Biography / Settling Accounts

Gal Hirsch's autobiography marks the first time a high-ranking officer who played a significant role in the conflict describes the Second Lebanon War from his own perspective.

Sipur Milhama, Sipur Ahava (War Story, Love Story), by Gal Hirsch Yedioth Books (Hebrew), 535 pages, NIS 98

Gal Hirsch published this book shortly before the third anniversary, last month, of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War, one of the more emotionally charged wars in Israeli public memory in the past few decades. Brig. Gen. (res.) Hirsch, who was the conflict's most conspicuous and controversial division commander, was swiftly maneuvered into resigning from the army at the end of the war. Here he presents, in full, his own version of events. But his autobiography (at age 45!) is much more than a settling of accounts with traitorous colleagues and unappreciative reporters. Hirsch lays out for us a broad canvas, at times too broad, of his convictions about issues such as command and values of warfare, along with a meticulous description of his own path in the Israel Defense Forces, from his days in the army's boarding high school, through his service in the Paratroopers and the air force's elite unit Shaldag, his service in the territories during the second intifada, and ultimately his last stop - the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Hirsch knows how to write. This is not a small thing. Anyone who has had to wade through a succession of boring memoirs by retired generals will easily recognize the virtues of Hirsch's book. He employs a rich and flowing prose, and has a dramatic descriptive capability and a flair for specifics that make him a gifted storyteller. When he recounts in myriad details the preparations for a special Shaldag operation under his command deep in Lebanese territory, his retelling of the story simply leaps off the page. Similarly, his description of the intrigue and bickering among the generals that led to his resignation, although the subject was already covered expansively in the media, is no less than fascinating.

The less heartwarming side of the book relates to certain other tendencies of the author: a propensity for bombastic phrasing, an excess of exclamation points, a lack of irony (mainly when it comes to himself), and a decidedly subjective angle of observation - a bias to which Hirsch admits - but which nonetheless makes it difficult to rely on the book as an objective reconstruction of recent history.

In its weaker moments, "War Story, Love Story" also suffers from TMI - too much information. A stern editorial hand might have chopped a hundred or so of the book's 500-plus pages, and made it more accessible. Not every "order of the day" to cadets at officers training school or sympathetic article in the press necessitates full citation. Nevertheless, the book is mesmerizing, and most certainly to those with a prior familiarity with the course of the war in Lebanon. Following a series of books by journalists and academic experts, this is the first time a high-ranking officer who played a significant role in the conflict describes the Second Lebanon War from his own perspective.

The event that ended Hirsch's army career was that which opened the war: the kidnapping by Hezbollah of reserve soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. Hirsch is altogether convincing in his detailed description of the steps he took to thwart kidnappings. Yet the combination of the "containment" (essentially, restraint) policy adopted by Israel along the Lebanese border, and perpetual cutbacks in the resources of the 91st Division, under his command, was practically an invitation to kidnapping.

The high-casualty (relative to this war in general) battles at Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbail fixed the public's impression of the war as a failure. Hirsch's division succeeded in advancing to the line of positions outlined by the general staff, and overcame the relatively difficult opposition of Hezbollah, but these facts could no longer bring about a shift in the public's perception of the division commander. Hirsch repeatedly argues that losses are an unavoidable part of war, more so than in ongoing security activity. Neither does he flinch at disagreeing with bereaved parents, who demanded the heads of commanders who they claimed failed in their mission.

'I loved you'

The most emotionally charged aspect of the book relates to Hirsch's relationship with the chief of staff during the war, Dan Halutz. Halutz, claims the division commander, decided to offer up Hirsch as a sacrifice, as part of the holding action he was waging against his own dismissal. It began with a slip of the tongue made by the chief of staff in a media interview he gave at the height of the war. "You don't change horses in the middle of the stream," Halutz said when asked if he intended to dismiss Hirsch. Hirsch's painful ordeal continued with the chairman of the commission of inquiry that investigated the kidnapping, Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog, urging him to resign from the military. Hirsch expected Halutz to back him up, but when this did not happen he was compelled to leave, bitter and angry.

The entire episode was laced with a great deal of drama, of course. Only Hirsch is capable of starting a conversation with the chief of staff with the words: "I loved you for 15 years." But no longer. As opposed to his current feelings for Halutz, Hirsch expresses much admiration for the two chiefs of staff who preceded him, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya'alon, who knew how to nurture him and how to cover his back.

Halutz isn't the only figure in the book on the receiving end. Other targets of Hirsch's indignation are the deputy chief of staff during the war, Maj. Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky, journalists and broadcasters (who for the most part are not mentioned by name), the "studio generals" - retired generals who took swipes at him while offering on-air commentary during and after the war, and several colleagues whom Hirsch accuses of working to undermine him behind his back, when he was dealing full-time with the war. Some of those who draw Hirsch's fire are not always named, but include division commanders Chico Tamir, Noam Tibon and Erez Zuckerman, and the commander of the 7th Brigade during the war, Col. Amnon Eshel.

Love of homeland

Hirsch's critiques are not, for the most part, aimed at the political echelon during the war. While he was not impressed by Amir Peretz's performance as defense minister (who was?), then-prime minister Ehud Olmert is barely mentioned in the book. Conversely, Hirsch's book overflows with love and nice things to say about many officers and soldiers who served with him and under him. He bestows warm praise on several units, mainly Maglan and Herev, the Druze battalion, for their performance in the war. Hirsch also underscores his strong bonds with members of his family, and with his wife Donna in particular; they are clearly full partners in everything that happened to him.

Aside from one spot-on diagnosis of the nature of the difficulty of reaching peace settlements with the Palestinians, the book does not engage at all in politics (civilian, that is, as opposed to army, which is found here in abundance). It is surprising that Hirsch chooses not to relate to the cost, professional and moral, that Israel's extended stay in the territories exacts from its society and army. There is something anachronistic and at the same time admirable about the enthusiasm with which Hirsch speaks about values like love of his homeland. But when he preaches to his readers that "the nation's sons never fall in vain," one wants to ask if in Hirsch's own extensive professional reading list there were no books about the first Lebanon war or about Vietnam.

The impression arising from "War Story, Love Story" reinforces that which was gained by many of those who tracked the war's progress in real time: Hirsch is a devoted and skilled officer who was kicked around like a soccer ball by forces larger than him - the chief of staff, the politicians, an intense and at times hysterical media environment, and a society that wants one-sided victories. From one of the nation's favorite sons, he writes, he was practically transformed overnight into a target for "masses of revulsion, rejection, even hatred."

Gal Hirsch is not without his faults and errors. Certain aspects of his behavior, as in his writing, provoke an antagonism of which he is not always fully aware. But it is impossible to shake the feeling that the resignation that was forced on him did him great injustice and also exacted a high and unjustified cost to the IDF.

Amos Harel is the military correspondent of Haaretz.