Once Encouraged to Shut Up, Israel's Generals Are Speaking Out

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Maj. Gen. Yair Golan at Mt. Hermon, May 10, 2012.Credit: Army spokesman

Toward the end of 2006, the top military brass convened to discuss conclusions drawn from the Second Lebanon War. Hundreds of senior officers sat with serious faces and listened tensely to the remarks of the participations. Some of those present, including several generals, sharply criticized the blunders of the war, particularly the hesitant conduct of it that was lacking in determination and insight.

Brig. Gen. Yair Golan, then commander of the Judea and Samaria Division, took the podium. What he said was completely different from the other speakers. He dealt with the debased and decadent culture that he thought had developed in the Israel Defense Forces. Golan harshly criticized the army's organizational learning. He believed the organization had failed because the learning culture had been woefully neglected. He expressed sorrow over the drop in investment in systematic thinking and in building an organized doctrine, as is done in the academic world. He also blasted the tendency of the organization to outsource such analyses to contractors who produce PowerPoint presentations. We’ve undermined our foundations of literacy, Golan said.

Today it seems we are in a new era and a different, better place. The pattern of remaining silent and ignoring things that military commanders had adopted in the last decade, which supported staying uninvolved in the ethical issues on the national agenda, suffered a shake-up. When it comes to anything that has a bearing on the IDF as an army that gets its moral strength from Israel’s human infrastructure, silence no longer cuts it. The helm has been seized by a serious, professional and primarily ethical group, which feels a fundamental obligation to speak its mind and warn of the red lines it sees in the network of interactions within the army and outside it by making statements that express morality and values.

Today we can take politicians’ criticism, heard everywhere, as primarily an expression of their distress over the senior military brass' entrance into the debate on societal and military issues. In the past the silence of these officers could be counted on, especially when it came to issues of morality and purity of arms.

Even if the comparison that Golan chose to make (seeming to compare Israel to pre-Holocaust Germany) was inappropriate, it was clear that his remarks came from a sense of responsibility and genuine concern. He spoke out because he sees dangerous changes and processes unfolding before our eyes. Golan has every right to make his positions known. Even more, the warning he issued is part of his obligation, a clear and solid obligation that stems from the very essence of his position as deputy chief of staff of an army defined as the people’s army.

In recent years there have been periodic public debates about the weight and substance of the IDF as the people’s army. It must be said that the IDF itself has contributed over the years to the ongoing erosion of the foundation on which the principles of the people’s army are based. One can point to the embarrassing silence of military leaders with regard to everything connected with equalizing the burden of the draft and military service, and a host of other issues. Ever since the IDF’s ethical code was published, there have been issues that demanded taking a stand and showing the way, in the spirit of the commander.

Unfortunately, the voices of the chief of general staff and senior officers have generally not been heard. We can understand this, since irrelevant considerations of survival and promotions, encouraged by the governing political echelons, have led senior commanders to keep their mouths shut. Today the cheeky ones at IDF headquarters, the subcontractors of defense establishment, are directly entering the channels of public debate.

Many politicians and elected officials are having a hard time with this change, which opens the chief of staff’s and his deputy’s microphones to a public media debate – a debate that seeks to analyze the link between a security incident and the level of morality reflected in it. From the politicians’ perspective, not only have the bastards changed the rules without telling them, they’re playing a role that isn’t theirs. And what’s perhaps even worse, they are making the politicians rather superfluous.

The writer is a colonel in the IDF's reserves.

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