On April 18, 1942, 16 U.S. B-25 bombers attacked Tokyo. Of those, two were shot down. The rest reached Chinese regions where anti-Imperial forces saved them. Only one of the original 16 landed—in Vladivostok, Russia. All the rest—precious assets for a U.S. army stretched thinner than onion skin—were shot down or ditched. The surviving crews—all of whom had been handpicked as the best of the best—were gone, captured or unavailable for months. Eight among the crews were captured by the Japanese.
The result of the raid: marginal damage to Tokyo, and negligible damage to the industrial capacity of the empire. By every tactical measure, this was an irresponsible waste of men and materiel at a time when America could ill afford to waste anything. And President Roosevelt—whose attentions and energy were already stretched to the limit—had sought the raid, monitored its preparations and then impatiently ordered it. His general staff all thought him mentally unwell and irresponsible.
And yet, the Doolittle Raid (as it came to be called, after its commander, James Doolittle), was one of the most important actions undertaken by the Americans during the war, and arguably represented its turning point. It was tactically disastrous, but strategically cataclysmic.
Because it turned around American morale. It overshadowed—even erased—the memory of Dec. 7 and replaced it with a defined war goal, through actions, not just words. Americans now understood where they were headed and invested their energies totally in achieving victory, rather sapping them by focusing on their wounds. America had passed from fear and foreboding to optimism.
The Japanese were unnerved because the islands which for 1,500 years had never been penetrated due to the protective, mystical spirit of the Kamikaze wind—had been bombed. The Japanese general staff were humiliated, and their stature, which had ridden so high in the five months since Pearl Harbor, was tarnished. The killing of Japanese civilians in their capital, combined with the shame felt by the military command, created inescapable pressure to strike back. For Japan had understood that the raid had broken their full control of the situation, taken back some of the initiative and thus threatened to reverse its relentless strategic momentum.
The pressure took its toll: Japan advanced Admiral Yamamoto’s s invasion plans of Hawaii to retake the initiative and force a battle in Midway for which it had not fully prepared. In June 1942, only seven months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were catastrophically defeated there by a far smaller force because Japan had prematurely rushed to avenge its honor. Its controlled competence had given way to a grave misstep. While it still took another three years, Midway changed the direction of the war. Japan’s strategic momentum was never regained and America was on the straight road to victory, which greatly relieved Britain and cast a dark doubt over Hitler’s aspirations in Europe. Thus, those 16 planes, with few bombs, set the course of the whole war.
So what does this have to do with Israel?
Israel faced its Pearl Harbor on Oct. 7. The wound gave the Iranian camp great strategic initiative and showed the region that it was the strong horse, while Israel was complacent and possibly even too weak to survive in the long term. What followed was very much like the five-month period between Dec. 7, 1941 and April 18, 1942 in World War II, where tactically the United States might have begun to mobilize, societally it began to do what it had to do, but overall the strategic momentum had not been retaken. American morale was still sinking after the initial anger faded into the grim reality of a long war, and Japanese morale continued to rise as America’s withered.
Right now, Israel has considerable tactical initiative, but no strategic initiative. Hamas dictates the fate of the hostages and deals. Hamas governs the agenda of international pressure The U.S. State Department controls the international diplomatic agenda. Hezbollah defines the parameters of conflict on the Lebanese border. Yemen chooses when, where and how often it intervenes, and has caused international shipping to retreat into a defensive crouch. Iraqi militias define how much the United States and Israel can feel secure in Syria and the Golan. Israel may possess tactical superiority in every theater, but it lacks strategic initiative and control in all of them. Iran is still driving everything.
As such, as a nation and society, Israeli will remains high, but there are signs already of fraying of focus, internal stresses and lack of faith in the final goals. Or even their definition. Rhetoric is also misaligned: Iran is seen and blamed as the puppet master in terms of an “either we or they survive” showdown, but the war is fought entirely locally against Hamas, as if this was a limited conflict rather than part of such a twilight struggle against Iran.
Wars are won through strategy, not tactics. Israel has reached the point where it needs a Doolittle Raid.
Israel not only needs to prop up Israeli morale to move beyond the shadow of Oct. 7 (as the United States had to move beyond the shadow of Dec. 7), but to take actions—perhaps even against Iran itself, but certainly against theaters right now languishing (Yemen, Iraq, Syria)—that strategically signal this is no longer about Hamas alone, nor even about the Palestinians, but about forcing the Iranian regime itself into cowering in fear of what unpredictable thing Israel might do next, and through that to retake strategic initiative and set the regional agenda to bear down on Tehran’s regime itself. Israel needs to take control of the agenda in every aspect and force Iran’s hand into missteps.
Israel needs a Doolittle Raid. Or two… or three.