'Asking soldiers to write farewell letters before Gaza war lowered morale'

IDF Soldiers' Complaints Commissioner releases annual report, criticizes physical and verbal abuse of soldiers by their commanders.

IDF soldiers storm a target during the ground incursion into Gaza (photo credit: IDF)
IDF soldiers storm a target during the ground incursion into Gaza
(photo credit: IDF)
Encouragement by commanders for soldiers to write farewell letters before heading out to battle in the Gaza Strip last summer constituted an error of judgment that lowered fighting morale, the IDF soldiers’ complaints commissioner, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Brick, said Tuesday in a report.
The 43rd annual Complaints Commissioner Report included criticism of the practice, saying the letters “harmed the morale of combat soldiers and their ability to fight with all their heart and soul. It disrupted their faith and hope, and could have harmed their ability to function in the battlefield.”
The letters may also have disrupted the mental balance that exists between fear and the need to carry out orders, Brick added.
“Writing farewell letters before danger squeezes enormous mental energies out of the soldiers, magnifies their fear and causes them to lose concentration and focus in battle out of a fear that what they write in the farewell letter will come true,” he wrote.
Instead, he said, soldiers should be directed toward determination, optimism, fostering a fighting spirit and self-confidence before heading to the battlefield.
Brick found that 61.6 percent of the overall complaints lodged by soldiers were justified. In 2014, he received a total of 6,711 complaints, and of those, 3,472 were submitted by soldiers still in uniform. This constitutes an increase of 18.3% over the figures from the previous year.
Complaints that were considered justified include a deputy commander who slapped a soldier and kicked others. A female officer became violent with a soldier, locked him in a room, denied him the use of a bathroom and was verbally abusive, the report found. In another instance, a combat company commander verbally abused subordinates; he also falsely told one of his soldiers that he would be awarded a citation by his brigade commander.
Other cases include a company commander who verbally abused his driver, saying “Don’t worry, I’ll screw you for every day you were absent. When you were not here, I took care of your girlfriend. I visited her.”
The report also touched on improper use of the Whatsapp messaging service in violation of army regulations.
IDF medical officers were found to have doubted their patients’ complaints without good cause, and showed impatience toward them in a negligent manner.
On a positive note, the report noted that although 2014 had been rife with military operations and conflicts, the events “not only failed to harm the motivation of combat soldiers and combat support personnel in field units – but the soldiers displayed fighting spirit and dedication despite dealing with a harsh, dangerous and erosive reality.”
Turning his attention to relations between commanders and subordinates, Brick said he found a number of “commanders for whom authority and power” was the norm. These commanders exhibited a “lack of faith in the individual, paying no attention to medical or health distress, and mistakenly thought that breaking down a soldier would assist in their training and preparation for their military role.”
Brick said it became apparent to him that “the role that these commanders adopted for themselves eroded the concept of command and norms in the IDF to a thin level.”
He criticized cases of humiliation and hurtful, dismissive attitudes, adding: “This is not the path of command upon which generations of commanders have grown up and which has been taught in various modes of command training.”
He added that unusual cases of physical violence had been recorded, most of them perpetrated by inexperienced, low-ranking commanders, such as platoon leaders, who were only a little older than the soldiers under their command.
These commanders “thought that the violence helped them maintain discipline, strengthened soldiers and prepared them for battle,” Brick wrote.
“Violence not only fails to solve anything, but it harms the readiness of the soldier to contribute to his unit and to the IDF,” he said.
Responding to the report, the IDF said Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot had appointed his deputy, Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan, to address the problems and include solutions in the military’s working plan for the coming year.
“The IDF is committed to a comprehensive study of the report’s contents to learn the needed lessons and carry out the required repairs,” the IDF said in a statement.
Eisenkot met with Brick in recent weeks and personally heard the main conclusions of the report, particularly those pertaining to the “human resource,” the statement added.
“Every soldier has the right to a respectable and appropriate service,” Eisenkot said. “Commanders have a duty to enable that.
The most important resource that the IDF has is its people, and therefore,we must be meticulous in our dealing with people, down to the last soldier.”