Morality Isn't Everything

In considering candidates for supreme commander, it is necessary above all to look at their ability to win wars, and only then at their personal morality.

The Yoav Galant affair calls attention to an ancient contradiction between the moral character of military leaders and their role in leading organizations designed to kill and destroy. What in fact do we want from a military leader - that he be white as snow in his private life, or that he win battles? True, both qualities can exist in a single person, but past experience shows it is unlikely. Most of history's great military leaders were not morally pure, and those who were generally failed as military leaders.

Victorious military leaders have left behind piles of dirt that make Galant's land affair appear insignificant. During a drunken party Alexander the Great drove his spear through a close friend (who was also his lover ) only because the man criticized him. When Julius Caesar wasn't waging war, he committed adultery with his enemies' wives and sometimes also with his friends' wives. (When he was waging war, he preferred asceticism of body and soul for the sake of victory. ) Napoleon Bonaparte incriminated the Duc D'Enghien, and his execution was tantamount to murder. Before the landing at Normandy, Gen. George Patton fired up his soldiers by telling them they didn't need to die for the sake of their country; they needed to make sure "the bastards" on the other side died for the sake of their country.

Neither by the moral standards of our times nor by those of their own times have history's victorious military leaders been symbols of morality and purity.

To win in battle, a leader needs a rare combination of characteristics. A military leader has to hack his way to the top; he has to make thousands of soldiers follow him through fire and water and put their lives on the line for the sake of victory. He has to consider a large amount of data (the enemy's weak points, the terrain, the weaponry and the systems at his disposal ), he has to make snap decisions, and above all he has to surprise the foe by trickery.

At this point the contradiction between the military leader's morality and his ability to win comes into focus: The fight on the battlefield is not like those in civil society or in a game of chess. Both civil societies and chess have rules, and transgressors are usually punished. On the battlefield there are no rules: This is the dirtiest of life's games. In the war of minds between two commanders, it is the greater trickster and liar who emerges victorious. A victor is someone who acts in the most irregular, surprising, unrestrained and destructive way.

In a way, this is similar to the world of crime. Napoleon was said to have overcome the spoiled princes of Europe because he was toughened in the vendettas of his native Corsica.

Osama bin Laden carried out one of the most surprising, daring and destructive attacks of our times. He reached the top of Al-Qaida thanks to his religious fanaticism, which in this context means disregarding the usual constraints of morality, with the end justifying the means. For nearly a decade he has been evading captors while teasing and tricking generals who learned their craft at the best military academies in the United States and Europe and who command the world's most advanced armies.

The reason for this may lie in bin Laden's strategic abilities versus those of the military leaders facing him. The latter reached their status after being filtered not just based on leadership criteria but also for probity, as dictated by Western political correctness. In the conflict between the two kinds of commanders, bin Laden has had the upper hand.

The conclusion is not that criminals or religious fanatics should be appointed chiefs of staff. However, in considering candidates for supreme commander, it is necessary above all to look at their ability to win wars, and only then at their personal morality (which will be raked over with a fine-tooth comb later, if they enter politics ). A military leader's personal morality is important in a civilized country, but victory in battle is more important.

Gabriel Herman is a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.