Monday, August 28, 2006

Beasts Know When To Quit

In the realm of the beasts -- which is to say "mammals, other than humans" -- there is a common way of settling disputes over territory, food and mates. The two enemies will stand over the disputed property and screech at each other in attempts at intimidation. They will flex muscles, display plumage and attempt to frighten their opponents in to surrender. It's understood, in that sort of way that evolution programs us all without our knowledge, that a fight would cost both parties much more than the value of the contested goods. So if we can figure out in advance who will win, it's best to just let the likely victor take the spoils and avoid the damage. It's rather a lot like bribing a man to give up his lunch peacefully by offering not to kill him in return.

Humans aren't always so smart, but in general follow the same principles. Wars only happen when both sides think they can win. When that belief doesn't exist, you'll get a Chamberlain who lets a Hitler take a couple pieces of land here and there while the Allies build up a force that would have a chance against the Germany army.

In Lebanon, over the last month or so, there's been a war. Israel, backed by all of the technology and arms of the United States, selected a grievance involving a pair of captured soldiers and invaded Lebanon. Since the Lebanese guerrillas, a group called Hizbollah (or Hezbollah, depending on who's doing the spelling), had only munitions supplied by the technologically inferior nation of Iran, it was supposed to be an easy victory for Israel.

First came the aerial bombardment. The idea was to eliminate as much of Hizbollah's stash of arms and munitions as possible before the ground attack. Next came the ground attack. The ground attack, so says every source on the ground, failed rather miserably. While the aerial bombardment killed a lot of civilians, it apparently left a lot of Hizbollah alive in their caves and bunkers. Out of the ground they came, defended their cities, and apparently knocked out some thirty or forty invading tanks with Iranian anti-tank weaponry.

On the heels of this comes a leak from the U.S. Administration, via no more trustworthy a source than Seymour Hersh of Deep Throat fame. It turns out, according to this anonymous source, that the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was meant (among other things) as a test of American weapons against Iranian defences. No one should be surprised, with the talk of Iranian "Weapons of Mass Destruction," that Iran is shortlisted for invasion. The fact that Hizbollah repelled the Israeli Defence Force -- the fourth most powerful army in the world -- is going to alter the plans of the hawks in the Bush Administration. It's going to put a bit of a crimp in the "birth pangs of the New Middle East" that Condoleeza Rice was going on about.

The thing you have to understand is that the evolutionary rule of the beasts, of surrendering when defeat is likely, simply doesn't apply to everyone. If you are a better fighter than I and you come for my lunch money, I might as well give it to you. But if you come in to my home to kill me, and I am trapped there, then I will fight you regardless of your size. You can't bribe me with my own life if that's what you've come to take.

That is the crucial difference that keeps the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine from giving up when the fight is so asymmetrical and the death toll so unbalanced. They're fighting to defend their homes from people come to take them away. You can't pay someone enough to let that happen.


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