Steve Carol: U.S. history provides insight into current Israeli situation

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Steve Carol, retired professor of history, is a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Middle East Studies and the official historian for the Middle East Radio Forum.]

As we witness much of the world decrying the “lack of proportionality” in Israel’s response to the unprovoked attack on its military personnel and civilians within the State of Israel, it would be important to recall a similar episode in United States history.

On March 6, 1916, a group of 360 Villistas (followers of Pancho Villa) crossed the international border between the United States and Mexico and attacked the town of Columbus, New Mexico. Their immediate goal was to obtain weapons from the nearby headquarters of the U.S. 13th Cavalry. Eighteen Americans were killed during the raid and additional nine were killed in pursuit of the attackers back to the border.

The raid was led by German agents directed by Luther Wertz, a key German operative in Mexico. Germany wanted to keep the United States out of World War I, which was then raging, and sought to divert U.S. attention from Europe to south of the border.

The unprovoked attack on the United States triggered demands for retaliation and punishment of the raiders. There was no talk of “proportional” response.

As a result, President Woodrow Wilson ordered General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing and 6,000 American troops on a “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico. The force crossed into Mexico some two weeks after the initial attack and would penetrate some 300 miles into Mexico. During its nine-month stay in Mexico, U.S. forces would clash with Villistas as well as with Mexican Federal troops.

The Villistas again attacked the United States on May 5, 1916, raiding Glen Springs and Borquilla, Texas. This prompted President Wilson to send an additional force of 8,000 troops into Mexico. On June 18 he called up the Texas, New Mexico and Arizona National Guard and sent 150,000 men to patrol the U.S. border. Wilson also placed an arms embargo on Mexico, which included food and even horses.

On June 24 there was a clash between U.S. and Mexican forces at Carrizal, with 84 U.S. soldiers being surrounded by superior Mexican forces. Over half escaped but 14 were killed and 24 U.S. servicemen were taken prisoner.

Wilson’s reaction was immediate. The next day he demanded the release of the captured soldiers, and to back up his demands he mobilized the entire U.S. National Guard and incorporated it into the regular army. He dispatched American warships to patrol and enforce a blockade on Mexican ports on both its east and west coasts. All the American prisoners were released five days later, on June 30. There was no talk of a “lack of proportionality.”

While U.S. forces did not catch Pancho Villa, they crippled his ability to strike at the United States and inflicted heavy casualties on his forces in Mexico.

The American force was withdrawn, unexpectedly, on Jan. 25, 1917, not because of any Mexican or international pressure, but rather because the U.S. had obtained information that Germany intended to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, a step that would bring the U.S. into World War I. Additionally, the U.S. had obtained proof, via the Zimmermann Telegram, that Germany was seeking an anti-U.S. alliance with both Mexico and Japan. Thus the U.S. force was withdrawn so as not to give Mexico additional cause for considering such an alliance.

Similarly, the world has witnessed agents of Iran and Syria instruct Hamas and Hezbollah to attack military positions within Israel. This came after the Nov. 14, 2005 Iran-Syria Strategic Accord, whereby Iran pledged, among other things, military support for Syria. ...

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