'Fortress Israel' and 'The Generals'

Authors Patrick Tyler and Thomas E. Ricks examine Israeli and U.S. militarism through the country's commanders.

Fortress Israel By Patrick Tyler Farrar, Straus and Giroux 576 pp. The Generals By Thomas E. Ricks Penguin Group 576 pp.

When Patrick Tyler started writing about the Middle East for The Washington Post and then The New York Times, he heard and saw the stereotypes about the Arab-Israeli conflicts. Hoping to understand the hostilities beyond the stereotypes, Tyler (author of “A World of Trouble”) dug deep into Israeli society, until he understood something alarming: Israel has become a society so militarized, so under the sway of its generals, that nonviolent diplomacy has become a casualty.

How and why such a thoroughly military outlook became the norm is the subject of Tyler’s new book, Fortress Israel, a telling phrase that sheds any ambiguity when combined with Tyler’s subtitle, “The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country – and Why They Can’t Make Peace.” The word “peace” is the final word of the subtitle, suggesting its relative priority in the nation itself – the lowest priority.

As of mid-2012, the primary concern of the Israeli militarists seems to be Iran, according to Tyler. The generals believe that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb and the Israeli military has successfully assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists within Iranian borders. Tyler talks with knowledgeable individuals within the Israeli military establishment who would prefer a less aggressive approach. But those individuals are not ascendant and never have been. Tyler presents  a chronological account of the dozen prime ministers since Israel’s “founding father” David Ben-Gurion who have established the country’s warrior culture.

Current-day Israel, with its constant state of high alert, may seem depressing, especially when compared with the idealism permeating the Jewish nation- state when it was first created. Tyler poses the vital question of whether the departure from the original vision of the Zionists is justified given the perception of never-ending outside threats. What if that original vision of a peaceful homeland had come true through the medium of contemporary diplomacy? What if Israel had become, as Tyler suggests, “a progressive and humanistic state deeply engaged with its Arab and Islamic neighbors and dedicated to lifting all boats in the Middle East”?

Just as Tyler examines Israeli militarism through a mostly chronological rendering of its commanders, Thomas E. Ricks organizes The Generals, his account of the US military, historically, starting with World War II commanders. As a longtime military correspondent at The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal (and author of the bestselling “Fiasco”), Ricks has learned to appreciate the difficult balancing act performed by generals. He is no apologist, however, and is quick to criticize generals when appropriate for their tactics and their personalities.

An obvious difference between the United States and Israel, and thus between the two books, is the fact that Israel is surrounded by hostile neighbors, while the US does not suffer from such a precarious situation – Sept. 11, 2001, notwithstanding. That means the US generals should presumably view the world as less threatening than Israeli commanders do.

But it does not always work out that way, as Ricks’s book demonstrates. Generals and civilian military commanders want to make their marks on history, and many of them believe warmongering is the means to that end.

Ricks’s chief concern about the US military, however, is what he perceives as an increasing lack of accountability and a subsequent decline in the quality of leadership in the US military. He worries about an institution that today – unlike the military leadership of the World War II era – seems to him unwilling to learn from its own errors.

Ricks does not argue that the past constituted a golden age for the top US military brass. On the contrary. He is every bit as hard on World War II-era Gen. Douglas MacArthur (“a troublesome blowhard”) as he is on Afghanistan and Iraq top commander Tommy Franks (a “two-time loser”). But what does worry Ricks is his perception that in the era of MacArthur, unlike today, failing generals were relieved of their commands. Ever since the Korean War, he argues, US military leadership has been allowed to decline into mediocrity with little or no blame assigned to those at the top.

Both books are written by talented journalists and both make for sobering reading. And in both cases they deal with fighting machines so powerful that no nation on earth can afford to ignore them – or their failings.

Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books.

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