Do the 'best' become combat fighters or dream of hi-tech jobs? - analysis

The 'best' are the combat soldiers who risk life and limb to defend the state, not those who sit behind computer screens in the IDF’s technological units.

IDF's picture of the year: Exercise by the IAF's Airborne Combat Rescue And Evacuation Unit 669 (photo credit: AMIT AGRONOV/ISRAEL AIR FORCE)
IDF's picture of the year: Exercise by the IAF's Airborne Combat Rescue And Evacuation Unit 669
(photo credit: AMIT AGRONOV/ISRAEL AIR FORCE)

A society is measured by those it esteems.

Does it esteem the scientist or the television star? The teacher, or the football player? The combat soldier, or the hi-tech entrepreneur?

Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi waded into that philosophical debate on Wednesday when he took passionate issue with those who would alter the ethos-defining motto of the air force – Hatovim le’tayes (the “best to fly” or the “best become pilots”) – and change it to Hatovim le’cyber, or, the “best to hi-tech.”

Playing with the air force motto is not clever wordplay, Kohavi said in his speech to the newest graduating class of the air force’s flight school, but rather a reflection of a value system turned upside down.

In reference to a billboard in Herzliya that read, “The best to hi-tech,” Kohavi said “the message manifested in that sign is deeper than it may seem, and reflects a loss of values among a part of the population. This message is said at times in humor, at times cynically, and at times through actions, and it seeps into and weakens the foundations of society and its priorities.

IDF CHIEF of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Israel can criticize the Americans for returning to the Iran deal, as Kochavi illustrated during a speech last month. (credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)IDF CHIEF of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi. Israel can criticize the Americans for returning to the Iran deal, as Kochavi illustrated during a speech last month. (credit: CORINNA KERN/REUTERS)

“Hi-tech has great potential, apparently makes a lot of money, and the people who go into it are talented,” Kohavi said. “But the ‘best’ are first and foremost measured by their willingness to contribute to the state, the best is measured by their willingness to endanger themselves to defend others. That is the cleanest and purest expression of the concept ‘the best.’ And don’t dare take it from us, don’t dare diminish it. Don’t modernize it and don’t force it to conform to the spirit of the times.

“The best is a timeless value standing like a rock not eroded by changing fashions, trends, and social change,” he said. “The best are those who do something for someone else – something good, something of value, without asking, ‘What's in it for me?’

“A country dealing with many threats and six theaters of operations simultaneously know how to value and appreciate first and foremost its combat vanguard, and knows how to say loud and clear – ‘the best are fighters’,” he said. “The managers of companies and business owners who are decent and have values, who enjoy the security provided by the IDF and its fighters, are the ones who remember who the ‘best’ are, and who should be esteemed and appreciated.”

The country’s “best,” Kohavi determined, are those who march “in a silent column to capture the murderers in the heart of a Palestinian village,” who deploy “along the borders, thwarting infiltrators,” and who cross borders every week and fly “to attack armaments."

Those are the “best.” The best are the combat soldiers who risk life and limb to defend the state, not those who sit behind computer screens in the IDF’s technological units. The techies are valuable, they are indispensable, but on the pyramid of who should get society’s recognition and highest praise because of their personal sacrifice for the collective, the top slot should go to the combat soldiers.

A society that inverts that pyramid, Kohavi argued, is one whose priorities are backward.–

But what is this about, and why is it coming up now?

What prompted Kohavi’s comments are IDF figures showing a drop in motivation of new recruits to join combat units, alongside an increase in their desire to join the IDF’s elite technological units – even among able-bodied men and women well suited for the combat units.

Why? Partly because while a 22-year-old coming out of three years as a grunt in Golani or the Paratroopers can count immediately on a job earning NIS 35 an hour for a security firm, a contemporary coming out of one the IDF’s elite technological Units, like Unit 81, could command a salary of NIS 30,000 a month with a hi-tech firm – even without a college degree.

Where once parents, communities and society nudged army-aged youth to go into the most combat unit possible as an articulation of Zionist values, now parents, communities and society are signaling that it is wiser to learn computer skills while in the army – skills that can then be parceled into a lucrative career – rather than to wait for hours in the cold and the mud in an ambush to capture terrorists.

In the past, the nation showered prestige on those who made it into the elite combat units, and especially as pilots in the air force. As a result, there was fierce competition to get into those units.

Increasingly, however, it is the cyber units where the prestige is to be found, and which are fiercely competitive – not necessarily out of a burning sense by the applicants of wanting to contribute to the country, but rather because of the earning potential to be had as a result of serving in one of those units.

This is the phenomenon Kohavi was warning against, and his point was simple: facing enemies on six fronts, Israel will not survive without its pilots and combat soldiers, regardless of how advanced are its hi-tech units.

The slogan “the best become pilots” was coined in 1960 by the journalist Moshe “Pommy” Hadar, who edited the IAF’s magazine, and was meant to boost volunteerism for the Air Force’s pilot training course.

The slogan was coined at a time when, as former IAF commander and president Ezer Weizman once said, “youth did not want to enlist, and I had to trudge from school to school, from moshav to moshav" to get recruits. Weizman said he had to persuade the moshavim and kibbutzim where pilots lived to “allow them to remain in the air force. People thought that the longed-for peace had already arrived, and now they needed to build a home and get an education.”

Sixty years later, the army faces a dilemma not dissimilar to what Weizman described: how to get recruits for the most physically demanding and dangerous positions?

One path – one which Kohavi did not discuss because it cannot be tackled by a speech – would be to substantially improve the conditions of those serving in those units. Another path, the path of lesser resistance, is to build up the prestige of being in those units, and to reaffirm that those whom the country values most are those who “do something for someone else – something good, something of value, without asking, ‘What's in it for me?'"