A colleague of mine asked me a series of questions for an article that he published in Breaking Defense that can be found here. The questions are excellent in that they caused me to ponderously reflect, and he was unable to publish all of my answers which I wanted to be captured in total.
Question 1: What would constitute a victory for Israel in Gaza and how difficult would it be to achieve?
Answer 1: I am going to give two answers. One is what I think the Israelis are trying to do and the other is what I think is possible in this circumstance.
What I don't know is how much the tragedy of 7 October scarred the Israeli psyche and how much anger and willingness to endure additional losses exists in Israel.
Question 2: What impact would a northern front have on the Gaza offensive?
Answer 2: None. Not really none, but relatively close to none. It would depend on the scope and scale of the front. If it is relatively limited to rockets and missiles then none. If there are regular ground incursions then that might change the calculus a bit. I don't think that Hezbollah is in a position to mount a ground offensive and I doubt that they would want to. Hezbollah's strength lies in their ability to harass at range and simply make life difficult for Israel. Though they have developed the ability to take villages during the Syrian civil war that hasn't been against Israelis. I think that Hezbollah could take the Hula Valley of Israel if it was committed to an all out effort and such an attack would then cause a serious degradation of Israeli capability as Israel would be forced to regain lost territory which would be the preeminent priority, but I think this is well outside Hezbollah's intent or objectives. Additionally, such an effort would cause massive damage and loss to Lebanon and Hezbollah would bear the brunt of the blame for the carnage.
Question 3: What do you expect would happen if Israel emerges militarily victorious from the Gaza War?
Answer 3: The answer depends on what you mean by victorious. If by victorious you mean my option one above - the defeat of Hamas - then Israel will have a stronger position in the region. If option two - the reduction of Hamas' capability, but Hamas remains - then Hamas will gain credibility in the region as it will have weathered the storm and lived to stand and still fire back.
What I hope is something very different. I would hope that this effort will reduce Hamas such that a responsible Palestinian Authority leader can come forward and govern Gaza and the West Bank in a manner that allows for some sort of legitimate partnership between the international community (which doesn't really exist), the Palestinians, and the Israelis. This is a hope or maybe even a dream, but I would like to see it. I want the bloodshed and hatred to end.
Question 4: Do you think there is a successful effort to achieve a two-state solution?
Answer 4: I don't believe that there is a leader on either side who has the wasta to lead to this sort of resolution. Netanyahu is a weak leader without the ability to force his will on the Knesset. I don't think he truly wants it, but even if he did, he couldn't make it happen. The irony is that only Ariel Sharon could do that and see what that got him? Mahmoud Abbas doesn't have the authority or charisma either and, like Netanyahu, I don't think that he truly wants it. Maybe an outside power could impose it, but there isn't sufficient agreement on what it looks like to make it happen nor is there a leader who can risk the domestic blowback by forcing it and then having a rocket launched from Tulkarem.
I gave my hope for this scenario above. I think that an outside possibility would be to have an external and respected Arab power come in and control the Palestinian territories, but I know that no one wants to do that. Mohammed bin Salman could be that person if he were so inclined and then he could make his family the guardian of the three holiest sites in Islam. He is visionary enough, but no Arab leader wants to be seen as serving as the jailers for the Israelis nor do they want the hassle of dealing with the raucous Palestinian street.
As a professional military educator, I offer what follows as a first cut of how one might begin a self-critical learning process from the events transpiring in Israel. These efforts are made with a reminder from the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. "The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and the commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive."
What I offer in the following is an attempt to begin learning from the 2023 Hamas War by understanding the kind of war it is and identifying challenges in the past that have caused myself and others to understand such wars in ways that were alien to their nature. Of course, for me, understanding a war comes through understanding it in terms of narrative and the narrative’s connected and associated stories, messages, and words-deeds-images.
Where one stands determines what one sees. The location of an observer is impeded by the shape of the surrounding terrain. If one is at the bottom of a valley, then visibility will be more limited than if one stood high on a hilltop. The area that one cannot see or that a weapon system cannot engage from a given position is called deadspace as it affords opportunities for opponents to move unobserved and/or unengaged. The shape of the physical landscape in combination with the location of the observer creates deadspace.
In cyberspace, there is an entire portion of the web referred to as the dark web. This includes domains that are discreet and not included on web browsers. One must know the specific address to access such a site. There are also applications that only allow entry to those with invitations from existing members and include highly secure forms of communication. Both types of sites create deadspace for governments and security professionals. The nature of bitcoin and other types of cryptocurrencies, that are only available through online commerce, also present effective deadspace – a means to conduct business transactions that are both unobservable and untraceable.
Narrative space also includes deadspace. Some of this is determined by decisions of the observer, just as is true for physical space. Where one stands determines the observable world. In discussions of narrative there tends to be a lot of emphasis on social media. This may be, in part, because there are existing tools that can track and map social networks thereby making it easier to understand the terrain. The problem with this emphasis is that so focusing creates tremendous deadspace for those groups or organizations that do not primarily rely on social media to promote or promulgate their narrative. Narrative is much more than social media. It is also history and culture and language. In this sense, what one studies or has been taught is also determinant of what one sees.
We are a week into the most recent war in the Levantine Middle East and I expect that everyone has heard more than a few allusions to the 1973 War that began fifty years prior to this war. The calendar alone makes the comparisons logical, but as I have listened to a few military and national security analysts I have been disappointed by the depth or the lack thereof of the analysis. The 1973 War was the last state-on-state war between Israel and its neighbors. Some readers may point out the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon as a state-on-state war, but I do not agree. The purpose of that war was to attack the Palestinian non-state groups launching attacks from Southern Lebanon and to take the fight to the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization then headquartered in Beirut, Lebanon.
The significance of 1973 was that it marked the end of a paradigm in the struggle against Israel – Arab or Muslim states were no longer deemed to be capable of defeating the Jewish state and a variety of non-state actors became the primary approach to attacking Israel. I use the phrase non-state actor rather than terrorist or violent extremist organization because it is broader and more appropriately reflects the approach against Israel.
I have my opinions on who is right and who is wrong in this current fighting, but I do not offer what follows as an expression or a defense of those opinions. I am trying to be as objective as possible in describing the approach to fighting Israel that few in American defense or national security circles do a sufficient job in expressing.
Consider the variety of non-state actor attacks against Israel in the last fifty years.
Most of these types of attacks were never considered as legitimate or effectual battlefields for war. In that sense, these were all narrative deadspace where opponents of Israel moved, operated, and built support and influence outside of observation or engagement on the part of Israel or friends of Israel.
The somewhat standard story for the 1973 War explains how Arab armies learned from their 1967 defeat, developed a strategy for victory, and then developed training to accomplish the strategy. The story continues with the attack across the Suez Canal and through the Golan Heights to defeat Israeli initial defenses and threaten operational reserves with a combination of surprise, technical ability, tenacity, and determination. The Israelis responded with aggression and creativity to drive the attackers back. So goes a somewhat balanced presentation of the war.
While this story may be useful in helping to prepare for large-scale combat operations which is how it is traditionally used by the United States Army, I offer that it is not useful in understanding what also happened between 1967 and 1973 and how that more important transformation shaped the above stated list of non-state actor attacks against Israel and other Western interests in the fifty years since 1973.
The 1967 Arab-Israeli War effectively destroyed the notion of the power of the Arab state to achieve goals vis-à-vis Israel. While non-state actors were extant prior to 1967 they became more and more significant since that war. I am arguing that it was the Arab state failure in the 1967 War that led to the transformation from a state centered approach to fight Israel toward a non-state centered approach. The list expressing the variety of ways to attack Israel through the narrative space as part of a narrative war was born in the frustrated failure of 1967. One might even see in Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s approach to the 1973 War a narrative war approach. He didn’t intend to win the war through violence. He intended to win the war through diplomatic negotiation and what he needed to begin that negotiation was a military success which the crossing of the Suez Canal gave him.
Too many people, including myself in prior decades, look to the wars in which Israel participated as expressions of firepower or maneuver war philosophies. While that may have been true for 1948, 1956, and 1967, every war since 1967, including the 1973 War, has been a narrative war.
The fighting that is currently a week old is the latest expression of narrative war. There have already been numerous opinion pieces stating significant intelligence failures on the part of the Israel Defense Forces. Most of the emphasis on these failures addresses technical failures, overreliance on technology rather than human intelligence or human observers and reactions forces, and an underestimation of Hamas as an opponent. These issues will all certainly be addressed in the future committees and think tanks studies to be formed and conducted in the months and years to come. What I want to emphasize here are an initial three instances of narrative deadspace in 2023.
These are only the initial three expressions of narrative deadspace. As we learn more there will certainly be more revealed, but these three are a great place to regularly start in checking our own narrative deadspace. What is the box in which I have placed my opponent? What has happened from which my opponent may have learned? What are the resources on which my opponent will rely?
For those wondering why this matters to them I want to make two points. One, the United States and others have also been victims of their own narrative deadspace; most notably, leading up to 9/11, the rise and success of ISIS, the collapse of the Afghan national government in the face of Taliban offensive success, and the misreading of Hamas since Israel wasn’t the only intelligence service or group of national security analysts caught off guard in this attack. Two, what is happening in Israel will not stay there. Iran has funded Hamas for a long while now. Those who are ideologically opposed to Western civilization and culture learn. They truly learn; in that they will adapt their behaviors and actions based off what works. Regardless of the illegality and immorality of the Hamas attacks on 7 October 2023, they worked in transforming the interaction between Hamas and Israel. Others like ISIS, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the scores of Iranian sponsored militias, and all related groups which operate in Asia, Africa, South America, Europe, and North America will act upon the lessons they are learning. They will see the narrative deadspace of their opponents and like various infiltrators in past battles and wars they will move undetected through that space until they can strike a blow against their opponents. This time, that opponent was Israel. As we support Israel in this current fight, let’s work to make sure that we also learn and adapt so that we all close down our own narrative deadspace to prevent future atrocities.
If we are narratively standing in the wrong place, then we need to move. We need to seek better and more appropriate narrative vantage points opening our vision and our appreciation of the operational environment. As with physical battlespace, one can also close down deadspace by placing additional observation such that even if the weapon system cannot shoot there, it is still covered by observation. Such action requires awareness and conscious avoidance of existing deadspace.
 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976, 88.
I am writing this during the late afternoon of 7 October 2023 and last night, my time, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other groups launched a coordinated attack into the state of Israel that included rockets, boats, paragliders, motorcycles, trucks, explosives, wire cutters, and many other tools and techniques of infiltration and assault. I am a regular listener and consumer of the Generation Jihad podcast and recommend this episode released hours after the attack began for the best discussion of what happened.
I want to make four small points, one large one, and a prediction regarding what is happening and will be happening over the next several days.
My large point is this: this was not a Black Swan. It was a Gray Rhino. If you are not familiar with these terms, let me do a brief summary. Black Swan was a term made popular by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. He offers three main characteristics of Black Swan events:
A gray rhino, on the other hand, is something that is known and expected, but also has a major effect. All too often, the problems that create the greatest destruction in our lives and for our countries are gray rhinos, not black swans: World War II, COVID-19, collapse of the Afghan national government in 2021, the rise of ISIS, and this attack into Israel on 6 October 2023 fifty years after another gray rhino in the same area; the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
Today’s attack was a gray rhino because Hamas has been posting videos of their training and they have mounted numerous minor movements against the security perimeter around the Gaza Strip for months and years.
Usually, our opponents tell us what they are going to do before they do it. This was certainly the case here. The events of today and in the days to come should stand as a stark warning about the importance of studying what the enemy says and understanding the enemy’s thinking and perspective.
This is part of what I call the narrative space. It is crucial that one does a narrative net assessment of any opponent. I think the greatest example of a net assessment comes from Sun Tzu at the end of his chapter ten when he says “know the enemy, know yourself; your victory will never be endangered. Know the ground, know the weather; your victory will then be total.” In each case of knowing this involves understanding strengths and weaknesses. Those strengths and weaknesses then get compared with those of the enemy, the weather, and/or the terrain. This net assessment is more than a cognitive approach. It must also include, as recommended by Sun Tzu, the environment, the experience, and the associated cognition.
Everyone needs to understand the narrative space of the opponent immediately in front as well as the opponent at a distance. Iran certainly is supporting these activities, and may be, in some way, seeking to coordinate them. If I am right, then all Western forces in the Middle East need to study and be concerned with what was demonstrated today and what happens in the next several days as similar efforts may be taken toward them.
Now for my prediction.
Depending on how long this lasts and how many Israeli civilians are killed, the Israeli retaliation may generate an effect similar to that achieved by the response to the 1968 Tet Offensive in January of that year. Most people forget or never knew that what we refer to as Tet was really three separate events that happened over the course of much of 1968. Each event was smaller than what preceded it. The response to the three large-scale and disparate attacks and efforts across South Vietnam by the South Vietnamese security personnel and the American forces stationed in South Vietnam effectively destroyed what was commonly referred to as the Viet Cong: the insurgent South Vietnamese allied with North Vietnam. They were killed and captured in huge numbers, and they didn’t really recover after 1968.
I believe that it may be possible that Hamas and other groups will have so profoundly enraged the Israelis that they may hunt down as many fighters as they can and capture or kill a generation’s worth of such people. Hamas may no longer be an effective fighting force following what happens.
I offer this prediction as just that. I am no prophet and many of my COVID predictions proved to be faulty. Regardless, I wanted to get this thinking out there so as to generate the thinking of others.
I will end with my first small point. This is in the earliest stages and may not evolve at all as I have suggested.
 Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963), 129.
Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,