Fantasy, Illusion and Reality in Two Wars 

Wars seem to breed fantasy: hero worship, victory parades, exuberant patriotism, or “a war to end all wars.” Such fantasies are usually based on inflated expectations, grand illusions, or outright lies.

Even some of history’s great generals have fallen prey to fantasy. An illusion of imminent victory caused them to miscalculate and lose battles.  For example, Napoleon thought he could conquer Moscow before the snows arrived.  He was wrong and his wintertime invasion of Russia in 1812 led to a catastrophic French defeat.

Or recall the illusion of Japanese General Isoroku Yamamoto at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. He thought he could eliminate American carriers in a decisive battle, but U.S. forces deciphered his intentions and launched a devastating counterattack. Yamamoto lost both the battle and his life.

Closer to home, U.S. General George Custer mistakenly believed he could overwhelm a larger combined tribal force at the Battle of Little Big Horn in June 1876.  By dividing his troops into three separate battalions for an untimely attack he suffered an ignominious defeat.

Like those defeated generals before them, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both pursued illusory paths–with U.S. President Joe Biden tagging along behind them.

The U.S. and NATO helped Ukraine rightfully and successfully defend Russia’s attack on Kiev in February and March 2022.  However, the existential war for national survival transformed into a contest over long-disputed land in the southern and eastern regions. A failed Ukraine counterattack last summer morphed into a continuing stalemate, with heavy losses on both sides.

Rather than agree to a ceasefire or invoke diplomacy to settle territorial claims, Zelensky has held fast to his top two strategic goals: expulsion of all Russian troops and recovery of Crimea. Such prospects are an illusion. How can Ukraine expect to achieve such a vision of success when it faces an enemy four times its size and confronts its own manpower shortfall.

Until declining weapons support from the West causes him to rethink his goals, Zelensky will likely remain in the grip of illusion.  His valent troops will continue to die on the battlefield and in the trenches.

Following the brutal and inexcusable massacre of Israeli civilians by Hamas militants on October 7, Netanyahu announced as his primary goal the total elimination of Hamas in Gaza. Unlike Zelensky in Ukraine, Bibi must have known that his stated goal was illusory. How could such a deeply entrenched organization as Hamas, with its thousands of active militants either comingled with innocent civilians above ground or concealed underground in miles of deep tunnels, be “eliminated?”

The Israeli leader must have realized that his purported vision was in fact an illusion; that the intended but unannounced purpose of his invasion of Gaza was the complete elimination of Palestinians there.

Evidence of such intention may be found in the relentless IDF bombing, shelling, and sniping in all parts of the Strip; the repeated use of unguided bombs and bunker busters in crowded spaces; the frequent bombardment of hospitals, schools, libraries, mosques, churches, refugee camps and humanitarian facilities; the targeting of journalists, medical personnel, and intellectuals; a siege that has almost entirely eliminated civilian access to clean water, food and other necessities of life; and forced evacuations that have relocated most of the 2.2 million Palestinians to confined areas near the Rafah border with Egypt.

Even the Egyptian army could hardly restrain a border breach by more than a million desperate Gazans seeking food and safety.  The most likely outcome would seem to be the forced relocation of the expelled Palestinians to a desert camp in the Sinai.  Then the crafty Netanyahu can claim credit for reenacting the 1948 Nakba. 

For his part, U.S. President Joe Biden has fully bought into both illusions, without any apparent recognition of the realities in either Ukraine or Gaza.  In Ukraine, he continues to advocate for more weapons to help Ukraine pursue its illusion of victory over Russia.  In the Gaza war, Biden seems to accept at face value Israel’s publicly stated illusion of eliminating Hamas.  Accordingly, he continues his cheek-by-jowl support of Netanyahu.  He continues to supply offensive arms that kill women and children; and he continues to defend Israel in the United Nations.

America’s proxy war against Russia in Ukraine costs Zelensky the lives of his soldiers. America’s enabling of Netanyahu not only costs civilian lives in Gaza, but also risks regional conflict. More importantly for the longer term, it undermines the international rule of law established with U.S. leadership after the Second World War and it establishes a dangerous precedent for lawless behavior.

When the illusions of the three leaders are exposed, reality will overtake fantasy.

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.