Analysis: IDF can't brush off criticism

If the reservists don't feel that someone is listening to them, the army is in for serious trouble.

artillery reservists 2 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
artillery reservists 2
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Officers in the IDF's Behavioral Sciences Department, over the last week, were rushing to all the reserve units involved in the fighting in Lebanon, desperate to reach as many of them as possible before their discharge. At each base, a sheaf of questionnaires was handed out in which the veterans were asked to pour out their feelings, complaints, frustrations and suggestions following their controversial tour of duty. The questionnaires will be compiled, read and condensed into a comprehensive report which will provide compelling reading for the generals. When it reaches the media, as it will - either through an orderly press release or a leak - it will create yet more furor. There is a dual purpose here. Many in the IDF's high command genuinely want to hear what the backbone of the army is saying and thinking. Some of the more radical thinkers among the top brass also hope that the report will finally change something. The other main reason is the sinking realization that if the reservists don't feel, pretty soon, that someone is listening to them, the army is in for serious trouble. The process of self-criticism isn't natural for an army. An organization necessarily built on a clear hierarchy, in which people have to be prepared to charge into enemy fire and give up their lives, can't allow too many question marks to be lying around. But the IDF has no choice now. Much has been said and written over the last few years about the fact that only a small portion of the population carries out any significant yearly reserve duty. Another aspect less remarked upon is that those who do turn up tend to be a highly intelligent and socially aware group, and since they fully know how unique their position is and the extent to which the army relies on them, they tend to be extremely critical. Coming from positions of authority and responsibility in civilian life, they judge the army - which they feel is theirs just as much as any career officer's - by their exacting standards. Over the last few weeks, when reservists felt their concerns weren't being addressed, they were quick to organize protests over the Internet, alerting MKs and of course the media to the situation. Scenes that have become commonplace in recent weeks, in which reservists confronted senior officers and even generals with withering criticism, would have been unthinkable after past wars. Most listened patiently. Some, like Col. Shlomi Cohen, commander of the reserve Alexandroni Brigade, reacted angrily, accusing their soldiers of acting disrespectfully. Lt. Adam Kima, who refused an order to lead his unit into an operation that he believed was pointless and suicidal and was eventually acquitted by a military tribunal, is being regarded as a hero among the reservists. "Everyone should be grateful to him for standing up to what was an idiotic order," said one of the senior officers of Kima's brigade, himself a reservist. "He probably saved quite a few lives." Other officers though, while expressing respect for Kima's actions, acknowledged the challenge he created for the army. "Ultimately he did the right thing," said another commander of a reserve unit, "but what he did also takes away the basic principle that we need to run the army, that soldiers have to unquestionably obey orders." But no one can brush off the accusations, especially as they are now being echoed by a few senior officers speaking out in the open, like outgoing chief infantry officer Brig.-Gen. Yossi Heiman, who admits that the generals, himself included, have to take a lot of the blame for the army's lack of preparedness. No longer are the complaints coming only from disgruntled low-ranking soldiers; reserve officers are taking part in the public protests and petitions for a full and thorough investigation. The IDF has changed a great deal in recent years, involving organizational consultants and psychologists in the army's daily life to a degree unimaginable in the past, but the aftermath of this war is a challenge of a higher order. "Someone played around with the numbers," said one veteran reserve officer on the equipment shortages that greeted the reservists when they arrived at their emergency depots. "Someone has to pay for that, it's a crime." The only problem is that the very officers who are supposed to carry out the reckoning are the ones that many reservists believe should be sitting in the dock. Obviously, no army can allow its soldiers, as valued as they might be, to be forever second-guessing their commanders and deciding who should be in charge and who has to go home. But the IDF's high command understands that if this time, at least, the reservists don't have their say - perhaps even their day in court - not all of them might turn up the next time.