Eyeless in Gaza — Are we blind to an enduring reality of war?
In this new century of war, Americans have lost their way. We have become existentially unmoored. The very language we use to describe war — with strangely disconnected words like “asymmetric” or “hybrid” — tells the world how confused and uncertain we feel when it comes to using military power effectively. But war has not changed in 10,000 years. Gaza tells us it is the same, right near the same biblical site — Jericho — where war first began. The real problem is not that we do not know what war is, but that we refuse to see what is right in front of us and always has been. The big question for us is why we keep ourselves blind.
Sun Tzu said, “In generalship … the worst policy of all is to besiege walled cities.” Then why did we besiege walled cities with such ardor for the next 2,500 years? Was Sun Tzu wrong, or are we humans just stupid?
The fight in Gaza represents a fight for a fortress. Contemporary reinforced concrete, built-up into the densest human landscape, can make as good a fortress as any formally walled place from antiquity.
Humanity’s biggest battles, its most decisive struggles, its bitterest and most intimate conflicts, the final resting place of all the lore of war: they are all, always in the cities. And cities — since the first mud brick courses were laid in late Chalcolithic Jericho 10,000 years ago — represent in the living bones of their buildings, human fortification. So it was in Troy VII, when Achilles chased poor Hector three times around its girdling walls. So it is today, in the tiny principality and gigantic fortress we call Gaza. The Battle of Gaza tells us everything about war — “us” being Western modernity — and especially the United States.
We seem to think “real war” is about something else entirely: tank-on-tank, airpower resplendent, forces moving majestically on the field of battle. Other wars are somehow lesser and unworthy.
Hence even as we assault the walls or trenches right in front of us, our psychic energy is still flowing to the battles we yearn to fight. Our war-desire always overcomes reality. Because we are always dreaming of the war we want, we are blind to the war we have. Thus our failures have not been defeats necessarily on the battlefield, but deeper defeats: defeats of the mind.
This is not a problem of simply seeing war wrongly, but rather that in seeing it wrongly, there are almost immediate negative effects — on our warfighting, our strategy, and our society. We have lost wars because fighting the war we wanted was more important to us than winning the war we had. — as in Vietnam, as in Iraq.
Fortification — which is to say, hardened human habitation — is the great equalizer of all the vagaries and eternal inequalities of war. It is hard to believe that we have forgotten such truths, but forgotten they are. For example, we call Stalingrad a “battle” when in fact it was the failed siege of a Soviet city. We call Okinawa and Iwo Jima “battles” too, when in fact they were also sieges of fortified places. El Alamein was a siege; the Bocage (after D-Day) was a siege (by the Wehrmacht). Hue City was a siege, as was An Loc, and not ever to forgetDien Bien Phu. Israel, currently besieging the grand fortification called Gaza, was born in sieges too, like the capture of the Golan Heights and West Jerusalem in 1967, or (lest we forget) Latrun Police Fort in bitterest 1948. But the tables have since turned, beginning with the fall of the Bar Lev Line, and then the Shi’atunnels in Lebanon and most earnestly, Gaza now.
Or try thinking about Donetsk today and all the other Helm’s Deep last-bastions of a still-living Soviet-Stalingrad ethos. Yet what made the Tractor Factory ultimately so heroic was not only its stalwart, red blood, Red Army defenders — dying at 5,000 a day — but also the massively rebarred reinforced concrete of the Stalin era. Shelling made every building a fortress — and all the stronger the more they were reduced to rubble. Chechen rebels showed how reinforced concrete structures, allied with creative tactics and a whole mess of RPG-7s, could rout the same Red Army, corroded in spirit and identity. Sacrificial conscripts: an entire brigade convoy of tanks and BMPs marked for death en route to Hell in Grozny. New Year’s Eve, 1994.
These wars seem far away to Americans. But how about our very special revolution? Every decisive British defeat was about the siege of a fortified place: Boston in 1775, Saratoga in 1778, and Yorktown in 1781. And the greatest American defeat in the entire war was the grand surrender at Charleston in 1779, where the haul of American prisoners rivaled the British army lost at Saratoga.
Maybe we just can’t relate to the fort part. We Americans exalt the dynamic over the static — and fortification just does not fit our vision of who we are. Hence we know about everything about these battles, but we have zero awareness that they are also about fortification, and what it means that the biggest “battles” were sieges. We are so clueless that when we talk about fighting in cities we call it “urban warfare” (or worse, “military operations in urbanized terrain”) as though this is slightly exotic — and definitely not real war in the field, army-against-army, mano-a-mano.
But fortified human communities have always been where the real action is — and whether walls or bunkers, trenches or breastworks, it matters not. We fight over forts.
War is where the people are. And people like to protect themselves. War is always a contest over people, even when soldiers are its representatives in open battle, and maps make land look like the main objective. But people are the main objective. Wars are not won until the people yield — and in times ancient and modern, and when they fight for a fortified city, they make that the place of decision.
Even when the battle comes in out-of-the-way places — like the primeval forests of 18th century North America — it often ends up also being about the attack on a fortified “urban” place. Here the expeditionary army in the wilderness itself becomes a little city. The British and their American colonial regiments, for example, brought an entire army into the Allegheny wilderness in the 1758 push against French Fort Duquesne. For a time, the fortified encampment they built — Fort Ligonier — was the 2nd-largest city in Pennsylvania.
But even if we do not imagine campaigning armies as portable cities, we should still remember that the places where they make camp are no different than any urban community — just more heavily armed. Moreover, it always seems that armies on campaign will have their portable cities invested and attacked — and always, almost without exception, the battle is shaped as an assault on a fortified place: A city of soldiers. Think Gettysburg, think Fredericksburg, think Spotsylvania Courthouse, think Cold Harbor.
Think capital city sieges like Paris and Richmond: these were, remember, the two most decisive battles between Waterloo (1815) and the Marne (1914). Think of the Western Front not as “trench warfare, but a four year-long mutual siege by fortified nations.
The thread from Bronze Age to today is the power of shovel, pick, and ax (or front-loader and cement-mixer). Yet why are we still so fixated on the clean Alexandrian battle as war’s proper norm? You know: the “meeting engagement” on the plain, the campus, the gridiron, the place of decision, the mythically named “field of battle”?
Perhaps the truth is: we treasure war above all for what it gives us emotionally.
The score-keeping ledger of battle — like weapons captured or booty or territory taken — is nothing compared to what battle offers our spirit. In fact, everything physical in war serves a symbolic and ritual role. When we display captured enemy weapons — like old Romans putting the prows of Carthaginian ships on Rostral red columns — we are using the spoils and treasure of victory to valorize the great things we did. Hence we always want memorials of battle that enshrine the transcendence of the human actor in decisive action. We want the war we want.
There is no emotional place here for fortification — especially if dug from lowly earth — to share in a centrally human triumph (or tragedy). At best, forts are simply earthly accessories in our mythic efforts — they are just there. War must always be about the sacrifice of our young men, and how they were crucified for us, by us.
Thus battle in its pristine form, from earliest times, has been shaped as a model or ideal of collective celebration. Yet such rites can properly exist only through our deeply desired opera of war, which naturally takes the form of two armies meeting on a field to decide the “destiny” of nations.
Staged battles have the great merit of showcasing “our” people against “their” people in a way that not only demonstrates our higher virtue in the test of battle, but also encourages strong and memorable visual presentation — a vibrant, dynamic story to be carried collectively and passed down through the generations. Americans yearn for the “quick decisive victory,” like a fast-placed stage play with a beginning, middle, and exciting climactic rush of an end.
But such “battles” are not to be preferred in the conduct of actual war, because they risk too much in a single throw of the dice. Better to game the fight, equalize the odds — even stack them in your favor. Here, digging is fighting to win. Literally. Fortification wins wars.
It is one thing to see the centrality of fortification in war — this is helpful insight. It is quite another to go further, and see how opportunities in war can be limited by an ethos that favors a narrow conceptualization of battle. In other words, failing to see the full significance of fortification may also indicate a distorted vision of war itself.
Societies so often desire the grand theater of victory more than they will accept the hard truths of fighting to win. Why do the rational citizens of a nation long so for the cinema of pure battle?
The time of the French Revolution and Napoleon was a time of nation-battles — passionate events in which the identity and fate of whole peoples seemed to hang in the balance. The great battles of this age tested — as Tolstoy described in War and Peace — the collective spirit of the nation, and promised in victory something like a collective realization. This melding of great battles with the destiny of nations became part of the expectation of societies, and was a major motivation leading to the bloodletting of World War I.
Facts on the ground show this. In Victorian Modernity you cannot say such nation-battles did not codify existential meaning for their fired-up citizens — unless you wish to deny, for example, the sacred centrality of the Arc de Triomphe in the French heart. The grand opera of French identity is truly in battle: Austerlitz, Marengo, Wagram, Jena-Auerstadt.
Battle also entered the imagination of society through the debut of great battle paintings, which were central to Napoleonic propaganda. To sense its visceral impact on France, see Gros, Detaille, Gerard, David, Meissonier, Vernet, and more. This visual medium exalting great battle perhaps reached its height later in the later 19th century with the Gettysburg Cyclorama.
If the mythic battle paradigm was literally in play only during Napoleon’s lifetime, it nonetheless left a legacy that will not go away. Electorates and their military societies still idealize battle — in some societies still they even thirst for it. Americans should be able to remember, for example, our breathless collective excitement during the 24/7 coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Just as we should remember our excitement as American tanks rolled into Baghdad in 2003, we should also understand how whole societies in Western Europe surged passionately into war in the summer of 1914. The centenary of 1914 should warn us of our persistent tendency to imagine war as some extravagant theater of battle. Napoleon-battle — suitably updated with tanks and drones and major C4ISR — remains our unnoticed strategic vulnerability, in part because it lets us deny the ways others will fight. Meaning, war we don’t like. Meaning, war to win.
Here fortification raises an altogether different flag. The provenance of digging deep is defensive. Clausewitz commands us to see how the defense is the stronger form of war. But defense remains a stepchild to us because our favorite children are always the celebrated sprites of Napoleon-battle.
Yet fortification — any fortification — is always how the lowly and disadvantaged can steal a march on jackboot global elites who believe they are this world’s gods.
Hence, Milton’s image: “Ask for this great deliverer now, and find him Eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves”— suggests that the chosen, blinded giant of God — The United States of America — is perhaps also eyeless to see larger revelations and truths. We especially are still emotionally wedded — like the ghost of Napoleon — to the insatiable vanity of battle.
Fortification may be earthen in its roots and excessively humble in its practice, yet it never ceases to serve human communities in need. This we must see: Operatic battle is an elite vanity; fortification is about community necessity. Theatrical war is about attitude. Real war is about survival.
But the message for us should go beyond the recognition that “real war” favors the defense (and Clausewitz was right, it does). The message should go beyond the assumption that fortified human places are the strength of the weak and the downtrodden. We need to understand better the central role fortification plays in war.
What if we were to open our eyes, and see war for what it is? Are we not there now? Some past articles in War on the Rocks show that we understand better what we are facing, even though we cannot find a good way to describe it. We understand that state-on-state war is fading away, and we know we have to adapt to shadow wars.
But these are shadow wars not simply because they are out of the parade-ground sunlight of battle, but because they are literally in the shadows. We are facing not simply war amongst the people, but people fighting desperately in fortified places. Right now we have Gaza and Donetsk and the specter of a grand siege of Baghdad.
The very dynamics of war are, as always, where the people are, and the people, it seems, have learned to defend themselves. We face a more difficult problem than simply adapting to “irregular” or “hybrid” or “political” styles of warfare. War amongst the people is itself adapting to our technological dominance in situational awareness, targeting, and command and control — with dirt, concrete, and rebar. Call it: fortified irregular.
In other centuries, formal, even stuffy militaries had a well-worn path to accommodate the irregular — called Petite Guerre. This was the path of cooptation: the practice of hiring and acquiring, whether border reivers in Scotland or Byzantine Akritai or Hapsburg Croatian Pandurs or Ottoman Armatoloi or any of the hundreds of irregular fighting traditions that have been — more or less — a part of state armies.
We face a tougher problem. Technology and technique alone will not be enough — as we are seeing in Gaza. The U.S. needs to build ground forces deeply attuned to fortified environments, and not simply well equipped with a course in urban warfare under its belt. We need to develop a military way of life attuned to fortified irregular.
Someday American forces will again be asked to enter a fortified city — an exercise of maximum risk in war. As it was before Richmond and Paris, Stalingrad and Berlin, Tyre and Troy, many poor outcomes await. If this is our military future, we had best prepare well.
Michael Vlahos is a professor at The Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs and the U.S. Naval War College, teaching the art of strategy and global net assessment.
Photo credit: gnuckx