Shades of gray

Immediately after it was over, many reservists declared the Second Lebanon War "an unqualified disaster." A year later, the picture is no longer quite so black-and-white.

The following is the cover story of d"ash, the Israeli magazine for English speaking young people around the world Sgt. Dor Abuhatzeira plugs his ears with his fingers to dull the noise of the sub-machine guns being fired nearby by soldiers in his reserve unit. They're training at a Galilee base, drilling how to respond if gunmen attack again across the Lebanese border. Dror sweats heavily under the potent midday sun. It's the first stint of reserve duty [the approximately one month a year that soldiers serve after completing their three years of mandatory service] for the paratroopers since last summer's Second Lebanon War. At 24, Dror is one of the unit's youngest soldiers, one of the few for whom the war was his first taste of reserve duty. The most bitter complaints against Israel's political and military leadership about the war came from reserve soldiers. As soon as the 34-day fighting ended last August 14, reservists accused the political leadership of calling off the war "before the IDF could win," blamed the IDF leadership for sending them into battle under-trained and under-equipped, often without sufficient food or water and without a sensible battle plan. They told the media they felt "betrayed," said morale was battered, and expressed misgivings about how the reserves would function in another war. When Dror came home from the war he was "shocked" in an altogether different way, he says. "Everybody was saying we lost," recalls the computer and engineering student, "I didn't agree with them at all, and I still don't." Having fought as a recruit in the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, Dror notes that the fighting in Lebanon was "very complex." Morale in his unit was high, and remains high, he insists. "Personally, the war only raised my motivation. Before, I thought the IDF could get along without me, but now I see more clearly that the army depends on everyone taking individual responsibility." Other soldiers say they hadn't been sufficiently well-trained but they all thought the fighting had gone at least "passably well," and that although the outcome was not the promised "victory," the war had certainly left Israel's northern border more secure than before Hizbullah's attack last July. "We no longer have to look at Hizbullah hoisting its flags and pointing its rifles at us right across the border," stresses company commander Maj. Dan Hadass. He concedes that the official goals of the war - to vanquish Hizbullah and bring home the two kidnapped soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - were not achieved. "That's why so many reserve soldiers are bitter, why the complaints dominate the public memory of what occurred during those 34 days." "But, Hadass points out, "the sorts of things that went wrong in the war went wrong in all Israel's wars. Had this war ended like the Six Day War, a few soldiers going hungry on the battlefield would not have bothered anyone." The dominant message that comes across from reserve soldiers (who make up about 80 percent of the IDF's fighting force) is that while it was a grueling experience it in no way broke them collectively. Many feel the reserve army is actually stronger today than it was before last summer's traumatic war. Lior, 35, was one of a half-dozen reservists whom I interviewed a few days after the war ended. "We weren't ready and the IDF badly underestimated Hizbullah," he said back then. He said that while he had faith in his field commanders, he'd lost trust "in the generals who call the shots - not to mention the prime minister and defense minister and the rest of the government." A year after the war, Lior says, "My attitude hasn't changed." He's still cynical about the people who steer the country but he hasn't become cynical about defending the country - quite the opposite. He and other paratroopers in his unit have begun taking more personal responsibility - way beyond the call of duty. "For me, the war isn't over," he says. "We're only in a break before it starts up again." Lunch for the reservists is straight comfort food - humous, roast beef and gravy, noodles, mashed potatoes and iced fruit drink. They eat under the shade of a sheet of netting. Sgt.-Maj. Din Tamir, at 39 one of the elders of the unit, interrupts his meal because he's eager to give his view of the war. His is the most positive take on the fighting. When a unit fighting nearby suffered a number of casualties, his unit pitched in to treat and evacuate the wounded soldiers - "comradeship right out of the military manual," he calls it, "the basic values we learned as 18 year-old recruits." Moshe, an educator, is a combat medic. His unit had a very rough time in Lebanon, but he still says, "The war didn't hurt our motivation. It brought us even closer together." Still, Lior, who thinks the army could have had a full-scale victory if only the military and political leadership had been competent, says he needed an article from veteran war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai to "calm him down a bit." Ben-Yishai fought in the Six Day War," Lior says, "and he talks of the same things going wrong then." Ben-Yishai wrote: "The great intoxication of victory in 1967 erased mistakes and failures. Had a commission of inquiry been established after the Six Day War, a report then on government and army performance would have been worse than the Winograd Commission conclusions about the Second Lebanon War." Company commander Dan Hadass, sums up: "Everybody has criticism of the war. I have criticism of my own performance - the picture definitely wasn't pure white," he says, "but it definitely wasn't pure black, either. The color I saw when the war was over was gray. Looking back, the color I see is still gray, only more vivid."