What is victory?

In the final minutes of the Oscar nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers” former Shin Bet [i]commander Ami Ayalon, a decorated war hero who was appointed chief of Shin Bet in aftermath of the humiliating murder of Yitzak Rabin, quotes Carl von Clausewitz, definining victory as

“constituting an improvement of one’s political situation”.

It is Ayalon, one of the few commanders of the feared Israeli Internal Security Agency that did not rise out of the ranks of the organization itself but was brouayalonght in from the ouside (he made his career in the Shayetet 13, a navy commando unit and was awarded the Medal of Valor, the highest Israeli decoration in 1969) who shows remarkable insight in the futility of the endless and ongoing war inside Israel and the occupied territories. Is it perhaps his military background that made him come to this quote?

Where other former Shin Bet commanders in this brillant documentary merely hint at the absence of a winning strategy, or, as Avraham Shalom (Commander from 1981-86) puts it, “there’s no strategy, only tactics” it is Ayalon who sums up the big dilemma of his beloved nation using Clausewitz. He comes tot the grim conclusion that no matter how many terrorists he helped eliminate, he wasn’t able to bring a solution to the bigger issues much less anything that would be constituted as a victory, and so we’re back to Clausewitz.

Carl von Clausewitz is often quoted with the well known “war is simply a continuation of political intercourse, with the addition of other means” but his influence on the thinking of Western Military leaders far exceeds this famous line which can be found in his masterpiece Vom Kriege (On War – 1832). Every major western military academy, be it West Point in the US or Sandhurst in the UK uses Clausewitz extensively in its curriculum and in Israel Martin van Crefeld (Born in Rotterdam) is the preeminent military historian heavily influenced by the ideas of Clausewitz, and as such a source of ideas for military strategists like Ami Ayalon. It is also a fact that the theory of flexible command as laid down by Clausewitz is doctrine in the Israeli Defence Force[ii] .

True: military doctrine Clausewitz style, who heavily favored defence as opposed to offense seems fundamentally at odds with the Israeli concept of taking the war to the enemy as soon as possible but the strategy behind this in the Israeli (military) leadership has always been to defend or preserve the integrity of the nation, and therefore it is quite natural to see a military thinker like Ayalon bring up Clausewitz in a documentary that gave us a peek inside the very heart of the Israeli decicion making proces.

What can we take from this? Perhaps the long term solution for the conflict can come from an unexpected source; the military. After all: the politicians after the visionary Rabin have failed miserably.

[i] Shin Bet is The Israel Security Agency (ISA, Hebrew: שירות הביטחון הכללי‎ Sherut haBitaẖon haKlali “General Security Service, better known by the acronym Shabak (Hebrew:שב״כ or the Shin Bet (a two-letter Hebrew abbreviation of the name). Its motto is “Magen veLo Yera’e” (Hebrew: מגן ולא יראה‎, lit. “Defender that shall not be seen” or “The unseen shield”) (Wikipedia).

[ii] Clausewitz goes global: Carl von Clausewitz in the 21st century, p. 96

Harold Zijp is a miltary Historian and  webmaster of Changing Games

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