Escaping the quagmire

In the First Lebanon War, commanders like Eyal Ben-Reuven were faced with an almost impossible choice.

quagmire 298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
quagmire 298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The traumas of the First Lebanon War became the prism through which we perceived and fought the Second Lebanon War, according to Maj.-Gen. (res.) Eyal Ben-Reuven, who was deputy to 2006's OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. (res.) Udi Adam. Fear of getting bogged down again in the Lebanese quagmire that began in June 1982 determined how the IDF fought in July and August 2006. On June 8, 1982, just three days into the First Lebanon War, Ben-Reuven commanded an armored battalion that fought PLO strongholds just north of Nabatiya. The warfare had been growing more difficult. At first, Ben-Reuven had ordered his soldiers not to shoot unless they could clearly identify a military target. But sometimes clear targets were impossible to discern when fighting among a civilian population. PLO gunmen opened fire from houses using the civilian population as human shields. Another fired an RPG at one of Ben-Reuven's tanks from inside a Red Cross ambulance. In the village of Houmine el-Faouka, his troops sustained a serious blow. A gunman shot company commander Uzi Arad in the head as he rolled through the village on his tank. Another soldier, an armored car driver from the Golani Brigade, was killed during the ensuing fighting. The trauma of losing a company commander and a soldier so suddenly made Ben-Reuven change his battle strategy. As the force approached Jarjouah, the neighboring village, he stopped his forces,telling them he was taking no chances. Before the battalion entered the village, Ben-Reuven called in an aerial attack. This was complemented by massive tank fire. When the battalion finally entered the village there was no opposition. Ben-Reuven still has memories of bodies strewn in the streets. "To this day I am sorry about what I did there," he says, pausing before adding, "But I would probably do it again." The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of damned if you do, damned if you don't battle situations is what is meant by "the Lebanese quagmire." Commanders like Ben-Reuven were faced with an almost impossible choice: either use indiscriminate firepower to save soldiers from risk or endanger them to protect innocent women and children. "Difficult memories of the First Lebanon War definitely affected the way we fought the Second Lebanon War," says Ben-Reuven. "After the first week of fighting, it was clear that [chief of General Staff Dan] Halutz's plan was failing miserably. We desperately needed to restore our deterrence after the kidnapping [of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser]. We simply could not stop the Katyushas that rained down on the North or inflict serious blows on the Hizbullah terrorists without a major, albeit quick, ground incursion into south Lebanon. "Northern Command had been planning for a Hizbullah conflagration in south Lebanon since after the pullout in 2000. Nevertheless, these alternative military plans were ignored. No one wanted to get bogged down again in the Lebanese quagmire. It was much easier for Halutz to present to the cabinet a plan that relied primarily on air strikes and minimal ground forces. "It could be that the plans that I and Udi Adam presented to the chief of General Staff would have involved more ground troop casualties. But that is the nature of war. Our first responsibility is to our citizens." LEBANESE WARS were, and still are, radically different from conventional frontline confrontations. In 1982 PLO gunmen purposely blended into the civilian population and used them as human shields. Despite the IDF's repeated loudspeaker appeals and aerial drops of leaflets in Arabic warning the civilian population to flee the battleground, the IDF ended up killing about 6,000 Palestinians, many of them noncombatants, in south Lebanon's five largest refugee camps. In 2006 Hizbullah purposely built underground bunkers and ammunition caches in dozens of villages. It shot Katyusha rockets at Israeli civilians from the midst of these populations. Once again, the IDF used air-dropped leaflets, loudspeakers and radio announcements in an effort to evacuate south Lebanon. Despite this, by the end of the 34 days of fighting many of the more than 1,000 Lebanese killed were noncombatants. Hizbullah hoped to exploit Israel's moral scruples, hoping the IDF might balk when faced with the prospect of killing dozens, perhaps hundreds of civilians in the process of destroying Katyusha launchers and arms depots. Even if it did launch air and artillery attacks, media reports of hundreds of dead women and children would fuel international condemnation. And if the IDF sent in ground troops, Hizbullah would be waiting in its underground bunkers to ambush them. IDF casualties were perhaps the most demoralizing and traumatic aspects of the two wars of Lebanon. During the first 10 days of the First Lebanon War, some 300 soldiers were killed, including Maj.-Gen. Yekutiel Adam, the most senior officer to fall in battle and father of Udi Adam, who headed Northern Command during the Second Lebanon War, in which we lost 168 soldiers and civilians. As in the First Lebanon War, during the Second Lebanon War Ben-Reuven faced ethical dilemmas. Once again he had to decide whether to use air power and artillery in civilian areas, this time from behind the plasma screens of the Northern Command's situation room. Image resolution was lower, but there were the same hard choices. "I am still bothered by my decision to okay heavy artillery fire on a village from which Hizbullah fired Katyushas on our civilian population. I don't know what happened to that village. I don't even remember the name of the village," he says. "My conscience bothers me. But, once again, if you ask me whether I would do it again, the answer is yes." Ben-Reuven believes that the best way to cope with the traumas of Lebanon is to maintain one's moral bearings. "War is the most difficult phenomenon that exists. I believe that people need very deep strengths to confront it. But when the soldier knows that the moral aspects of the war are important to his commander, when he knows - maybe not in the heat of battle because then there is no time to think about moral questions, but before and after - that every attempt is being made to be ethical, moral, that gives him strength, the knowledge that he is morally superior to Hizbullah." n The writer is working on a book about Jewish military ethics.