Dr. Naveh, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Walk Through Walls

Quite a number of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers, tough types with berets on their shoulders, consider Brigadier General (res.) Shimon Naveh a nonpareil commander and intellectual who marched them into hitherto unknown realms.

Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman
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Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman

Quite a number of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers, tough types with berets on their shoulders, consider Brigadier General (res.) Shimon Naveh a nonpareil commander and intellectual who marched them into hitherto unknown realms. But Naveh thinks that most officers are boors and illiterates, and doubts that any of them understood the full depth of his thinking.

Naveh, 59, was at the forefront of a new conceptual approach that evolved in the IDF at the end of the Oslo period and the start of the second intifada. Together with other officer-intellectuals, he tried to explicate and develop military activity by drawing, among other sources, on terms borrowed from postmodern French philosophy, literary theory, architecture and psychology. Recently he completed a book on his experience as head of the IDF's Operational Theory Research Institute (OTRI), or MALTAM in its Hebrew acronym. Naveh himself established the institute in 1995 and headed it until it was dismantled 10 years later, following a harsh report by the state comptroller. Two of his outstanding students at the institute, Brigadier General Gal Hirsh, commander of the 91st Division - who was removed from his post in the wake of his performance in the Second Lebanon War - and Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, former commander of the Paratroops and the Gaza Division, and now chief of the General Staff operations division, tried to apply what they learned at the institute in their activities in the territories.

Can Naveh explain his conceptual doctrine in a way the public will understand? He is not optimistic. "It is not easy to understand; my writing is not intended for ordinary mortals," he says in an interview in his home in Hadera. He is not being entirely arrogant. A perusal of his dense flow charts and labyrinthine conceptual grids is liable to leave even the sharpest mind dizzy.

Naveh may have the mind of a philosopher, but the body is pure Rambo. "Michel Foucault on steroids," as a student once described him. On the brink of his seventh decade, his tremendous mass of muscle and shiny bald head make him look like a commando still. In his study, which is crammed with volumes of philosophy, military history, psychology and literature, he articulates his ideas with extraordinary verve. Fortunately for the interviewer, he has to go the kitchen every once in a while to check on the pot of soup he is making for his wife, Prof. Hanna Naveh, dean of the Faculty of Arts and lecturer in the Department of Women and Gender Studies at Tel Aviv University. The two met in first grade.

Still, attending to his wife's meal calms him down only briefly. Questions that irk him get a furious response, and mention of the names of most of the top IDF brass generates something resembling an attack of Tourette's syndrome and a torrent of rage, verbal abuse and death sentences for some of them. "They should be executed," he asserts. The interviewer's look of astonishment does not faze him. "As you see, I shit on most of them, and I don't give a damn," he says. Earlier, when his dog greeted him as he entered the house he said exultantly, "See him? He is smarter than most of the people on the General Staff."

The IDF's failure

Naveh describes his last and perhaps most important military-academic project, OTRI, as a chronicle of failure. "It was a failure of the group and also my personal failure, but in a far deeper sense it was the IDF's failure. The IDF has not recovered because it doesn't have the ability, unless it undergoes a revolution."

Naveh, who established OTRI together with Brigadier General (res.) Dov Tamari, draws on imagery from the world of construction to explain the project. "We wanted to create an intermediate level between the master craftsman, the tiling artisan or the electrician, who is the equivalent of the battalion or brigade commander, and the entrepreneur or the strategist, the counterpart of the high commander, who wants to change the world, but lacks knowledge in construction."

Between the two levels, he continues, is the architect/commander-in-chief, whose role is "to enable the system to understand what the problem is, define it and interpret it through engineers." In the absence of this link, he maintains, armies find themselves unable to implement their strategic planning by tactical means. "Entrepreneurs and master craftsmen cannot communicate," he says.

Already in his first book, "The Operational Art," published in 2001 and based on his doctoral dissertation, he described the level of the military architect: "The intermediate level is the great invention of the Russians. [The military architects] occupy the middle, and make it possible for the other fields, from politics to the killers, to understand, plan and learn."

Why doesn't this work in the IDF?

"The problem is that from the professional point of view, the heads of the army are nonentities, total ciphers. What is tragic about the army is that it has good craftsmen, but a good craftsman is always limited if his framework is not organized for him. There are no commanders-in-chief in the army, and it has been unsuccessful in creating them, with a few exceptions. Someone like [former chief of staff] Dan Halutz - it's obvious that he is a wild man politically, and maybe he was even a good pilot and squadron commander, but as an architect he is a nullity. He is even a victim of the system."

And are the others also stupid?

"They are on the brink of illiteracy. The army's tragedy is that it is managed by battalion commanders who were good and generals who did not receive the tools to cope with their challenges. Halutz is not stupid, even Dudu Ben Bashat [the chief of the Navy in the Second Lebanon War] is not stupid, even though he is an idiot, and his successor [Major General Uri Marom] is a total bastard. These are people without the slightest ability in abstract thought."

And the new chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi?

"I held him in very high regard, even though what is happening now doesn't look good. He is becoming the victim of a story that is bigger than him."

Like a gnawing worm

Naveh's art of operation is the military embodiment of system theory, an interdisciplinary theory that is used in thinking about computer, social and biological sciences, among others. System theory examines the operating principles of a particular unit (community, organism, computer network) through the totality of the relations between the elements that constitute it and the effect of their interactions on the overall system.

In addition to Soviet system theory, Naveh and his colleagues tried to make use of different and newer conceptual methods. He is particularly fond of the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, authors of the books "Anti-Oedipus" and "A Thousand Plateaus." He sought to enlist their theory to describe a decentralized, irregular form of military activity, an attempt by an army to emulate guerrilla methods of operation.

Naveh and his pupils took the Deleuze-Guattari theory, which was formulated as a philosophy of resistance and liberation and was influenced by the student revolt in France in 1968 as well as by feminist and anti-nationalist thought, and made it the theoretical underpinning for assassinations, defoliation, home demolitions and wall breaking in homes. These methods reached their peak in Operation Defensive Shield, carried out by the IDF in the West Bank in the spring of 2002. According to a United Nations estimate, 497 Palestinians were killed in the operation and, according to the IDF, 800 homes were destroyed.

Naveh urged his officers to read the writings of Deleuze and Guattari and discuss them. Noncoms who served in Naveh's institute translated several of their texts and of other philosophers into Hebrew for the officers. The officers were also treated to texts by Jean-Francois Lyotard (on the postmodern situation) and by the architect- philosopher Paul Virilio.

Maybe you continued the French philosophers' way of blurring the distinction between theory and practice? They translated their thinking into demonstrations against the establishment, and you into actions in the West Bank.

"I tried to extricate us from the Western separation between practice and theory. This hero, the commander, the operative person, lives in a permanently coalescing space. He needs a theory in order to think critically about the object of his observation, and the moment he acts, he changes the world, thus obliging him to recast the theory."

How was this conceptual conversion carried out in practice? The following is excerpted from an interview Brigadier General Kochavi gave to the architect and researcher Eyal Weizman (who devotes a chapter to Naveh in his new - English-language - book, "Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation"):

"This space that you look at, this room that you look at, is nothing but your interpretation of it. Now, you can stretch the boundaries of your interpretation, but not in an unlimited fashion, after all, it must be bound by physics, as it contains buildings and alleys. The question is, how do you interpret the alley? Do you interpret the alley as a place, like every architect and every town planner does, to walk through, or do you interpret the alley as a place forbidden to walk through? This depends only on interpretation. We interpreted the alley as a place forbidden to walk through, and the door as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because a weapon awaits us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors. This is because the enemy interprets space in a traditional, classical manner, and I do not want to obey this interpretation and fall into his traps. Not only do I not want to fall into his traps, I want to surprise him! This is the essence of war. I need to win. I need to emerge from an unexpected place ... This is why we opted for the methodology of moving through walls ... Like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing." (From Eyal Weizman, "Lethal Theory," in English)

An outsider won't get it, but the IDF attached considerable importance to Naveh's doctrine. "Systemic thought is an asset, and I recommend that the army continue to make use of it," says Brigadier General (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser, former chief of the research division of Military Intelligence and the intelligence officer of Central Command, speaking by telephone from the United States, where he is now a strategic consultant. "To understand the new reality, you have to understand what tensions develop, what trends characterize these systems, how it all works, and then you can understand how you can operate within it."

Who took part in the conceptual process?

"We made an effort to instill systemic thought in the lower levels. We believed that every person needed to understand certain components of this thought process, because every corporal is a strategic corporal. If he is manning a checkpoint, he has to understand that whether he behaves or does not behave in a certain way is meaningful."

Doesn't the Second Lebanon War reflect a failure of this approach? We heard about vague orders and misunderstanding of the system of concepts.

"I don't think that Lebanon exemplified failure. No discussion took place there between the political echelon and the security echelon - the discussion was pretty cursory. If you read the testimonies of the prime minister and the defense minister to the Winograd Committee [which is examining the management of the Second Lebanon War], you see that they understood a few things, but did not understand them in depth. That is why they did not understand on Wednesday that a policy change was needed - the whole systemic conception was that if we are embarking on a move like this, the reserves must be called up immediately, but the reserves were not called up. I think that the orders that were issued were perfectly reasonable, and in parallel, systemic thinking was implemented. The soldiers were not addressed in incomprehensible language."

As left as it gets

Naveh maintains that his theory is intended to minimize damage on the Palestinian side. He describes himself as left-wing, though he adds immediately, "I did not vote in the last elections, and in the elections before that I voted for Barak because of my wife, because, really, I find the left wing in Israel absurd. In my political outlook I am a lot more left than all of them. When I went to war in 1982 I went because I enjoy killing, but already in 1980-81 I said that a Palestinian state has to be established."

The French philosophers would probably go ape if they heard how you converted their doctrine for the army. How did you find them?

"I understood that Deleuze and Guattari make it possible to explain problems that no one I had read earlier could explain. For example, Aviv [Kochavi] talks about executing a 'fractal maneuver' in Nablus. I didn't say that to the IDF, but Deleuze talks about fractals, about a type of operation of that kind."

Did IDF officers actually read Deleuze?

"There were officers who went nuts over it, in the positive sense of the term - Gal Hirsh, Nitzan Alon [head of a Military Intelligence unit], Gershon Hacohen [commander of the IDF colleges]. But the vast majority of officers, who lack an educational and learning consciousness, always see everything through cow eyes anyway. Most of the people of Israel are like that, like monkeys."

Deleuze viewed his thought as a philosophy of liberation. Is your use of him also liberating?

"Of course. I can explain this in two very clear dimensions. First of all, this war against the Palestinians has to lead to their liberation. Take the date of the end of Operation Defensive Shield, half a year after Defensive Shield, interpret it and go to a different place, switch the disk. It is completely clear to me that it has to lead to the liberation of the Palestinians, after the price is exacted. The second liberation is to create a prison and dismantle it, create a form of thinking and dismantle it: the idea of permanent change is liberation."

Is it liberation to smash and blow up walls of Palestinian homes in order to move through them?

"I am a complex creative artist. On the one hand, you have a brilliant military stroke here, and plainly it has a price, but it also involves liberation. The movement of armies involves the liberation of thought from its shackles. The whole logic of moving through the houses was to conceal your form from the adversary, and once you do that he loses his relative advantage. Aviv invented something. The wonderful thing about it is that he succeeded in closing the gap between the creeping doctrine, which rolls along slowly, and the challenges posed by the subversives. If you want to call that postmodern, you may be right. In modernity the state is the ideal concept and you win by means of presence. In our case, you operate, but not by presence. The moment you deprive the adversary of the ability to give you form, you can, you can fuck him. Aviv did marvelous things with that."

Doesn't it upset you that the enemy here consists of civilians in refugee camps? That the walls the army is going through are in people's homes?

"That is why I think there had to be a change of direction after Defensive Shield. Everything we go on doing will supply an illusion of security; in the long term, we are destroying everything around."

And the price of Operation Shield was reasonable?

"That is already a different discussion."

Surely an opinionated person like you has an opinion.

"The relation between the damage that was caused and the achievement was reasonable. A new situation was created, a method of operation that bore a certain degree of success. The problem is that they are not moving out of this. To this day they are delaying, doing the same thing. And by the way, almost no civilians were killed in Defensive Shield."

Quite a lot of homes were destroyed.

"Well, all right, homes are built and destroyed. And not that many were destroyed, anyway."

What do you think Deleuze [1925-1995] would think about your use of his ideas?

"He would be enthusiastic, go wild over it."


Shimon Naveh was born in 1948 in Hadera, and at 18 was drafted into the Paratroops. He describes himself as a highly motivated soldier with intellectual inclinations, who read Tolstoy and Hemingway during basic training. He took part in all the wars from 1967 on, and rose through the ranks to brigade commander and then the commander of a reserve division. In 1991 he began his undergraduate studies in history at Tel Aviv University and by 1994 already had a Ph.D.

"I was a general, I conquered all the peaks," he relates with typical modesty. "I was surrounded by idiots who prattled nonstop. Along came [Prof.] Itamar Rabinovich, that idiot, and people told him, 'This guy is a genius, take him.' He asked me, 'Can you complete a doctorate in three-four years?' I did it in two. I didn't have a clue about writing a doctoral dissertation, I entered a new spatial order there. As soon as I build something, I immediately destroy it and move on to a different place. The dumb ones are the buffalos, they live in their puddle - why go out, there's food, there's grass. What characterizes a general is the Odyssean urge to go to other places, where you haven't been, and there were some who did just that. For example, Aviv [Kochavi] and Gal Hirsh; for example, Itzik Eitan [former GOC Central Command], who was erased from history because he is inarticulate and an antihero."

Could it be that you missed your calling? That if you were not a general, you would be in academe?

"I am army-crazy, it's the good part of my life. I love the field, that sharing of the burden, that slice of the action that carries tremendous potential. When you are a brigade commander with a brigade in the south you go to sleep at night, and no sooner do you finally fall asleep in the cold sleeping bag, when you get up in the morning and say: Let's do it today. It's a fantastic feeling."

To Naveh's relief, he was not surrounded only by dumbbells in the army. He acknowledges his debt to some of his colleagues and pupils, who shared in the development of his ideas. For example, his admiration for Gal Hirsh is unbounded: "Gal is the most poetic, creative officer I have met for many, many years. That is part of his tragedy: people don't understand him." He also emphasizes the contributions of Kochavi, Tamari, Moshe Ya'alon (a former chief of staff) and Uzi Dayan (a former deputy chief of staff) to his project.

He is less enthusiastic about other supporters. Thus, former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz "realized that this thing, which he never bothered to learn about, provides him with an intellectual facade," Naveh relates. "So in the end he became our strongest supporter. We reached the peak of our strength thanks to him. I know him. He stinks, he is an idiot, but a terrifying bastard, a paratrooper but absolutely from the garbage of ..."

Naveh left the army in 2005, following a harsh report by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss on OTRI. The report was critical of the fact that all of the institute's work was carried out orally, without the ideas being put into writing. Allegations in the report about administrative irregularities were later refuted.

"I will take apart this critique in seconds," Naveh says jocularly. "It is the critique of an idiot. He comes to examine a certain field and doesn't bother to learn about it, doesn't take the trouble to read a word about the operational art, about what it means, about our status in the world. I tell him, go to blazes, you're an idiot, you don't understand a thing. In the same breath he checks how we report on work hours and what is going on with the administrative side, allegations that were all refuted."

Did you defend yourselves?

"The subject under review is supposed to respond to the first draft of the comptroller's report, and then he takes it to the deputy chief of staff. In our case, even before we managed to respond to the draft, [Deputy Chief of Staff Moshe] Kaplinsky, that idiot, started to get on our case. He should have come out and said he wanted to destroy us. Kaplinsky said more than once that I had to be got rid of because I couldn't be controlled, and so did that idiot from Northern Command [the former GOC, Udi Adam], a command that is a wretched ruin."

And then you left?

"The examining officer was the deputy chief of the Personnel Directorate, and right away I understood that he wanted to remove us, so I said I wanted to leave. Halutz asked me why, and said 'We will talk about it on Friday.' I said, 'We are not going to meet on Friday.' I got up and left. That chapter is over for me. I won't go back there even if they offer me my weight in gold. Maybe if they offer me $40,000-50,000 a month I'll go back, but that would really be to prostitute myself."

There was other criticism, too. Yaakov Amidror - former commander of the IDF National Defense College - said that your unit's work was tainted by "a non-distinction between truth and lie, prattle in the best postmodern tradition."

"He is a person who has not read a word about postmodernism, a pathological liar, a pretender, a person who did nothing in his life in the army, a total idler, a showoff. He did everything by political manipulations. I do not accept acknowledgment of the worth of my theory from nonentities. That idiot was a student with me at the Command and Staff College and was always a blackboard below me."

From whom do you accept acknowledgment?

"From army officers in the United States, to whom I am now a consultant. In the United States I am a mentor. Do you know what a mentor is?"

You draw on a vast array of spheres of knowledge - military thought, French philosophy, psychology, brain science. Can one person be knowledgeable about all that?

"My main channel of activity is the military one, and in that I am the best in the world. I do not purport to be an interpreter of Deleuze; I am modest about that. I use him in a very particular way, and I am aware that there are those who will not accept my interpretation."

Is it possible that there is a dangerous undemocratic element in the vast power officers are given here - the power to invent the language and explain the situation to the politicians as they see it?

"There is nothing to fear here, because democracy has arranged a hierarchical structure. You are the one who recommends whether to go ahead or not."

But don't the officers have an agenda, aren't they pushing for something specific?

"You always promote your agenda, and of course you have an agenda - what kind of question is that for someone who studied Foucault? But people like that [officers] are from the outset not out to clobber you. The problem is not only that the generals do not know anything about commanding - they do not even know their own profession. The [former] GOC Northern Command is a piece of zilch, the [former] commander of the Navy isn't ashamed to say that he didn't think they [Hezbollah] had missiles. Beyond the fact that information existed, your role is to think. Someone like that should be executed, and I said the same about Halutz. In a well-ordered state they would be executed; the one is a criminal, the other a lout."

How much did the change you led involve a transformation of language? Suddenly all kinds of new images and metaphors appeared in the military's conceptual world: burning [the Palestinians'] consciousness, dynamic molecule, 'snailing' [see box] and others. Some say that one effect of these unclear terms was to short-circuit communication in the Lebanon War.

"Clearly, when your knowledge develops, one of its first manifestations is in language. Once you expand the boundaries of knowledge, the conceptual space has to evolve: new understandings emerge and have to be signified and understood. In this connection we had an accident of which we were not aware: We brought the army something new, which they were not familiar with, and it appalled people. What is all this logia? Some people were terrified, but the more courageous and the subversives ran with it. The problem was that we did not understand sufficiently the disparities between the culture of the organization, of the establishment, and what we tried to instill. So we crashed. I was critical of these developments. The fact that you discern new phenomena doesn't mean that you can say those words to plasterers and carpenters. Part of the verbiage becomes a fashion, and the worth of the expressions is lost.

"The value of using a metaphor is not to encode something, but to help learn something, to understand something that you don't understand. Bogey [former chief of staff Ya'alon] understood that in his situation every problem was a distinct one, and he used metaphors to explain the problematic: the light at the end of the tunnel, riding a tiger. Some people didn't understand what he was saying, and twisted it. The idea is not to describe something from the military world, but to describe something external to the army, which we lack the tools to talk about. So everyone suddenly waxed poetic: the general is talking about light at the end of the tunnel. Some people hated it - Kaplinsky, because he is an idiot, a type of dolt."

These words trickled into the general society. People outside the army also started to use them.

"That has to do with the interface between the army and the society and the journalists, for whom I have deep contempt. You see this fashion, books like those by Amos Harel and Ofer Shelah. It's a disgrace."W



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