Behind the Lines: Fighting under the media glare

The barrage of criticism suddenly being leveled at the IDF is creating a skewed picture.

cameraman 88 (photo credit: )
cameraman 88
(photo credit: )
'You guys in the media are reporting about a whole different war than the one we're fighting here," shouted the normally friendly officer over the phone line. "My men are heroically advancing against these Hizbullah bastards and all your lot can do is write about what we're doing wrong, what the intelligence didn't know and about personal rivalries in the general staff - you're driving me crazy." I wasn't about to argue with a commander who had just lost two of his own soldiers, and I could understand his exasperation, but it's still totally unrealistic to expect that after two weeks of total warfare, the Israeli media, which is in one of its more patriotic phases right now, could possibly remain a totally uncritical cheerleader. With perhaps the exception of marginal figures like Ha'aretz's Gideon Levy, the entire media establishment accepts the basic justification behind the government's decision to go to war - even if that government is still refusing to call this a war. There is, though, a major distinction between the way the press supported the government and the IDF during past conflicts and the coverage and commentary accompanying this round. Once upon a time, the watchword for the media at times of war was "Sheket, yorim" - quiet, they're shooting. This time the media's attitude could be termed supportive but critical. Some traditionalists still believe that while the fighting is raging, no questions should be raised, but they're a receding minority. The amount of criticism found daily in the newspapers and on the nightly TV shows can easily give the impression that the once all-powerful IDF is now an inept and bumbling organization, directed by vainglorious generals using faulty intelligence. This is, of course ridiculous - mistakes and mishaps were always part and parcel of the management of any war, including Israel's, but in the past most of these fiascoes only came to light years later in historical research. Even when journalists knew about battlefield failures, they kept things to themselves. One of the most striking examples was the tragedy in the Bianur Valley in 1982 when Israeli Phantom jets mistakenly bombed a Nahal battalion with cluster bombs, causing over 50 casualties. The story of the worst case of "friendly fire" in IDF history was published only years later. Now commentators are dissecting the field commanders' judgment even before the wounded have been evacuated. THIS IS not necessarily a bad thing. Years of press adoration went to the head of the military's commanders, especially after the spectacular Six Day War - which also had its fair share of screw-ups - and was perhaps one of the contributing factors to the complacency that allowed Israel to be caught unaware in the Yom Kippur War. On the other hand, the barrage of criticism suddenly being leveled at the IDF is creating a skewed picture. The mistakes and miscalculations at various levels of the operation don't change the fact that Israel has a super professional army, staffed with highly motivated soldiers led by intelligent officers. They're imperfect, but that's probably because they're human beings operating in an extremely dangerous, stressful situation. But when the IDF's expectations are so high, and when every soldier's death is treated as a disaster of national proportions, disappointment and disillusionment are certain to follow. Besides, war nowadays is fought not only in full glare of TV cameras - with cutthroat competition between channels, some of which didn't even exist in previous wars - but also on-line, on Web sites which are constantly updating themselves and spurring on the rest of the press. Another reason that reporters are aware of mistakes almost as soon as they are made is the IDF Spokesperson's policy of openness. This began last summer, when reporters and cameramen were allowed to be present at every stage of disengagement from Gush Katif and northern Samaria settlements. From the training ahead of evacuation to the final destruction of the houses, including traumatic scenes where officers confronted families and ordered them to leave their homes, the press was granted total access. Despite complaints by the military correspondents that the IDF isn't allowing reporters to go in to Lebanon with the troops (the first small "pool" was allowed into Maroun al-Ras on Wednesday night), the army is giving reporters unprecedented levels of information, almost in real-time. Under this new policy, large forums of reporters have received frequent briefings from all the top generals, including the heads of the Intelligence Branch. Not only Israeli journalists, but even the generally hostile foreign media were supplied with briefings and visits to usually restricted air force bases, during combat missions. This approach, pioneered by IDF Spokeswoman Brig.-Gen Miri Regev, was a clear success in disengagement, when despite the trauma surrounding the process, the army managed to come out of it as national darlings, both efficient and compassionate. This summer the same policy is bringing mixed results. That's only to be expected, as rooting out fanatical Hizbullah fighters isn't the same as evacuating 8,000 Israelis, very few of whom resorted to violence, from their homes. OF COURSE, the IDF didn't make things any easier on itself when, in its eagerness to show that the forces were making progress, it announced on Tuesday that the Hizbullah strongholds of Maroun al-Ras and Bint Jbail had been captured. The very next day, after eight soldiers had been killed there, they were forced to admit that the fighting was far from over, and that Hizbullah, despite its own heavy losses, was still capable of inflicting severe damage. There was also the high-profile televised argument on Tuesday night between Channel 2's uber-commentator Amnon Abramovitch and Regev. Abramovitch attacked the army for usurping what was essentially a civilian responsibility, hasbara, the explaining of Israel's policies. "The army should do the fighting and leave the explaining to the government," he said. Regev answered that the IDF was only acting in the national interest since repeated polling showed that the public felt more reassured by senior officers than any other source. What Regev didn't say was that the army feels there is a vacuum, with the politicians, especially Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz, deserting the PR front by refusing to give interviews or even conduct a press conference. And perhaps that is the IDF's main achievement up until now in this war, at least on the home front. Despite all the talk of Israel becoming a more civilian society, at the price of opening itself up to the unrelenting criticism of the media, it has reestablished itself as the country's most revered and influential establishment. Ironically, by highlighting and even over-exaggerating the army's mistakes, the press has put the IDF back on its pedestal as national savior.