Incidentism isn’t derived from a fear of Matt Damon movies, but from the perception that wars are not won on the battlefield, but in the minds of men. And that perception has a good deal to do with the kind of wars we choose to fight.
The military, whether in the United States or Israel, does not exist to win wars. It exists to win over the people who don’t want it to win a war.
The guiding principle in such conflicts is to use the military to push back the insurgency long enough to win over the local population with a nation building exercise. This program has never worked out for the United States, but that doesn’t mean that generations of military leaders don’t insist on going through the motions of applying it anyway.
In Israel, the last time the military was sent to win a war, was 1973. Since then the military has been used as a police force and to battle militias in Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank. In the Territories, the ideal Israeli soldier was supposed to be able to dodge rocks thrown by teenagers hired by Time correspondents looking to score a great photo. Today the ideal Israeli soldier is capable of visiting an American college campus to dodge the overpriced textbooks hurled at him by the local branch of Students for Justice in Palestine or the International Socialist Organization, while explaining why the IDF is the most moral army in the world except for the Salvation Army.
The ideal Israeli soldier, like his American, British and Canadian, but not Russian or Chinese, counterparts, is supposed to avoid Incidents. That means operating under Rules of Engagement which make firing at an assailant almost as dangerous as not firing at an assailant.
The ideal American soldier is supposed to avoid the Taliban, or as one set of orders urged, patrol in places where the Taliban won’t be found. And that’s sensible advice, because if the goal is to avoid creating an Incident, then avoiding the enemy is the best way to avoid an Incident. Unfortunately the enemy has a bad habit of appearing where he isn’t supposed to be and creating his own Incidents, because Taliban and Hamas commanders are not concerned about being yelled at in a fictional courtroom by Matt Damon. They actually welcome Incidents. The bigger and bloodier the Incident, the more hashish and young boys get passed around the campfire that night.
American soldiers operate under the burden of winning over the hearts and minds of Afghans and New York Times readers. Israeli soldiers are tasked with winning over New York Times readers and European politicians. But some hearts and minds are just unwinnable. And most wars become unwinnable when the goal is to fight an insurgency that has no fear of the dreaded Incident, while your soldiers are taught to be more afraid of an Incident than of an enemy bullet.