Image courtesy of Image courtesy of Image courtesy of Image courtesy of

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

Two films I’ve recently watched really got me thinking about the nature of victory in conflict: The Gatekeepers, an Israeli documentary which contains interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet (Israeli intelligence arm); and The Monuments Men, the George Clooney movie about saving art from the Nazis at the end of World War II. Though the movies varied greatly in quality (the former was stunningly good, the latter left a lot to be desired), both had something to teach about organized, armed conflict.

For just one example from The Gatekeepers – consider two comments from former Shin Bet head Ami Ayalon.  First, at about 1:10 into the film, he described a 2002 trip to London in which he met with Palestinian security leaders on the Intifada.  Ayalon said he was pouring a cup of coffee when Iyad Saraj (who he describes as a “Doctor of Psychiatry”) comes alongside him and the following conversation ensues:

Saraj: “Ami, we have finally defeated you.”

Ayalon: “Are you mad? What do you mean, defeated us? Hundreds of you are getting killed. At this rate thousands of you will get killed. You’re about to lose whatever tiny bit of a state you have and you’ll lose your dream of statehood. What kind of victory is that?”

Saraj: “Ami, I don’t understand you. You still don’t understand us. For us, victory is seeing you suffer. That’s all we want. The more we suffer, the more you’ll suffer. Finally, after 50 years, we’ve reached a balance of power, your F-16 versus our suicide bomber.”

And, to follow that up, this is what Ayalon has to say at 1:37 in the film’s last words.  Ayalon appeals to Clausewitz specifically; though, as he puts it this is just the essence and not a direct translation:

“Victory is simply the creation of a better political reality…Victory doesn’t dictate that we have to conquer Gaza or Ramallah or Nablus or Hebron. I think my son, who served for three years in the paratroopers, participated in the conquest of Nablus at least two or three times. Did it bring us victory? I don’t think so. Did it create a better political reality? The tragedy of Israel’s public security debate is that we don’t realize that we face a frustrating situation in which we win every battle but we lose the war.”

The second film is The Monuments Men, based on a book by Robert Edsel.  One can listen to the author speak on the book at the Pritzker Military Library for free via iTunes (#37 or so on this list).  There wasn’t a specific quotation that one can derive from this movie which provoked my thinking on victory.  But the recurring general theme cuts to the heart of the issue – is a piece of art worth a human life? This is a profound question for the real world. For example, here one can find General Eisenhower’s order to commanders to consider cultural treasures as a factor in enemy engagement decisions. Both this order, as well as one of the film’s characters, suggests that the Allies are fighting for more than tactical victory, that they fight for culture, a way of life, and to preserve collective achievements and history – which are often rolled up in great works of art.

It got me thinking about the tiered way in which we look at the strategic purposes for which we fight.  If, going back to Ami Ayalon’s comment above, we fight for victory as the creation of a better political reality, does the hierarchy look like this (?):

  • Survival interest to counter security threats. Goal: avoid bad for own community.
  • Vital interest to counter economic threats. Goal: positive good for own community.
  • Important interest to support favorable order (or allies). Goal: positive good for another community.
  • Important interest to support values. Goal: positive good for an idea/concept.

By this logic it would seem that the Allies were confident of victory to the extent that they were able to go all the way down to the fourth priority on the list.  So, as shown above, base physical security, economic prosperity, and ally concerns were taken care of – General Eisenhower moved on to the “cherry” on top.  This is pretty gutsy when you think about it – to turn focus away from ensuring the first three while the war is still ongoing (i.e. Ike’s order above) – and consider the preservation of values as important in military decision making.

I guess this goes to show that you can learn a lot from the movies if you start to unravel the dialogue and story lines – try to remember that as you sit down in that big air conditioned room!