Four-star (Jewish) general

Robert Magnus talks to the ‘Post’ about his career in the US Marine Corps, sharing his views on the complexities of Iran and his admiration for Israel.

Ehud Barak, Robert Magnus, Meredith Loveman 521 (photo credit: Ariel Harmony/Defense Ministry)
Ehud Barak, Robert Magnus, Meredith Loveman 521
(photo credit: Ariel Harmony/Defense Ministry)
Robert Magnus is smooth, suave and savvy, exceedingly affable while exuding authority – qualities one might expect from a former four-star Jewish general in the US Marine Corps.
“I was very fortunate to be one of the very few American Jews to become a four-star,” Magnus says in an interview at The Jerusalem Post offices. “After a wonderful career in the military, I have also become chairman of the board of Elbit Systems of America.... This is a marvelous company which represents this amazing country, Israel.”
He lauds security cooperation between the US and Israel, calls the Iranian problem “a complexity” and is clearly delighted to be in Israel for a month.
He says: “My son called me before we left for Israel, and said, ‘Do you think it’s wise to go? I want you to be safe.’ And I told him, quite frankly, it’s safer in Israel than it is in New York.”
Magnus retired from the US Marine Corps in 2008 after almost four decades of service at the height of which he served as the 30th assistant commandant.
In 2011, he was appointed Elbit Systems of America’s chairman of the board.
Born in Brooklyn on April 28, 1947, he is scheduled to celebrate his next birthday in New York, where he will attend The Jerusalem Post’s Second Annual Conference and participate in a panel discussion on security issues with former IDF generals.
Magnus grew up in Levittown, Long Island, studying at a Conservative Hebrew school three times a week and celebrating his bar mitzva at the Hicksville Jewish Center. He majored in modern European and Russian history at the University of Virginia, graduating in 1969 with a bachelor of arts degree and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Magnus completed the Basic School at Quantico, Virginia, in 1969 and reported to the Naval Air Training Command, where he was designated a naval aviator.
In October 1974, Magnus left the Marine Corps to work on Wall Street for just over a year, and when he returned to the Marines, he became a weapons and tactics instructor for CH- 46 helicopter aviators. He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Strayer College in 1993.
During his career, he served in a number of operational assignments, including search and rescue missions as a CH-46 pilot in Thailand during the Vietnam War, later commanding the Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 and Marine Corps Air Bases in the Western Area. He also served as deputy commander of Marine Forces Pacific.
Magnus attained the rank of four-star general on November 1, 2005, and began his assignment as the 30th assistant commandant of the Marine Corps a week later, retiring from active service in a ceremony on July 17, 2008. At the time of his retirement, he was the last active Marine Corps officer who had served in the Vietnam War.
Among other decorations, Magnus received the Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his years of superior service to the US military. The father of two, a son and a daughter, he currently lives in Brunswick, Georgia, with his fiancée, Meredith Edge Loveman.
Tell me about your current visit to Israel.
This is my ninth visit to Israel, and Meredith – ahuva sheli [my love] – came with me for a month this time because we really wanted to not only see some things (as small as this country is, it’s a big country when you get to see things), but also see our many friends (and we make more friends each time we come). We’ve had a great time here.
We have been to a very special ceremony (of which they don’t have the equivalent in the United States) at Hatzerim, at which Israeli pilots and navigators received their wings. It was very, very special. I am a Marine Corps pilot, and of course, I got my wings and I’ve been to many, many ceremonies. But they’re not at the level at which the prime minister, the minister of defense, the chief of staff and the head of the air force all come to speak. And, of course, it was a special day for Israel because the first Orthodox woman received her wings as a navigator.
We have also been with many of our tremendous friends here, including Lou Lenart and Smoky Simon, two of the founders of the Israel Air Force. We also spent time with Doron Almog at the wonderful village for the severely disabled called Aleh Negev, and with Dalia Rabin at the Rabin Center, and with Herzl Makov at the Begin Center, as well as with Danny Grossman, a former US Air Force and IAF pilot, and Yossi Leshem of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Latrun.How did a nice Jewish boy become a top general in the US Marine Corps?
I actually started out at high school and joined the Navy as an illicit sailor, because I wanted to be a Navy officer. I was very fortunate. I did well in the national exams and got a full scholarship to go to college.
So I went to the University of Virginia to become a Navy officer, and two years into university, during our Vietnam War, I decided that I wanted to be exactly like one Marine officer who was there.
Unfortunately for me, that Marine officer was about 6 foot 4, and I was – and still am – 5 foot 5. But everything that he represented – professionalism, bearing, knowledge, very much impressed me. So I took my commission in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. I very much wanted to be an Infantry officer, but one of my friends convinced me that I should try flying.
It was very difficult for me, but in 1971 I became a pilot. I had joined the Marine Corps in 1969, and I basically stayed there for all of my adult life, except for one year in 1974/5 at the end of the Vietnam War.
I went to work for what was then called First National City Bank on Wall Street.
My mother would have thought that a successful Jewish boy would become a banker, doctor or lawyer.
However, I went back to the Marine Corps in 1975 and was fortunate to be one of the very few Americans to become a one-star general in 1994 and then go all the way to four stars in 2005.
My mother, may she rest in peace, was not disappointed.
As a matter of fact, I was not the most senior Jew in the military. It was my friend Norton (Norty) Schwartz who became a four-star before I did, and went on to become chief of staff of the Air Force.
We are both now retired. After a wonderful career in the military, I have also become associated with and have become chairman of the board of Elbit Systems of America. Elbit Systems, which is based in Haifa, wholly owns the American division and provides defense equipment, homeland security equipment, civil aviation and medical equipment as well as aircraft maintenance, repair and overhaul services. This is a marvelous company which represents this amazing country, Israel.How would you describe security cooperation between the US and Israel?
I have learned much more about security ties as I have gotten older and more senior, but I think they happen on three levels: The most important level is the one you don’t hear about, and that is people to people.
In general, the American people have a very great respect for the Israeli people. Many of them, who are Christian, not Jewish, have a deep fondness for the history and the traditions of the Holy Land. They have a great respect for the success and the boldness of the Israeli people – you know, flowers blooming in the desert – under a great deal of stress.
The second level is one I am very familiar with, military to military. We have done, since I was a captain, a large number of mostly training and exercise operations with Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces. Sometimes they are very public, like the most recent NATO exercises with the IDF, sometimes they are quiet, because in the region, sometimes it is better to be quiet than to be public. I have twice been on deployments into Israel with American forces who trained at some of your tremendous training bases in the country.
The third level, which is the most visible level, is government to government, political to political.
The first two, I think, have been during all my life very constant: the respect and admiration and, in some cases, the deep love of the American people for Israel and the Land of Israel, even though they may not be Jewish.
The military-to-military relationship has been a very good one, at least for the 20 years I was associated with it, before America and Israel began our relationship after the 1967 war, and [former French president Charles] de Gaulle stopped trade, and certainly after the 1973 war, when the relationship got stronger and stronger.
Now Israel is basically associated with, but not part of, NATO and the US.
But government to government, just like sometimes there are different governments in Washington and Jerusalem, sometimes the Middle East is more important, sometimes it’s less important, sometimes our relationships are very, very warm. Sometimes they’re hot. They’re almost never cold.
US presidents and other leaders may have different views than Israeli senior leaders on matters like the Israeli-Palestinian peace process or Iran’s nuclear program.
Likewise, US leaders have also supported Israeli views on matters like the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the recent Operation Pillar of Defense regarding Gaza.
Always, country to country, nation to nation, at the highest level, there has been a great respect. Obviously, just like in the Knesset and in our Congress, personalities can add spice to our relationship.How do you see the next year when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program and international sanctions?
A very good friend of ours, [Home Front Defense Minister] Avi Dichter, described Jerusalem as “a complexity.”
There’s no easy way to either analyze the problem or think of a solution. Iran is also a complexity.
Your ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, has a tremendous book called Power, Faith and Fantasy in which he basically shows that it has been very difficult for the West, but particularly for America, to understand the leadership of Iran and where the Iranian people want to be.
So if it’s hard to understand the problem, which is not just the Ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guards and the Guardian Council, it’s Iran. They are not a problem. They’re real. And they’re as real as dealing with the Palestinians, and people that you want to be able to have good relationships and yet they don’t work out.
Now there are some people in the world who you don’t want to have a good relationship with. Al- Qaida, for example. These are people who are criminals.
It is very difficult as an American to understand what are the things we can do, positive or not so positive, to convince the Iranians to become more like the rest of the nations, peaceful and law-abiding.
They’ve had a very difficult history. They had an eight-year war with Iraq and they don’t trust the West. Many nations around them have had difficult histories with them, so it is no surprise that they have difficulty trusting the Persians, so I’m going back a long time; not just this government.
But then, of course, there’s the problem of the solution.
As we saw in the Begin Center, prime minister Menachem Begin said that war is not a solution. It may be something that you have to do, but it doesn’t solve a problem.
Unfortunately, we’ve run out of things that we can do, and I’m not sure what the things we can do diplomatically, economically, with all of the sanctions that have been imposed, maybe not as well as they could have been imposed.
Without the cooperation of the Russians and the Chinese, sanctions will not be completely effective, and sanctions take time, and maybe time is not on our side.
On the other hand, it’s hard to understand how a war or military action will solve the problem. I’m a military man, and I think that most [Israelis] would understand is that [the] people who are usually least in favor of military action are the military. We’ve seen the consequences when our brothers and sisters are hurt or killed or lost, and we have to do damage to somebody else’s country and kill somebody’s sons and daughters. Sometimes this is necessary, but war is never the answer. We need a diplomatic solution.
Even when we defeated Germany and Japan and Italy, we kept large forces in their countries for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, but it’s the people and their culture that changed. We didn’t make them change.
Iran is very difficult, and the clock says we may not have two, three or four years. On the other hand, if there is military action against Iran, Iran will react and there will be more than just one bomb for one bomb, one missile for one missile.
They are already at war in many ways with the West. Hezbollah, Hamas and things that we have seen even in Iraq have been made worse by Iran, so it’s a complexity.What’s it like for you, a four-star general from America, to be in Israel today at a very interesting time, before our national elections?
Israel is a very young state. Sixty-four years seems like a long time to me. I’m 65. But even in the sense of America, which is a country that’s over 237 years old, in the scope of world history, it’s a very small thing.
Israeli politics is changing dramatically. Israel has always had to have coalition governments. This is something we don’t have in the United States. We’ve never had a national unity government, even in our biggest wars – the Civil War and World War II – so it’s very difficult for an American to understand the politics of Israel.
When Meredith and I came, one thing we noticed was that even as American Jews who spend a lot of time reading about Israel and have many friends in America who are Israelis and in Israel, what dominates the news is that there is terrorism in Israel.
My son called me before we left for Israel, and said, “Do you think it’s wise to go? I want you to be safe.”
And I told him, quite frankly, it’s safer in Israel than it is in New York.
And, of course, unfortunately, we recently had a terrorist incident in Connecticut in which 26 or 28 people were murdered in a school. This is not something that happens every day in the United States or in Israel, but the incidents here are blown out of proportion, not because the media is bad, and become “the event.”
So when we had Operation Peace for Galilee in the 1980s, and again the 2006 war because of the rockets, and two operations in Gaza, it looks like Goliath is beating up David. Goliath being Israel, David being the poor Lebanese or Palestinian people.
But we only see that much of the news. We don’t get to hear the other side, like why these things happen.
As far as democracy in Israel is concerned, it’s very interesting, you have more than 30 political parties in the country [running in the upcoming elections].
In America, we have essentially two parties, although we have very few people who are non-aligned or in one case, a member of a socialist party, but the truth is, you’re voting with either the Republican bloc or the Democratic bloc. So every time we pass a law, it has to be a little bit of a bipartisan effort, because members of both parties normally have to get together to pass a law, even a law that one party doesn’t like.
It’s very hard for Americans to understand Israeli politics, where sometimes the smallest of things becomes a big argument, like when does daylight saving time end, when you do advance the clocks or how much of the religious life of the country is controlled by the central government.
In America, it’s almost to the point that many of the people think government should not have anything to do with religion, and they want to pull religion out of public life, you know, no menorahs or mangers in the public squares.
Whereas in Israel, although there’s great controversy, it’s very clear that for the world’s three great religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and, of course, for the Baha’i and the Druse, it’s not a question as to whether or not the government should be involved, the question is how.
We have tremendous respect for the Israeli people, who have a high level of education and dedication. It’s amazing to see how many Nobel Prize winners are not only Israelis but Jews, which is very impressive for a nation that has about seven million Jews but the world has maybe three times as many Jews, it’s just incredible.
So you wonder why there is anti-Semitism in the rest of the world and in the neighborhood of the Levant.
And I think, unfortunately, the answer is very simple.
No. 1: There is only one Eretz Yisrael. There’s only one land that some call Palestine and some call Israel and sometimes they overlap, but if they both want to own and control the same piece of ground, then this is very hard.
The second thing is that there is a great deal of – I would say – bitterness, not jealousy, about the success of the Jewish people in Zion and the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and this has for thousands of years resulted in the persecution of a stateless people.
There’s a lot of different reasons for this. Sometimes it’s religious, sometimes it’s ideological. This is a very interesting neighborhood, but the people are wonderful.
If there’s one thing that is the greatest national product of the State of Israel, it’s their children, and you can see when you go to the parks and the schools, the most precious thing is the next generation and the generation after that. And I think the people of Israel will do whatever it takes to make sure that they protect that generation, which of course is a generation that today is in Zion.
A few good men (schen)
I was first privileged to meet US Gen. (ret.) Robert Magnus at an event I helped orchestrate honoring another tough US Navy aviator, Lou Lenart, who led the first fighter mission of the Israel Air Force 64 years ago. In everything he does, Bob personifies the talmudic definition of an honorable man as “one who pays honor to his fellow man...,” or in fighter-pilot lingo: “To be a great leader, you have to know how to be a good wingman.”
When their current visit fell on dates that included an IAF Wings Ceremony, both Bob and his fiancée Meredith Loveman not only jumped at my invitation to attend the air show, but set aside the entire day to experience widely disparate aspects of modern Israel.
We began with a revealing tour of Sderot, followed by a powerful visit to the Aleh Negev village for severely disabled young adults. The only common thread was the empathetic connection that Gen.
Magnus and Meredith made with the people they met throughout their day.
After just a few moments, Meredith and Bob picked up on the Sderot spokesman’s passion and pain as he told the tale of a town besieged by terror, not in terms of the thousands of rockets fired, but through his stories of people he knew personally who had lost their lives or their loved ones. The standard strategic overview from the hill on the edge of town was punctuated by pointing to the spot where their dear friend, current Home Front minister Avi Dichter had come under sniper fire, which wounded his close assistant.
The residents’ resilience was brought to life when the Cinematheque director spoke of his determination to bring music and culture into the lives of local area children and their parents. Before leaving, the soon-to-be-joined couple also made a quick foray to the JNF-protected playground, housed in a refurbished warehouse incongruously located near Elbit Systems’ state-ofthe- art plant.
THE JOURNEY from Sderot to the Hatzerim air force base via Aleh Negev and Ofakim traverses just a few kilometers, but the two destinations are light-years apart.
Hatzerim houses Israel’s strongest forces. Aleh Negev embodies our country’s weakest, yet finest elements.
In the words of its founder, General (res.) Doron Almog, a society should be judged not merely by its strongest link, but by the way it deals with those who can’t fight for themselves. Almog and Bob bonded instantaneously. Their nearly identical diminutive frames belie grit and charisma that have enabled both to lead men in battle and in peace.
However, neither decorated commander spoke a word of their careers.
Bob was wired in to Almog’s every word: how he’d lost his brother Eran, who was injured fatally during the Yom Kippur War, and Doron’s commitment not to leave his autistic son Eran “in the field.”
Bob and Meredith peppered Almog with questions, grilling him about the efforts required to build a modern medical and residential village in the Negev desert. Before leaving, we toured the lush green grounds with a family, with Bob and Meredith making the delightful acquaintance of their son Shay, an Aleh Negev resident, as well as his caring nurse from the nearby Beduin village of Rahat.
It was interesting to see the mutual respect displayed between Bob, Meredith and generals like long-time friend Shai Avital, IAF Commander Amir Eshel and of course Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
The most poignant part of the day for me was the long drive home, during which I asked Bob (as all pilots inevitably do) to tell a favorite war story.
I was spellbound by his detailed account of a SAR (Search and Rescue) mission over Thailand toward the end of the Vietnam War. His soft-spoken determination not to leave a man in the field was more forceful than any depiction of a highly charged combat mission. It echoed the words heard earlier in the day.
As we continued toward home, I realized that this warrior ethos is the very quality that has enabled Bob to ascend to the lofty heights he has reached – and that will serve him well as he and his soul mate Meredith continue to navigate their course.-By Danny Grossman