‘Machines don’t fight wars... Humans fight wars!’ Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times

October 25, 2023   7 mins

Two weeks on, are we any closer to explaining the catastrophic failure of Israel’s extremely expensive, high-tech Gaza border defences to stop the Hamas attack? I’ve seen a surprising number of people, on both Right and Left, argue or imply that the swift collapse of these supposedly impenetrable defences, along with the very slow response by the Israeli military to the attack, justifies a conspiratorial explanation — e.g. that Netanyahu, or Washington, or whomever on the inside must have wanted the attack to get through, as otherwise Hamas would have had no chance.

I find this idea ridiculous, but also telling. Telling in that many apparently find the notion that Israeli Jews were deliberately betrayed and allowed to be murdered by their own fiercely nationalist government to be a more readily believable theory than that complex technological systems could possibly fail. This fact speaks to something important about how we moderns have come to misperceive how things work, misplace our faith in systems, and often accidentally make ourselves more rather than less vulnerable to chaos.

Over the last few years, Israel spent more than $1.1 billion to construct a sprawling security barrier along the entirety of its nearly 40-mile border with Gaza. This was, allegedly, to be the fence to end all fences. In addition to 20-foot-high multi-layered wire, steel, and concrete barriers, the “smart fence” integrated a vast network of cameras, motion and other sensors, radars, and remote-controlled weapon systems, all monitored by dozens of towers that served as data hubs and high-tech observation and listening-posts. An underground wall and sensor system, designed to stop infiltration by tunnels, was extended far below the earth along the whole border, at great expense. Meanwhile, Israel’s advanced, exceptionally costly “Iron Dome” missile defence system protected the skies. “The barrier is reality-changing. What happened in the past won’t happen again,” the then-IDF chief of staff Aviv Kohavi declared at a ceremony marking its construction in 2019.

Some former members of the IDF have in recent days testified on social media that the fence really was a technological marvel. Not so much as a stray cat could get anywhere near the border without setting off alarms, they recalled. And the Israeli government and military certainly seem to have believed it was impenetrable, which partly explains why, by the start of this month, they had redeployed most of their regular military forces to guard the West Bank and northern border instead.

But of course, on 7 October, this great wall of silicon proved almost totally useless, overcome in a matter of minutes by Hamas, which was then left to rampage across southern Israel almost unopposed. At least 1,400 Israelis lost their lives as a result. What happened? Let’s lay aside Israel’s broader strategic intelligence failure — having been falsely convinced that Hamas had been successfully pacified and was no longer interested in attempting attacks — which this certainly was. The border’s defences were expected to detect and repel even an unexpected assault — or at least were billed as such. How and why did they fail?

At the simplest level, we could say the IDF was overconfident in its defences and underestimated its enemy. “The thinning of the forces [stationed near the Gaza border] seemed reasonable because of the construction of the fence and the aura they created around it, as if it were invincible, that nothing would be able to pass it,” recounts Brig. Gen. Israel Ziv, a former head of the IDF’s Operations Division and ground forces commander in the south.

We could also say that the IDF had allowed itself to become strategically rigid and was ill-prepared to adapt flexibly when things went wrong. From the moment the fence was proposed, some military officers warned that pouring resources into it — along with the Iron Dome — was a mistake, because it would ultimately degrade the military’s ability to manoeuvre offensively and pre-emptively neutralise the enemy’s capacity to conduct attacks. Col. Yehuda Vach, commander of the IDF’s Officer Training School, warned in 2019 that “because we don’t cross the fence, the other side has become strategically stronger”, as they’d been handed operational initiative. “The enemy will seek in the next campaign to carry out an operation to kidnap soldiers and harm civilians in the towns near the fence, thus enjoying the first achievement of the campaign,” he ominously predicted. “The fence creates an illusion and gives a false sense of security to both the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and the residents near the fence,” he said.

These are both classic military mistakes, warned against repeatedly by strategists from Carl von Clausewitz to Sun Tzu. In this case, however, the even greater mistake may have been that the IDF came to rely far too heavily on technological solutions, methods, and ways of thinking.

One of the most famous sayings of the U.S. Air Force pilot and strategist Col. John Boyd, who helped to develop modern manoeuvre warfare, was: “People, ideas, machines — in that order!” While warfighting devices were and are important, as are doctrines, tactics, and stratagems, these are all less important than the people doing the fighting, planning, and organising — as well as being far less adaptable and reliable. As Boyd would often harangue generals in the Pentagon, usually to no avail: “Machines don’t fight wars… Humans fight wars!”

Boyd had seen for himself the perils of overreliance on Big Brain tech wizardry in Vietnam. The latest generation of US aircraft, designed by geniuses who insisted that the age of aerial gunfights was long over, had been stripped of their guns and manoeuvrability — and built to be flying missile and bomb platforms. But in combat, the missiles proved horrifically unreliable — and the planes were no use at all in a dogfight. When they ran into lightweight North Vietnamese MIGs, they got destroyed: the US air-to-air kill ratio fell from 10:1 in the Korean War to 1:1 in 1967.

While technologies can certainly offer solutions to discrete problems, they are typically not flexible and adaptable enough to function as intended when things go sideways. Moreover, fragile technological solutions can produce entirely new liabilities that did not even exist before. In the current case, the widespread reliance of the IDF’s defences on wireless data transmission became a critical weakness that the enemy was able to exploit to great effect.

In fact, it seems likely that Israel was actually worse off with all its high-tech border gadgetry than it would have been without it. These over-engineered solutions to guarding the border were not cost-effective, instead representing an opportunity cost that could have been better spent elsewhere — such as on maintaining a far greater number of disciplined, sharp-eyed soldiers with guns. When the tech failed, it was only such men who were able, eventually, to adapt and respond. By reversing Boyd’s admonition and putting machines first and people last, the IDF actively degraded the capability of those people to respond to disaster when it most mattered.

But even this understates the bigger problem exposed by the folly of the “smart fence”. Israel’s smart border defences should be understood as the adoption of a needlessly complex system. “Complexity” here must not be mistaken to just mean “complicated”. Rather, a complex system is a technical term defining a system composed of such a great quantity of component parts, in such intricate relationships of dependency and interaction with each other, that its composite behaviour in response to entropy cannot be predictively modelled.

When things go wrong in a complex system it can’t be easily solved, because each sub-system relies on many other sub-systems, and pulling any one lever to try to solve one problem will produce entirely unexpected effects. This means complex systems are vulnerable to failure cascades, in which the failure of even a single part can set off an unpredictable domino effect of further failures. Even if the original failure is fixed this cannot reverse the cascade, and the whole system may soon face catastrophic collapse.

This is essentially what happened to Israel’s border defence system. The replacement of low-tech solutions with high-tech ones needlessly added additional layers of complexity to the system, making it more, not less, fragile. Under pressure, the system then collapsed more completely and with more devastating consequences than if a simpler, more robust system had been used.

This doesn’t mean, to be clear, that I think technology can never be useful. Obviously, technological change has always played an important role in the realm of war — to my disappointment, no army would be able to win today with the cheerful simplicity of the good ole’ sword and shield. But on close inspection, those technologies that have the most transformative and lasting impact are almost always those that are the most simple, robust, adaptable, and scalable, and which generally work in accord with the human element, rather than attempt to totally replace him with a complex system. The cheap little drones that Hamas used so successfully, and which have already revolutionised warfare in Ukraine and elsewhere, are a perfect example of this.

This is true, too, beyond the world of warfare. In all aspects of life, we have come to worship technology and complexity for its own sake, believing it to be the sorcery that can solve our problems once and for all. Except far too often, it doesn’t — it just creates the illusion of having done so, while our own capacities have diminished and our vulnerabilities to systematic collapse have increased. In this way, technology has become a false idol, squatting in the place of or even preventing genuine human ingenuity, innovation, and adaptability.

Just as complex systems are vulnerable to collapse, so are empires and civilisations. And empires fall the same way most complex systems do: by becoming too complex to bear their own weight. They come to span the globe, and have too many alliances and commitments, too many “vital national interests”, too many IOUs, too many enemies, to ever handle at once. This is what “imperial overstretch” really means: not just that there is too much budgeted for the treasury to pay for, but that overall complexity has reached such a level that the empire has become impossible to manage. Trying to solve one problem only creates another. The empire may still appear strong, but it has become fragile. The potential for even a single point of failure to ignite a catastrophic failure cascade grows more and more acute.

Today, as the United States and its allies rush with increasingly visible panic to try to put out one fire after another around the world, I’m afraid that a global failure cascade may be exactly what we’re witnessing. The number of lights blinking red is growing faster and faster as more dominos fall. If this is the case, then just solving existing problems will never be enough: every effort to fight one fire may just set off new fires. Might America, by embroiling itself in two regional wars at once, prompt China to invade Taiwan when it otherwise wouldn’t have dared, for example? It seems like a possibility. But then we can’t know for sure: growing unpredictability is now the defining feature of the system.

There are many people who, witnessing this chaos play out, will predictably argue that the empire needs to redouble its efforts, to yield no ground anywhere, and to show everyone the power of its “global leadership”. The encroaching jungle must be forced back everywhere because to retreat would be to demonstrate weakness and invite calamity. Needless to say, doing more will only add more complexity to the system, and thus more vulnerabilities. It won’t do anything to prevent or stop a failure cascade — only increase its ultimate scope, momentum, and unpredictability.

Naturally, a wiser method would be to simplify: to deliberately pare back commitments and overextended positions, concentrating on conserving strength and defending only the most critical nodes of the system, until the balance of capabilities and commitments can reach a stable new equilibrium. But reform of this kind is extremely difficult, as untangling the imperial Gordian Knot one thread at a time often proves to be impossible. Historically, this type of impasse is typically only ever resolved, and simplicity restored, with one decisive stroke: by systemic collapse.


This essay is an extract from a longer piece on The Upheaval.

N.S. Lyons is the author of The Upheaval on Substack.