Journalists Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff have the benefit of both hindsight and insight in their study of a mismanaged war.
By SETH FRANTZMANPublished: JULY 9, 2009 11:52Advertisement34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon
By Amos Harel & Avi Issacharoff
This is by no means a perfect account of the Second Lebanon War - clumsy translation and a jumpy narrative take some getting used to - but 34 Days by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, both Haaretz correspondents, is nonetheless a concise and thought-provoking description of the war and its importance.
The war began on July 12, 2006 with the attack by Hizbullah on two IDF vehicles patrolling the Lebanese border. Three soldiers were killed, two were wounded and two others - Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - were spirited into Lebanon as hostages, although it later become clear they had died immediately. In an attempt to rescue them, five more soldiers were killed. By nightfall, prime minister Ehud Olmert, defense minister Amir Peretz and chief of General Staff Dan Halutz had decided that the response to the brazen attack would be war against Hizbullah and an attempt to show Lebanon that tolerating its presence of an armed Shi'ite militia in its midst would mean paying a heavy price for its acts. According to the authors, "it is doubtful whether Israel ever went to war in so slapdash a fashion."
The first days of the war, like the first days of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, went well. Halutz, the first chief of General Staff to come out of the air force, was confident it could be won from the air, much like NATO had fought the Serbs in the 1990s. Shock and awe, learned from the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, was also a model. Neither of these examples is noted by the authors, veteran Israeli reporters a little too ensconced in their milieu to provide context for the international audience they may not have been aware would be reading this book when it was written.
The book does an excellent job of weaving the reader through the slow and grinding decline of morale as the war began to drag on and on. Through vignettes of the political, local and military aspects, the reader begins to understand what turned the war from a genuine response to an unprovoked attack by terrorists into a terrible military blunder that cost Halutz and Peretz their jobs and caused Olmert to lose much support.
Harel and Issacharoff are best at describing the infighting among the military commanders up and down the line. Problems began with the apparent distaste that OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam had for his direct subordinate, Brig.-Gen. Gal Hirsch. After the war, Hirsch would become one of the official scapegoats for much of went wrong, even though the public tended to place the blame higher up. But Adam was completely left out of the discussions between Halutz and the rest of the military brass in Tel Aviv. The units deployed in the North were of a relatively small scale until the last days of the war, and yet the chief of General Staff wasn't interested in input from his senior commanders? Worse was to come.
On July 14, the naval vessel INS Hanit was badly damaged by an Iranian supplied missile. The same day the IAF began bombing Hizbullah's headquarters in south Beirut. Then 10 days of stagnation and "floundering" set in. On July 23 Israel initiated limited ground incursions, culminating in a battle at Bint Jbeil, a Hizbullah stronghold near the border. But the troops were not given proper intelligence, and mismanagement and micromanaging from Tel Aviv kept them from achieving their objectives.
The war culminated in the August 11-14 ground offensive and the battle of Saluki in which 12 soldiers were killed and 11 tanks damaged or destroyed by Hizbullah. Although troops made it to the Litani River, the offensive was judged a failure. It was not merely a failure from the standpoint of casualties (121 soldiers lost their lives), but from bad coordination between units, lack of water for the soldiers and other incompetence.
All in all the authors judge that the army had been ill-trained, ill-equipped and had terrible leadership at its higher echelons. The troops and local commanders were brave and fought well, but mismanagement dealt them a losing hand. The air force proved ineffective at suppressing Hizbullah, and thousands of Katyusha attacks on the North that caused 44 civilian deaths.
It appears from the read that Northern Command suffered a psychological breakdown not unlike what befell Israel's Southern Command in the opening days of the 1973 war. Unlike that war, where excellent leadership brought victory in the end, it wasn't until after the 2006 war that the army began to recover.
The writer, a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University, runs the Terra Incognita Journal firstname.lastname@example.org
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