We want them to be aggressive, sly, “think out of the box,” and take risks. Yet when they err and go too far precisely because of these traits, journalists demand that the IDF punish them, while “humanitarian” groups and attorneys treat them as criminals.
The same forgiveness and proportional punishments, which the law enforcement establishment and Israeli society grant failed politicians and even serial offenders, is deprived of IDF field commanders; the people who risk their lives day and night and sacrifice themselves for our sake in Gaza and the West Bank.
The legal procedures currently underway against two senior IDF field commanders are an example of this. First, we have armored corps Lieutenant Colonel Omri Burberg, who has been dismissed by the army chief and is set to face trial on charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, because a soldier under his command fired a rubber bullet at the foot of a bound Palestinian rioter. Then there is Gaza Division Commander Brigadier General Moshe Tamir, who is being investigated on suspicion of allowing his young son to drive a military vehicle without a license. Tamir is also suspected to attempting to cover up the fact that his son was involved in an accident.
In the case of Lt. Col. Burberg, the probe made it almost completely clear that he didn’t quite order his subordinate to fire – rather, he only attempted to scare the Palestinian, who pretended not to speak Hebrew and resisted arrest. The soldier misunderstood his commander’s intention and fired. This was apparently a case of vague and even embarrassing wording, as well as the improper use of a “dirty trick” to scare the Palestinian. Yet this was certainly not an order to cold-bloodedly shoot a bound prisoner, as the incident was presented to the public. In the case of Brigadier General Tamir, the severity of the offences he allegedly committed does not justify the severity of the investigation against him, the public price he has been paying, or the threat to his career.
In the interest of full disclosure, I shall note that I personally know the two officers. I saw Tamir conduct himself in an admirable fashion in Lebanon, and more recently I observed Lt. Col. Burberg professionally command over his tank regiment during a complicated exercise on the Golan Heights. Despite this, I do not play down the offences attributed to the two – yet I am saying that we need to keep things in perspective.
Restraining wild horsesEven though in both cases the commanders violated the army’s orders and values, there is almost no doubt that there was no criminal intent on their part. Therefore, while they deserve to be punished, and to be demoted to office positions for a certain period of time, the punishment must be proportional, and should not undermine their ability to put their skills and experience at the service of the IDF and the country in the future.
When the time comes to adopt legal and disciplinary action, we must also consider their longtime contribution, their willingness to risk their lives, and the serious shortage in professional, experienced, and motivated field commanders – yes, that’s also a relevant consideration. We saw the destructive results of this shortage in the last war.
I do not argue, heaven forbid, that commanders and officers who committ severe offences deliberately and over a period of time should not be punished. The question is, however, whether it is appropriate to dismiss a field commander and experienced fighter just because of anomalous conduct that is not criminal; conduct that stems from the same mental makeup that makes such commanders invaluable leaders on the battlefield.
The debate over these questions isn’t new. History, literature, and cinema are replete with military men that presented such dilemmas to their superiors. Ben-Gurion, for example, was willing to turn a blind eye to the serial lies and reckless operational conduct of Ariel Sharon, because he viewed him as a brilliant fighter and military leader. The same was true about Moshe Dayan, who was appointed army chief despite his outrageous personal conduct. The same was done by American presidents, who kept and even promoted Generals Patton and MacArthur, even though they violated orders and procedures. This has been the case in other armies too, from the days of the Bible to this day.
Yet today’s prime minister, defense minister, and senior IDF commanders are unwilling to assume responsibility and give a second and third chance to excellent commanders and officers who exhibited improper personal and administrative conduct. One reason for this is apparently the dominant role played by the legal system, particularly when it comes to Israel’s defense establishment. The other reason is the paralyzing fear imposed by the media and politicians on senior political and military officials, ranging from the prime minister to the judge advocate general.
Therefore, it would be appropriate for the defense minister, army chief, and top generals to think twice before they dismiss or hinder the progress of field commanders who erred. There are less draconian measures that can be used to ensure discipline among commanders and fighters with a wild character and big mouth. If I’m not mistaken, it was Moshe Dayan who once said that he prefers to restrain wild horses rather than motivate lazy mules.