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Whack-a-mole in the Middle East

IWO JIMA tunnels, Japan

The battle of Iwo Jima in February of 1945 was supposed to be a walkover. Iwo was a volcanic island of just 8.1 square miles, the Americans had total air and naval superiority and attacked with five times as many soldiers, sailors and airmen as the Japanese (110,000 vs 21,000). Despite this, the battle lasted for five weeks and resulted in 6,000 Marines killed and 20,000 other American casualties.

How was this possible? Observers said the bombing and gunfire was so intense, the entire island seemed to erupt. No one, they thought, could be alive after that.

The extreme death toll was because the Japanese commander had built 18kms (11miles) of tunnels linking hundreds of bunkers and artillery positions. The tunnels were also filled with supplies. Here’s Wikipedia:

For instance, the Nanpo Bunker (Southern Area Islands Naval Air HQ), which was east of Airfield Number 2, had enough food, water, and ammunition for the Japanese to hold out for three months. The bunker was 90 feet deep and had tunnels running in various directions. Approximately five hundred 55-gallon drums filled with water, kerosene, and fuel oil for generators were inside the complex. Gasoline-powered generators allowed for radios and lighting to be operated underground

Now we come to the whack-a-mole strategy of Lieutenant General Tadamichi Kuribayashi. Once a strong point was attacked and overrun it could be re-occupied and used to attack the Americans from the rear. Unused bunkers could remain quiet until the front had moved and then be activated. And, of course, all the guns had been pre-registered so that the first shot at any American position always hit home.

What has this got to do with the Middle East, particularly Gaza? The reason I’m mentioning Iwo is that it is almost a perfect case study of how to defend a small area against an enemy with superior firepower. Hamas has had years to prepare a system of tunnels, to build bunkers and store weapons and supplies. Gaza is much bigger than Iwo (140 square miles), Hamas has more fighters than the Japanese (30,000), and it has allies in Lebanon and Iran who may come to their aid.

Hamas also has a huge civilian population to hide behind as well as more than 200 Israeli hostages.

The Americans used flamethrowers, phosphorus shells, and Bangalore torpedoes to seal up and kill the Japanese. Two of those techniques will not be available to the Israelis. Nor can they use poison gas or seawater to fill the tunnels with lethal contents because of the hostages and Palestinian civilians who will undoubtedly be herded into the caverns.

Finally, whatever Israel does will be documented by its opponents and splashed over the Internet via satellite phones and buried internet connections.

Does this mean the war is impossible for Israel? Not if it’s willing to take tremendous casualties and ignore the opinion of the Muslim world.

The real problem is actually not the battle in Gaza, but the spillover effects if Iran gets involved indirectly with Hezbollah. The temptation will be for Hezbollah to use anti-ship missiles against the American carriers in the Mediterranean if they start bombing Lebanon. These have never been targeted by modern weapons so no-one knows how successful an attack would be. But imagine if an American carrier is sunk!

A lot of political and military minds are trying to figure this problem out, but the time for action is fast approaching.

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