In 1973, Egypt and Syria did something stupid. They attacked Israel on Yom Kippur.

It probably seemed like a great idea. Catch Israel totally off guard by staging a sneak attack on that nation’s holiest day of the year. A day when everyone, including most of the military, would be involved in religious observances.

At first, the attack was a great success. It did catch Israel off guard. But guess what? The object of a sneak attack should be to demoralize and break the spirit of an enemy. When a nation — or in this case, nations — does something that is perceived as dastardly, it has the opposite effect, angering and invigorating instead of crushing the spirit.

Japan learned this the hard way when it attacked Pearl Harbor. Sure, they killed a couple of thousand people and destroyed a lot of ships and airplanes, but the attack awoke, as the saying goes, a sleeping giant. Instead of demoralizing us, it raised the ire of U.S. citizens from coast to coast.

Being attacked on Yom Kippur caused Israel to fight back with a vengeance. Any advantages gained in the initial attack were lost. Within weeks, when a cease fire was called, Israeli forces had surrounded the Egyptian army and were 62 miles away from Egypt’s capital, Cairo.

Two of history’s greatest thinkers on the art of warfare — Sun Tzu in ancient China, and Carl von Clausewitz in 19th-century Prussia — recognized surprise and deception as effective strategies. And there are plenty of incidents in history where sneak attacks have turned the tide of battle.


But both men knew the danger of being cruel instead of cunning. Cruelty, more often than not, creates obstinance and stiffens the backbones of  those attacked.

When Nazi Germany bombed London, killing untold numbers of civilians, they hoped to break England’s will. Their actions, however, strengthened that nation’s resolve. Instead of cowering in fear, the Brits, angered by the nature of the attacks, refused to give in.

I think of a shop owner who had his store windows blown out in a bombing raid. The next day, he put up a sign that said “More Open Then Usual” and continued to do business. That’s not the attitude Germany thought the bombings would engender.

I rarely touch on current events in this column. There is a constant babble of newscasts, podcasts, and social media posts ranting about anything newsworthy (and plenty that is not), and I don’t want to be one more voice braying in the barnyard. But today there is an example of not learning from the past, and I can’t help but point it out.

Regardless of your political leanings, it’s clear that Russia hasn’t learned from the London Blitz, Pearl Harbor, and the Yom Kippur War. The cruelty of its actions in Ukraine have not softened, but hardened the resolve of the people there.

And as both Sun Tzu and Carl von Clausewitz would tell you, that’s not a good strategy. Clausewitz put it this way, “Blind aggressiveness would destroy the attack itself, not the defense.”

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