In a memorable scene from Saving Private Ryan, a man over a loudspeaker aims to demoralize American troops by announcing — in broken English — that “the Statue of Liberty is kaput.” Their captain wastes no time defusing the propaganda. “The Statue of Liberty is kaput?” he dryly counters. “That’s disconcerting.”
The vignette does more than provide comic relief to a heavy-hearted film; it also reveals a central truth of warfare. Wars are ultimately won by destroying the enemy’s will to fight. To this end, he must be made to believe that events have turned against him, that his forces are incapable of resisting, and that defeat is therefore inevitable.
The stronger side can accomplish this goal by demonstrating its power and resolve, a classic example being the Allied bombardment of Germany and Japan in 1944-1945. Conversely, the weaker side must often make do with reports of nonexistent victories and other dubious claims of strength. As these declarations are unconstrained by fact, they frequently devolve into parody. Consider, for instance, the briefings by Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, better known as “Baghdad Bob,” at the start of the Iraq War.
On June 25, 2006, Palestinian gunmen staged a cross-border assault near Kerem Shalom, killing two Israeli soldiers and abducting a third. Nothing has been heard from Cpl. Gilad Shalit since that fateful morning, though a statement by the Palestinian Resistance Committees has maintained that he “is in good health and is being treated according to Islamic standards of dealing with prisoners of war” — which, in light of recent history, should provide limited comfort. Those holding Shalit have also submitted their ransom demands: a long list of prisoners currently held by Israel.
While Shalit may indeed be in fine physical condition — we have no way of knowing, as terrorists do not accede to Red Cross scrutiny — it is doubtful that his captors could have resisted the urge to chip away at the young man’s spirit. Imagine the fanciful tales that they might have told him over the past year — tales of jihadist triumphs, Israeli impotence, and Western prostration before the steely glare of radical Islam. Of course, Shalit, like Spielberg’s captain, would have had little trouble dismissing such stories as particularly flimsy attempts at propaganda.
The mind games would have started early. For example, the Palestinians might have tried to rattle their hostage by telling him, just weeks after his seizure, that Israel had all but given up its search. However, Shalit would have easily seen through this ruse. Israel would never leave one of its soldiers to the mercy of terrorists, much less the same terrorists who murdered his cohorts. He could therefore sleep soundly, content that his rescue was imminent.
Soon afterwards, his kidnappers might have spun a more elaborate yarn, something along the lines of Hezbollah abducting two IDF soldiers and fighting the hesitant Israeli counterstrike to a standstill. Perhaps they even attempted to damage Shalit’s faith in his commanders by insisting that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had entered Lebanon without any clear plan for success, and that on the eve of hostilities Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz had been preoccupied with dumping his stock portfolio. But Shalit would have rejected these farcical claims. It is simply impossible to believe that Israeli leaders could act so negligently in a time of crisis.
The terrorists might have also told Shalit of the escalating boldness of their Iranian benefactors, unchecked by a dithering West. True, a feckless response to Tehran’s nuclear program would have seemed plausible to Shalit. However, one could imagine the Palestinians jumping the shark once more, perhaps going so far as to concoct claims that the British navy had suffered a humiliating hostage episode at the hands of the mullahs, and that Iran has been killing U.S. troops in Iraq with impunity. The Israeli would have laughed off these stories. After all, they are patently at odds with the history and character of those great nations.
But his captors could have gone even further to besmirch the resolve of Israel’s chief ally, presenting him with reports — clearly fabricated, of course — that the new congressional majority has been working overtime to withdraw American forces from Iraq before their mission is complete. How do they come up with this tripe? Surely the U.S. would never abandon the central front in the global war against jihad, and especially not while the memory of 9/11 is still alive.
Finally, his kidnappers might have added insult to injury, professing that they were on the verge of swapping Shalit for hundreds of prisoners held in Israeli jails — convicted murderers and would-be murderers who eagerly await their chance to target more innocent lives. But the young soldier would have spotted this canard with ease. Everybody knows that his nation does not negotiate with terrorists. Furthermore, Israeli leaders surely understand the great harm done by previous prisoner exchanges.
Surely? Perhaps to someone who has been cut off from the world since June 2006. For the rest of us, however, such faith appears quite naive in the wake of the year that was.
When a catalog of events from the recent past reads like crude jihadist propaganda, it is the unmistakable signpost of a war effort gone awry and a withering resolve to deal soberly with extant and emerging threats. Yet the full sweep of history can often be obscured for those standing in its midst. Sometimes the totality of what has transpired is best grasped by a simple man returning from a long absence, a man whose fresh eyes are acutely sensitive to the contrast between then and now.
As the anniversary of his abduction nears, let us keep Cpl. Gilad Shalit in our thoughts and say a prayer that he may soon be reunited with his loved ones. But what would he think of us when the fanfare of that day subsides, when he comes across a newspaper and realizes that the propaganda was not propaganda at all? Moreover, what would we think of ourselves if we could see the past year through the eyes of Gilad Shalit?