Analysis: The trauma of the body count

IDF concerned of home front reaction to lists of fallen and rows of photos.

"Every Hebrew mother should know that she has entrusted her son's life to commanders worthy of that." These words from prime minister David Ben-Gurion are immortalized on a thousand barrack walls in IDF bases across the country and encapsulate the nation's attitude toward "our boys." As these words were being written, we were still not permitted to report the number of soldiers killed Monday in Lebanon. The euphemism being used on the news is "heavy fighting," so everyone knows that there are dead soldiers, but unlike with civilian deaths, even those killed in terror attacks, no official announcement will be made until all the close relatives have been informed. The media of course toes the line.
The growing number of soldiers being killed on almost a daily basis in what is developing into a wider ground offensive over the Lebanese border is causing near-panic among the army's high command. They're not concerned that these deaths might have been unnecessary or the result of some insurmountable challenge posed by Hizbullah. In their opinion, this is part and parcel of ground warfare. What they're worried about are the reactions on the home front to lists of fallen in the papers and rows of photographs of young faces. An army's role is by definition to defend the civilian population, often at the cost of soldiers' lives. In Israel, this relationship has been turned around. When a bus explodes and 20 people are killed, there are no calls for an inquiry to find out how the suicide bomber managed to infiltrate and detonate. But if a Merkava tank blows up and four soldiers are killed, a high-level inquiry committee is immediately set up. Soldiers are deemed capable of bearing arms and killing at the age of 18, but they are still seen as "our sons" and "the boys," their IDF service seemingly just an extension of their school days. During the first decades of Israel's existence, there was a painful acceptance of the necessity of sacrifice. The death toll of the Independence War was over 6,000, a full percent of the Jewish community at the time. The average casualty rate during the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars was more than a hundred dead soldiers a day. The real change in attitude came during the Lebanon War. Left-wing demonstrations outside prime minister Menachem Begin's home with large lists of the names of the casualties and a fatality count that was updated daily were seen as major contributors to the depression that led to his eventual resignation in 1983. But the trauma wasn't Begin's alone, it affected the psyche of the whole nation. Even after the IDF had retreated to a thin security zone defending the kibbutzim on the border, the slogan was still, "Bring our boys home." The army's commanders insisted a yearly average of 20 dead soldiers from fighting Hizbullah in the security zone was an acceptable level of casualties that ensured that not even one civilian was killed. Actually, they saw the IDF's record in the security zone as a success story. In the end, organizations like Four Mothers, originally seen as marginal, managed to mobilize public opinion against the army's presence in the zone and motivate Ehud Barak to include a withdrawal in his 1999 electoral platform, the one election promise he kept. The withdrawal in 2000 was the first time Israeli public opinion had overturned the high command's specific recommendations. From the IDF's point of view, the trauma of Lebanon was not the body count, but rather the humiliating retreat followed by Hizbullah's celebrations and Hassan Nasrallah's infamous comparison of Israel's resilience to "cobwebs." Hence the generals' current panic. OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam, who is directing the ground offensive, has been at pains to remind the media at every briefing that "casualties are part of warfare and we're not going to hold a body count." Lower level commanders have been urging reporters in off the record interviews to stress their soldiers' success on the battlefield and to dwell less on their sacrifices. None of this though is going to change the prevalent feeling that even if Katyushas continue to fall on the towns of the North and civilians are killed and wounded, it won't cause the same kind of public backlash against the political and military leadership that an unending procession of military funerals might.