For the last eight and a half years, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick has served army officers as a sort of external conscience. At a time when civilian oversight of the military is weaker than ever, Brick, the ombudsman for soldiers’ complaints, fulfills his duties thoroughly and tirelessly, if not always to the delight of successive chiefs of staff.
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While much media coverage of the Israel Defense Forces is limited to praising its performance and trying to increase motivation for combat service (which Brick’s report confirms has declined), Brick insists on holding up an often unflattering mirror to the army brass. He also insists his job isn’t confined to addressing specific complaints, but extends to examining larger trends in order to improve the military.
In last year’s report, Brick revealed years of neglect of the army’s emergency stock, as well as the erosion in the service conditions and quality of the NCOs in charge of them. His alarm bell spurred IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot to action, and the military is now spending hundreds of millions of shekels to address this problem, which could be a major weakness if another war erupts.
This year’s report addresses different issues, some no less serious.
Eisenkot has won justified praise because on his watch, the army has finally managed to implement a multiyear plan that includes making widespread cutbacks in certain areas, dismissing some 5,000 career soldiers and channeling the savings into more necessary tasks. But Brick’s main criticism is that in its enthusiasm for change, the IDF has cut some units to below even a decent level. Consequently, less prestigious units are being forced to carry out wide-ranging missions without the necessary manpower and budgets.
Brick highlights both the morale damage these units have suffered as a result and the attendant risks. Not only has performance quality fallen, but because the high command is committed to the cutbacks and junior officers don’t want to appear at odds with them, there’s a growing trend of cutting corners and even falsifying reports to show the higher-ups that everything is going according to plan.
These problems are especially prevalent in the ground forces and in combat support units. And without the latter, combat units can’t do their job, either in peacetime or in wartime.
Fewer senior officers reupping
These problems are directly connected to another one: a notable decline in the willingness of NCOs and officers up to the level of major to join the career army. Uncertainty about what future the army can offer, combined with growing workloads and deteriorating unit performance, is deterring the younger generation from committing to additional service.
Brick’s report focuses on combat support units, but recently there have been signs that these problems are spreading to the ground forces’ combat units. And this is related to another problem the report addresses, not for the first time: the need to adopt a different command style.
The report details a long list of incidents in which commanders behaved aggressively and violently toward subordinates or insulted them due to their race or gender. But Brick is troubled by another problem especially pronounced in noncombat units: a flawed culture of giving orders and inadequate dialogue between the ranks.
Many officers see themselves strictly as professionals, not as commanders with full responsibility for their men. Consequently, they command by remote control, flooding subordinates with emails and WhatsApp messages and in some cases avoiding any direct conversation with their soldiers – which causes the army’s performance to decline. Many units have no internal culture of transparency and openness, the report said, and this erodes soldiers’ trust in their commanders.
Israel suffers from an excess of public reports. Even those dealing with important, sensitive issues, like the state comptroller’s report on the handling of the tunnel threat from the Gaza Strip, completely disappear from the public agenda a few days after they are published.
Brick’s annual report will almost certainly suffer a similar fate. Indeed, since it lacks political ramifications, it will likely evaporate even faster than the tunnel report.
Nevertheless, what Brick revealed is extremely important to the army. Unless the problems he highlighted are addressed, they will only get worse, and could end up affecting the army’s performance in the event of another war.