Israel Remembers Its Fallen Soldiers |

The IDF Will Always Have Heroes, but It Must Also Find the Courage to Reform

Israelis love stories of individual bravery, but in the long run, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his army will have to step out of their comfort zone, walk away from the embraces and contend with challenges.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The Second Lebanon War of 2006 was the last significant military campaign Israel was involved in (although this is disputed by some who argue that it wasn’t really a war but merely a few half-baked battles at the level of divisions). The war was characterized by an inflation of citations. At the awards ceremony held a year after the battles ended, no fewer than 38 chief-of-staff citations were handed out, in addition to 104 decorations given by sector commands and divisional commanders.

Military wisdom has it that when generals stumble, citations are later handed out liberally to junior officers and "grunts." When things go according to plan, no exceptional feats of bravery are required, with less need for subsequent citations. This diagnosis conceals a further truth: The citations also serve as a mechanism for the military establishment to cover its rear end when things go wrong. It may not always be true, but senior commanders like to bask in the stardust sprinkled by decorated heroes.

Ron Ben-Yishai, the military commentator on the Ynet news website, noticed an interesting phenomenon related to the awards ceremony following the Lebanon War: Most of the decorations for bravery were given to soldiers who extricated wounded comrades under fire. The veteran correspondent saw in this fact testimony to the manner in which the 2006 war was conducted: muddled advances that came to a halt every time Hezbollah put up stiff resistance, turning quickly into efforts to prevent casualties. The prevailing wisdom that soldiers on the ground, up to battalion commanders, fought fiercely and defeated Hezbollah, while the upper echelons failed in their conduct of the war, wrote Ben-Yishai, is a "myth that offers some consolation to our pride or a cure for our self-confidence, but which is simply not true." Whinging is no way to conduct wars, he added.

Ben Yishai’s criticism echoed points made by a committee appointed by the General Staff, headed by Generals Yoram Yair and Elazar Stern, which examined "IDF values during the conduct of the war." Yair later claimed that the main reason for Israel Defense Force failures during the war was the values adhered to during its conduct, from the chief of staff down to battalion commanders. The army had forgotten its most important principle, which used to be the pursuing of missions at all costs, while striving for victory.

These words, by the commentator and the general, were uttered at a time when that war was justly considered to be a military failure. Since then, almost seven quiet years have passed on the Lebanese border. The quiet is mainly the result of the basic underlying gap in the capabilities of the two sides, which was demonstrated during the war itself. The blows it received still deter Hezbollah, at least for now, from escalating the situation. However, the quiet years have also served those who wished to promote a revisionist version of that war, presenting it as a political and military victory. This also retroactively improves the view of the conduct of the war. Luckily, it took a few years before the IDF fell victim to this false perception. Gaby Ashkenazi, who was appointed chief of staff after the war, devoted great effort to restoring traditional fighting values to the IDF and to refreshing the professional and military doctrines that had grown rusty during the second intifada years.

The army has indeed returned to using its old terminology, but this doesn’t change the framework in which Israel’s military campaigns take place. These have been termed by American historian and strategist Edward Luttwack as "post-heroic wars." In such wars, Western democracies, including Israel, have two objectives: avoiding their own casualties while trying to prevent excessive losses among the enemy’s civilian population. These are wars that usually do not involve an existential threat to the state, which prefers to use its technological superiority to wage a campaign from a distance. This allows it to achieve operational efficacy while adhering to reasonably moral norms, without raising questions regarding the legitimacy of the campaign, at home or internationally.

Three exceptional stories of bravery shown by fallen soldiers have emerged in the last decade. One is Lt. Col. Emmanuel Moreno, from the General Staff’s Special Forces unit, Sayeret Matkal, who was killed in Lebanon shortly after the war ended; another is Major Roy Klein, a deputy battalion commander in the Golani Brigade, who died in the Lebanese border town of Bint Jbeil, and a third is Major Eliraz Peretz, also a deputy battalion commander in Golani, who died on the Gaza border three years ago. The mythical aspects of their feats grew in different ways: Klein is remembered for his bravery at the moment of death, when he blocked with his own body a grenade that was thrown at soldiers under his command. He posthumously received the highest citation for his deed. Moreno, who was called by his former commander Brigadier Herzl Halevi “the best fighter in the whole world,” took part in dozens of covert missions. He is the only IDF victim whose photo cannot be shown to this day. Peretz died 12 years after his older brother, also an officer in Golani, died in Lebanon.

The three had another common denominator: They all wore skullcaps and were graduates of religious pre-military preparatory schools in the territories. Klein and Peretz even lived close to each other in the illegal settlement of Eli, whose demolition was suspended (and in effect cancelled) after their deaths. This commonality is no coincidence. A large proportion of combat officers now come from the same world, where future inductees are instructed to follow in the footsteps of Moreno, Klein and Peretz. The Israeli public, as well as the army, still needs heroes, and the three definitely deserve the designation awarded to them after their deaths.

However, the need for heroes has a forced aspect. This is illustrated by the media's need to create "instant" heroes, even at the expense of exaggerating or even completely distorting the facts. This led the media to inflate the story of a female soldier from the "Caracal" battalion who adequately performed her duty and killed an infiltrator on the Egyptian border. The media turned her into a national hero, neglecting to report on another soldier who did not perform so well, hiding behind some rocks during the incident. A border policewoman who shot and killed an Arab youth in Hebron who was holding a toy gun that she mistakenly thought was real was also turned into a national hero. It seems as if the manner in which the media reports such events, greatly stressing the human angle, is becoming more like the coverage of sporting events or production of reality-TV shows: blood, sweat and endless amounts of kitsch.

The IDF will still need heroes, even in the era of "post-heroic" wars. The training of combat units still seems to ensure that such heroes will rise up if and when the next war erupts. However, the army, and especially its upper echelons, will require more in coming years. Military organizations have a built-in tendency for self-congratulation and self-satisfaction when embraced so warmly by the public (there is nothing like the week between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day to emphasize this fact). In the long run, Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and his army will have to step out of their comfort zone, walk away from the embraces and contend with challenges that lurk behind corners.

In essence, three things are required of the upper echelons, beyond the bravery of individual soldiers: civil courage, systemic courage and a clearheaded assessment of the changes that have taken place in our neighborhood in the last two years, so that adaptions can be made. As far as civil courage goes, both Ashkenazy and his successor Gantz succeeded when faced with the toughest challenge placed before them. They resisted being carried away and gave their honest professional opinion against a premature attack on Iran’s nuclear sites, without coordination with the United States.

Internally, the military establishment is always intolerant of intellectual honesty and is wary of dealing with internal criticism. In this context, it’s worth noting an article written three years ago by Col. Amir Abulafia (today a Brigadier, despite the article). In it, he commented on the fear that grips senior officers, preventing them from voicing independent opinions. Gantz, to his credit, is trying to fight this paralyzing trend, so far with limited success.

The third requirement facing the IDF is the toughest. A combination of circumstances – including the turmoil in the Arab world, budgetary difficulties, the demand to recruit the ultra-Orthodox and discussions about shortening military service – is carrying the IDF into an era of transition. "We all understand that things will not remain as they were," says a senior officer who is taking part in talks about shortening service. The question that has not yet been resolved is how ready and willing the defense establishment, including Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, is to undertake a real transformation in the power structure of the IDF and the ways soldiers are trained and units are managed. The answer will become clear in the coming year.

An Israeli soldier prepares national flags at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery, April 14, 2013.Credit: AFP

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