Forgiving IDF Errors

Every profession bears its own type of professional risk, but we must not mistake or confuse the gravity of professional error with the gravity of human error.

I am a journalist. I am a professional journalist. Yet, I still occasionally make mistakes. While making a professional error, I might write mistaken information about someone that appears in the newspaper; I might unfairly tarnish his moral or economic reputation. It is not pleasant to wake up in the morning and read critical words about oneself in the paper that have no basis in the truth.

Attorneys and officers of the court also err from time to time. When an attorney makes a professional mistake, he might lose an appeal and cause his client financial damage. In graver cases, he might see an innocent client sent to jail. That is even worse than reading terrible things about oneself in the newspaper.

Physicians also err. Many years ago, my brother, the doctor, told me, "We kill more patients with our mistakes than we save." My brother is an excellent physician - I suppose partly because of this statement. A doctor who thinks that of himself, would exercise more caution when making decisions, check himself frequently, consult, and listen to the opinions of others. He would certainly err less. Despite that, my brother also makes mistakes.

And soldiers err, too. We saw the mistakes of professional soldiers, IDF officers, every night on our television screens during the months of July and August. These mistakes cost the lives of soldiers and civilians and injured many.

All sorts of professionals err. Journalists' errors end in shame in the paper. Physicians' errors may cause crippling injuries and even the deaths of patients. Soldiers' errors may cause the deaths and injuries of hundreds and even thousands. Every profession bears its own type of professional risk, but we must not mistake or confuse the gravity of professional error with the gravity of human error. We must strive to achieve a state in which we do not accept the possibility of error only because the price of error might be human life.

We are close to making a mistake like that in our response to IDF inquiries connected with the recent war in Lebanon. The inquiries are difficult and they reveal very disturbing findings, and we respond with calls to "dismiss senior officers." It is difficult not to get angry in response to mistakes made by IDF officers during the war - particularly in light of the weighty price exacted from us. But we must temper our anger with the reminder that officers are also permitted to err.

They are not, however, permitted to whitewash the mistakes they make and avoid taking personal responsibility for their errors. The inquiries may clearly reveal that IDF officers made such gross errors that they are considered unfit for the positions they fill. But in order for that to happen, the army must be freed to inquire honestly and courageously.

This is an inquiry - not an investigation. There is an essential difference between the two. In an inquiry, we search for mistakes; in an investigation, we search for a perpetrator. An inquiry is based on admission of error as part of a learning process and a process in which conclusions are drawn; in an investigation, no one admits to an error because that would call for dismissal. Thus, an inquiry is an administrative tool which makes it possible for an army to improve; an investigation, on the other hand, is only a tool for settling accounts and vindictiveness.

I failed to mention previously that my brother is a physician in the United States. He earns a great deal of money there, but also leaves a considerable portion of his earnings in the coffers of insurance companies. The nearly wholesale extent of malpractice suits brought against doctors in the U.S. obligates him to do so. That is also the reason that he, like most orthopedists in the U.S., refuses to increase his earnings by specializing in back problems. Medical errors related to the back can have severe outcomes, like paralysis, and the risk of malpractice suits in this branch of orthopedic medicine is similarly high.

Thus, there is a shortage of back specialists in the U.S., and also a shortage of diagnosticians who identify fetal anomalies - a field in which Israel is an international leader. Cold calculation leads doctors in the U.S. to avoid entering fields in which the cost of making a mistake might be extraordinarily high. The result is a distortion of American medicine and medical bills that exceed those around the world.

That is the price of a culture unwilling to forgive error. That is a culture that we must not adopt while drawing conclusions regarding the last war. We must demand that errors be rectified but we must also know how to pardon mistakes, even if they cause the loss of human life.