Six Days and the Forever War | Opinion

This June marks the 53rd anniversary of Israel's lightning victory in the 1967 Six Day War, when the Israel Defense Forces defeated the combined militaries of several of its neighbors. Israel's decisive military victory is often studied by the armed forces of other nations, and many have applied its lessons in other conflicts. This year also marks the 18th year of constant conflict for the U.S. in what was originally named the global war on terrorism. The juxtaposition of these two conflicts brings pause to military strategists and raises the question of whether Israel's success in 1967 could ever be repeated, there or elsewhere.

In the U.S., children who were not born at the time of the 9/11 attacks are now old enough to fight in the seemingly never-ending conflict, an all-too common situation for members of the military, whose offspring are statistically more likely to follow in their parent's footsteps. It is a situation that Israel is also familiar with, having seen the success of 1967 dissipate into a protracted conflict against amorphous terrorist groups, guerrillas and extremist organizations after the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Pundits of all political persuasions in both countries have bemoaned this parallel development, arguing that such a perpetual "Forever War" threatens the fabric of democratic governments, erodes societal civil military relations, creates too many casualties to bear and generates costs that destroy opportunities for future generations.

Yet is this seemingly everlasting struggle as bad as they make out?

I am not advocating that war is a good thing. I have lost friends, classmates, subordinates and students to the unforgiving scythe of battle and wish that we all could live out the rest of our days in peace. But I also recognize their sacrifices have tamped down war's natural tendencies to escalate and expand and that these seemingly endless conflicts have prevented much larger and bloodier wars from developing. This is also not to say that both countries have always fought their conflicts intelligently. The Iraq War will probably go down in U.S. history as one of the worst foreign policy blunders in the history of the republic. Yet although the prolonged fighting has been devastating at both the individual and family levels, we should recognize two facts. First, that the conflict both nations are engaged in is a war of ideas against nebulous transnational actors, a struggle that is not likely to be won decisively. Second, that the current era of conflict, by comparison to other time periods in history and other wars, is far less destructive than almost all the wars of the past.

One of the main reasons why we should not be deceived into assuming that either country could safely walk away from conflict without it boomeranging back is because we are in a war of ideas against a loosely aligned set of violent extremist organizations. The U.S. has fought ideologies before and won great victories: against slavery and white supremacy in the U.S. Civil War, Nazism and fascism in World War II and communism during the Cold War. Yet even in those conflicts, the core ideology of each group sadly persists today: We still have to fight neo-Nazis, white supremacists, anti-Semites and other villainy. Destroying an ideology is nearly impossible, even after defeating it on the field of battle and discrediting its supporters. Furthermore, because we are fighting a networked non-state actor spread across the globe that hides amongst the population, rooting out a poisonous creed is much more difficult.

In this struggle, there will be no surrender by our enemies under the guns of the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and ISIS will not be giving up anytime soon. To force those organizations to capitulate would require such horrors that we should thank providence that we are in a Forever War rather than a traditional conflict.

In World War II, the Allies had to resort to firebombing cities and dropping atomic bombs to convince Germany and Japan to surrender, even though rationally there was no pathway to victory for either of those nations after mid-1944 (at the latest). Unfortunately, human beings will often continue to fight, suffer and die far past the point when they should logically give up.

Arlington National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

This point brings out a larger fact—that as horrible as the post-9/11 wars have been, they have been much less devastating than conventional wars. This is a truism of wars that have been called "low-intensity conflicts" because casualties are often a fraction of what they are in larger struggles. American losses in more traditional forms of warfare include 405,000 killed in World War II, 58,000 in Vietnam and 36,000 in Korea. Israel lost nearly 3,000 soldiers during the Yom Kippur War, and 1,000 during the Six Day War. By contrast, the two decade-long "Global War on Terrorism" has claimed roughly 7,000 American combatants. By comparison, the U.S. lost roughly the same number of soldiers in one month during the battle of Iwo Jima as it has thus far during the Forever War.

As painful as the losses were, Israel's casualties amounted to under 100 soldiers killed during the 2014 invasion of Gaza, and approximately 200 in all the conflicts with Lebanon and Hezbollah since the year 2000. Those losses occurred in the prevention of amorphous groups from coalescing into powerful nation-states against which any campaign would be much bloodier.

Warfare has changed, as noted by military theorists and scholars such as Rupert Smith, Martin Van Creveld and Sean McFate. In this new paradigm, conflict is timeless, almost unending and the venue of fighting has shifted from a traditional battlefield to one where parties operate amongst civilian populations.

Rather than deny that these changes have occurred, we should recognize and accept them for what they are. We must live in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. And in that world, the best option might just be the military equivalent of "mowing the lawn" every few years.

When fighting a virulent ideology, an outcome of a protracted conflict where we endure a never-ending drip of a handful of losses a year is still better than the alternative of facing off against a well-armed, industrialized and tech-savvy nation-state. In such a context, the Forever War is likely the best that we can hope for. While it is hard to stomach, such a truism reinforces the ancient wisdom: Only the dead have seen the end of war.

Frank Sobchak, colonel, U.S. Army (Ret.), is a contributor at The MirYam Institute. During his 26-year career in the U.S. Army, he served in various Special Forces assignments, including leading teams and companies in 5th Special Forces Group in peace and in war and representing U.S. Special Operations Command as a congressional liaison.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.