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Soldiers with casualties in Lebanon Photo: Reuters
Soldiers with casualties in Lebanon Photo: Reuters
 
 
Ron Ben-Yishai  

 

Crybabies don't win wars

IDF more concerned with avoiding casualties than completing missions

Published: 07.21.07, 17:58 / Israel Opinion

One of the more widespread myths reinforced following the Second Lebanon War praised the remarkable performance of low-ranking combat soldiers and ground force commanders.

 

We were told that major- generals, brigade commanders, and some division commanders did not perform well – but most battalion commanders, platoon commanders, company commanders and their subordinates fought like lions and defeated Hizbullah fighters in every encounter.

 

This is a nice myth that offers a little comfort to our hurt pride and self-confidence, which were both cracked during the war. But it isn't the truth.

 

The detailed inquiries undertaken by the IDF, some of which have not yet been publicized, present a much less encouraging picture. In reality, in almost any ground battle, the moment our troops encountered resistance, the force's progress stopped, commanders demanded assistance, and the fighting focused on evacuating casualties from the battlefield.

 

That was the case in Maroun al-Ras, Bint Jbeil, Debel, Aita al-Shaab and other locations. What's particularly frustrating is that most of these clashes involved a handful of Hizbullah fighters numbering no more than 20. In almost all the clashes, IDF forces enjoyed superiority in terms of the number of fighters and firepower.

 

Unfinished missions 

Yet in very few cases we saw troops charge at the sources of fire. There was also no orderly fighting aimed at taking over the areas where Hizbullah members who ambushed our soldiers were located.

 

The commander and soldiers abandoned the mission they embarked on, took cover, and provided cover for the few who risked their lives and through incredible acts of courage rescued the wounded, treated them under fire, and pulled the bodies of killed soldiers back so that the enemy could not capture them.

 

As to completing the mission, the forces left that to the reinforcements who were called up urgently, who also joined the rescue efforts instead of fighting to secure the original objective.

 

I witnessed one of these cases at the end of the war. After one of the helicopters transporting troops was shot down by a missile, the fighting stopped.

 

The fighting force that was already on the ground and numbered several paratroop battalions was ordered to hide rather than continue towards the targets, even though it was only a few hundred meters away from the village where the missile was fired from.

 

For two days we waited in the bushes while a special forces unit searched for the helicopter team's bodies until it found all of them. Then, after the ceasefire was declared, we returned to the border with the body of flight mechanic Keren Tendler, may she rest in peace.

 

Not the IDF way 

This was not the IDF way in any of the previous wars, ranging from the War of Independence to the First Lebanon War. Even during desperate battles, such as the Chinese Farm battle in the Yom Kippur War, the tanks charged at the Egyptians in the trenches time after time, even though they were being hit one after the other.

 

Only thanks to these efforts, the wounded and killed were eventually evacuated and the way was paved for crossing the Suez Canal.

 

In every command school in the world officers learn that carrying out the mission comes before rescuing and treating the wounded.

 

This principle is based on a simple rationale: Dedication to the mission is essential in order to achieve victory in battle (and in the war,) and without quick victory in the battle arena, the effort to evacuate and treat the wounded also exacts casualties and is not being undertaken effectively and quickly.

 

The abandonment of this principle in the Second Lebanon War made it mostly "the war of evacuating the wounded" rather than a war aimed at curbing Hizbullah's rocket and mortar fire.

 

Unclear instructions

Those who don't believe this should read the books written about the Lebanon war and the endless articles published in the media to mark a year since the war. In this entire sea of text you will not find even one story about a force that fought until it completed its mission or a Hizbullah force that was defeated.

 

Even in the IDF magazine Bamachane,  all the stories were about treating and evacuating the wounded, or emotional accounts by fighters regarding the trauma they experienced when they saw their friends or themselves hurt. It appears we still fail to understand that wars are not won by crybabies or heart-to-heart talks with psychologists and journalists.

 

One of the main reasons for this phenomenon is that in a significant number of the cases, IDF troops did not receive a clear mission definition or one that was worded properly.

 

This is indeed the senior echelon's fault. In the absence of a clearly understood mission, fighters and field commanders were mostly dealing with urgent matters – treating the killed and wounded, instead of focusing on what's most important – completing the mission.

 

Another reason is the fighting habits and methods adopted by the IDF during the intifada in the territories, which it tried unsuccessfully to implement in Lebanon against a completely different type of enemy.

 

Yet the most important and critical reason is the change in the IDF's combat values as a result of a general change in the values within Israeli society. The sacrifice of few for the sake of the collective existence and security of all citizens is no longer taken for granted as it was in the past.

 

Distorted value system

The victories of 1967 and 1973, just like the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, created the sense among Israeli citizens that we do not face a substantive existential threat, and certainly not on the part of an armed group such as Hizbullah. And if there is no existential threat, there is no point in making a sacrifice in order to carry out a military mission.

 

The fighting in the territories, which is perceived by many as "the war for settlements and enforcing the occupation" is also consistently eroding the soldiers' motivation. The suicide bombings during the second intifada changed something in this regard, but not enough.

 

Most importantly, safeguarding the lives and wellbeing of the "children" in uniform has become the ultimate value, which the cultural and social elites consistently nurture with the aid of the media.

 

This value and the "crybaby culture" that the media nurtures for the sake of high ratings overcome any other value, and certainly values such as sacrificing one's life for the sake of others, which is perceived as an ancient, outdated notion.

 

This, for example, is the reason why the government doesn't dare do what is needed in order to curb the Qassam rocket fire at the western Negev. A child who lives in fear in the bombarded Sderot or a civilian killed by a rocket in Haifa are worth less than a "kid" in uniform, whose death or capture in battle become a national disaster.

 

This distorted value system trickles down to the IDF and its commanders, who need to face the constant nightmare of bereaved families and media criticism.

 

Since the war, the IDF has been working intensively in order to fix the technical and professional flaws that were revealed last year. Yet this isn't enough.

 

Until Israeli society grasps and internalizes the realization that fanatically motivated radical Islam constitutes an existential danger that must be fought without compromise, even at the cost of sacrificing soldiers,  the IDF won't be able to change its combat values.

 

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