WASHINGTON -- Amid the chilling scenes of flame and rubble and refugees in the Middle East last week came a sobering lesson for Americans: This is a virulent new form of warfare for which the United States and other conventional powers are ill-prepared.
The militant force of Hezbollah has elevated the art of insurgency to a bloody and frightening new level. It has demonstrated a capacity for massed salvos of rockets - and even a high-tech anti-ship missile that struck an Israeli warship - and left Israel and the United States groping for a few good options.
For the United States, there was no immediately obvious military role beyond accelerating deliveries of GBU-28 "bunker buster" bombs, which the Pentagon agreed last year to sell to Israel.
Despite the big stakes for the United States and Israel in this dangerous new phase of the war on terrorism, the United States was reduced to landing a handful of Marines to help evacuate American citizens from Beirut.
The widening gap between conventional military capabilities and the warfare of the 21st century became stunningly clear Sept. 11, 2001, when America's defenses failed against a handful of terrorists armed with box cutters. After five years of experience, though, it seems as if the United States has yet to learn the lessons of fighting an asymmetric battle, like the one that American GIs face in Iraq or that Israel faces in southern Lebanon.
"It's the same lesson exactly that we were taught in Vietnam," said Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general and former commandant of the U.S. Army War College. "It is about the limits of firepower in situations that are essentially political. It is hard to shape opinions with firepower, and we have learned that in Iraq in spades. We learn it, and we relearn it."
But the more immediate problem for Israel in southern Lebanon, as it was for the United States in Vietnam and is again in Iraq, is that against this enemy - call them insurgents, terrorists, guerrillas, nonstate actors or fourth-generation warriors - firepower is usually ineffective and often counterproductive.
After 11 days of fighting in the current conflict, there were civilians killed on both sides. But roughly 10 times more have died in Lebanon than in Israel, according to figures released by both sides.
That uneven ratio suggests the difficulty of using conventional weapons against an opposing force such as Hezbollah and raised concerns among analysts that there will be no good outcome of this conflict.
"Israel will win the war against concrete, but that is ultimately immaterial," said Kenneth Brower, a Pentagon strategic consultant. "Hezbollah will announce that they can rebuild, and they will proclaim that 'We have won because we are still here,' and they will be right."
In the seams
Like insurgents in Iraq and guerrillas in Chechnya, Hezbollah and similar groups operate in the seams between states, avoiding fixed bases and rigid organization. They live in shadow. They fight beyond the constraints of international law and convention. They shelter among civilians and blame the other side when the civilians are hurt. They shun direct clashes with a larger foe, as the United States learned in Vietnam, and again in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Increasingly, these warriors fight with terrifying new weapons and old ones used in terrifying new ways: suicide bombers, passenger jets as attack missiles, salvos of rockets as terror weapons.
This enemy escalates when it chooses and, as in Iraq, can tie up conventional forces many times its own size.
Owning no territory, it presents few targets, which is immensely frustrating for military forces based on firepower.
"Virtually everywhere the state is fighting non-state actors, and nearly everywhere the state is losing," said William Lind, a senior Washington-based strategist and author on military issues.
"The characteristics of state military forces are largely irrelevant to this kind of war. Bombing Lebanon doesn't hurt Hezbollah, it helps it. Bombing villages in Afghanistan doesn't help the government of [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, it undermines it," Lind said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld put his finger squarely on the problem in a brusque memo to his staff in October 2003, just as the insurgency in Iraq was accelerating and American casualties were climbing past 400 dead. Rumsfeld observed that the U.S. military "has been organized, trained and equipped to fight big armies, navies and air forces," not to fight a ragtag gang with little organization, no uniforms, no air power, unreliable communications and no high-tech weaponry.
But Rumsfeld was dispatching high-performance jets and precision-guided munitions worth tens of millions of dollars each to kill targets such as four people in a pickup truck, attacks that inevitably killed civilians and created a propaganda coup for the insurgents.
"The cost-benefit ratio is against us!" Rumsfeld fumed in his 2003 memo.
Pentagon officials last week declined to comment on events in southern Lebanon, on the U.S. role there or on the broader strategic issues.
In fact, the dilemma Rumsfeld identified has received a lot of attention inside the armed forces and at the Pentagon, even if little of it has been translated into new doctrine or reshaped the annual defense budget's traditional embrace of high-tech weapons more suited to conventional warfare.
In its four-year review of operations and strategy completed this spring, the Pentagon ordered a major new effort on counter-insurgency operations including beefing up its special forces and expanding its coordination with other government agencies.
"The fact is you can fight these guys," insisted Marc Genest, a former Pentagon official who is a professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "We look at war now in a holistic sense, where you have got to use every element of state power."
The Pentagon even has a new acronym for those tools of warfare: DIME, for diplomacy, information, military power and economic power.
One of the Army's rising stars, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who heads the Army's Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., has pushed hard for the Army to develop what he calls "non-kinetic" skills, meaning those that don't involve firepower: language skills, cultural awareness, the ability to negotiate among warlords or to organize schools, health clinics and defense militias in small towns in Afghanistan, for example.
"We simply have got to get better at this," said Petraeus, who is responsible for all Army training, in a recent interview.
As for change within the Defense Department, said Genest, "Let's face it: Militaries tend to focus on what they do best. For us, that is massive military capabilities and techniques."