This has been a week of drawing lessons from World War I. Here’s mine: What was commemorated in Paris on Sunday as the centenary of the end of the First World War could equally be remembered as the starting date of the Second. Wars that don’t end decisively — in absolute victory for one side and unequivocal defeat for the other — tend not to end at all.
This idea — that the European “peace” that held from 1918 to 1939 was really just a pause in a single long war that ended only with Germany’s surrender in 1945 — is hardly original to me. But it’s worth considering as America wages forever wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (where we still deploy thousands of troops), and Israel wages equally endless wars against Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Why do they drag on interminably? Because one side lacks the means to win and the other lacks the will.
One of those wars flared again this week as Hamas hit Israel with some 460 rockets and mortars and Israel responded with airstrikes of more than 100 targets in Gaza. Belying his reputation for hawkishness, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly accepted another Hamas cease-fire, leading his defense minister to resign in protest and Hamas to claim a tactical victory.
Netanyahu sees no better outcome for Israel in Gaza than to accept what amounts to a kind of low-grade fever in Hamas’s violent but relatively controlled and predictable rule. If anything, Gaza serves him as a political billboard of sorts — a warning to the Israeli public of what it can expect of a Palestinian state should one ever come into being.
This is a policy of palliatives, and maybe it’s better than the conceivable alternatives: stronger Israeli military action that results in more Palestinian casualties, and more international condemnation; a war to remove the Hamas leadership by force, which would be considerably bloodier without guaranteeing that Hamas won’t return to power once Israel leaves; or full-scale re-occupation of the Strip, which leaves Israel with responsibility for the lives of some two million Palestinians.
Then again, Israelis also pay a steep price for restraint. Casualties on the Israeli side of the latest round of fighting may have been relatively light — 18 wounded and one dead — but hundreds of thousands of Israelis were forced into safe rooms during the fighting; Israel spends vast sums trying to defend itself militarily against Palestinian rockets, tunnels and crowds; and Israelis living near Gaza exist in a permanent state of precaution and fear.
Worse, by accepting Hamas as the quasi-legitimate power in Gaza, Netanyahu has helped tilt Palestinian politics in a radical direction, a combination of Islamist intolerance, anti-Semitic bigotry, and a cult of violence and “martyrdom.” Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president-for-life, is a sad excuse for a moderate, but there can be no hope of genuinely moderate Palestinian politics when Hamas is the pre-eminent actor in them.
Beyond Gaza, Israel cut short its 2006 war against Hezbollah after 34 days, leaving the group far more powerful now than it was then. In Iraq, the U.S. ended up in a forever war in part because the first Bush administration left Saddam Hussein in power after the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Barack Obama surged U.S. forces in Afghanistan, but only with the intention to “degrade” the Taliban rather than to defeat them. Today, the Taliban continues to gain ground, and Americans continue to die, in a struggle Obama once called “a war that we have to win.”
In each of these conflicts, there were good reasons to pursue aims short of victory, above all to prevent needless deaths. But it’s also wrong to suppose that restraint doesn’t also impose costs, or that the costs won’t eventually translate to casualties — casualties that can dwarf even great immediate sacrifice.
On October 30, 1918, Gen. John J. Pershing, the American commander in Europe, delivered a letter to the Allied Supreme War Council in which he made the case for fighting until Germany surrendered unconditionally.
“By agreeing to an armistice under the present favorable military situation of the Allies and accepting the principle of a negotiated peace rather than a dictated peace,” he wrote, “the Allies would jeopardize the moral position they now hold and possibly lose the chance actually to secure world peace on terms that would insure its permanence.”
Historical counterfactuals can never be proved. Yet if the Allies had taken Pershing’s advice and pressed their offensive from the front until Berlin surrendered, it’s unlikely that the Germans who later embraced Adolf Hitler could have believed the myth that they lost the war only by being stabbed in the back. World War II — the war to end the war that was supposed to have ended all wars, had it ever ended — might have been averted.
The tragedy of November 11, 1918, wasn’t that a peace was lost. It’s that, after so much sacrifice, no victory was ever gained to secure it.
Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.