made out to be.

Finally, how about my own country, Israel? The country’s defense expenditure is around $ 16 billion per year. Whether that sum includes some 3 $ billion annually in US aid is not clear. Technologically Israel’s superiority over all its potential enemies is overwhelming. Even more important, over thirty peaceful years have passed since the Camp David Accords. Terrorism in Egypt seems to be under control, more or less. Shifting to Lebanon, Hezbollah was taught a lesson in 2006 and since then has shown little inclination to challenge Israel as it used to. The Syrians continue to butcher each other with the kind of ferocity only Arabs seem able to muster and, for the time being, represent no threat. Jordan resembles Egypt in that it is at peace with Israel and is not as unstable as many people have feared in the past. Iraq no longer exists. For all the bluster of its leaders Iran is much less of a threat than Mr. Netanyahu and others claim—on this, perhaps, in some future article.

All in all, and limited terrorism apart, Israel’s defense seems better assured than at almost any time in the country’s history. Unfortunately, as Israelis and Palestinians continue to hate each other and kill each other on occasion, the prospects for peace do not look good. The Palestinian Authority seems unable to accept an agreement that will not include provisions Israel cannot accept, including, above all, the so-called Right of Return. As for Israel, for almost half a century it has zig-zagged. Whenever things were quiet Jerusalem argued that there was no urgent need to negotiate. Whenever they were not it said that negotiations were impossible.

When, if ever, will the cycle be broken? Not under Netanyahu, whom many in Israel and abroad consider both a liar and a coward. Not under some eventual left-wing government which, barring some miracle, will be weak and ineffective. What is needed is a new Begin a new Sharon, a new Olmert even; but of them, there is no sign.

Why Freud Got It Wrong

Freud got it wrong. The strongest drive that rules the species of homo which has the impudence to call itself sapiens is not sex. It is the urge to shut up those with whom one disagrees. Here are some examples, all taken from supposedly liberal, supposedly democratic, countries. In Australia, the government tried to impose draconian restrictions on its citizen’s access to various kinds of material on the Net. It was even been polite enough to ask the US for its approval (approval, thank goodness, was not given). In Canada, a newspaper editor who republished those famous Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad was summoned to explain himself before a government committee.

But it is not only the left which tries to dictate to people how to think. In France under Chirac and Sarkozy, teachers and professors who believe that French colonialism was an evil thing and did not help those who were subject to it in their march towards liberté, égalité and and fraternité were threatened with sanctions. In Britain, attempts were made to prevent a Dutch member of parliament who believes that the Koran is evil from entering the country. No surprise, that; in recent years, each time an Arab or Islamist has farted the British have wetted their pants.

In Germany some years ago, the geniuses at the Bundesministerium for Family and Youth tried to ban a children’s book. The author was Michael Schmidt-Salomon; the title, Where Can I find the Way to God, Please? Asked the Little Piglet. It attacked bishops, kadis and rabbis, presenting them all as rogues out to swindle people. If those people rejected the confidence trick, violence might ensue. On this occasion the High Constitutional Court, to its credit, denied the Ministry’s request.

And how about the US? In the self-proclaimed “land of the free” the situation is no better than anywhere else. In the media, in political life, even in sports and entertainment, anyone who utters a word that could possibly be constructed or mis-constructed as “racist” or “sexist” risks losing everything. The redoubtable Ann Coulter, who had seven conservatively-oriented books on the New York Times best seller list, has even engaged on a regular witch-hunt against what she pleases to call “liberal” professors. She encourages students to spy on them, exposes their alleged thoughtcrimes, and demands that they be fired; all while calling them by their names.

And how did the universities react to the assault? For centuries past, an essential part of their mission has been to defend freedom of thought. Yet in- and out of the US most universities, coming under the steamroller of political correctness, have long started sawing off the branch on which they sit. For daring to suggest that, in his view and as much research indicates, women may not have the same innate ability at mathematics as men, do, Larry Summers, president of Harvard University and a former secretary of the treasury under Clinton, lost his job.

As Voltaire once said, “I do not agree with a word you utter; but I will fight to the death for you right to do so.” As he also said, most philosophers are cowards. As Alan Kors and Harvey Silvergate in their book, The Shadow University, showed, many American universities regularly open the academic year by extensively briefing students on what they are, and are not, allowed to say. Those who, advertently or not, overstep the guidelines are persecuted and prosecuted. Often this is done in complete violation of the most basic rules that are supposed to govern a fair trial. So bad have things become that there now exist several organizations whose sole mission in life is to defend students’—and professors’—constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech against the universities where they study or teach.

Restrictions on freedom of thought and speech are, of course, nothing new. During most of history they were imposed either by dictatorial governments or by priests who, often working hand in hand with those governments, did not want anybody to question the hold religion gave them over society. For two centuries after the American and French Revolutions the West, to the extent that it did not turn either Communist or Fascist, took justified pride in the fact that it had done away with censorship and cast off most of those restraints. It was even thought, with very good reason, that this freedom was one of the cardinal factors that made the West as successful as it was.

No longer. What distinguishes the last two decades from most of their predecessors is the fact that much of the pressure in this direction is exerted in countries that are supposedly democratic and free. It seems to come not from above but from below, i.e. society itself. Nowadays in most “advanced” countries whenever anybody says or writes anything, there is certain to be somebody else around who finds his words “inappropriate” or “offensive.” To return to America’s universities, in many of them things have now reached the point where only blacks may write dissertations about blacks, gays about gays, lesbians about lesbians, and so on. Objectivity, or at any rate the attempt to reach it, has been thrown overboard. Yet where objectivity is lacking any attempt to understand also necessarily comes to an end. Whenever the alleged offender is at all prominent, a demand for an apology is certain to follow. Often the apology itself is but a cover for greed as “compensation” is demanded and mandated. There has even come into being an entire class of lawyers who, cruising the law, spend their time looking for cases of this kind.

Many of the offenses against freedom of speech are committed in the name of minors. Supposedly they must be isolated from all kinds of “false” ideas. For example, that God does not exist; or that sex before marriage is not morally wrong; or that their teachers may sometimes mislead them; or whatever. Now radio is called the villain, now TV. Now video games are to blame, now the Net. Those in charge of these technical instruments and their contents ought to be restrained, silenced, and punished if necessary. Not that there is anything new in this. The need to “protect” the young has often been used to justify some of the worst crimes of all; look at the execution of Socrates 2,412 years ago.

Perhaps worst of all, little if any of this is written into positive law. Since nobody knows what is and is not permitted, those who still dare engage in non-mainstream discourse are forced to watch their every step. What remains tends to become repetitive and tepid. The end result is the endless repetition of meaningless clichés, what George Orwell in 1984 called duckspeak. Perhaps authoritarian figures such as Russia’s Putin have got it right after all. With them, at any rate, one knows where one stands.

Hand-to-Hand Combat: A Short History

israel1Not long ago, I was approached by an Austrian-German-Dutch producer who wanted me to participate in a TV program he was preparing about Krav Maga (Hebrew: “touch combat”) as practiced in the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Doing a Google search I was surprised at the number of references to it, not only in Hebrew but in various other languages as well. It turned out that Israeli instructors in the field are active in many countries and that their services are in demand. Given the obvious public interest in the subject, I thought a short survey of its role in the history of war in general, and in the Israeli military in particular, would not be out of place here.

The term “touch,” or hand-to-hand, or close, combat is misleading. In reality it comprises two very different things. One is combat without weapons, as in various kinds of martial arts; the other, combat conducted at such close quarters as to enable the combatants to look into the whites of each other’s eyes, as the saying goes. To avoid confusion the two must be kept separate.

Martial arts have been practiced for thousands of years. They may, indeed, go back all the way to our ape-like ancestors. Ancient Egyptian soldiers engaged in regular wrestling matches which were sometimes attended by the Pharaoh in person. The window from which Ramses III (ca. 1187-56 B.C) watched the bouts still exists. In the Iliad, boxing is mentioned. The champion, a certain Epheios, was the same man who later built the Trojan horse. During classical and Hellenistic times martial arts, including wrestling, boxing and pankration, a form that allowed the use of both arms and legs, formed an important part of sport. At Olympia, the site of the famous games, the statue of Agon, contest or struggle, stood right next to that of Ares, the god of war.

Martial art training took place in the palaestra, or gym. Opinion on its relevance to, and usefulness for, war was divided. The great comic poet Aristophanes claimed it was the secret behind the victory of his Athenian compatriots over the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C. One second-century A.D Greek author, Lucian, devoted an entire treatise to the subject, concluding that martial arts training helped citizens defend their cities and maintain their independence. Many others, both writers and commanders, disagreed. They believed that war required not all kinds of leaps, kicks and holds but the ability to face steel and bloody slaughter. The Romans tended to look down on it. The orator, statesman and soldier Marcus Tullius Cicero even named it as one of the causes of Greek “degeneracy.” Echoes of this debate can still be heard today as many armies make their troops engage in wrestling and boxing matches or else play rough team games such as American football.

Unarmed combat is close by definition. So is combat with edged weapons such as swords, spears, battle axes, and halberds. In general, technological progress has caused fighting to take place at greater and greater ranges. Never more so than after the introduction of firearms around 1500. To that extent, both unarmed combat and hand-to-hand fighting became more and more of an anachronism—as may also be seen from the declining percentage of bayonet wounds. During World War I the latter only accounted for less than 1 percent of all casualties. However, unarmed combat and hand-to-hand fighting did retain some role in trench fighting (World War I), commando operations, etc.

In Israel before it gained its independence in 1948 “face-to-face” combat, as it was called, was taught in the various paramilitary organizations such as FOSH and PALMACH. One reason for this was the need to compensate for the lack of weapons; another, the fact that such arts could be practiced in the open under the guise of “sport” without interference from the British Mandatory authorities. Later this tradition was carried over into the IDF. However, since unarmed combat was seen mainly as a substitute for the real thing its status was low. As late as 1973 Egyptian intelligence, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the Israeli soldier, concluded that he was intelligent and resourceful, but afraid of hand-to-hand combat. To this day many soldiers are afraid to train in the field; leading to a strong, some would say too strong, emphasis on safety measures.

Both in Israel and elsewhere, what changed the equation was the rise to prominence, after 1990 or so, of various forms of anti-terrorism, counterinsurgency, etc. Two factors were involved. First, operations of this kind differ from conventional ones in that they are often conducted at extremely close range. Soldiers on- and off duty must know how to defend themselves against attempts to kidnap them or snatch away their weapons; conversely, you cannot kill a terrorist with the aid of a cannon at fifteen kilometers distance. Second, many operations have to be conducted amidst the population, with the result that avoiding civilian casualties becomes supremely important. As with the police, often it is a question of using minimum, not maximum, force; of disarming and capturing the opponent, not killing him.

In the IDF today, “touch combat” instructors are selected from those who join the service with some experience in the field and given the appropriate training. It is taught at three levels. First, there is the low-level training received by most soldiers (including female soldiers, to help them resist sexual assault either by their own comrades or by others). Second comes the training given to all combat troops. Third is that given to special units involved in commando and anti-terrorist activities. Competitions, both individual and collective, are held. There are also exchange visits with experts from foreign armies. Many former IDF instructors have set up their own schools both in Israel and abroad.

As the demand for Israeli instructors shows, “touch combat” as taught in the IDF is held in high regard in many countries around the world. However, three reservations are in place. First, it is not clear whether such a thing as a unique Israeli style of “touch combat” really exists. Since it is said to mix many different styles, from jiu-jitsu to kickboxing, one would be surprised to learn that it does. Second, even within the IDF, there seems to be no single style all instructors use. To the contrary: as training is becoming increasingly outsourced, each instructor, now operating as a civilian, tends to develop his own style. One which, he claims, is superior to all the rest.

Last not least, in a world dominated by technology the possibilities of “touch combat,” or whatever it is called, remain limited. For some it is a sport. For others, especially police officers and anti-terrorist commandos, it is an essential part of their skills. However, it is neither war nor a substitute for it.

Human All Too Human

M. L. Roberts, What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2013.


What alerted me to the existence of this book was a radio program to which I happened to listen one fine Saturday morning. The way it was presented, Mary Roberts, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, had caused a stir by drawing her readers’ attention to the sexual misbehavior of American troops in France during the period from June 1944 to VE Day. Another feminist tear-jerker about bad men abusing poor innocent women, I thought.

As it turned out, the book is anything but. In her introduction, Prof. Roberts dwells on the realistic premise that any attempt to understand the relationship between the United States and France as it developed after the Normandy landings cannot limit itself to high-level diplomatic exchanges alone. It should, instead, look at the way GIs—as many as four million of them, serving under General Eisenhower—interacted with the French population and the French population, with the GIs. The more so because those interactions both reflected and created the images both sides formed of each other; images which in turn were not without impact on high-level diplomatic exchanges and decisions. Speaking of interaction, the problem of sex neither can nor should be avoided. And it is on sex that Prof. Roberts trains her telescope.

The introduction apart, the book falls into three parts dealing with romance, prostitution and rape respectively. To start with romance, countless French women of all walks of life allowed themselves to be seduced by American soldiers. Unlike French men, humiliated by defeat and often all but penniless, the GIs were big, strong and healthy. In contrast to French men, some two million of whom were still in Germany, either locked up in prisoner of war camps or else working there, they were also available. What is more, the GIs were willing and able to supply French women with mundane but essential products such as food, chocolate, and, above all, cigarettes. Is it any wonder that romance, including the kind of romance that resulted in marriage, was rife? Other women, including some who had previously offered their services to the Germans, actively solicited GIs and slept with them on a more or less regular, more or less professional basis. The more time went on and the initial enthusiasm of liberation waned, the greater the tendency to put things on a businesslike, if often sordid, basis; in a sense, the whole of France was turned into a single gigantic brothel.

There also appear to have been numerous cases of rape. As I pointed out in my 1982 book, Fighting Power, the US Army executed far more of its soldiers for rape/murder than for desertion. Rape, however, is not as straightforward a concept as some feminists claim. Instead it has many different degrees. It starts with the kind of incident in which a soldier seizes some totally unknown woman, drags here into a dark alley, and uses violence to force her to have sex with him. It ends with a man and a woman, even such as have known each other for some time, spending an evening together. They flirt, dance and drink, after which the former becomes a little too insistent and the latter, a little more yielding than, having sobered up, she feels she should have been. In such cases the sex that takes place is often seen by one side sees as consensual and by other as forced. Throughout her book Prof. Roberts rightly emphasizes the enormous economic advantage even the lowliest GI enjoyed over most French people with whom he was in contact and whom the war had turned into beggars. Against this background, as well as the fact that most soldiers did not stay in one place but were constantly being transferred, no wonder the line between rape, prostitution and romance was often a fine one.

In exploring the relationship, the sexual relationship above all, between Americans and French, liberators and liberated, men and women, rich and poor, Prof. Roberts has done the literature a signal service. For American readers, perhaps the most interesting is the last chapter with its detailed exploration of the way the U.S Army and French public opinion collaborated in creating an image of black soldiers as hyper-sexualized savages and treating them accordingly. It is, unfortunately, necessary to mention three points that somewhat mar her otherwise excellent book. First, the author does not know much about military life and war, and its shows. As, for example, when she says that “an armored vision”—in reality, probably a tank or two—destroyed a French train. Second, the text is highly repetitive. Often the same episodes, even the same phrases, are found in more than one chapter.

Finally, a more systematic comparison with the situation during the four years of German occupation, by offering perspective, would have been useful. How did French women behave towards Wehrmacht soldiers, and vice versa? What role did the fact that the Germans came as occupiers and the Americans as liberators play? Did relations between French women and German soldiers differ from those they developed with American ones, and, if so, in what ways? How representative are the things that happened in France in 1944 of human behavior in similar situations? As things are, all we get is some tantalizing hints.

In this context I am struck by a memory which has been with me for thirty years or so. At some time around 1980 I was working at the West German Military Archive (Bundesarchiv/Militaerarchiv, BAMA for short) in Freiburg. I came across a document—I no longer have a clue as to who was addressing whom, and for what purpose—which said that American troops in France in the second half of 1944 raped more French women than German ones had during four years of occupation. Assuming the claim is true, there may be some kind of lesson there; though just what it is, is blowing in the wind.