"Can Crybabies Fight a War?"

Friday, February 18, 2000
Jerusalem Post
by Arieh O´Sullivan

Recent calls by soldiers to get out of
Lebanon indicate weakness in the IDF,
or in society as a whole --

 
"A sword, plunged into salt water, will rust."
                                                            Lao Tsu

 

Israeli soldiers in Lebanon are shedding their stoicism for unabashed confessions: They are scared, and are questioning their frustrating war against Hizbullah, in which they often feel like sitting ducks. They have allegedly been accused of being crybabies.The latest doubts over our soldiers´ steadfastness have raised some troubling questions. Are our fighters losing their courage? Has the country lost its fortitude? And what could all this mean for the future of the IDF? The IDF´s ability to shatter its numerically superior enemies in elegant fashion has made it the envy of the world. Its secret weapon: the high morale of its troops. It was based on virtues like fighting spirit, valiant leadership, and decisive action. "After me!" reflected the prevailing pioneering and sacrificial spirit of Israeli society. Today, many observers believe, the IDF still epitomizes the spirit of Israeli society - today's Israeli society. A society that is tired, individualistic, self-righteous, and complacent, with a nosediving level of tolerance for pain. Israel has experienced some tough times in Lebanon in recent years. Seventy-three soldiers were killed three years ago this month in a fiery collision of helicopters ferrying them to the security zone. In the fall of 1997, the IDF suffered a wave of defeats, including the humiliating near wipe-out of a Flotilla 13 commando unit. Twenty-three soldiers were killed in Lebanon in 1998; a dozen were killed last year, but they included the commander of the paratrooper reconnaissance unit, and Israel's top general in Lebanon, who was killed together with a popular radio journalist when their convoy was bombed. But the recent wave of attacks that killed seven Israeli soldiers in less than three weeks seems to have been the straw that broke the camel's back, not only for the public, but for the soldiers themselves, who for the first time are openly calling for the IDF to quit the security zone. No one, they say, wants to be the last to die in Lebanon.
 
 ONE REASON for this reaction, of course, is Prime Minister Ehud Barak´s declared intention to withdraw from the security zone by July. But underlying this unusual outburst by soldiers, some say, is a deeper weakness. "We are spoiled," says one senior IDF officer involved in doctrinal planning. He said that Israel is losing its ability to tolerate casualties. Others note that the relative peace Israel enjoyed since the 1973 war has somewhat blunted its readiness. The IDF still prepares for war in terms of a struggle between the armed forces of enemy or potential enemy states, and for the past 27 years, in fact, no enemy has attacked us head on. But this means Israel´s armored divisions go through a cycle of training to storage without ever having proved themselves on the battlefield.Today´s soldiers are, in fact, unique in IDF history, being the first generation to have grown up without experiencing a major war.Increasing affluence has also taken the emotional edge off, some say."The Gulf War gave the first clear warning that the people of Israel were losing courage in the face of adversity and turning into a nation of cowards who no longer had what it takes to endure and fight," writes Prof. Martin Van Creveld, in his book The Sword and the Olive, a critical history of the IDF.Dr. Reuven Gal, head of the Israel Institute for Military Studies, disagrees, saying he does not believe that the Israeli soldier today is less well-trained or "any less tough" than the soldiers of previous eras. "I think that in the same way the media and the circumstances glorified the soldiers of the 1967 war, they deglorify as crybabies the soldier of 2000," says Gal, a former chief IDF psychologist and author of The Portrait of the Israeli Soldier.
 
 THE IDF has rarely allowed reporters into Lebanon to interview the troops in the trenches. On the rare occasion that it is permitted, it is only with an IDF spokesman in attendance. But the soldiers´ fears, frustrations, and feeling of being deceived are increasingly penetrating this veil. All of them - or so it seems - have the phone number of Israel Radio's military correspondent, Carmela Menashe. Yediot Aharonot and Ma´ariv have splashed large headlines quoting soldiers saying they were scared and no longer belonged in Lebanon - and quoting their commanders deriding them as sissies. "I have nothing more to look for in Lebanon," one paratrooper lieutenant was quoted as saying in Yediot Aharonot this week. "We are always hearing Barak speaking of getting out in the summer, but I fear that our outpost will be the next to be hit."I know of soldiers in despair, soldiers whose parents persuade them to be sick, soldiers who fear making it to the gates [of the border]. I know of soldiers who exude a sense of despair and believe they are going to die. "It's a difficult situation. They expect me to explain things to the soldiers and release some of these tensions," the 20-year-old officer said. "We are all scared and the commanders are trying to calm us down," said another paratrooper. "We are not defending the state. We are exposed. Hizbullah hits us with its new missiles and all we want is not to get hit. We want to get out and the time has come that we got out of Lebanon." Still another said: "If there is not much sense in our sitting there, then why not just take down the outpost? In any case we are about to get out. What do they want from us? To be sitting ducks?" In what historians may yet view as a memorable point in the IDF´s Lebanon dilemma, OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Gaby Ashkenazy was widely quoted this week as calling soldiers who voiced these fears "rags and crybabies." He was quoted this week as saying that if they had anything to say, they should tell it to their commanders. He later denied calling the soldiers "rags," but not the rest.
 
 ISRAELI soldiers could hardly be characterized as ruthless or brutal, but are they sissies?An outsider might think that, in fact, the IDF treats its soldiers like children. After dinner, soldiers are given Krembos for dessert. In Lebanon, soldiers set out into the bush with an ambush mattress, so they can be comfortable when they lie in wait for Hizbullah guerrillas. Their pouches are filled with power food, they have heated underwear and the best radio and night-vision equipment money can buy.The rules against abuse and harassment, sexual and otherwise, are very strict. The chief of General Staff constantly harangues the troops about respect for mankind. It is taboo to prevent a soldier from getting his minimum six hours´ sleep. And every soldier knows that complaints to Menashe will get substantial air time and send the army hopping. "The IDF is more than 50 years old. It is well established, well equipped. You cannot expect it to be rough and skinny and ascetic as it was in its beginning," Gal says, conceding that the prevailing conditions also reflect today's more materialistic society."The fact that mothers have direct lines to commanders and can complain, and that the media amplifies this, makes all these aspects of protecting the soldiers more dominant," Gal says.Field commanders in Lebanon report that there has been an upsurge in petitions by parents not to take their sons to Lebanon. Those whose sons are already there are asking for them to be returned. They reportedly cite personal problems and illnesses. Such appeals tend to increase every time there is an escalation of violence in the security zone, but this time commanders are reportedly describing it as "hysterical." "What am I to do when a mother threatens to immolate herself? I am in a bind," one officer reportedly said.
 
 ACCORDING to a very senior IDF commander, a fundamental rule in the IDF, perhaps one that separates it from other armies, is that a commander is obligated make sure his mission is clear - even questioning his superiors to understand the "why" behind his orders - so that he can then explain it to his subordinates. Col. Yair Golan, a former brigade commander in Lebanon and today head of the operation desk in the General Staff, said the situation in Lebanon is complicated to explain to the troops. "It must be understood that this reality is very frustrating. The best way to deal with it is to have stamina and be capable of absorbing casualties," Golan said in a TV interview. Golan said the IDF has invested hundreds of millions of shekels to beef up the fortifications in the security zone. "It's very frustrating because it comes at the expense of armament. But the IDF doesn't skimp one agora for protection [of its troops] in Lebanon," Golan said. But Golan denied that the IDF is avoiding taking the offensive in Lebanon because it fears casualties. "That is simply not true. I am astonished by this impression. The level of operations is high. There are thousands of operations. Dozens every night," he said. Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Shaul Mofaz, however, acknowledged that air raids and other standoff tactics have replaced the traditional ambush. The bottom line, he said, is the results. So far, the IDF says the results are a "victory ratio" of three to one in Israel's favor. Mofaz took the unusual step of spending time this week in an outpost and talking with the soldiers." You can't derive from one or two comments from IDF soldiers the level of readiness and motivation of Israeli soldiers," he later told reporters.
 
 STILL, the IDF has clearly altered its doctrine to prevent casualties. Weapons are developed to allow soldiers to remain at a distance from the enemy. Weapon ranges have been increased, reducing the chance of what the IDF refers to as "hamifgash" - a close-range encounter with the enemy. The Syrians know this and would like nothing better than to send their commandos down to slug it out with Israeli soldiers who are bogged down with top-of-the-line equipment, but seen as unwilling to sacrifice themselves. This altered doctrine provides a glimpse of how the army expects to fight the next war. Exchanges of fire with the enemy will be via missiles, planes and rockets, with few ground assaults. The idea is to vanquish the enemy quickly and avoid a war of attrition, for which the Arabs have more stamina. The IDF, on paper, has never been so powerful, so well-equipped and so lethal. It is an army that is the envy of many. But, like all modern armies in the world today, it remains untested. Geopolitics being what they are, Israel has never been better prepared for a conventional attack. And yet, Israelis - and Israeli soldiers - feel less secure.
 
 ONE member of the General Staff said that Israel's fear of incurring casualties could backfire. He said that some training has been curtailed because of this risk." This could end up costing us more in the first days of battle," he said. "There is a price for this. If you train less then you are less prepared for war. If you are less prepared for war you suffer more casualties." But Gal firmly believes that if a serious war broke out, the nation would answer the call. "You'll see all these expressions of readiness to sacrifice, devotion and commitment," he says. "Does the fact that you see more soldiers crying at funerals or expressing sadness make them less decisive on the battlefield? I don't think so. Does it make them less motivated right now in Lebanon? Yes. "But it is not the crying that does it. It is not the Krembo. Right now it is the specific circumstances," says Gal. Still - as our soldiers´ diet attests - the IDF commanders know well that their soldiers are and have always been more sensitive, more questioning, and more demanding. They knew it all along, and thus created a modern powerhouse, so unique in the history of human combat that even despairing crybaby soldiers fit right in. So go on, fighter. Have a good cry.

 

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