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.
Brian L. Steed is an applied historian,