Shades of gray

Immediately following the Second Lebanon War, many reservists pronounced it an unqualified disaster. A year later things are no longer so black and white.

reservists 298.88 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
reservists 298.88 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sgt. Dor Abuhatzeira puts his fingers in his ears to dull the noise of the submachine guns being fired by soldiers in his reserve unit nearby. They're shooting at cardboard enemy troops and charging up a hill in the IDF's Elyakim training base in the Lower Galilee, drilling how to respond if terrorists were to attack their Humvee on the Lebanese border. It is the end of June, and the unit, made up of paratroopers mainly in their 30s, is doing its first stint of reserve duty since last summer's Second Lebanon War. Most of the soldiers have been together for many years, and many also served together as young recruits. Sweating in the potent midday sun, unshaven for about three days, Abuhatzeira, at 24, is one of the unit's youngest soldiers, and one of the very few for whom the war was his first taste of reserve duty. Among the complaints against the political and military leadership over the handling of the war, the bitterest of all came from two sources: the families of soldiers killed and reserve soldiers returning home. As soon as the 34-day war ended on August 14, reservists came by the score, eventually by the hundreds, to the Wohl Rose Garden across from the Knesset to voice their frustration and call for a shake-up at the top of the power structure. They accused the political leadership of calling off the war before the IDF could win, and accused the IDF leadership of sending them into battle undertrained and underequipped, without sufficient food or water, and without a sensible battle plan. They told the media they felt betrayed, that their morale had been battered and that they didn't know how the reserve army would respond in the next war - which, from the looks of things, might be coming soon. Second Lebanon War - A year later: JPost special: The Second Lebanon War
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  • Shortcomings fixed but much work remains When rookie reservist Abuhatzeira came home from the war, however, he says he was "shocked" in an altogether different way. "There was all this criticism of the army in the media. The soldiers and everybody else were saying we lost," recalls the reserve sergeant, a computer and engineering student at Ben-Gurion University. "I don't understand where they got this idea. I didn't agree with them at all, and I still don't." Having fought as a recruit in the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank, Abuhatzeira says the fighting in Lebanon was a "very complex" business, and the war was no more of a mess than he expected. Morale in the reserve unit was high and remains high, he insists, noting that after the war he volunteered to become a non-commissioned reserve officer. "The war only raised my motivation for the reserves. Before the war, I thought the IDF could get along without me, but now I see more clearly that the army depends on everyone taking individual responsibility for it." Abuhatzeira is far from being the only reservist whose personal war story runs counter to what seemed the consensus, if not the unanimous story told by reservists who came back from Lebanon last August. I interviewed four soldiers in Abuhatzeira's unit, and while all agreed with the criticism that they hadn't gotten enough training, and while various resentments and frustrations surfaced, they all thought the fighting had gone at least passably well, and that the outcome, while not the "victory" that was promised, certainly left the northern border more secure than it was before Hizbullah's July 12 attack. "We don't have to look at Hizbullah hoisting its flags and pointing its rifles at us right across the border anymore," says company commander Maj. Din Hadass, sitting in a spot of shade under some trees before the lunch break. Still, the official goals of the war - to vanquish Hizbullah and bring hostages Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev home - were not achieved. This, in Hadass's view, is the main reason why so many reserve soldiers are bitter over what they went through in Lebanon, and this is why their complaints dominate the public's memory of those 34 days. "The sorts of things that went wrong in the war went wrong in all of Israel's wars," Hadass says, noting that he reads Israeli military history. "If this war had ended like the Six Day War, a few soldiers going hungry on the battlefield wouldn't have made a difference to anyone." THERE'S NO challenging the accounts given by the reserve soldiers who spoke of a comprehensive breakdown on the battlefield; they weren't making things up. But it may be that their experience of the war was given disproportionate weight in the media - if for no other reason than that they were the ones speaking out. There is another reserve soldier's story of the Second Lebanon War, a much less dispirited tale, and whether or not it is the voice of the silent majority, it is a voice that deserves a hearing in the effort to understand what went wrong and what went right for the IDF in Lebanon. Above all, the thing to understand about the effect of the war on reserve soldiers, who make up about 80 percent of the IDF's fighting force, is that while it was naturally a grueling experience even for those who bear no grudges or complaints, it did not break them collectively by any means. By some important measures, the reserve army is stronger today than it was before last summer's traumatic war. "I'm sure there was damage to the reservists' morale, but I don't think it was critical. You don't hear about soldiers saying they're not going to turn up for reserve duty," says Bar-Ilan University Prof. Stuart A. Cohen, a leading expert on the IDF's place in society. Meanwhile, he says the biggest improvement for reservists in the last year has been the increase in training for conventional warfare. Cohen credits this change to new Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, an infantryman who make his career in the North. "He's decided that reserve duty has to be taken more seriously than it was by the previous chief of General Staff [air force veteran Dan Halutz], who assumed that the air force could accomplish much of what was needed in any major confrontation, and who thought of reserve duty basically as a great expense for the IDF budget," he says. The IDF would not provide statistics on the number of reserve soldiers answering their call-ups since the war ended, nor would it authorize a high-ranking officer to discuss the state of the reserve army. Speaking of his unit, Hadass says the turnout for the current stint was only slightly lower than the usual standard before the war. He explains: "Two or three soldiers didn't show up because they still haven't fully recovered from the shell shock they suffered during the war. I'm not going to be tough and demand that they show up now, because of how the war affected them; you have to be very sensitive with them at this stage." Moshe, a paratrooper from a different reserve unit that served in the war, says that when his unit was called up for reserve duty in the West Bank early this year, the turnout was "100%, as usual." On the other hand, Lior, a paratrooper from yet another reserve unit, says that while his unit always showed up in full force for intifada duty before the war, the turnout for a month of duty in the West Bank this past April "was only about 70%." Noting that he was one of the 70%, Lior says he talked to several of the no-shows, and found that "while they claimed it was because of some injury or some urgent responsibility, when you dug a little deeper, you found out that the war had just lowered their motivation to do reserve duty." Among those who showed up, though, he says "morale was excellent." LIOR, 35, WAS one of a half-dozen reserve soldiers I interviewed a few days after the war ended, and all of their stories seemed to match and also to match various accounts from reserve soldiers quoted in the media. Lior said at the time that his unit had waited out the war in abandoned Lebanese houses and time after time was held back from fighting, with the division commander finally explaining to the troops that "killing two or three terrorists wasn't worth the price" - the point, in Lior's view, being that the IDF had badly underestimated Hizbullah. "We weren't ready for this war," he said back then. "It's no tragedy that we didn't get to engage Hizbullah on the battlefield because if we had, I'm not sure that we would have had the advantage." He said that while he still had faith in his field commanders, he'd lost faith in the generals who call the shots - not to mention in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then-defense minister Amir Peretz and the rest of the government. Now, a year after the war, Lior declares: "My attitude hasn't changed." But while he remains cynical about the people who steer the country and the army, he hasn't become cynical about defending the country - just the opposite. He and other paratroopers in his unit have begun taking more personal responsibility - way beyond the call of duty - for their preparedness to fight. Since the IDF isn't supplying the reservists with all the equipment they want, Lior says, they're soliciting contributions for "luxury" items such as binoculars and compasses. And after the nightmare of having to wade into a crowd of anxious soldiers trying to pull equipment from the anarchic IDF warehouses before going to battle, Lior says he now keeps his helmet, battle vest and flak jacket at home. "For me, the war isn't over," he says. "This is just a break before it starts up again." On-duty soldiers are prohibited by law from talking politics to the media. Still, at the Elyakim training base, Capt. Yisrael Weiss, 37, an orthopedic surgeon in civilian life and a reserve combat medic, says he remains frustrated that Hizbullah wasn't routed, that the two hostages weren't brought home, and that 33 soldiers were killed in the final two days of the war, after Olmert ordered a last-ditch offensive on the eve of the UN-mandated cease-fire. Sitting in an empty classroom on the base, wearing his army shirt and pants with civilian flip-flops, the pony-tailed Weiss says of those last two days of fighting, "It was virtually a waste." Still, he doesn't see any "crisis" between the reserve soldiers and the IDF on account of the war. His unit's field commanders are the same officers who led them in Lebanon. "They're outstanding," says Weiss. He and his comrades took back no memories of near-starvation and dehydration in the field or of not having the right weapons and equipment. "For us, it wasn't like what all those reserve soldiers told the media," the medic says. The main practical change since the war is the emphasis on training to fight an opposing army instead of a couple of guerrillas in a West Bank village. The main attitudinal change, Weiss continues, is that "we're less hesitant about making demands to the commanders, we're less willing to compromise. We have people who know how to argue, too - there are probably more lawyers in this unit than any other profession." LUNCH FOR THE reserve soldiers at Elyakim is straight comfort food - humous, roast beef and gravy, noodles, mashed potatoes and iced fruit drink. They eat under the shade of a sheet of netting held up by a pole, or on the hoods of the Humvees. Interrupting his meal out of eagerness to give his view of the war, Sgt.-Maj. Dan Tamir, at 39 one of the elders of the unit, has the most positive take on the fighting in Lebanon of any of the soldiers interviewed. "We were mentally ready for this war," he says, noting that the unit came to this same base for a few days of training before it went into battle. "You had to wait in a long line to get a hill to train on, but we felt we went in prepared." The men never lacked for food and water, and nearly all of their initial equipment shortages were straightened out on the battlefield. "We went to war with much more than just guns and bullet-proof vests," says Tamir, who works on the Jerusalem light rail project. He recalls that when a unit fighting nearby suffered a number of casualties, his unit pitched in to treat and evacuate the wounded soldiers. "This was comradeship right out of the books," he says. "These are the values we learned as recruits - we never gave up, we were always eager to fight." All Tamir asks of the IDF now is more time to train so the reserve army will be that much more prepared, as he puts it, "to defend this idea of a nation of Jews living in the Middle East." In some ways, this reserve unit had it better than many others. Instead of staying in the field for 10 or so days at a stretch - time enough for food and water to run low in the awful heat and for soldiers to grow increasingly frustrated from waiting idly while battle orders were constantly being revised - this unit went into eastern Lebanon on three missions of two or three days each. "Unlike a lot of reserve units, we fought against Hizbullah; we weren't sitting around waiting around all the time," says company commander Hadass, an electrical engineer. A thin, energetic man with erect posture and true military "command presence," Hadass says the bottom line for his unit is that it succeeded in killing Hizbullah guerrillas while suffering only one serious casualty: a soldier described by the medic Weiss as a "vegetable." Hadass acknowledges that this bottom line almost certainly has a lot to do with the way he and his soldiers remember the war. "If our unit had been sitting in an abandoned house all through the war, not fighting, and then one day a missile had landed on us and we had to pull out our dead comrades, and that's all we did during the war, then maybe I would be talking like those other reserve soldiers everyone heard about," he says. Morale depends on success, he maintains. "Once during the war," he recalls, "we discovered we'd left an item of intelligence value in the field, and I gave the order to go back and get it. Soldiers were saying I was out of my mind, that it was too risky, but I decided we had to go back and get it. Some of the soldiers' knees were shaking, but we got it back, and that little episode raised our fighting spirit for the rest of the war." I ask him why his unit had a relatively "successful" war with real accomplishments, while many other reserve units didn't. After a long pause, he replies: "It's not just because we're such Rambos, because there are other reserve units as good as ours that had a very rough time. But neither, in our case, was it purely luck." Moshe, an educator, is a reserve combat medic in a high-level paratrooper unit that had a very rough time in Lebanon. After getting called up and training for three weeks, his unit finally got sent in for the last three days of the war. "We sat in the bushes, we didn't fire one bullet, then we picked up corpses and went home," he says, seeming to flinch at the memory. The plan had been for Moshe's unit to outflank Hizbullah and attack. "I thought it was too grandiose. It would have cost us a lot of lives - right before the cease-fire," he says. On its first day in Lebanon, Moshe's unit got about two kilometers behind Hizbullah and waited in the bushes for other units to arrive for the attack. "Then right over my head I saw one of Hizbullah's missiles hit one of our helicopters," he says. Five soldiers in the helicopter were killed. "We went around picking up the body parts and putting them on stretchers, then we brought them to a helicopter that flew them back for burial," recalls Moshe. "A lot of the younger soldiers were throwing up. At first we only found four of the dead soldiers; the fifth, a female technician, was found later by another unit. The army didn't want to send a helicopter for her remains because they thought it was too dangerous, so we carried them on stretchers and walked the whole night, I'd say 15 to 20 km., up and down steep, rocky hills, all the way back to the border. It was like a funeral procession. "One of the soldiers had really bad shell shock; he just sort of went flat at some point, and on the way back, he literally collapsed about 20 meters from the border," says Moshe. "I'm a medic, and I've seen a lot in the army, but the smell of those burned bodies stayed with me a long time after I got home." I ask him if he blames the army for what happened. "Do I blame the army? I definitely don't blame our division, because we had everything we needed, nothing was missing," he says. Moshe is mad, rather, at the political leadership, especially Olmert and Peretz. "When Peretz said [Hizbullah leader Hassan] Nasrallah will remember his name, I thought: 'This is the defense minister?' And when Olmert went up to Kiryat Shmona and said Nasrallah is hiding while he's walking around freely, I thought: 'Shut up, man, we just got through burying soldiers.'" He's also disappointed in the public for "swallowing whatever crap the politicians feed them," noting that he didn't believe "for a minute" that the IDF could succeed in bringing the hostages home or getting rid of Hizbullah. But as for doing reserve duty, Moshe is past mandatory service age, yet he volunteered for a month in the West Bank this year. During that month, he says, "The unit's morale was absolutely fine, everyone gave their best like always. Maybe even more so. The whole issue of soldiering seemed more real to us. The war didn't hurt our motivation, just the opposite. It brought us even closer together." Moshe is going overseas on shlihut (as an Israeli emissary), but says, "If they call me up to go to war next year, I'll be on a plane. That's just the way I was educated in this country." TO PUT THE reservists' experience of the Second Lebanon War in perspective, Prof. Cohen says the political and military leadership failures endured by this generation of veterans were surpassed only by those of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. "That was certainly the worst situation ever for the reserve army," he says. "They were called into battle immediately on Yom Kippur, they were unprepared, they had to travel long distances to the battlefield, the enemy was much stronger than Hizbullah, they were terribly short of equipment. It was disastrous. The reserves back then deserve great credit for having performed at all." Even Lior, who still thinks the army could have won the war if the military and political leadership had been competent, cites an article in Yediot Aharonot by veteran war correspondent Ron Ben-Yishai as having "calmed" him down a little. "He fought in the Six Day War," Lior says, "and he writes that the same things went wrong then." In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, Ben-Yishai chronicled "the failures in fighting, the missing equipment and the officers who galloped forward into the heart of the Egyptian army's battles without maps, suffering heavy losses..." Yet they escaped criticism, while several senior officers in last summer's war, beginning with Halutz, were forced to resign or were criticized harshly. Ben-Yishai wrote: "The great intoxication of victory in 1967 erased the mistakes and failures. The public criticism evaporated and the chief of General Staff [Yitzhak Rabin] became an idol... I have no doubt that if a commission of inquiry had been established after the Six Day War, its results and report on the government and army would have been worse than the Winograd Commission report on the Second Lebanon War. As the Roman general said, 'Woe to the vanquished.'" Lior agrees that if last summer's war had ended in a smashing success, the criticism leveled by him and many other reserve soldiers wouldn't have been so harsh. "But," he insists, "it would have been harsh enough." There are two reserve soldier's stories of the Second Lebanon War. One is a bitter story of futility that Israelis heard repeatedly after the war's end. Another is a more stoically-told account of hardships, confusion and losses, but of accomplishments, too. The latter story isn't as well known as the first, nor as dramatic, but it may be as close to the truth of what happened in Lebanon as the singular truth Israelis think they know. "Everybody has criticisms of the handling of the war. I have criticisms of the handling of the war. I have criticisms of my own performance. The picture that came out of that war definitely wasn't pure white," says Din Hadass, the company commander. "But it definitely wasn't pure black, either. There is a color called gray, and that's the color I saw when the war was over. Now, looking back, the color I see is still gray, only it's more vivid."