No Longer Pure and Simple

In order to restore the IDF's old glory, the author believes, it is necessary to change its style of human relations and turn the command experience into a challenge for army educators

"The Commander - Temperate Military Leadership" by Meir Pa'il, Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Ministry of Defense Publishing House, 199 pages

Meir Pa'il - Palmachnik, reserve army colonel, historian, former Knesset member - is a multifaceted personality. More than anything, however, he has left his legacy as "Meirke," the revered commander of the Israel Defense Forces officers' training school. In this book, Pa'il spells out his philosophy as a military commander and an educator, and his concept of temperate military leadership based on three elements: love of the homeland, esprit de corps and esteem for the commander.

To this Pa'il adds the characteristics of his ideal commander/leader: humanity, acumen, integrity, charisma and loyalty, a dedication to addressing the individual's problems, a consistent policy of reward and punishment, and a strict observance of the concept of "purity of arms." This is a commander's manual, written by one with great experience in the field, who developed his own school of thought and produced legions of disciples.

This is more than just a summary of a bygone biography. Pa'il believes that in order to restore the IDF's old glory, and to rid it of the mediocrity that has infused it, it is necessary to change its style of human relations, and to turn the command experience into an educational challenge. Furthermore, as part of such reforms, he proposes calling on "a number of outstanding reserve officers to return to service, in order to try to form - as quickly as possible - a qualitative base for a creative senior command of the future." It is for those officers, and for the enlightened officers currently serving in the IDF, that Pa'il offers his credo.

Two problematic elements

Of the three elements of Pa'il's model, there is no disagreement about esprit de corps. Love of the homeland, on the other hand, has long since become a loaded concept. The chief educational officer, Brigadier-General Elazar Stern, once served as the commander of the officers' training school. Regarding the concept of the officer as a role model, he sees himself as Meirke Pa'il's successor. He subscribes as well to the idea of love of the homeland as a supreme value, and has fought with determination to have it included in the IDF's code of ethics. But from Pa'il's day to Stern's, "love of the homeland" has become transformed into "love of the country," and suddenly there was no place for it in the code. Why? In an interview with Avihai Becker of Haaretz (April 28, 2000), Stern expressed his opinion that "those who pressed for [its exclusion] were from a very particular part of the population which, for some reason, identifies the value of love of the country with the [political] right. I completely disagree with that perception."

Stern is right, but that is precisely the root of the problem. In Pa'il's day, love of the homeland encompassed love of the country. When you said "homeland" to a soldier, you implied Israel within the 1949 borders. The Six-Day War of 1967 reshuffled the cards. From then on, the question of patriotism has not been as clear-cut as it once was.

Esteem for the commander is even more problematic. When Field-Marshal Montgomery took command of the Eighth Army in the Western Desert, he learned the hard way that the trappings of leadership made no impression on the Australian conscripts under his command. With their free-wheeling individualism, they rebelled against any authority. He had to break with convention and patiently win them over - and even that was only conditional.

A charismatic officer can sometimes inspire unreserved reverence among his men. In such circumstances, if his character is flawed and his morality questionable, the officer can get his troops to do things that should never be done. Pa'il tells about deputy chief-of-staff, Raphael Eitan (without mentioning him by name), who briefed the commanders on the eve of Operation Litani in 1978. He mentioned the background to the action (the terrorist massacre of passengers in a bus on the Coastal Road), and reiterated the slogan, "This time we take no prisoners." Pa'il writes that when it was discovered several months later that two IDF officers had murdered prisoners during the operation, they were tried by the new chief-of-staff (Eitan himself), who let them off lightly.

For some reason, Pa'il fails to mention an incident from his time in the army. During the Sinai Campaign of 1956, there was friction between his own unit, 51st Battalion of the Golani Brigade, and the much-acclaimed Paratroops 890th Battalion. Pa'il's men were insolent and refused to show the "appropriate" respect for the paratroopers. Forty years later, reserve Brigadier-General Aryeh Biro, who had been a company commander in the 890th, revealed that his own men had murdered 49 Egyptian prisoners after the battle at the Mitla Pass. The battalion commander at the time was Raphael Eitan. Responding to a question in an interview with Yossi Melman of Haaretz (August 17, 1995), Biro said: "Anyone familiar with the way the army works has to ask how independent a company commander's decisions can be when the battalion [to which he belongs] is not dispersed in the field, but concentrated in one place" and thus under the immediate control of the battalion commander himself.

Fascinating anecdotes

"Purity of arms" is a central issue for Pa'il. Back in 1967, in a lecture at Tzavta in Tel Aviv following the publication of "Si'ach Lochamim" (later published in English as "The Seventh Day"), he quoted a pilot called Shmuel, who told his comrades: "It could be that our comrades who have just died were killed by those whom we didn't kill in Sinai (1956). And those whom you spared now may kill us the next time around."

The pilot was Shmuel Gordon, whose ethical perceptions have changed since then. He is the author of the book "Air Leadership, Modern Operational Culture." At the time, Pa'il observed that among those who took part in the discussions that were collated into "The Seventh Day," the ones who rejected the concept of purity of arms were mostly from the "technical" branches of the IDF, which operated sophisticated weaponry. Modern warfare allows "increasingly great damage to your enemy without your own men having to confront the results of the killing and the destruction. In that way, the pangs of human moral conscience are greatly reduced." So said Pa'il in 1967 - and the words sound as fresh as ever today.

The book is filled with fascinating anecdotes. In 1957, Pa'il persuaded then chief of staff Moshe Dayan to invite prime minister David Ben-Gurion, who was on a visit in the south, to come and speak with his soldiers. Ben-Gurion agreed and explained to the troops why he decided to withdraw from the Sinai after such a decisive victory: "If we add the 300,000 Arabs of the Gaza Strip to the 350,000 Arabs living within the State of Israel, how would we deal with such a large Arab minority on the educational, economic and social planes? Perhaps we would even have to let most of the refugees go back to their homes?"

As the diplomatic context of the Sinai Campaign faded for Pa'il, so his reservations about it grew. He even considered leaving the army, "but I thought it wouldn't make an impression on anyone, and I owed it to the 51st Battalion to lead it in the real test of a military unit - on the battlefield."

In that case, how does he feel about Colonel Eli Geva, who resigned his command at exactly the moment of the real military test, when his brigade was about to enter Beirut? Pa'il (who was recently back at Tzavta, this time for a conference of solidarity with conscientious objectors) is of the opinion that a distinction must be made between two kinds of circumstances. In the case in which a commander has moral misgivings about carrying out a particular mission, he should resign or refuse to carry out the mission. On the other hand, where his objections have a political character, he should be compelled to carry out the mission as ordered. But in a situation like the Lebanon War, if it transpires that the government has deceived the nation and done something that is patently immoral, thus violating the unwritten covenant between a nation and its rulers, is the opposition political or moral? And what of the refusal to serve in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip? Is it an expression of political opposition to the Greater Israel concept, or a moral objection to ruling over another people? As it is said: Further discussion is necessary.

This book is a treasure trove of experience gained, lessons learned and eye-opening examples that could well serve IDF leadership courses. It may not sow revolution, as Pa'il would like to see, but it will have an influence. How do I know this? Ground forces soldiers may say whatever they want about the insights of an air force person like myself. But, in my view, the strength of the book lies in the fact that it is not a product of the elitist paratroop or commando experience, where mere men become exalted, but of the Golani Brigade.

Colonel (res.) Uri Dromi is the director of publications for the Israel Democracy Institute.