The Wisdom of the 'Has-beens'

Israel has finally established a home for its nobility, a House of Lords in the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv, where retired senior commanders of the Israel Defense Forces gather.

Near the War Office in Whitehall stand three silent figures of British commanders from World War II, each with his name or nickname, a one-word trademark: Monty, Alanbrooke, Slim. On the right is Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery of Alamein, in the middle stands the chief of staff of the imperial armed forces, Field marshal Alan Francis Brooke, and on the left, in a stance reminiscent of Rafael Eitan, is the commander of the Burma campaign, Field Marshal William Slim. All were awarded the title of viscount, and all mumbled but kept quiet after they left the military, and did not tell the youth that followed them how to run wars.

Israel, too, has finally established a home for its nobility, a House of Lords in the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv, where retired senior commanders of the Israel Defense Forces gather. The generals of the past have already met twice with Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. Among them, for example, was a former head of the navy, Shmuel Tankus, 92. But the doyen of the group was Shlomo Shamir, 94, who commanded Brigade 7 in the Battle of Latrun in 1948 and later served as commander of both the navy and the air force, positions to which he was appointed by then defense minister David Ben-Gurion in order to impose central authority over these branches of the military. As chief of staff, Halutz has a similar role, but in reverse: He is meant to aerate the ground forces rather than to keep the air force grounded.

Shamir, sharp and clear-minded, had some good things to say during the meeting, and so did Major General (reserves) Avraham Tamir, who commended Halutz on being the first chief of staff who is trying to create a combined General Staff rather than a ground forces staff with air and naval attaches. Tamir, 82, also said that during the Lebanon campaign, and contrary to previous wars, the IDF managed to act in such a way as to achieve the declared political aims. And there were others whose comments caused those present to shrivel in their seats, grumbling. They were not asking for a committee of inquiry into the IDF, but for a state-appointed emergency committee to run the IDF, preferably with themselves as part of the panel.

In the management of day-to-day affairs, apart from a preparatory period during which it is customary to ask one's predecessors for helpful advice, no one would dream that Yitzhak Navon, say, ought to make recommendations to President Moshe Katsav, or Yoram Aridor to Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson, or Moshe Landau to Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, or Shlomo Sharf to national team coach Avraham Grant. But generals are generals for life, until their military funerals, even if 50 years have passed since they retired. As such, Halutz is slated to be the next "has-been," and the next chief of staff will have to listen to his advice.

These former generals have time on their hands, as well as energy, memories and some scores to settle. They are often surprised to discover that their colleagues also have scores to settle with them. Their pretentious demand that future generations consult with them - and woe to him who fails to accept their recommendations, which are often contradictory - ignores human nature. Heirs do not want their predecessors, who are free of responsibility, to patronize them like an older chaperon accompanying a novice driver. And if the future is only meant to be a recycling of the past, there is no hope for progress, much less revolution. The armored corps officers who were second fiddle until they took the lead from the infantry corps in the Six-Day War, only to lose it again in the Yom Kippur War, went from being innovators to conservatives, reactionaries against the rule of the air force. Of course, if precedent were binding, the Wright brothers would never have left their bicycle workshop.

There has never been a government as laden with "has-beens," or one that failed as miserably, as the government during the Yom Kippur War. That was a government headed by Golda Meir - a prime minister for four and a half years and a foreign minister for nine years before that - and backed by several feted defense establishment veterans, including Moshe Dayan, Haim Bar-Lev, Yigal Allon, Israel Galili and Shimon Peres.

There are only two places that are natural repositories for the wisdom of defense "has-beens": various advisory groups, such as the National Security Council, and state and military oversight bodies. By chance, the two will meet tonight in a harsh report prepared by the defense oversight branch of the State Comptroller's Office, headed by a reserve general, on the failure of prime ministers to do their duty and take advantage of the National Security Council, which has also usually been headed by former senior defense figures.