In Krav Maga, the martial art used by the Israeli Defense Forces, offense is the only defense. The Israeli instructor hosted last week by Yale Friends of Israel, Yale Espionage Society and the Yale Karate Club opened his class by explaining, “Self-defense is just a legal term. If you want to get out of a fight, you have to be on the attack or you’ll lose.”
After a couple of drills where I got out of a chokehold by grabbing my assailant by the eye socket, pulling him off me, and then kneeing him in the face “until he doesn’t feel like fighting anymore,” I had to take a water break. Once my adrenaline started to drop, I began to feel a little uncomfortable. The logic of Krav Maga sounded disturbingly close to the rhetoric I’m accustomed to hearing from neocon hawks who push pre-emptive strikes and decry defense as inadequate.
As I pantomimed kicking a prone opponent in the face, I felt like I was endorsing the rhetoric of total war championed by Bush and Rumsfeld. Once I got back to my room and did a little more research on the history of Krav Maga, though, it was clear that politicians who embrace the philosophy of overwhelming aggression don’t understand the logical conclusions of their argument. At least, I hope they don’t.
The real goal of Krav Maga is disengagement, and offense-as-defense is the best technique to achieve that goal. The strategy is tailored to a specific kind of fight. It is descended from of the street fighting techniques of Imi Lichtenfeld, who taught his fellow Jews how to defend themselves against fascists in what is now Slovakia. In those fights, and in the scenarios the instructor discussed, the priority was to get away. You inflicted damage on your opponents only for the purpose of getting them to stop hitting you or just to make them pause long enough for you to make a run for it.
That technique works when you get mugged or get jumped by thugs who aren’t inclined to continue the fight later. If your assailants knew where you lived, you couldn’t ever end the fight by running away. They’d just come back better prepared next time. Our instructor was up front about the limits of any martial art, telling us, “If someone really wants to kill you and has some training, they probably will. You won’t be able to defend yourself everywhere.”
This is the situation Israel and other countries find themselves in when they face domestic terrorists. When you can’t run away, you have two options: find a way to avoid the fight or commit to total war. Although ramping down aggression and restarting the peace process appears near impossible, the alternative is unacceptable.
In the fight against the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka took offense-as-defense to its logical, horrific conclusion. The Sri Lankan government had struggled for years to suppress the insurgency, with little success. After the breakdown of a cease-fire in 2008, the Sri Lankan government carried out a savage attack against insurgents and civilians that culminated with a coordinated artillery attack on the safe zone reserved for refugees and noncombatants. The Tamils were massacred and the Sri Lankan government is currently engaged in forced resettlement, to prevent any coordinated resistance among the survivors.
Terrifyingly, as reported in an article by Jon Lee Anderson for the New Yorker, at conferences on counter-terrorism, Pentagon officials have praised Sri Lanka for its success. A success born out of genocide cannot be worthy of praise.
Politicians should pause before they use the language of pre-emptive aggression and overwhelming force. We are not in a street fight we can flee, we are not attacking governments that can collapse and be defeated. We are fighting insurgent networks and diffuse terrorist collectives. If we don’t have the power to defeat them, we have to find a way to make the fight undesirable from the get-go. Otherwise we’ll end up committing ourselves militarily and increasing damage on both sides. The more painful the fight, the more tempting it will be to end it using the brutal and inhumane tactics of Sri Lanka’s total war.
Maybe Washington hawks should take a lesson from the Krav Maga instructor who told us the best possible outcome is avoiding a fight altogether. “You have to be assertive,” he told us, “but aggression will only guarantee you have to strike.”
Leah Libresco is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays.