The Way It Really Was

Don't get caught up in the rhetoric describing the Second Lebanon War as a success. Yossi Berger, a lieutenant colonel in the reserves, can tell you the truth about the war.

Hufshat Kayitz

Israeli soldiers near Lebanon Getty Images 2006
Getty Images

(Summer Vacation ), by Yossi Berger Rimonim Publishing (Hebrew ), 191 pages, NIS 88

Anyone who still has doubts that the Second Lebanon War, which ended four years ago last month, was a source of national trauma, is invited to ponder the number of books written in its wake. At a minimum, these would include two books of memoir by disgruntled generals, two or three works of fiction (some will say those first two categories overlap ), five non-fiction works describing the course of the war, and at least five books written by soldiers and officers who took part in it. Doubtless, more are more on the way.

True, the distance between working through an experience and running to the printing press has become significantly abbreviated in recent times. Still, this is a harvest that at the present rate could eventually compete with the number of books written about the Yom Kippur War. That conflict was an immeasurably larger trauma in terms of the surprise outbreak, the number of casualties and the long-term repercussions, but the war of the summer of 2006 was also a significant event in the life of the state.

One of the latest books about Lebanon II is Yossi Berger's "Summer Vacation." A lieutenant colonel in the reserves, Berger served as a deputy battalion commander in a reserve paratroop brigade in 2006. The modest, relatively slim book he has written portrays his combat experiences in the eastern sector of southern Lebanon.

Unlike the senior officers who managed the war (Dan Halutz and Gal Hirsch ), Berger has no personal ax to grind. He has no need for self-justification with regard to the quality of the reserve forces' preparedness entering into the war, or the nature of the decisions made during the course of the war itself. Rather, what he offers is a description from ground level - of the confusion and the lack of both direction and effectiveness that characterized the Israel Defense Forces during the war, along with the devotion and courage displayed by many of the soldiers in the battlefield.

In the shadow of the mess

The story itself is quite familiar, one could almost say banal. In "34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon," the book Avi Issacharoff and I wrote about the war, we interviewed Lt. Col. (res. ) Amos Brizel, the commander of a battalion similar to Berger's in the northern paratroop brigade, who had experiences similar to those Berger underwent. Other reserve commanders as well provided nearly identical descriptions: of the forces' entry into southern Lebanon and their exit from it without any ability to understand the overall picture of the war, clashes in built-up areas, the painful awareness of the price of the war - and above all, the growing realization among commanders that along with the commitment to the goal, and in the shadow of the general mess, it was incumbent upon them to act like responsible adults and protect the lives of their fighters as much as possible.

Along the way, Berger covers all the necessary bases. He describes how orders and missions changed daily, and how the reservists found themselves ending up in the villages of Markaba, Taibeh and Qantara without anyone knowing their goals. He writes about the tank company commander who refused an order to travel because all the tanks that had preceded him into the area had been hit by anti-tank missiles (and who displays courage in the battle itself ). He writes about the equipment missing from the storage depots and the exaggerated fear of the enemy. We transformed Hezbollah, writes Berger, "from an organization that has to be respected into an organization that has to be feared." He has this to say about the military transport system, which never arrives to collect his soldiers on time: "Again, I can't understand how the IDF, which got to Entebbe, which according to newspapers abroad possesses a sea of atomic bombs, can't manage to organize a place for soldiers who are about to fight in Lebanon to sleep and a wretched van to take them from the place to sleep that was never arranged for them."

A GPS navigation device that Berger's father bought for him in New York, as the IDF did not provide them for commanders in the reserves, saved the force under his command in the village of Markaba, when it turned out the aerial photograph he had received did not match the construction in the village in recent years.

"At a fast pace a group of eight soldiers crosses 'Markaba Pituah' [referring to a new neighborhood in the village] on foot, exposed to all the windows and doors," writes Berger. "During those 500 long meters I curse the outdated aerial photographs, the unmanned aerial vehicles, the heads of military intelligence, the GOC Northern Command and everyone who had anything to do with the fact that we were walking through Markaba Pituah with an outdated aerial photograph, from 2003. When on the scale of curses I reach the prime minister and the defense minister, I discover we have arrived at the houses in which we're slated to set up base. Walla, you also need some luck in life."

The fighting posed one dilemma Berger hadn't anticipated. In the middle of a dangerous climb up the slope of a broiling wadi in August, the deputy battalion commander and his soldiers encountered a Lebanese shepherdess. Some of his soldiers, fearing she might report their location to Hezbollah, demanded of Berger that she be killed. Berger, though he remembered very well the story of the 35 fighters from the convoy to Gush Etzion in the War of Independence, who were killed in similar circumstances, decided to let her go. Somehow, he muses, everything looks very different than it did during the discussions of ethics in the air-conditioned rooms of the Officers Training School.

During one of the pauses in the fighting, outside of Lebanese territory, Berger phoned home. His son Yuval said to him: "It's good you called - I thought you were dead." What the reservists' families went through at home is described by his wife, in a chapter that's impossible to read without getting teary. The description of the salvage, under fire, of the bodies of Benaya Rein and the Armored Corps fighters in his tank also makes a shiver run down one's spine (Berger does not mention he was awarded a citation for his part in the operation ).

Since the story of the battalion's two weeks in Lebanon does not really support a book on its own, Berger has patched into the tale his experiences during his 24 years of service in the paratroops, both active service and in the reserves. The seams are a bit clumsy sometimes, but his good eye and his descriptive ability maintain interest here. This is a reliable picture that reflects the lives of gunners in infantry battalions, the complaints they have and the way they are worn down, very far from the aura of the special forces units.

The 'good Israeli'

I have never met Yossi Berger (though his father and mine were close friends from the youth movement and the kibbutz ). Nevertheless, I feel as if I know him well. I have seen people like him in every reserve battalion I have visited over the past 20 years (and in the battalion in which I served during those same years ). Devoted to their task, full of motivation, down to earth, patriotic to some extent but also observing themselves, the army and the country through ironic glasses. They complain, but they have strong ties to the members of their unit - and never miss a day of reserve duty. Only last month, a proud representative of the tribe of reservists, battalion commander Lt. Col. Dov Harari, was killed on the northern border.

Berger and his soldiers are the embodiment of "the good Israeli," the ordinary citizen about whom the politicians talk a lot, but whom they don't entirely understand. Upon reading the book it is impossible not to keep pondering the huge gap between the fighters in the field and the amateurish conduct of many in the political and military ranks above them.

During the past four years, as we have gained some distance from the immediate horror of the events themselves, thanks to the relative quiet on the Lebanese border (at least until last month ), a somewhat revisionist approach has taken hold in the public discourse on the war in Lebanon. In effect, politicians and generals (and inspired by them, journalists as well ) are saying it was a dizzying success. Hezbollah was smitten. The evidence is in the deterrence: The fact that the Shi'ite organization has not dared to initiate another round of fighting is, apparently, conclusive evidence we won.

These are arguments that can only be raised either by someone who has the continuation of his public career invested in the image of the war or someone who hasn't looked deeply into what happened. The gap between the basic capability of the IDF - a modern army rich in technology, with a huge budget at its disposal - and the Hezbollah guerrilla and terror organization, no matter how skilled, dictated the final result in advance. Of course Hezbollah was harder hit and is not eager for another war. The question ought to be something else: Would different conduct on the part of the top political and military leaders have yielded much better results?

For everyone who has forgotten, for everyone who today is describing Lebanon 2006 as a success, for everyone who is straining at the bit to try the IDF's strength again in a face-off against Syria and Hezbollah, it must be said: Read "Summer Vacation." This war, the way Yossi Berger describes it, is the way it really was.

Here is a recommendation to Maj. Gen. Sami Turgeman, commander of the IDF Army Headquarters: Instead of the generals' memoirs usually distributed to graduates of the officer training courses, give them this book to read. On second thought, this would also be a good gift for former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who may be looking for some reading material in the breaks during his corruption trial.

Amos Harel is the military correspondent of Haaretz.