Battle-tested Reservists Take Charge After Second Lebanon War Crises

The Second Lebanon War impacted many Israeli institutions, but few were as traumatized as the Israel Defense Froces reserves. Many reserve units called to the front returned home bruised and bitter; Chief-of-Staff Gabi Ashkenazi said that the war experience threatened the unwritten contract between the army and its reservists, which guarantees a seriousness of organizational approach in exchange for the latter's commitment.

Two of the reserve units most battered in the war were the armored brigade of Division 366 ("Pillar of Fire" ), commanded at the time by Brig. Gen. Erez Zuckerman, and the Carmeli infantry brigade, which fought in the war as part of Division 91, commanded by Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch. The armored brigade got into a botched battle in the town of Marjayoun, calling a retreat after a series of misunderstanding and coordination problems; after the war it became known, somewhat unfairly, as "the brigade that ran away." The performance of the Carmeli brigade, which fought in the area of the village Ayta a-Shaab, was criticized for similar reasons: lack of determination, an unnecessary retreat and a misunderstanding of the bigger picture. Much of the blame was placed on the top brass, but the brigades were left thoroughly shaken by the war.

It may be little wonder then that nearly four years later, these brigades are the only tank and infantry reserve brigades commanded by reservists. Col. (res ) Hoshea Friedman Ben-Shalom, and Col (res ) Ari Singer have served in the brigades for many years and witnessed the frustrating campaign in Lebanon up close. Despite their age - both men are 50 - they were called to take command after the war.

"Where you had a crisis like that, you probably need a brigade commander from the reserves," says Singer, a diamond dealer from the settlement of Paduel, who spends about six months every year in his brigade post. Friedman's civilian job consists of directing the mixed army preparatory program of Beit Israel in Jerusalem. Both men wear skullcaps. "The army has repented unreservedly," says Friedman. "It knows how to show that things have changed. It signals to the reservists they are needed, gives us tough training, makes relevant operative plans and plans the training accordingly."

Friedman adds: "We are working under a division that was being considered for dissolution before the war. Many reservists weren't clear on whether they are staying, whether the army needs them. Today there's a serious approach to us that's very keenly felt."

Singer says: "I'm looking at my brigade in the war. In Marjayoun they got within 100 meters of the line to which they were supposed to get, and then everything fell apart. And we need to understand why it did. It's not a question of professionalism. It's a question of values, control and command."

For Friedman, "war is an emotional event. Anyone who has been shot at would agree. At the end of the day, you'll always have a total mess, things will go wrong and people will get hurt. A sergeant may not care about in which sector the fighting is taking place, but if he feels that his commander knows what he's doing and what his orders are, it makes a tremendous difference."

Friedman adds: "Today, every platoon commander knows that a war may break out tomorrow, and he knows as clear as day that he will be there. It wasn't that clear in 2006," he says.

Brig. Gen. Tzvika Oren, commander of the reserved armored brigade in the Northern Command, is a career officer, but his brigade wasn't any more upbeat by the end of the war than Division 91. "I went to talk to the regiment commanders after the war, to see what the crisis was about. The main thing was the question of necessity," he says. "Before the war, there was this notion you can win a war without tanks, infantry and reserves. Today it's different. Not too long ago we had a large-scale exercise. We invited all the reserve commanders. People left that exercise feeling they are needed - and each of these needs leads 100 soldiers into battle. "The division commander told them, 'It may be that you, tomorrow, will have to lead us to victory.' There's just no one else.'"

Nir Kafri