If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of sitting in a living room as the Israeli soldiers next door use explosives to make a gaping hole in the wall, you’ll be forgiven for not immediately realizing your new status as postwar French philosophy’s latest victim. Yet, strangely enough, that is exactly what you would be.
Armies often have a reputation for being full of brutish, brawny men who are not only theoretically ignorant but downright hostile to anything that smacks of intellectual thought, as if anything that cannot be grasped in a few seconds is tantamount to Bolshevism. There is, as ever, some truth to this stereotype. Even the most abstract of minds will be focused on the here-and-now when their lives are at stake. Combining this imperative with the failure of PhD candidates to be much use on a forced march means that the military will usually privilege the practical over the philosophical. It is this same pragmatism, however, that makes militaries so likely to apply ideas in innovative and imaginative ways.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has a reputation as being particularly macho and pragmatic even compared to other militaries. With no Israeli equivalent of West Point, even the most important generals will, once upon a time, have served as ordinary conscripts, checking car boots and getting yelled at by their sergeant on the outskirts of some Palestinian town. For much of the history of the organization, officers have taken a perverse pride in being anti-intellectual, contrasting themselves with what they perceive as the weak and intellectual life of the Diaspora.
Meeting Brigadier General Shimon Naveh, one would assume that he holds the same opinions as much of the IDF rank and file. This man with a barreled chest sports a shaved head and arms you would expect of a man who spent much of his youth as a commando fighting the Palestinian Liberation Organization in Lebanon. He has said that one of his favorite things is to be sleep-deprived in the cold deserts of the Israeli south, commanding his soldiers. This same man, however, has introduced the ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, a famous duo of anti-capitalist French philosophers, to the IDF. In doing so, he and his disciples transformed how the IDF operates in urban areas.
Naveh sought to adapt the insights of the philosophers to military operations, especially their views on the fluid interpretation of space and the constructed nature of the relationships that emerge from them. Traditional military operations assume that physical presence facilitates control, and control equals victory. In practice, this means that an army seeking to defeat an enemy or control a certain area will work to control the external environment, in order to draw the enemy into contact and to establish presence in a certain area, creating their own terms of engagement with the enemy. Naveh turned this on its head, hoping to allow a conventional army to adopt some of the tactics and strategy of a guerrilla group, by avoiding undesirable engagement and refusing to adopt a static form. In the words of Naveh himself, “In modernity the state is the ideal concept and you win by means of presence. In our case, you operate, but not by presence. The moment you deprive the adversary of the ability to give you form, you can fuck him. Aviv did marvelous things with that.”
Aviv Kokhavi is the Brigadier General who commanded the April 2002 attack on the Palestinian city of Nablus during Operation Defensive Shield. Kokhavi eagerly embraced the critical approach put forward by Naveh and, more than anyone, was the man to unite theory and practice. During earlier anti-terror operations in urban areas, the IDF had acted in the traditional manner—it began by securing the roads and key points in the city and then sweeping through areas to discover and capture or kill the enemy. Aviv did the opposite, rejecting traditional interpretations of space by forbidding the use of alleys and doors, instead telling his soldiers to “walk through walls.” The consequences of this innovative approach were, of course, dire for the civilian population of Nablus. Where civilians previously had been able to shut themselves away and hide from the fighting, the command to walk through walls resulted in civilian homes becoming the front line. Instead of walking down a street, soldiers would move progressively through squat apartments built right up against one another, slowly moving forward by blowing holes through walls. Instead of using stairs, soldiers would blow holes in the ceiling. Nablus had entire streets of military traffic running through bedrooms and kitchens.
Militarily, it was an enormous success. The IDF achieved its goal of destroying much of the terrorist infrastructure in Nablus, with minimal casualties and without having to take on the administration of the city once again. It was similar in spirit to the guerrilla tactics used by rebels worldwide—except with air support. The strategy allowed the Israelis to move through the city at will and without alerting the enemy (in a city under air and ground attack, hearing explosions all around isn’t unusual or alerting). Palestinian fighters have since complained that during the fighting the Israelis would appear seemingly from nowhere and disappear rapidly. The fighters were unable to ascertain where the Israelis were and what their strength was. They were, as Naveh would say, unable to give the IDF “form.” Without this, the entire strategy of the Palestinian fighters collapsed and Nablus quickly became a city-shaped trap.
The more tactically minded are by now probably consumed by one massive “So what?” Military commanders have, since the dawn of conflict, been very conscious of the uses of terrain. Countless battles have been won not necessarily by the more powerful combatant, but by the side that made better use of space, something even comic books and Hollywood have appreciated with their ode to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. Military innovationis often characterized by taking existing technologies and techniques and applying them in new ways to gain an edge in combat. Has the IDF not just dressed up an age-old tendency in fashionable intellectual language? On a certain level, this is true. Naveh isn’t the groundbreaking hero that he may think he is and Kokhavi isn’t the philosopher-general raining down enlightened brimstone that he may wish to be. This misses the point, however. The use of space is not new, but describing military operations using postmodern philosophy? That is highly unusual.
Originally, these ideas were developed as part of a rebellion against the perceived monolithic, hierarchical, and oppressive nature of modern thought and society. Critical theory was conceived of as a tool for understanding the way power worked in the world, on the presumption that these structures would then be challenged. Indeed, the very deconstruction of traditional assumptions was viewed as threatening and rebellious in and of itself. To be able to take a step back and to interpret the external world in a way which better served “justice” was to take the first step toward liberation. To turn that around and use to ideas of Deleuze, a noted critic of Israel, as the cornerstone of an operation to maintain the occupation of the Territories is undoubtedly one of the many delicious dialectical ironies of the world.
Indeed, these theories have not just helped make military operations more effective and, from the IDF’s perspective, less damaging, but it has also helped to pave the way for the operations themselves. It allows the IDF to put forward an alternative image of itself as being intellectual and critical. The young conscript with a rifle and a radio pack on his back is not just a case of force and potential violence, but is also the tangible manifestation of the disruptive power of critical theory. By articulating the strategy in this manner, instead of the more practical realm we are used to, the operation is not only taking on airs of sophistication for an external audience but is also projecting an intimidating face for the Palestinian enemy, depriving theory of its critical flavor as it is used to uphold and maintain structures of power and oppression. In the words of Eyal Weizman, the IDF is saying to the fightersof Nablus, “You will never understand that which kills you.“
Peter Moore is a student of Middle Eastern politics. He currently lives in New York but has attended the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, in his home city.Contact: