THE "when-will they-ever-learn" refrain sung by Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s plays through my mind these days as Israeli military forces return home from Lebanon under a dark cloud of suspicion, a new phenomenon for Israel if not the United States.
It appears that arrogance and ignorance blinded Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Defense Minister Ariel Sharon to the painful lesson others learned long before Vietnam dramatized them for the Americans:
Trying to use military forces as precision instruments to achieve limited diplomatic objectives seldom works out as planned.
To quote from "On War" by Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general whose classic was published in 1833: "Move from the abstract to the real world and the whole thing looks quite different."
Neither that classic advice nor the recent American experience dissuaded Begin and Sharon from trying in Lebanon the discredited "graduated response" President Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara employed with disastrous results in Vietnam.
Advance a little farther into Beirut. Shell a little more. Bomb a little more. Light the way for other killers so they can "purify" the Palestinian refugee camps. All this was done by Begin and Sharon in the apparent belief that they could work their will on the Palestine Liberation Organization and then crush whatever combatants who were left in Beirut with a third party force.
PLO combatants did indeed leave Beirut. But things got out of hand after that, if not before. Instead of triumphant celebration, Israeli troops are coming home to an official inquiry.
Even before that inquiry begins, it is clear that the Lebanon invasion has poisoned the well of the Israeli military. Some Israeli soldiers and officers repeated the equivalent of "hell-no-we-won't-go" when it came to serving in Lebanon. The whole operation has set off bitter recriminations in the ranks of the Israeli Defense Force.
In his book "On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context," U.S. Army Col. Harry G. Summers Jr. recounts this conversation he had in 1975 with his North Vietnamese counterpart during the peace negotiations:
"You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield," said Summers.
"That may be so," replied the North Vietnamese colonel, "but it is also irrelevant."
Israel's victories in Lebanon with its high-tech weapons how look similarly irrelevant.
Another decorated American colonel, who commanded troops in South Korea, Vietnam and West Germany, said Israeli leaders, like their American counterparts during the Vietnam War, forgot what military forces can and cannot do when they sent them into Lebanon. "Military forces with guns have a very significant but a very limited utility," he said. "The generals never say 'No,' no matter what their civilians leaders ask them to do. So the civilians have to remember that the military is a watchdog to be kept on a chain until they want him to attack the burglar. Let him attack; then put him back on the chain. Going to war means killing people. Don't ask us to be nation builders, mayors, psychologists, highway commissioners and school superintendents like you did in Vietnam."
Substitute "Israeli" for "American" in the post-war audit on Vietnam by Col. Summers and Gen. Fred C. Weyand (ret.), former U. S. Army Chief of Staff, and you have a ready- made lecture for future Israeli military leaders: "The major military error was a failure to communicate to the civilian decisionmakers the capabilities and limitations of American military power," they wrote. "There are certain tasks the American military can accomplish on behalf of another nation. They can defeat enemy forces on the battlefield. They can blockade the enemy's coast. . . . They can carry the war to the enemy on land, sea and air. . . . But there are also fundamental limitations on American military power. Critics notwithstanding, Americans are not imperialists, and the Congress and the American people will not permit their military to take total control of another nation's political, economic and social institutions in order to completely orchestrate the war. . . ."
Summers and Weyand's observations on the American army seem apt comment on the Israeli situation as well, given the public outcry in Israel against the invasion of Lebanon: ". . . When the American people lose their commitment, it is futile to to try to keep the Army committed. In the final analysis, the American Army is not so much an arm of the executive branch as it is an arm of the American people. The Army, therefore, cannot be committed lightly . . ."