Outgoing commander of IDF's Golani brigade: 'We've come a long way'
During his stint in Golani, Ofek Buchris sought to improve the leadership abilities of his officers and change the brigade's image. Now, he says, the soldiers will go one hill further than they're ordered to.
Last month, Col. Ofek Buchris concluded a two-year stint as commander of the Golani infantry brigade in the regular army. He was awarded a chief of staff's citation for his performance as a battalion commander in the brigade during the second intifada.
Buchris was at the front, in various capacities, whenever the IDF fought in the past two decades: in South Lebanon during the period before the withdrawal from the security zone there, in the territories in the intifada, including Operation Defensive Shield, and in the Second Lebanon War (in which he served in the 91st Division).
This high visibility came with a price: a serious wound in the upper back and the loss of friends and soldiers serving under him. Golani is everywhere and has had its share of casualties in the past two years - although, like the Israel Defense Forces in general, it did not engage in wide-scale combat per se.
After 24 years in uniform, most of them in Golani, Buchris says, "I would be ready to do it all again, from the first day, from the beginning."
He is 44, married and the father of six children, a native of Kiryat Gat who now lives in a community in the Galilee. In another month he will be promoted to brigadier general and appointed the commander of a reserve division.
Like his own past commanders, Zakai and Tamir, Buchris is considered an opinionated officer who does not hesitate to speak his mind in any forum. It sometimes seems that he enjoys wrangling. He is religiously observant, one of the senior combat officers produced by the religious Zionist movement, but does not see himself as an emissary of that movement.
Toughening the soldiers
Golani under Buchris' command is at the heart of the Israeli consensus, as it was under his predecessors in the past two decades. Yet it was precisely from this high-status position that he did not balk at challenging what is perceived as the "holy of holies": the brigade's image as representing the less well-established classes in Israel. Buchris confirms that with all the IDF's effort to toughen its soldiers, the attitude toward them in training is radically different from what it was when he himself was drafted.
"About 15 years ago, we started to abandon the idea that it was necessary to 'break' civilians in order to make them soldiers. In practice, we stretched out the acclimatization time [in basic training]. In the past, the main thing was to strengthen the spirit and along the way also to make the soldier a professional. We would deconstruct a person and rebuild him. We no longer do that.
"As brigade commander, I extended the masa kumta [so-called beret trek, which concludes basic training] to 75 kilometers, so that the Golani fighter would know that even after 60 kilometers he can still lift his foot and take another step. Still, the attitude today is different. When I became a company commander, in 1993, my company had 56 soldiers, some of them only on paper. We had good fighters, but few. At present a company in the brigade has 85 to 95 soldiers. More or less the same number of people were drafted in 1993. But these days you break fewer of them along the way - fewer people leave for mental or physical reasons.
"There are places where the commanders demand less, and then the soldiers are less aggressive. The problem lies with the commanders: I did not hesitate to remove a company commander when he was afraid to command. There is a hill to conquer here, and anyone who can't hack it will not be a commanding officer under me, even if he is a terrific guy. How far can you stretch things until a person learns? You remember that there are 100 people under him who are suffering from his inability.
"When soldiers suffered from lack of leadership, when a commander's learning curve was too slow, when he did not handle his soldiers well enough, I acted [to remove him]. With all respect to backing up commanders, what about all the guys who aren't looked after and wake up dispirited every morning?
"This is not an approach of pussyfooting around. As far as I am concerned, the company commander can tear them apart, train them mercilessly in the most professional way - but he has to be able to lead. I dealt with this quite a bit and the truth is that I did not acquire a nice-guy reputation. I don't take pride in that, but I wasn't chosen to be commander of the Golani Brigade because I am a nice guy."
These days, the soldiers themselves come from a civilian life - even if they grew up in a poor family - in which the basic physical conditions (air conditioner, cable television, cellular phone) are more comfortable than those enjoyed by most draftees a few decades ago. Does Buchris think this has affected the soldiers' toughness, their grit in battle?
"I will talk about the past two years in Golani," he replies. "The bottom line is that fighting spirit and professional capability will ensure that we can overcome any enemy that assaults us, no less than we did in Operation Defensive Shield in 2002.
"It is not something quantifiable," he continues, "but there are parameters I can judge: cohesiveness, determination in training, type of training. We came close to the maximum limit of the allowed safety risks and of the soldiers' maximum physical and mental load. I think that in battle the results will be in keeping with that: vanquishing the enemy - and victory. In the terms of a tactical unit, the intention is to execute the mission in the time and with the order of battle allotted us. In the case of Golani, I expect that it will be one hill past the hill we were supposed to reach.
"This is not mere boasting. The enemy will give us a hard time and there will be casualties, but spirit and capability will enable us to overcome. The situation is certainly not worse than it was in 2002. The thing is that we don't yet have the experience here. We have this tendency to deal with the enemy's upgraded ability, but the IDF has improved, too. In the Lebanon war of 2006, the heart of the problem at the tactical level was that we lacked training. Training creates trust in the framework, in the commanders. The thinking was that the operational activity in Judea-Samaria [during the intifada] would compensate for this. That is an unprofessional approach. Six years ago, we talked about a plan [for reconquering southern Lebanon], but it was a half-imaginary one. No one believed that we would really go into Lebanon, because there were quite a few incidents on the border in whose wake we did not go in, and it was understood that it wasn't going to happen.
"At present, there is not a fighter who thinks there will not be a war during his army service. They understand that they might have to go into Gaza, Lebanon, wherever it might be. That consciousness shapes them, even if you can't measure it by any formula."
Did the IDF have a problem of tenacity in Lebanon?
"There was a problem. Do you need me in order to establish that? The army did debriefings."
'A "Star Is Born" index'
In this month's IDF draft, five to six soldiers competed for every slot in the Golani Brigade. Buchris remembers other times, less encouraging perhaps, but is not especially impressed: "That's a 'Star Is Born' index, not a true one. We are measured truly by the soldiers' motivation a year after the draft. That is what I focus on. I am not doing anything today to encourage enlistment to the brigade. When I was in basic training, and Yair Naveh, who is now the deputy chief of staff, was the commander of Golani's basic-training base, he asked who didn't want to be there - and about a third of the new recruits raised their hand. We have come a long way since then. What brought about the gradual change was the brigade's participation in the fighting in South Lebanon until the withdrawal in 2000, and then Operation Defensive Shield and everything going on around that."
The high demand to serve in the brigade generated another problem, which put a damper on its performance in recent years: The brigade had an unofficial affirmative action tendency, by which soldiers who came from particularly difficult backgrounds, and who insisted on serving in Golani were given priority over other candidates. Gadi Eizenkot, the former GOC Northern Command, together with Buchris, changed that.
"It turned out that there was a process in the national induction center that was completely based on good intentions. The trouble was that they were not vigilant in understanding its implications. The approach was that if there were people whom life had treated cruelly and they wanted Golani, we would treat them well. We reached the conclusion that we were burdening the units with a challenge they had no chance of contending with. In some cases, 30 percent of a platoon's soldiers were in an economic and family-related situation that necessitated special service conditions. The platoon commander is not capable of dealing with so many soldiers who have problems. And when so many soldiers get special treatment, the load on the other soldiers becomes too heavy. We acted to balance this out, and the treatment of the soldiers improved, because there were fewer exceptional cases. All population groups are desirable from our point of view, but a change was needed."
As a result of decisions made before Buchris' appointment, another process reached a peak about the time he took over: the encouragement of religiously observant officers in the brigade's top ranks. When he started his stint, Golani had one colonel (the brigade commander ) and five lieutenant colonels (battalion commanders plus the deputy brigade commander ) who were religious, as compared to one secular lieutenant colonel.
"When I was appointed, there was talk of its being a religious brigade," he says. "That is nonsense. You would think that we started our army day by putting on tefillin (phylacteries ) as a group, or with a Torah lesson during the commanders' meeting."
Buchris explains that the large number of religious battalion commanders he encountered "was due to the fact that there were many religious company commanders eight or nine years ago. It is the natural result of a process. I am in favor of maximum heterogeneity. I never closed the door to anyone."
Nonetheless, as part of an effort to bring other population groups back into the Golani Brigade, Buchris launched a project in conjunction with Bina, an organization that runs a secular yeshiva and also a pre-army course, for the organized entry of kibbutz members to one of the battalions. "Unfortunately, it came out distorted in the media, as though we don't want Orthodox people. That is not the case. The brigade belongs to everyone. It is not my private brigade and it does not belong to any special group. Whoever is ready and suited to be part of the group and to lead is welcome, and the good ones will sprint ahead. There are a great many excellent secular company commanders in the brigade. I do not choose people for what they wear on the head but for what's in it."
Still, we heard stories about battalions of yours that were closed to female staff officers, because the battalion commander was religious and preferred to work only with male officers.
"I am not aware of any such phenomenon. People came to me with all kinds of stories. There were rumors that I dictated more modest attire to female sports instructors in the brigade than in the rest of the army. Do you really think I would deal with that stuff? People in this country sometimes have a highly developed imagination."
Accused of being a 'Jew-hater'
A few months ago - shortly after the scandal that erupted when religious cadets refused to remain present when female soldiers were singing publicly at officers' school - the Golani Brigade marked the conclusion of the training of a few if its companies. Despite the large number of observant officers, Buchris made a point of including the Education Corps chorus in the ceremony, with its many female singers.
"Of course there were religious parents that accused me of being a Jew-hater," he says. "There will always be those who try to exploit the fact that I am Orthodox. But we carried out advance activity among the soldiers to avert a messy situation, and no one boycotted the ceremony."
Buchris' impression is that "both sides in that dispute are using the army as a platform to carry on their dispute. We as commanders need to see how we can create the maximum consensus within the framework and be able to repel outside influence. People don't understand how I look at life. They think there is some rabbi who tells me what to do.
"Unity in the unit is basic; without it you cannot win the battle. Because my occupation is winning the battle, I will offend as few people as possible, so that we have unity. If anyone has a problem with that, they can fire me. I do not disavow my roots: Kiryat Gat, Midreshet Noam, Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem. That is my habitat. I did not grow on a tree, but no one appointed me his emissary, either. I am an emissary of the state, not of a particular public."
I heard that when you give talks in religious pre-army courses you tell the audience that not everyone has to be a battalion commander.
"True. Everyone there wants to be a battalion commander, but only those who are suitable should be. About 500 people enter the brigade in each draft. One or two of them will be battalion commanders. There is a natural selection. Senior command in the IDF is an excellent option for those who are suitable. As for the others, they have to mature and move on in good spirit. If someone like that is tremendously talented, he can contribute to society in civilian life. It is a mark of honor for Israeli society that the best are still taking responsibility and leading fighters."
What is your opinion of the argument that the IDF should become a professional army and stop hiding under the cover of a "people's army"?
"Look what happened to the British and the Americans when they underwent similar processes. A narrow military aristocracy will spring up, with a population far less strong serving under it, who will be used as hewers of wood and drawers of water. At present, when a combat soldier is killed in action he is viewed as being everyone's son. In a professional army, being killed is a soldier's professional risk. It will also have an effect on situations of peace and war. It will generate alienation.
"The army is a vital element in Israeli society today. If we were to have peace with all our neighbors, things might look different. At the moment, we are still fighting for our lives."
The word "fighter" has undergone a sort of inflation. Suddenly there are "Iron Dome fighters," fighters of the Home Front Command, fighters who operate unmanned aerial vehicles.
"Whoever needs a title next to his name, I wish him well. Forget that. When you say 'Golanchik,' people know exactly what's involved, even without attaching the title of 'fighter' to the brigade's name."