Anonymous Soldiers

Title:                      Anonymous Soldiers

Author:                                Bruce Hoffman

Hoffman, Bruce  (2015). Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LCCN:    2014018177

DS126 .H634 2015


Date Posted:      March 20, 2017

Complied and Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[1]

Can terrorism succeed? Can it achieve the social and political goals its advocates advance? The conventional wisdom is that, in the long run, it cannot. Bruce Hoffman, director of the security studies program at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the U.S. Military Academy’s Combatting Terrorism Center, asks, if it doesn’t work, “why has it persisted for at least the past two millennia and indeed become an increasingly popular means of violent political expression in the 21st century?” (p. x) Anonymous Soldiers answers these questions using the Arab-Zionist conflict as a case study.

Hoffman’s interest in this topic began while studying terrorism at Oxford University, when he became aware of the “centrality of intelligence” to the study of history in general and terrorism in particular. (p. xiii) With the release in 2003 of British Security Service (MI5) documents covering the British struggles in Palestine after WWI and drawing on related firsthand diplomatic accounts, Hoffman was able to analyze the emergence of terrorism as a tool by the Arabs and Jews to achieve their goals. At the outset, the Arabs sought to limit Jewish immigration and territorial ambitions, while making Palestine ungovernable for the British. The Jews demanded the Jewish homeland implicitly promised by the British in the Balfour Declaration and sought to undermine the government when the promise was broken.

In the early post-WWI period, the Arabs reacted with a short-lived, largely rural campaign of terror raids on British forces and Jewish communities that were easily put down by British police and Army troops. But as WWII approached, the attacks continued and the demand for increased Jewish immigration quotas grew. Thus the Jews created underground organizations—the Irgun, the Haganah, and Lohamei Herut Yisrael, known by its Hebrew acronym, Lehi, to the Jews and to the British as the Stern Game[2]—to deal with the Arab campaign of bombings and bloodshed interrupted somewhat by the war. These groups would penetrate the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the British army. Arab attacks increased in frequency and fury after WWII as Holocaust survivors placed new demands on immigration quotas.

Hoffman chronicles these groups as they work individually and sometimes in conjunction to pressure the British government with bombings, assassinations, and prison breaks until its withdrawal in 1947. He uses the famous Irgun attack on the King David Hotel, commanded by Menachem Begin—a future prime minister of Israel—as an exemplar of skill and determination. He questions Begin’s later claim in his memoir that, since he had given prior warning so civilians could be evacuated, the attack was not a terrorist act and only the British Mandate personnel were targets. Unfortunately, the call came too late and 92 civilians died, mostly Arabs.[3]

The Jewish terrorist acts against British interests were not confined to Palestine ¬there were attacks in Rome, Cairo, and London—and Hoffman deals with the international furor that led to condemnation by Albert Einstein, among others. These actions sometimes had unintended consequences, as when the 1944 assassination in Cairo of Lord Moyne—a close friend of Churchill—ended any hope of Churchill’s backing. International support was important to the Jewish politicians in Palestine who were seeking some accommodation with the British, and Hoffman explains multiple attempts of Jewish leaders to end the attacks, but they continued until the British left.

Hoffman also deals with the quandary facing British military and security officials in the Palestine Mandate. Even though at one point they enjoyed a “twenty-to-one numerical superiority over five-thousand terrorists” and London was decrypting all the Jewish agencies’ traffic, still they could not stop the attacks. Their “Achilles’ heel in governance and policing in Palestine,” notes Hoffman, “was the lack of intelligence… a paucity of Hebrew linguists and skilled detectives.” (p. 415) The political leaders were in a similar predicament. Their recommendations for a two-state solution were rejected by the Arabs and, as Hoffman concedes, only full-scale war would have stopped the terrorists.

Anonymous Soldiers concludes that “Jewish terrorism played a salient role in… the British decision to leave Palestine.” But many other factors also contributed to the decision, for example, granting independence to India, the plight of Holocaust survivors, and lack of a consistent British policy. Hoffman doesn’t claim terrorism is the answer to solving dissident revolts. But in the case of the British Palestine Mandate, Begin’s strategy of undermining government control expressed in his book, The Revolt, had worked. A copy of that “seminal work” was found in an al-Qa’ida library by US military forces in 2001. (p. 484)

[1] Hayden Peake in The Intelligencer (22, 2, Fall 2016, pp.  119-120).  Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. Other reviews and articles may be found online at

[2] The title of this book comes from a poem by the leader of the Stern Gang

[3] Begin, Menachem (1948, 1972). The Revolt. Los Angeles, CA: Nash Pub [LCCN: 79188174] A plaque affixed to the fence of the rebuilt King David Hotel says that the Irgun gave a 25-minute warning to evacuate the building.

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