Morals Up in the Air

Right on target, Gordon's in-depth examination of the Israel Air Force's operational culture

"Air Leadership, Modern Operational Culture" by Shmuel Gordon, Maarachot and Ministry of Defense Publishing House, 312 pages

In the terrifyingly systematic bombing of German cities by the Royal Air Force in the course of World War II, hundreds of thousands were killed or wounded, and the bombing continued even after the Allied victory was assured. RAF Bomber Command was headed by Air Marshal Arthur Harris, who ordered the strikes and urged his officers to keep them up despite the terrible toll in civilian lives.

"Although the bombings defied ethical values and were patently illegal, hardly a voice was raised in protest from among the air crews, the officers and the planners," writes Shmuel Gordon. After the war, a probing debate took place in Britain over the moral implications of the strategic bombing of the German cities, but "it has remained unclear to this day why the Royal Air Force was utilized in such an amoral way. Why did the officers and men not protest against a continuing mission that left such an indelible stain on the Royal Air Force?"

Gordon relates the story of Britain's Bomber Command in order to illustrate "the dangers involved in using aerial weaponry" and "the necessity of preserving a combat morality," because "if the air forces of big nations can be found wanting, there is always the danger of combat morality being compromised in every modern air force."

Gordon, who is himself a ranking reserve pilot in the Israel Air Force, does not confront in detail the dilemmas that face the IAF today - for instance, whether to drop a one-ton bomb on the house of a wanted man, or to use only a quarter-ton bomb and risk the failure of the mission. The inevitable conclusions are clear. Gordon distinguishes between "total war" (in which "there is a duty to drop ordnance on the enemy, and when the target cannot be identified, an alternative or fortuitous target must be found"), and "limited war," such as is currently being waged in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In that kind of fighting, "the mission is different ... The first priority is not to harm civilians."

In the fighting conducted by the IAF in the territories, however, too many civilians have been hurt in strikes that were intended to kill wanted men. The decision to use air power there was authorized by the political echelon, which is therefore responsible for the possibility that innocent people might be hurt. In quoting the example of the RAF, Gordon does not ask why (up until the writing of his book) no officers and men of the Israel Air Force protested this continuing mission.

Gordon evades the need for an unequivocal statement (which is admittedly far from simple) by positing "the unbearable relativity of warfare." On the one hand, "we have a fundamental responsibility for the lives of our citizens," which demands targeting terrorists who hide among civilians; on the other hand, this "does not relieve us of our commitment to the basic values of Israeli society, of Western society and of Jewish culture."

His conclusion is: "Woe unto us if we adopt the values of the fundamentalist Islamic culture that is engaged in fighting us. We have to remember that Jewish culture and the values of Israeli society are as much pillars of our existence as our physical survival."

Critical vs. traditional

While the debate about combat morality is not the focus of the book, it seems to me - although I am not sure that Gordon himself would support this perception - that of all the issues he raises, this is the most critical, considering the possible negative consequences of the air force's activity in the last three years. The IAF is not cut off from Israeli society and the processes it is going through. In the end, the ethical decisions of the air force are influenced by the undercurrents that have influenced Israeli society over three years of intifada and terror.

On this topic, Gordon chooses to quote Yigal Shochat, a former senior pilot who was captured, wounded and returned to active duty. "Pilots ... have to decide every day anew, and sometimes every hour, what they are morally and legally allowed to do and what not," Shochat explained in an interview with Haaretz. "Flying is a way of life and a profession ... I am not an innocent. I know that refusing [a mission] once or twice will end your career. In my opinion, pilots have to question their orders thoroughly, to ask a lot of questions about the goal [of the mission], and to refuse an order if they regard it as immoral."

With respect to IAF pilots who participate in the fighting in the territories, he says: "I'm afraid they are not concerned with these questions at all, but compete among themselves for the next mission to hit somebody in the heart of Nablus."

Gordon himself points out that, according to the norms of the IAF, if the mission leader aborts an attack because of concern about civilian casualties, his commanders will respect and accept his judgment, and in any event this will not be considered refusal to obey a command. This is because the operational basis of IAF pilots is the principle of "critical discipline." This term (in contrast to "traditional discipline") is the key to understanding Gordon's thesis. The term runs through his analysis like a thread, and is meant to explain the essential elements of the operational culture that was developed in the IAF.

"Critical discipline," he explains, "is the revolutionary underpinning of the operational culture, and it has an impact on all the other values of that culture. The freedom of decision, which is granted to the mission leader and the commander in the field, infers very broad authority; but, along with the authority and the right to decide, the commander in battle carries a supreme responsibility. He cannot shrug off responsibility by saying `I was following orders.' He is expected to carry out the mission in full in terms of his own ability and the abilities of the men he prepared before the battle, his acumen and his courage."

The need to examine orders critically remains, but what makes that easier is the fact that the airmen enjoy the trust of their superior officers. In Gordon's view, this trust stems from a value that the air force shares with the Palmach (the elite, pre-state underground force), whose culture is one of the sources of the operational culture of the IAF: the value of volunteerism.

Defining the norms

In declaring the task he has undertaken, Gordon writes that the book was intended "to define the norms and the operational culture necessary for air leadership in battle." Another goal is "to outline the operational culture and values of the group of airmen and their commanders, and the structure of expectations and demands that motivate their combat."

Considering that the operational culture of the IAF "has not been recognized until now as a discrete culture, and only rarely discussed as a value system," Gordon's attempt to give it a more formal shape and transform it into a beacon, in the light of which "the conduct and operational activity of the air force would be directed," is somewhat ambitious.

The book offers an in-depth examination of all aspects of the IAF's operational culture. It is an analysis that details not only the purely professional principles of aerial warfare, but also its abstract values, the very definition and quantification of which is problematic. That list includes responsibility; actualization of ability; initiative and creativity; loyalty, determination and courage; and so on. The analysis is accompanied by personal stories of IAF pilots, quotations of things they have written or said, lectures they have given and insights that emerged in interviews that Gordon conducted with them.

Gordon describes his motivation for writing the book in the first words of the introduction: "In recent years, the Israeli Air Force has faced ... new challenges that have tested its operational culture, combat morality and aerial leadership. Sometimes the results of operations have raised doubts as to whether the air force has prepared itself to meet these challenges."

Gordon's book should be viewed as important primary research dealing with an area in which hardly anything has been written in Hebrew. The book is not easy to read - the language is complex and there is a plethora of technical terms - but it should be required reading for the IAF's trainee fliers and a manual for pilots advancing to command positions.

It is to be hoped that his book will indeed meet the expectations of IAF commander-in-chief, Major-General Dan Halutz, who wrote in the preface: "I expect and hope that it will stimulate an in-depth discussion of the leadership, the culture and the values we need to set for ourselves as a beacon for the air force and for the Israel Defense Forces in general."