Analysis: When generals examine themselves

Failure to accept Almog findings a cause of concern.

doron almog 298.88 (photo credit: IDF)
doron almog 298.88
(photo credit: IDF)
Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch, commander of the Galilee Division, was already being prepared as the sacrificial offering from the early days of the Lebanon War. Shortly after the July 12 incident that sparked off the fighting, his name was being bandied around as the person responsible for the lax procedures on the border that were to blame for the capture of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser and the death of eight soldiers. A few days later, when the first rumors of mishaps in the ground battle began circulating, Hirsch's name was once again mentioned. He started cropping up in every newspaper column containing criticism of the war's management. Someone was obviously briefing against him. The signals were clear. In the briefings given by senior officers to reporters up North, the normally media-savvy Hirsch wasn't included. In a newspaper interview in the middle of the war, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz was asked why he had not replaced Hirsch. Instead of backing the general, he answered that it was wrong to replace a commander during battle and that things would be investigated after the fighting. At the time, Halutz still seemed untouchable. The public clamor for his own head would only come a few weeks later. Then he would learn the importance of backing up those under his command. Not only Halutz was gunning for Hirsch. There were also whisperings from the lower ranks. In some cases these turned into shouts, as in the case of Col. Amnon Eshel, commander of an armored brigade serving under Hirsch, who was caught on camera complaining bitterly to his officers about the general being "cut off from reality." That Hirsch would be out on his ear a minute after the cease-fire seemed a foregone conclusion. But the weeks turned into months and Halutz not only resisted pressure to fire him, he even recently decided to move him to the key position of head of the Planning Branch's Strategic Division. Halutz's decision to extend the tenure of the four division commanders who commanded the war's ground battle - and even move two of them to better jobs - was blocked by Defense Minister Amir Peretz. If Hirsch had not been among them, Peretz probably would have authorized the appointments. Hirsch's Sunday morning resignation was long overdue. His charge sheet was made out more than three months ago, but the way the verdict was reached was anything but due process. The case for the prosecution was clear. Hirsch had lowered the alert status two days before Hizbullah attacked, disregarded intelligence, failed to ensure that his orders were carried out by units in the field, managed the battle from a plasma screen in his headquarters, was out of touch with his officers and units, did not understand what General Command expected of him and, on the whole, was aloof and overconfident. Unquestionably he was the main culprit both for the capture of the soldiers at Biranit and the ensuing failures in Bint Jbeil. But the case for the defense can be just as clear-cut. Hirsch had instituted strict procedures along the border, had managed to foil four Hizbullah attempts to capture soldiers, had suffered from incomplete intelligence and had not been responsible for the overall policy of not attacking Hizbullah positions on the border. From the start of the war he fought fearlessly at the head of his soldiers, and many of the units under his command succeeded in reaching their objections. In other cases he was let down by his superiors - reaching all the way to the top - and by inadequate commanders beneath him. He is one of the finest field commanders in the IDF and with the experience gained this summer, invaluable to Israel's defense. Whichever side of the argument is true, and they are not mutually exclusive, a decision had to be reached over Hirsch's future in the military, a decision with repercussions throughout both the army and political arena. Just as we saw during the war, the country's senior leadership has a severe hang-up when it comes to decision making. If Hirsch was doing such a bad job, Halutz and Peretz should have replaced him during the war, or at the very least immediately after the cease-fire. The whole process was muddled from the outset. It took more than two months for the government to set up its own committee of inquiry, while Halutz was setting up dozens of teams within the army to inspect every aspect of the warfare. Hirsch was investigated by two separate teams. Maj-Gen. (res.) Yoram Yair evaluated the division's conduct during the war, criticized Hirsch but also reserved a fair share of praise for him and did not call for his demotion. Maj-Gen (res.) Doron Almog, inspecting the July 12 incident, reached the opposite conclusion: Hirsch should not be allowed a command again. But that wasn't the end of the farce. The Almog report was leaked Saturday night, 24 hours before its official release. From Halutz's circle, it became clear that he would oppose the conclusions reached by the team he appointed. As more details began to emerge, it turned out that Halutz was not only defending Hirsch - his General Staff also came in for severe criticism from Almog for the ongoing situation on the border. Hirsch, however, realized that he had no choice and submitted his resignation letter Sunday morning, triggering a day-long series of interviews in which reserve senior officers blamed everyone - the government, Almog, Halutz and the media - for crucifying one of the finest officers in the IDF's history. They should have remembered the old saying about cemeteries being packed with people who had no replacement. Hirsch gave his best years to his nation and might have gone on upwards to the top job, but his resignation is no national tragedy. What is much more worrisome is the damage the whole saga might do to one of the IDF's central and most valuable ethos: the principle of debriefing, investigating and honestly learning from mistakes. That is at risk when generals refuse to accept the conclusions of the army's own inquiry, especially where it concerns themselves.