Lambs to the slaughter?

Reservists make up more than 80% of the ranks in times of war. So why couldn't the IDF utilize them properly?

lambslaught 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
lambslaught 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'Yitzhak's" paratroopers unit spent the war going from one South Lebanese village to another, taking cover inside abandoned houses against the missiles Hizbullah was firing 2-3 km away, lacking weapons of sufficient range to fire back. From time to time they got orders to seek out Hizbullah on the ground, but every time the orders were cancelled at the last minute. Asked what they did inside the abandoned houses when they weren't waiting out flying missiles, Yitzhak, 34, one of the unit's snipers, replied, "We played whist a lot of the time." In the villages, they would ask their commanding officers what was going on, and never got a satisfactory answer. But after the cease-fire, when they crossed the border back into Israel, they sat down in front of their division commander and finally learned why they'd been kept away from the enemy. "He said they didn't want us to get killed or kidnapped by Hizbullah, or by all the friendly fire that was going on," said Yitzhak, a government employee in civilian life. "Lior," also 34, and also a paratrooper but from another unit, told an almost identical story to Yitzhak's - waiting out the war in abandoned houses, unequipped to return fire at the distant Hizbullah positions, being given orders to advance that were always cancelled. And the explanation Lior and his comrades were given for why they weren't going after Hizbullah also matched the one Yitzhak heard. "At one point our division commander told us that killing two or three terrorists wasn't worth the price," said Lior, a computer technician. The movement of embittered reserve soldiers that began this week with a petition and protest camp outside the Knesset is carrying the message that the political and military leadership wasn't aggressive enough during the war, that the cease-fire left Israel still vulnerable to Hizbullah - that they didn't, as the saying goes, let the IDF win. The petition signed by hundreds of members of the Spearhead brigade accused the leadership of getting "cold feet," of "inaction," and insisted that in future wars, their missions "be carried out by striving to engage in combat." This was also the tenor of the discussions being held by the hundreds of protesting reservists camped out at the Rose Garden next to the Knesset. However, it has become clear from the accounts of reservists that in many cases, the reluctance to send Israeli troops into battle against Hizbullah grew out of the realization by commanding officers that the soldiers would have been going on suicide missions. Major Adam Kima was imprisoned (but released after two days) when he refused to lead his platoon of some 40 combat engineers on a corridor-clearing mission on the eve of the cease-fire, because his platoon was improperly equipped to fight off the ambushes expected along the way. Five of his soldiers were imprisoned along with him. Yet Kima's mother reportedly received calls from parents of soldiers in the platoon thanking her son for saving their lives. Yediot Aharonot columnist Nahum Barnea, embedded with the Alexandroni Brigade, reported that a commanding officer, Major Nati Barak, decided not to send his soldiers after Hizbullah guerillas hiding in the village where they were camped. "I have mercy on my soldiers' lives," Barak said. And in Ha'aretz, Yonatan Nir, who was injured in the war, wrote how he and some of his elite unit comrades decided to tell their commanding officers that they were hopelessly untrained and unequipped for the mission they were assigned - to clear Hizbullah fighters out of a village. As a result, the superior officers cancelled the mission, "claiming that they did not know that we had not been properly trained for it and they even praised us for admitting this fact," wrote Nir, adding that the village turned out to have "enough terrorists to cause a significant number of casualties." Protesting reserve soldiers are raising two main points - 1) that they didn't have the proper training, equipment and weapons, food and water, and battlefield intelligence to fight as well as they could have, and 2) that they too were often prevented from fighting. Yet from the accounts of reservists, the very reason that they were prevented from fighting was, in many cases, precisely because their officers realized that they hadn't been properly prepared to take on Hizbullah. "We weren't ready for this war," said Lior. "We didn't get any intelligence about how Hizbullah works, what are its weaknesses, what are its strengths. It's no tragedy that we didn't get to engage Hizbullah on the battlefield because if we would have, I'm not sure that we would have had the advantage." THE DISADVANTAGES IDF reservists had in comparison to Hizbullah troops were absolutely staggering. Hizbullah had anti-tank missile launchers that proved the bane of the IDF's existence, not only blowing up tanks but posing such a threat to heavy IDF vehicles that supply trucks carrying food and water were held back for fear of getting blown up, leaving soldiers to fight in the torrid, humid climate for two days and more with hardly any sustenance. By contrast, Lior's unit had two Law anti-tank missile launchers for 30 soldiers, but worst of all, he said, none of the soldiers knew how to fire them. "I've never fired a Law in my life. When Hizbullah is firing anti-tank missiles at us, how do I respond?" he said. Other deficiencies mentioned by Lior, a reserve paratrooper, included: No target practice before entry into Lebanon, so rifles weren't properly aimed; no thermal night vision devices, which the IDF has in stock and which Hizbullah had in the field; aerial maps from 2000, with up-to-date maps arriving only towards the end. Yitzhak, a reserve sniper, noted that the 100 or so soldiers in his unit were forced to take cover in only two houses of an abandoned village, which meant that a direct hit from a missile on one of the houses could have killed some 50 soldiers. The reason: "We only had two communication radios for the whole unit, and it was considered too dangerous to put soldiers in the village's other empty houses without a communication radio." The soldiers had "red dot" sights for their rifles, Yitzhak said, but no equipment to fix the sights to the rifles. When they arrived at the base before going into Lebanon, there was such chaos in the weapons and ammunition warehouse that all the soldiers from the various units "just broke open the crates and took whatever they wanted, without signing for it. Lots of soldiers went into battle without enough ammunition," he said, noting that his unit was told to pack one pair of underpants and one pair of socks because they would be back in Israel after two days. "We didn't get back for 10 days," Yitzhak noted. SITTING ON the grass of the Rose Garden was "David," 27, a combat medic with the Alexandroni Brigade who had joined the reservists' march from Mevaseret Zion on Monday. "When we first got to the base and got our kitbags, a lot of us were missing basic things like combat vests and bullet-proof vests," he said, noting that he had no medic's vest and had to stuff his medical supplies wherever he could. Unlike Yitzhak's and Lior's paratroopers units, the Alexandroni Brigade fought Hizbullah several times during the war. But because of the awful logistical conditions, the fighting was much harder than it should have been. "Our first mission was to reach a position that controlled the coastal road, and we reached it. But while it should have taken 36 hours, it took eight days," said David. One reason was the lack of food and water. "We went as long as two-and-a-half days with daily rations of a can of tuna, a can of corn and a couple of pieces of bread - to share between four soldiers. So we got slowed up because 25 soldiers collapsed from dehydration and had to be evacuated. Everyone lost five, six, seven kilos in the 10 days we were there," he said. Meir Pa'il, one of Israel's leading military historians, said this is the first time in all of Israel's wars that the reserve soldiers have complained to such a degree, and with such unanimity, about a comprehensive breakdown in practical IDF preparedness for battle. By contrast, he noted, the reservists' protests after the Yom Kippur War were over the failure to anticipate the Egyptian-Syrian attack, not over the lack of food and basic equipment. "There are a lot of shlemiels in the army establishment," he said, while stressing that the failures of preparedness still didn't amount to a "total catastrophe" that by itself could spell defeat in war, because Israel's military strength can still make up for the oversights. He also noted that while such complaints aren't heard from the regular army, which stays prepared for battle on a daily basis, the reserves make up over 80% of the army ranks in war. The Spearhead Brigade's petition speaks of a "crisis of confidence between us as fighters and the higher echelons," and both David and Lior gave personal testimony to this crisis. The "higher echelons" extends much deeper than just IDF chief Dan Halutz and the general staff. "After we were released, the commander of our division spoke to us and said that while he would try to see that all these foul-ups didn't reappear the next time we had to go to battle, he couldn't promise that they wouldn't," said David. "The way he spoke to us was an insult to our intelligence, plain and simple. We have doctors, lawyers, company owners and government officials in our unit, and we leave our families and our jobs every year to serve our country, and he was talking to us like were were 18-year-olds. "I've lost all faith in him," maintained David. Lior said his immediate commanding officers told the unit that the kinds of demands they had, especially for equipment, were "small change," and that the IDF brass had much higher priorities for its budget, such as purchasing F-16 fighter jets. "I still have faith in my company commander, my platoon commander, my brigade commander and even the division commander, but above them, the brigadier generals and up - I've lost my faith in them. If they can't understand the importance of taking care of the simple reserve soldier who drops everything to go wherever the army tells him, to risk his life, then I can't have faith in them anymore," he said. These soldiers have fought the intifada for several years. They say they've never encountered such a comprehensive failure on the army's part. "Some of the veterans in the unit were saying that this is the last reserve duty they'll ever pull, but I think I know them well enough to know that they'll be back next time we're called up," said Yitzhak. "But a lot of the guys in our unit this time were fresh out of the regular army - this was the first taste they've ever had of the reserves. After this, I wonder if they'll be ready to come back." The reserve soldiers disagree on the goal of the protest; some say they won't leave the Rose Garden until the government agrees to a judicial inquiry committee into the handling of the war, some say they won't leave until Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Halutz resign, while others, like David, are waiting for some as-yet-unknown sign to convince them "that the leadership has heard what we have to say, is taking it to heart, and intends to learn the lessons of their failures." By Monday evening, the number of reservists at the Rose Garden had grown from a handful to at least 200. Some had been released from duty that same day. And at this point, the protest appears to have traction; it is tapping in to overwhelming public dissatisfaction with the outcome of the war. The movement's assumption is that Israel could have won the war, but blew it. True or not, this is a widely-held view in this embittered nation. Which is why the protesters have the government and the IDF brass very worried.