WWII was the high point of the long Western history of war. In it the best armed forces of industrial civilization collided and fought for years, deploying the latest technologies and throwing unprecedented numbers of of men, tanks and planes into the battle. It was the kind of war never to be repeated again.
For the following decades the US and the USSR, the victors of the war, would develop increasingly better military technologies and stare across the globe at each other armed with large quantities of weapons that could never be used. Instead both sides armed smaller countries and in that way fought restrained proxy wars with each other across the world.
The UN armies in Korea and the American army in Vietnam fought as if they were refighting WW2 against another large well armed Western state, much as British armies invaded Afghanistan and fought using the same neat squares of men and cavalry charges that had served them so well in the Napoleonic wars. Great generals adapt to a battlefield, ordinary generals fight by the book resulting in terrible losses until they finally learn to adapt. This is how it was for the Americans in Korea and Vietnam and for the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Israeli and American soldiers emerge from a complex lineage. The American army was born from militias and Indian fighters who copied the tactics of their Indian allies and enemies, firing at the British from behind trees, moving quickly and attacking unexpectedly. Tactics the British, who relied on using large forces to seize and hold territory, could not usefully respond to. While the British took entire cities, including New York, they found that they could not control the land without hunting down and defeating the Colonial armies. Relying on their usual tactics, they paid a high price for simply trying to move armies across upstate New York. The Americans had learned to adapt and make do with limited resources and spur of the moment decisions. Their boldness and adaptability paved the way for transforming the ragged bands the British regulars had sneered at, into the army the mightiest empire in the world couldn't defeat.
The Israeli army emerged out of the original Shomrim, civilian patrols who watched farms and orange groves, carrying crude rifles, riding horses and even disguising themselves as Arabs to protect villages and homesteads from Arab raids. Refined by Orde Wingate, an eccentric officer despised by the British high command, he initiated many of the tactics the Israeli army still uses today including officers leading from the front, small units that operate off the land and use simple misdirection to strike at the enemy. These are still main features of Israel military tactics today.
From the war of 1948, the IDF increasingly adapted itself to fighting not bands of Arab fighters, but large well-armed Arab armies. The Yom Kippur War was to Israel and the Arabs what WW2 was to Europe, a massive devastating conflict that brought home the message to the Arabs that the war could not be won by large scale military assaults. Instead the fighting would be left to terrorist groups, a return to the same kind of armed bands the predecessors of the IDF had fought during the days of the Mandate. The kind of armed Indian bands that the Colonial Settlers had cut their teeth fighting.
The last two wars in Lebanon were so costly precisely because the IDF was fighting Arab bands again, though they may have been disguised with Marxist and Islamist tags, and its generals had forgotten that the key to defeating them lay in the tactics of those young men who dressed like Arabs and rode on horseback to intercept murderous groups of Arab bandits. Increasingly the last decade with the creation of a Palestinian state demanded a reeducation in the way of such a war.
When American soldiers wanted to find out how to engage in urban warfare in an Arab city, they watched Israeli soldiers operating in Jenin and put those same tactics to use in Fallujah cutting open holes in houses, blasting their way in and taking the enemy by surprise. Israel's war with Palestinian terrorists has provided much of the tactical and occasionally even technological methodology for US forces in Iraq. It's why Israeli and American casualties fighting armed Muslim bands are far smaller than that of Russian soldiers in Afghanistan and Chechnya.
Israel and America have adapted, but the essential way of war they are fighting is misguided. They may only be suffering 10 percent of the casualties relative to the enemy forces, but those are still unacceptable losses when fighting an enemy force that does not care about its losses.
Islamic terrorists in Iraq and now Lebanon have taken a severe beating but they can always replace the lower ranked canon fodder while the higher ranked terrorists are spirited from hideout to hideout and emerge afterward crowing triumphantly, much as the Viet Cong did. Israeli and American tactics allow for greater flexibility, penetration and adaptation, but they still come down to fighting modified guerrilla warfare against guerrillas and terrorists operating on their own terrain. The enemy can always just retreat and wait, carry out a handful of attacks, appeal to the world and wait till you leave.
An AP headline read, "Victory for Hizbullah May Be Survival." By contrast victory for Israel requires either eliminating Hizbullah or damaging it so badly it won't pose a threat for some time. The latter might be more possible if Hizbullah wasn't just a tool of Iran which can count on Iran to aid and resupply it the moment Israel leaves. The former would require conquering Lebanon. Similarly victory for America requires building a stable Iraqi government that can hold its own, while victory for Iraqi terrorists is as simple as preventing America from doing it.
Imagine one person trying to build a house of cards while all the other person has to do is knock it down. That is essentially America and Israel's military dilemma. The way out of that dilemma was essentially closed to them in the latter half of the 20th century and that is a massive saturation bombing campaign combined with an invasion that treats everything on the ground as an enemy. It would have been the default tactic of any military, but a domestic fifth column operating out of the press and political institutions now make that impossible. While Islamic terrorists are free to torture, mutilate and behead and still count on the world's support, every American policing action and Israeli bombardment results in shrill hysterical condemnation and media coverage.
By the Vietnam era the tactics regularly used by the UN forces in Korea were the object of horror and condemnation (not however tactics used by the Viet Cong.) Civilization had turned on itself and the intellectual elites of the Western world were occupied in enthusiastically cheering on and empathizing with its destroyers. But letting those very same people place chains on your military doctrine to ensure the approval of public opinion is utterly futile since these people will never approve and the crippling result leaves your military trapped in a bloody and futile struggle with armed bands that fade in and out of the conflict, always garnering sympathy and never providing you with an actual victory.
And the very people who chained down the military, treat your defeats as proof of the futility of solving things on the battlefield, when it is only proof of the futility of fighting wars with your hands tied behind your back.
It is least often that soldiers lose wars and most often generals lose wars by the extent that they tie the hands of the men in the field. It would be good to remember that the extent to which we are merciful to the enemy population is the extent to which we are cruel to our own soldiers. In war against an enemy force that hides among enemy civilians, we have a choice between their lives and ours. For a long while now we've been choosing their lives over the lives of our soldiers and our casualty rolls reflect that tragic betrayal.