Some Lessons from the Israelis

By Maj William C. Fite

The 1980 Bevan G. Cass Award

The Middle East is not a new hotspot. Israel and her Arab neighbors have fought four wars there since the end of World War II. More recent events, such as the revolution in Iran, the seizure of Americans in Tehran, the attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, have underscored the volatility of the region. At the same time, more and more Americans have come to recognize the economic importance of the Middle East to the U.S. and the Western World. We must have oil, and although few believe we could take it by force, a growing number of American leaders acknowledge that the U. S. might have to fight to maintain the right to buy the oil essential to national survival. The need for U.S. Marines to look to their readiness could hardly be more clear.

Combat readiness is the ability to get somewhere quickly and fight effectively. Because moving quickly is easy to test, we have always been good at it. Some Marines even make the mistake of thinking that moving out in a hurry is all that readiness demands. In fact, fighting effectively is more important, but it is not easy to measure before the shooting starts.

Combat effectiveness is a product of materiel and human factors. The materiel factors include weapons, equipment, supplies, and facilities. We are fortunate that ours are among the world’s best, because in the short run their development and supply are pretty much fixed. Most Marines can only maintain, not improve, our material readiness. The Commandant of the Marine Corps and his staff make hard choices every day between more weapons now and better weapons later, but today’s Marines will fight with what we have.

Human factors of combat effectiveness are both tangible and intangible. Marines themselves are tangible. We would like to have more of them, but, like weapons and equipment, they take time to produce, and for many months, if need be, we will fight with what we have. Other, intangible human factors are of vital importance to combat effectiveness. They include spirit, tactics, military skills, and leadership, to name a few. Because these qualities and subjects are hard to measure, we cannot always be as certain about them as we can about our equipment.

Are we ready? Marines are always ready, more or less-depending on the terrain and the situation, as our instructors like to say. In the Middle East the terrain is tank country. Our enemy there will most probably be formidable in his numbers, his arms, and his zeal to destroy us. He may have recent combat experience, and he will probably know the ground well. Unless we can imagine the United States starting the fighting, we may expect to find that the enemy has the initiative. The threat of nuclear war and world economic chaos will rapidly build pressure for a ceasefire, putting a premium on early battle success and reducing the relevance of national industrial staying-power.

Well, no one promised us a rose garden. The contest could be close, to say the least, just as the October War of 1973 was for a time very close for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Despite being caught by surprise, they fought back against desperate odds on two fronts to gain the upper hand militarily by the time of the cease-fire. In this remarkable feat, no less than in the 1948, 1956, and 1967 Israeli victories, the margin of success was due more to human than to materiel factors.

The IDF experiences hold lessons in combat effectiveness for U.S. Marines. Facing parity or disadvantage in materiel factors, we must work to gain advantage in human factors. We must outthink and outfight the enemy. Marines have done so before, but not recently, and not in the Middle East. Using Israeli examples, let us remind ourselves of some fundamentals:

* Know the theories of warfare. Opportunities in war, as in chess, are inherent. They exist, though they may not be seen. The advantage belongs not so much to the strongest or the brightest, but to the side which sees and takes the better opportunity. In chess, to continue my analogy, a knowledge of the theory of the game is necessary to compete with the best. One does not become a serious player merely by learning the rules, the inventory of pieces, and the powers of the pieces; yet we sometimes seek skill in our professsion through a similar approach.

Officers in Marine Corps schools study Marine Corps organization, equipment, and doctrine. They spend an hour or two on the “principles of war” (conveniently reduced to the acronym MOOSEMUSS), but they do not analyze military history, and they do not study theories of warfare, either classical or current. One result is that most Marines know little about maneuver warfare, in which the goal is the psychological defeat of the enemy through movement in relation to the enemy and his purposes. Our doctrine emphasizes the physical destruction of the enemy through firepower, a method known as firepower-attrition warfare-though most Marines are not familiar with the term.

In contrast, IDF doctrine is based on a full appreciation of maneuver-warfare theory as it evolved through the writings of J.F.C. Fuller, B. H. Liddell Hart, Heinz Guderian, and others. Early Israeli military leaders and thinkers, such as Yigael Yadin, were especially influenced by Hart’s theory of the “indirect approach” and his assertion that “the real target in war is the mind of the enemy commander, not the bodies of his troops.” Theory soon turned to practice on the battlefield. In The Arab-Israeli War, 1948, military historian Edgar O’Ballance said:

The accepted strategy of the indirect approach, so obvious and so simple once the lesson has been driven home, had to be painfully learnt by the Israelis before Latrun, but once they mastered the technique much of their success was due to skillful use of it. The full value of mobility was quickly appreciated by the young Israeli commanders. Lack of it contributed heavily to the general Arab failures.

In 1956 Moshe Dayan, then Chief of Staff of the IDF, planned “to confound the organization of the Egyptian forces in Sinai and bring about their collapse.” Dayan reasoned that there was little point in killing great numbers of Egyptians because they could easily be replaced.

Through the October War of 1973 the Israelis have, indeed, confounded their enemies by waging maneuver warfare, firepower-attrition warfare, and combinations of the two, as the situation seemed to demand. We need to study theories of warfare, especially maneuver warfare, to have the same flexibility. The efforts of Marines at the Development Center at Quantico and at the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) at Twentynine Palms are encouraging, as are recent Marine Corps GAZETTE articles on maneuver warfare.* Our schools should teach more theory, however, and individual Marines should study more. Those who understand warfare theory will see more opportunities on the battlefield, and, incidentally, will be less vulnerable to maneuver tactics.

* Know the enemy. In any kind of warfare knowledge of the enemy, especially enemy weaknesses, should be the basis of all planning. The Israelis believe in this principle, and their knowledge of their opponents is legendary. In The Israeli Army Edward Luttwak and Dan Horowitz described the efforts of Gen Yeshayahu Gavish and others at the IDF Training Command to learn about Russian and Egyptian tactics in the mid-1960s:

Gavish and his colleagues stopped at nothing in their efforts to understand Russian tactics: they analyzed the voluminous Western and Russian literature on the subject, interviewed Israelis who had served in the Russian army, and even read Russian war novels hoping to glean some useful information.

Gen Gavish’s own account of how the IDF trained illustrates the practicality of their approach:

First of all [in discussions] within the training command and then in wider groups where dozens of people participated, each of whom suggested this or that solution . . . We examined [rival] theories and conducted a series of exercises . . . We constructed a Russian-style deployment on a large scale and then attacked it.

The training paid off. In the Six-Day War of June 1967, IDF forces under Gen Gavish defeated an Egyptian force of 5 infantry and 2 armored divisions, taking over 12,000 prisoners in the process. For many reasons U. S. Marines cannot expect to match the IDF’s combat intelligence record, but we would do well to match their effort.

We know that the Soviet Union is our Nation’s primary threat, and we know that the Soviets have armed and trained other potential enemies in the Middle East. But how will the Soviets or their clients attack us? Specifically, what is likely to be the disposition of their tanks? At what range can we expect their gunners to achieve a 50 percent first-round hit probability? Will their infantry dismount from carriers and, if so, where? Where will their air defense be weakest? What vulnerabilities can we exploit? How can we disrupt their plans? Most Marines don’t know the answers to these questions and aren’t required to know them; in fact, most don’t even ask the questions. In our schools we emphasize military intelligence by studying such things as “the sequence of information processing activities and their interrelationships,” and by producing documents, such as estimates and annexes, from excessively long exercise “scenarios.” In our units we sometimes do little more than display posters showing Soviet equipment. These activities offer little or no advantage on the battlefield compared to the study of enemy tactics and weaknesses, which should be our emphasis. Much important information about the Soviets and other potential opponents is readily available,* but studying that information is voluntary, encouraged only by an appeal to individual “professionalism.” Our schools should trim their courses of excessive attention to ourselves and begin to teach Marines about the enemy. Meanwhile, unit leaders can cull relevant information about possible opponents from available publications, teach it to their ssubordinates, and establish standards cm the subject in their units. The more we know of our enemy, the better will be our chances for success.

* Dare to risk. Although U. S. Marines are renowned for their traditional boldness, epitomized in the amphibious assaults of the Pacific in World War II, our most recent combat experience was gained in the Vietnam War where bravery was commonplace, but boldness was not. We entered the war cautiously under very restrictive rules of engagement, and we departed cautiously with avoidance of casualties our greatest concern. In the intervening years we did conduct some bold operations, such as Operation Dewey Canyon, but it is fair to say that they were few. Moreover, certain restrictions and practices at the small-unit level were perhaps more than prudent. Prescribed patrol compositions, manatory helmets and flak jackets for ambushes, prohibition of small stay-behind ambushes, routine registration of defensive fires (disclosing our locations), and liberal use of battlefield illumination are examples of measures that sometimes sacrificed gain to reduce risk. True, we frequently had the best reason for avoiding risk: low potential for compensating gains. The point is not so much to say we were wrong as to remind us that we were cautious.

We still are. Since Vietnam, if not before, the peacetime Marine Corps has been well stocked with careful officers. The reason, in a word, is careerism, which may be defined as the habitual placing of one’s ambitions (i.e., professional advancement) over the good of the Service. Our “up-or-out” system is not inherently bad; Israeli officers who do not advance are usually not retained either. A critical difference in the two systems, however, is that advancement in the IDF is based largely on initiative and competence in battle; in the U.S. Armed Forces a clean or “zero-defects” record may be the most common criterion for promotion. The importance of a near-flawless record of performance in the Fleet Marine Forces is greater than for other duty and greater still for performance while commanding in the Fleet Marine Forces. Our officer-assignment policy allows only brief, widely spaced opportunities to command in the Fleet Marine Forces, and comand in combat is rarest of all. The message is clear to many: BE CAREFUL!

In each of their four wars since 1948, and between wars as well, IDF military operations have been distinguished by boldness, even audacity. Gen Ariel Sharon’s crossing of the Suez Canal in the October War of 1973 is an excellent example. Sharon’s actions are still debated even in Israel, where calculated risk-taking is almost an art form; however, it is difficult to argue with success. A week after crossing the canal the Israelis had surrounded and isolated the Egyptian Third Army of 300 tanks and 20,000 men. No gambler wins all the time, but the IDF has demonstrated that bold, unexpected moves can bring success against seemingly great odds. Israeli leaders dare to make the moves. We should note, too, that although the IDF has not been fettered by careerism, no nation has shown more concern for its own war casualties than Israel. Though inhibited, they continue to take risks because they know the value of surprise, and they know that caution can be very costly to the side with fewer numbers.

Can risk-taking be learned? Certainly not by everyone, but I believe most Marines are bold by nature. We can combat careerism and encourage the spirit to dare by challenging ourselves and our subordinates to take action and to innovate. We should allow subordinates to fail in a good try, and we should rate bold leaders a notch above cautious ones. We do not need changes without benefits, nor do we need new “systems,” charts, statistics, reports, or other additions to our administrative workload. We do need leaders with the courage to seek new ways to defeat the enemy.

* Learn the odds. Gamblers must have courage, but even more they must know the odds. Las Vegas is no place to learn blackjack, and the battlefield is not the ideal place to learn high-risk operational methods. In our field training throughout the Marine Corps and in the classroom, we must find out what is possible and what is practical. Marines at Twentynine Palms and at Quantico, among other places, work at testing our tactics and developing doctrine, but more can be done elsewhere. The key to learning the odds and our limits is free play.

There are many reasons why military exercises seem to have been planned by choreographers. We want a lot to happen because exercises cost money. We gain much by going through the motions of operations as a form of drill, but often we must simply defer to the wishes of our allies. Nonetheless, we must allow some units, particularly battalions and below, an opportunity to conduct free-play exercises to test tactics and abilities without a scorecard. To know their own limits and to know what works, leaders must be given chances to experiment and to fail without penalty. Free-play exercises will cost more than money. There will be fiascos, especially at first. Welcome to combat! Some leaders may consistently do very badly; better we find out now than later. Despite these and other problems, we will be paid back in spades if our leaders learn to innovate. We should try to move away from the predictable phased occupation of successive terrain objectives so common in past exercises and tactical tests.

Free play or war-gaming in the classroom could bring similar benefits. Most exercises at Amphibious Warfare School and the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, with school solutions issued every few hours, emphasize staff procedures and production of staff documents. A common plea of instructors at both schools is, “Don’t get hung up on the tactics.” They might more profitably say, “Don’t get hung up on the procedures; just think about the tactics!”

From the beginning, training for the Israeli soldier stresses flexibility and innovation in unexpected situations. In the field trainees are frequently given tactical problems to solve within a time limit, and then required to react to different conditions introduced just before the time runs out. Similar techniques are applied in the classroom through use of the blackboard, map, and sand table. Emphasis is on commonsense, original solutions, not procedure or doctrine. The soldier learns to think and to improvise. His confidence grows as he learns what he and his unit can do. He becomes bolder and, therefore, less predictable to his opponent.

* Be quick. Fighting in future war, especially in the Middle East, promises to be furious. In 18 days of October 1973, the Arabs lost 2,300 tanks, far more than the Marine Corps owns, and 475 aircraft. In the same period the Israelis lost about 2,500 men killed, fewer than the Arabs but proportionally equivalent to over 175,000 Americans. It has been estimated that on 7 October the Israelis flew 20 times as many sorties as could be mustered by the U. S. Sixth Fleet. Artillery batteries on both sides demonstrated a common ability to move locations between 12 and 15 times a day.

We will need to be quick to win. The time we take to reach a decision, draw up and convey orders, and move where required must occur consistently faster than the enemy can react. If the enemy does have time to react to our moves, we are most unlikely to disrupt his operations or to engage him decisively. If we are slow in reacting to him, we are dead.

Given our present doctrine and training methods, we probably operate close to our maximum pace. Are we fast enough? I cannot believe so. In training for operations ashore (but not for amphibious operations), we must change to be faster by valuing speed over form, results over procedures, the simple over the complex, and command over control. Our typical battalion field exercise has the goal of teaching us to operate “by the book”; that is, step by step in all actions. Staff officers, for example, keep logs and journals, make formal estimates, and write out radio messages. We do benefit from these procedures, but they will have to be dropped when the tempo of operations increases. Training time is precious. We can get the most from it by training to do the hardest things we may be expected to do ashore, such as conduct up-to-division-sized operations with only verbal orders. We should not throw away the book, but we need not spend so much of our nonamphibious training time plodding through it. If the situation permits we will always be able to slow down; speeding up takes practice.

It should surprise no one to learn that the Israelis routinely conduct complex operations with divisions and brigades, using only verbal orders. They exert continuous pressure on their opponents by moving, reacting, and making decisions faster than any army in modern times. Practice may not make perfect, but it surely builds improvement. We need improvement.

* Maintain military skills. The importance of military skills-technical and tactical proficiency-is too obvious to dwell on and too important not to mention. Much of the IDF’s success has been due not to incaution or great armor sweeps maneuvering ever to the rear, but to mastery of basic military skills such as flying, tank gunnery, and tactics. In the Golan during the October War, for example, superior shooting and organization of the ground enabled about 180 Israeli tanks to stop about 800 attacking Syrian tanks. Such achievements are all the more remarkable when one considers that the Israeli army numbers fewer than 20,000 regulars (less conscripts). On mobilization, reservists with a 30-day active duty obligation per year fill in cadred units at every level from the brigade commander’s billet on down. Regulars and reservists alike excel in military skills because their training is devoted overwhelmingly to maintaining those skills.

How do we compare? Favorably, surely, in many respects. Emphasis on performance-oriented training and evaluation in the Marine Corps has steadily improved our mastery of military occupational specialty skills in recent years, and better programs are on the way. New courses for formal training of infantry officers and enlisted Marines have been very successful. We do have at least one serious problem: because our training outside of the Fleet Marine Force is not combat-oriented, Marines on other duty tend to lose their military skills. The problem is most acute for officers in the combat arms above the rank of captain, who may be assigned to the FMF only once in a decade or longer. Many infantry lieutenant colonels are in this category.

Should not our battalion and regimental commanders in the combat arms be more experienced in their occupational fields? They are not likely to be, so long as we fill the FMF with officers who have been away the longest. That policy may be fair to individuals, but not to the Corps. Success in battle is our primary goal, and we need every possible advantage to secure that goal. Eight or 10 years away from the field is too long for the “first to fight.” The rapid pace and growing complexity of modern combined-arms tactical engagements can best be met by specialists, not well-rounded generalists. Of Marine officers available for assignment to the FMF, the best qualified should be sent first-beginning with those who want to go. At the outset of hostilities the FMF is our starting lineup. Ability and desire to be in that lineup must count for more than “fairness” if we are to have our best chance to win.

* Leadership: lead and let lead. Two points about IDF leaders are made by virtually every author who has studied them. First, they lead from the front. The costs in leaders killed are high; that the one Israeli soldier killed during the daring 1976 Entebbe Raid was the leader of a rescue unit is symbolic, if not typical, of IDF leadership. The Israelis believe that the strong unit cohesion which results from respect for officers and noncommissioned officers more than offsets the high leader casualties. Furthermore, leaders in front see more and react faster than do directors in the rear.

Second, Israeli leaders trust their subordinates, placing them on their own whenever possible by giving them missions without detailed instructions and by encouraging them to make on-the-spot decisions. This approach sacrifices control to gain quick, aggressive responses to unexpected battlefield situations. In the battle for El Arish during the 1967 war, for example, as explained by Luttwak and Horowitz:

What saved the day was the leadership of unit commanders who never paused to reorganize or to search for their mother formations. In accordance with [Gen Israel Tal’s] standing orders, they continued to fight and advance toward the divisional objective: El Arish. When Col Eytan’s battalion of Patton tanks lost touch with his mechanized paratroops, neither stopped to find the other; both went on to fight separately. One company of the Patton battalion advanced right across the southern half of the Rafah shield, reached the main road, linked up with a battalion of the 7th Brigade, and spearheaded its second thrust through Jiradi, and all this because of a communications breakdown.

Marine leaders, in my experience, know that one cannot lead from behind, but we can probably improve on letting those under us make decisions. Trends in warfare certainly portend increasing demands on junior leaders. The mobility of forces today and the expected rapid tempo of operations increase the likelihood of units becoming physically separated. Enemy electronic warfare may prevent radio communication of specific instructions to subordinates even if time permitted. To fight best on a fluid, fast-moving battlefield, we must let junior leaders lead.

One caveat: the politics of a limited conflict may demand almost purely symbolic military action of minimal risk and absolute control. While encouraging initiative we should be mindful that actions justifiable militarily can sometimes be disastrous to national purposes.


Comparisons can be overdone: every nation is different. The Israelis fight the way they do because they must. We cannot copy the IDF, but their experiences should remind us how human factors can overcome materiel parity or disadvantage.

We Marines spend a lot of time wondering if there will be a role for us in future wars. Gen Barrow probably had the answer when he said, “I’ve been through three wars, and I haven’t seen a crowded battlefield yet.” There will be room for us if we are ready.

In a practical sense readiness is being prepared to win with what we have. The Marine Corps’ hardware is good, but so is that of our potential enemies. Our intangible human resources, however, are second to none. We must make better use of them to be most effective, and all Marines can help. The key to improvement is not harder work (I doubt that Marines could work much harder for long) but different work. I have tried to suggest some ways we can change; GAZETTE readers can think of many more. Let’s get ready.


* William S. Lind’s “Defining maneuver warfare for the Marine Corps” in the March 1980 GAZETTE is particularly good, and should be read by all Marine leaders.

*See article by Capt Wright in this month’s Ideas and Issues for a discussion of one such source.