Israel's 'Vietnam' Tarnishes Once-Sacred Military
A war of attrition next door and a 'softer' society take a toll on Mideast's toughest army.
JERUSALEM — When it came to making him a tough Israeli paratrooper some 30 years ago, Reuven Gal remembers the "water discipline" most. During training in the scorching Negev Desert, every soldier was allowed just one quart of water each day.
"We started to lose people, some died," recalls Mr. Gal, a former chief psychologist of the Israeli Army. "So they established clear guidelines, and 'water discipline' vanished."
But such strict discipline helped to turn Israel's armed forces into the most formidable fighting machine in the Middle East, winning on the battlefield against an array of far more numerous Arab armies several times in its 50-year history.
For just as long, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have been a sacred institution here, entrusted with the survival of the Jewish state.
But cracks in that edifice are growing - mirroring fundamental changes in Israeli society. Recent high-profile incidents in southern Lebanon, where Israel has been locked in a war of attrition that many refer to as its "Vietnam," have sparked hostile public scrutiny and open mistrust.
The outcry is revealing what some analysts describe as a growing mediocrity in the armed forces and a lack of morale, especially in the reserves. The peace process also has led many to believe that Israel's wars have already been fought, contributing to a fading sense of urgency and an unwillingness to serve on the front line. Such confidence that Israel's existence is no longer in doubt has brought a softening of the Israeli warrior.
Other character-building exercises, for example, have gone the same way as "water discipline." Gone are nights of sleep deprivation and long, hard runs that once began on Day 1 of basic training. Inductees were also once kept from going home for two months. But Israeli parents these days visit their children's bases frequently. Parents even assist their offspring to complete their grueling march through the countryside at graduation, sometimes jumping into the ranks to help them carry equipment.
"I don't think this has taken the sharp edge off the Israeli Defense Forces, which are as tough as ever," says Gal, author the 1986 book "A Portrait of the Israeli Soldier." "But the end result is a much softer soldier."
The change points to a broader lesson about modern Israel, says Zeev Schiff, a military analyst with the Haaretz newspaper. "It's a reflection of a different society - of a society that has gained a lot of weight," he says. "This is a rich army with more sophisticated equipment than anybody else. But now we are slower, bigger, and more careful."
Recent blows to the armed forces have shocked Israel. In February, 73 soldiers were killed when two helicopters collided while flying to Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon. In late August, five soldiers there were burned to death in a brush fire started by Israeli shelling. And on Sept. 4, 12 of Israel's elite naval commandos died when their raiding party was ambushed deep inside Lebanon.
These events have sharpened the debate about how to get out of Lebanon. But they have also been grist for the country's news media, which have turned the debate into a public affair.
"The myth of the IDF being the ultimate combination between Einstein's brain and Samson's brawn is no more," wrote Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus in September. "From warriors we have become worriers."
High-level divisions have added to the sense of crisis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli analysts say, is an "outsider who knows how to talk." Senior commanders don't trust his judgment, they add, and point to Mr. Netanyahu's November meeting with his chief of staff - the first in five months.
Such a gap is unheard of in a country renowned for the symbiosis between the military and politicians. Netanyahu was a captain in an elite unit himself, but since then he lived many years in the United States.
The depth of mistrust was plain in October, when more than 100 veterans of Netanyahu's former unit signed a petition to protest his hard-line policies that have brought the peace process to a halt. His comment that the dovish opposition has "forgotten what it is to be Jewish" was "totally opposed to the spirit of the unit and disgraces all of us," the veterans wrote. "You have forgotten all that we learned together."
Still, such strong public reactions are signs of much deeper problems that first began to erode the reputation and morale of Israeli forces nearly 25 years ago, analysts say. The 1973 October War, in which Arab forces briefly held the upper hand after a surprise attack, sowed the first seeds of disillusion and doubts about Israeli invincibility.
But it was during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 that unquestioned support began to unravel. This was the first war in which the survival of the nation was not at stake. Tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets in protest, and "conscientious objection" entered the lexicon.
Lebanon has since devolved into a guerrilla conflict, but Israeli forces still suffer regular casualties. At home, the chorus of voices demanding withdrawal - led by a group calling itself Four Mothers - is growing.
"Armies are appreciated when they are victorious, and Israel is used to having very short wars and very big victories," says Moshe Lissak, a sociologist at Hebrew University. "But when you are engaged in a war like Lebanon for 15 years, people ask: 'What is the army doing there?' "
"For the first time the question was raised: Is it always legitimate to use the IDF for our political purposes?" says psychologist Gal, now director of Israel's Carmel Institute.
The next "crack in the sacred cow," he says, was six years of Palestinian uprising, or intifadah, which began in 1987 with stone-throwing youths protesting Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
"Again, there were moral and ethical questions: Should the IDF be involved in this kind of war? Should our soldiers chase Palestinian women and children?" he says. "Young Israelis ask: 'What am I fighting for? Why should I die for this?' "
The public soul-searching that has resulted is because "we are no longer fighting for our existence," says Martin van Creveld, a military historian at Hebrew University. "This has become a very soft military, like our very soft people, with a total absence of self respect."
"Jews have realized that military prowess can't alone be used to ensure our security here," says Prof. Yaron Ezrahi, senior fellow at The Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem. "The question is not how powerful we are, but why aren't we achieving our goals?"
The root problem is historical, he says. "What happens when victims become victors? We have an incredible capacity to turn catastrophe into energy, to blunt its power. But we have not developed similar resources to deal with victory."
The increasing engagement of parents in the lives of their soldier children is called a "corrosive phenomenon" by one analyst. Parents were given direct phone lines to battalion and company commanders. But instead of calling for reassurance, as intended, they complain.
Some parents of those killed in Lebanon are taking legal action against the military because they reject the results of official inquiries. Before going to war these days, one joke goes, a commander must hire a lawyer to defend himself in case things go wrong.
"The Israeli public has lost confidence," says Mr. van Creveld. "People don't trust the army, so they constantly interfere."
Gone are the days when military operations were shrouded in secrecy, and victims - either of war, accident, or bad judgment - were marked discreetly with funeral notices in newspapers. Gone, too, is tough field duty: Soldiers serving in Lebanon have battery-heated sleeping bags, use their mobile phones to keep in touch with family and friends, and carry an "ambush mattress" to make long waits more comfortable.
In contrast, their enemies - Islamic Hizbullah guerrillas whose increased battlefield boldness worries top commanders - reportedly lie in wait for two or three days without moving, waiting to attack, wearing special thermal suits to avoid heat detection from Israeli sensors.
"Today parents know exactly what the army is about," says one paratrooper. "They offer car keys or trips abroad to keep their kids out. They are afraid they will be killed."
Some doctors write bogus letters of disqualification. And there is growing resentment because ultra-Orthodox Jews - some 7.5 percent of the population eligible for service - are exempt to pursue religious studies.
Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai was shocked in August 1996 when a new batch of recruits told him they preferred to serve in the rear. Only three in more than 100 said they wanted to join combat infantry units, according to The Jerusalem Post.
But once Israeli troops are deployed in Lebanon, the paratrooper says, there is a gung-ho sense of pride despite pressure from parents. Soldiers there bridle at civilians who call them "suckers" for doing their tour in Lebanon.
To attract high-caliber people, the army doubled the salary of combat soldiers in 1995 and launched a campaign last year to improve their image. To boost flagging motivation, there is even a new motto: "Fighting for every soldier."
Though Israel has been one of the best examples of a citizens' army, relations between the military and the rest of society have "reached a point of crisis," says Yoram Peri, an expert on the subject at Hebrew University. In the past, left-leaning youths and kibbutzim were first to join the IDF because they saw it as "just." But now they are the first to protest.
"The mobilized society we used to know until 10 years ago is changing," he says. "People are tired of war, and they are willing to pay more for peace."
Family involvement in the military is both a strength and a weakness, analysts say. Because conscription is compulsory for Jews, and all must serve in the reserves to the age of 55, every family is affected.
One of every 7 families in Israel has a war-related death, so bereavement is a part of daily life, Gal says. "Israel is like a small town."
Despite the changing image of the IDF, however, it is still among the most respected institutions in Israel. But it may not be Hizbullah rockets in Lebanon that are its greatest threat.
Says the paratrooper: "The Israeli army's most formidable foe is the Jewish mother."
* First of two parts. Tomorrow: Israel's occupation of Lebanon sparks calls for a pullout.
Cell Phones and Mattress Pads Now Furnish Israeli Foxholes