Sometimes the Best Self-Defense is Offense

“Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”

-John B. Finch, 1882


Does your right to swing your first end at the tip of my nose? And, as the possessor of said nose, do I have to wait for the point of impact before I am allowed to defend myself? International law can be a bit murky on that point—whether a nation can claim self-defense if it responds aggressively to an imminent attack. But, in some cases, waiting to see if your nation will be invaded is inviting a special kind of disaster, particularly if you do not possess the geographic depth to absorb the blow of an enemy attack before assuming a counteroffensive posture. June 5, 2020, is the anniversary of two examples of this principle, both of which had massive repercussions.

In May 1940, German forces invaded France through the Ardennes Forest, and quickly overwhelmed the French Army’s ability to resist. The attack’s precise location might have been a surprise (many French planners were convinced that the Ardennes was too dense to allow the movement of armored forces). However, the possibility of an invasion was obvious—Germany invaded Poland nine months earlier, triggering a French declaration of war. After several months of minimal activity in the West, Germany invaded the low countries of Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, signaling that it had resumed offensive operations and turned its eyes westward. The French military, supremely confident in the Maginot Line’s ability to halt any such aggressive moves, or at least channel them into a specific corridor, proved slow to react and incapable of regaining the initiative. After penetrating the French lines along the Belgian border, the Germans turned north, trapping the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, where it was evacuated on June 4-5. Predictably, the Germans then turned southward the next day, and initiated a final push to conquer France, culminating in the French surrender of June 22, 1940. For the next five years, the Axis and Allied powers contended around the globe, in the bloodiest war of human history.

Twenty-seven years later, the nation of Israel, surrounded by enemies that had engaged in previous invasions of the only Jewish state, had detected a significant build-up of forces on their borders. In May, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, a move that Israel had announced would be considered justification for war. To back up the closure, Nasser ordered a substantial movement of forces toward the Israeli border. On June 1, King Hussein of Jordan gave command of his military to Egypt, on the assumption that his forces remain in defensive positions to tie down their Israeli counterparts. Syria, which had formally joined Egypt as a partner in the United Arab Republic from 1958 to 1961, also mobilized forces and began massing them on the Israeli northwest frontier.

Rather than waiting for the blow to fall from multiple directions, Israeli leaders decided to take aggressive action to spoil what they saw as an impending attack. In part, this was because at its narrowest point, Israel’s territory stretched only nine miles. The possibility of Arab invaders cutting off the north and the south was very real, and there would be no means of retreat in the event of a disaster. Given the rhetoric of the Arab leaders, the Israeli government feared the possibility of a genocidal event if they lost the war. And thus, Israel launched Operation Focus, a massive commitment of virtually the entire Israeli Air Force to a single raid upon Egyptian airfields. The attack began by disabling the Egyptian airfields, effectively trapping the Egyptian Air Force and rendering it incapable of defending itself against follow-on attacks, or evacuating to more distant airfields in the west. The Israeli attack was carried out extremely close to the ground, rendering Egyptian air defenses useless, and it achieved complete surprise.

In the first wave, Israeli jets attacked 11 Egyptian airbases, destroying dozens of aircraft. Within a few minutes, the Israelis had returned to their bases, and in only a few minutes more, had refueled, rearmed, and relaunched for another attack. Less than two hours after the first attacks, the same jets returned to attack 14 Egyptian airbases. In a single morning, the Israeli Air Force effectively annihilated the Egyptian Air Force, destroying more than 300 aircraft and achieving complete air supremacy. That same day, the Israelis also attacked and destroyed the Syrian, Jordanian, and Iraqi Air Forces, destroying more than 100 aircraft. In total, the Israelis achieved one of the most lopsided victories in aerial history, wiping out 452 enemy aircraft at a cost of 19 of their own.

The complete Israeli control of the skies created an insurmountable advantage for the ground battles that followed. Over the course of the Six Day War, Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula in the south, Jerusalem and the West Bank in the central sector, and the Golan Heights in the north. After signing the Camp David Accords of 1978, the Israelis withdrew from the Sinai, returning it to complete Egyptian control in 1982. But, the Israelis retained the West Bank and the Golan Heights, both to improve their strategic situation and to use as bargaining chips to create a permanent peace with their neighbors. To date, the Israeli possession of those territories remains a controversial subject, despite the passage of 53 years.

Some key questions remain—did France make a mistake by waiting for the German invasion in 1940? Was Israel justified in launching a preemptive attack, even though it had not been attacked by its neighbors? Obviously, France suffered enormous damage from the German invasion and five years of occupation. Hundreds of thousands of French citizens died in World War II, but by remaining on the defensive, France could rightfully claim that Germany was the aggressor (a move that probably secured the support of allied powers). Israel greatly improved its military position vis-à-vis its enemies, but did so at the cost of substantial international criticism and condemnation. In hindsight, though, the French military is usually criticized for its strategic decisions, while the Israeli experience is considered an important case study in modern warfare. Perhaps the limit of the right to swing your fist does not have to end at my nose, and only the rational belief that you are about to punch me is required for me to preempt your attack. When it comes to international warfare, getting that answer wrong can have devastating effects.