Lessons From a Tragedy

Despite the horror of the helicopter crash, the IDF will not put the Yasur out to pasture, nor will it - or should it - end joint training exercises with foreign armies.

In May 1977, a Yasur helicopter crashed during a Paratroopers Brigade exercise. Fifty-four Israel Defense Forces officers and infantrymen were aboard. The brigade's commander, Amos Yaron, learned of the disaster as he was climbing Qumran with officers from a paratrooper commando unit.

"The brigade commander equivocated about just one thing," recalls Col. (res. ) Aryeh Niger, then the brigade's deputy commander. "He had to think about which company he should order to 'conquer the next hill,' to take the place of the one that had been wiped out in the disaster. The idea of cancelling the rest of the exercise because of the accident never even crossed his mind."

Romania crash site
IDF Spokesman’s Office

As Niger remembers it, Yaron was not an insensitive man. "We all felt terrible," he recalls. "I knew which officers, my friends, had been aboard the helicopter. That burns you up inside, but it was clear to the brigade commander, and to all of us, that duty required us to continue to move forward, and complete the exercise, because that's how we act in wars when there are fatalities."

The even more serious Yasur crash in 1997, which claimed the lives of 73 IDF soldiers en route to bases in southern Lebanon, was considered a national disaster. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then in his first term, even declared a day of mourning in the country. That crash had strategic implications. It, along with two other events over the following two years - the naval commando unit disaster and the death of Brig. Gen. Erez Gerstein - led to the decision to withdraw from southern Lebanon.

Media coverage of the latest Yasur crash, in Romania this week, seemed to put it on par with the 1997 disaster. But the comparison is strained. The accident in Romania is a terrible catastrophe for the bereaved families and for Israel's air force. It's impossible not to feel sorrow over news reports of the pilot who will never see his unborn daughter, or children who will never see their father again. The casualties included some of the country's finest - men who volunteered for an important, dangerous and difficult military mission. Too often it seems that only after a tragedy do we glimpse the character of such men, and pay tribute to them posthumously, expressing a sort of gratitude they don't feel during ordinary days of service.

Nonetheless, the Carpathian accident does not have strategic implications. The helicopter crash in the Upper Galilee occurred at the end of a period full of Israel Air Force mishaps and tragedies. In its aftermath, the IAF instituted a number of strict safety regulations, in an attempt to reduce the number of accidents. True, lessons will be drawn from the Romania accident, but they will be limited in scope, involving mainly flight paths and perhaps also overseas training schedules. The IDF will not put these helicopters out to pasture, since the Yasur has no viable replacement, and it won't end joint training exercises with foreign armies.

These points were ignored by the media this week. The newspapers appealed to the public's raw emotions; the coverage was a blatant example of lack of proportion. Retired, former senior IAF officers were summoned to round-the-clock television and radio broadcasts, and the print media reflected a similar approach.

There are definite advantages to media visibility and transparency. Over the years, the military censor stopped certain outlets from reporting about accidents with a relatively small number of casualties. Due to the resulting lack of public scrutiny, the causes of some of these mishaps were ignored, and too often the IDF was less than diligent about safety issues.

Now, when military matters are in public view, the army's safety consciousness has been heightened. Nevertheless, even though the IAF must strive to minimize the number of mishaps, accidents will happen in the future, particularly during advanced training missions and wars. Such missions are dangerous and happen under treacherous conditions; if the IDF doesn't conduct proper training flights, it will be unprepared for the next war.

For what?

The mourning ritual this week had a subtext, a collective question of "why is this necessary?" If such an accident "shuts down" the country, many seemed to be wondering, why should such training exercises be conducted - and why overseas? Similar murmuring arose a year ago during the media fest surrounding the death of pilot Assaf Ramon. And then there was the uproar two weeks ago about the missing Sayeret Matkal commando: A soldier who went AWOL was regarded as almost a national hero (the question of the hour was "would he be ousted from the unit or not"; fortunately a cell-phone referendum was not conducted on the issue ).

Similar dynamics have come into play regarding kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit, and even the flotilla controversy in Gaza. If each soldier is our collective child, then should we not pay "any price" to ransom him? If naval commandos are holy, any criticism of their actions off the Gaza coast is tantamount to treasonous apostasy. But Shalit is not a child. He was a trained, armed soldier, kidnapped while guarding Israel's borders. The obligation to bring him home should be expressed as part of a pragmatic, level-headed deal, not through a competition designed to pluck as many heartstrings as possible.

The common denominator in all these events is the apparent fact that Israeli society has finally lost its ability to accept the death of soldiers on military assignments. This fact has wide-ranging implications. During the past decade, the country's priorities have apparently become distorted: The life of a soldier is infinitely more valuable than that of the civilian he is sworn to defend.

These new values have permeated the political and military arenas. They played a role in then-prime minister Ariel Sharon's months-long hesitation before directing IDF generals to order their forces to enter open markets and refugee camps in the West Bank, to stifle the wave of terror engulfing the country. Similarly, four days after the Second Lebanon War broke out, then IDF chief of staff Dan Halutz told senior officers he was reluctant to send a brigade into Lebanon because there might be casualties.

"Gentlemen, if deploy [in Lebanon] a brigade like we do in Gaza, we will leave behind a hundred IDF casualties. The people do not love the idea of entering Lebanon, and the media does not like it either," he said.

This is not to say that the media should refrain from covering military mishaps, or neglect its duty to show the pain of bereaved families. It is also extremely important to hold public discussions about the necessity of specific military actions, and adventurous, ill-advised use of the military by politicians. Clear examples of such misadventures are the First Lebanon War, and the Olmert government's dubious attempt to send the IDF to the Litani River during the final 60 hours of the Second Lebanon War.

The danger lies within the mind-set - which only seems to be getting stronger - that soldiers' deaths are completely unacceptable, and that casualties delegitimize any military action. Tears are always legitimate. But forms of public consolation, to which the army appears to be exaggeratedly solicitous, are liable to harm the leadership's decision making processes.