Grumpy Old Man: Objecting conscientiously

Our wars for the most part no longer take place on the traditional field of battle, where soldiers historically have faced soldiers relatively far from population centers.

An officer monitors intelligence from Gaza in IAF headquarters. (photo credit: HAGAR AMIBAR)
An officer monitors intelligence from Gaza in IAF headquarters.
(photo credit: HAGAR AMIBAR)
Objecting conscientiously The 43 soldiers from Unit 8200 are a sign that we’re okay, even if some of the things we do are not In the telling and retelling of the children’s tale Goldilocks and the Three Bears (at least the version I used to hear), a little girl wandering the forest comes upon a cozy home belonging to Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear, who are outside waiting for their dinner to cool.
For each bear there are three items in the house: a bowl of porridge, a chair and a bed. In trying each of them out, Goldilocks, who is hungry and tired, chooses those belonging to baby bear because for her they are just right.
I’m not sure why, but for me the number 43 seems just right. That’s the number of reservists in Intelligence Corps Unit 8200 who signed a recent letter addressed to the prime minister, the defense minister, the IDF chief of staff and the chief of Military Intelligence.
In it they stated their objection to some of the work they did in the unit and declared that from now on they would openly refuse to serve.
OUR WARS for the most part no longer take place on the traditional field of battle, where soldiers historically have faced soldiers relatively far from population centers. This can be very disorienting.
The minute a uniformed soldier faces off against someone who is not uniformed, the rules are far less delineated.
Not everyone can sleep at night when the manual you are handed has no section on the reality at hand.
Worse, hi-tech has removed many of the middlemen from the battlefield. In fact, the soldiers at the front often are not even at the front, sitting instead many kilometers away before computer screens in air conditioned offices. They fondle a joystick and push a button that kills people by remote control, or they check an image from a far-off surveillance camera, search a handy data base and then make a split-second decision as to whether someone else should push the button and end a human life.
What elicited the stormy reaction to the soldiers’ letter, though, was not so much what they were refusing to do, but who they were, for this was the unit referred to by most everyone in the country with a bit of awe simply as “Eight- Two-Hundred.” It’s a unit that uses a lot of fancy technology to listen in on what is referred to in the military vernacular as signal intelligence. In other words, it eavesdrops, targeting everything from phone calls to fax messages to email in addition to more open and mundane modes of communication such as radio and television broadcasts.
And this was perhaps the soldiers’ most serious complaint – that much of their work had been to locate and identify not suicide bombers heading out on missions of death, but rank-and-file people who might have a weakness to be exploited for turning them against their own people. It’s a necessity in times of war, but like dealing death from close in – another necessity in times of war – it’s not for everyone.
To be accepted into 8200, it helps to know a foreign language or two, primarily Arabic, although Farsi, Turkish, Urdu and even English will do nicely, too. To be sure, the unit has one of the highest average IQs of any in the IDF; the popular belief, true or not, is that once these young people leave the army they can pretty much write their own career ticket.
The signatories to the letter, however, who include 10 junior-to-medium-level officers, might now have kissed those promising futures goodbye: Even if their names continue to be redacted from news reports they will be getting no letters of recommendation from former superiors once they hit the job trail. As of this writing it’s not clear what their punishment might be, but for now the IDF says they’ve all been removed from the unit. (Some howls of protest from precincts on the Right are even crying treason, with all the trenchant implications this can have.) IT’S NOT the first time something like this happened. Exactly 11 years ago, in September 2003, 27 air force pilots signed a letter stating they would no longer participate in so-called targeted killings of Palestinian terror leaders, saying that despite all the precision that could be mustered (and there was a lot, even back then) there was still too much of a chance for major collateral damage.
Many observers tied the letter to the July 2002 targeted killing – okay, assassination – of Salah Shehade, who headed Hamas’s military wing. Few, if any, in Israel doubted that Shehade had it coming. However, the one-ton bomb dropped on his home late at night killed not only him, but members of his family and even neighbors, including children.
Yet no, that’s not really what brought on the letter. It was a comment made a month later by then-IAF commander Dan Halutz who, when asked by a reporter how it felt to release a bomb in such circumstances, said: “I feel a slight shudder to the plane as a result of the bomb’s release. A second later it’s gone, and that’s all. That is what I feel.” For all the bravado and business-as-usual pose, between those words was a clear and definite smirk.
A few of the pilots recanted once the firestorm over their letter broke, but most held tight and, if they were still operational, were drummed from the ranks and shunned by colleagues. One had been a classmate of mine while in pilot school, where even then he was notoriously outspoken; he went on to be decorated for heroism under fire for leading the perilous helicopter rescue of troops in Lebanon in the late 1980s. A true professional, although to him honesty seemed to have been more important.
It almost cost him his job at El Al.
There was no such single incident to which one can tie the Unit 8200 letter, just as there was no single incident that led to what was probably the first of its kind, the so-called officers’ letter of 1978, which was followed by others from members of specific units, perhaps most notably the so-called Sayeret Matkal letter of 2003. All of this indicated that a tipping point had been reached among some of the crème de la crème; obviously, it was felt most among those with more humanistic stances, where the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was in no way viewed through the comforting prism of religion or ideology. But it was, and still is, happening, and it’s happening to the best.
It’s a new reality that has yet to be parsed and fine-combed by the battle psychologists who took years to come up with a name and method for attempting to address what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder, something that probably can strike just as easily after the reality sinks in that military life can be far more than just a video game.
THE PUBLIC seems to dislike it most when PTSD, or whatever it’s called, strikes elite units, where people are highly motivated and talented and frequently serve as role models. We can’t have such behavior from role models, now, can we? I think we can. And should. People who speak their mind are the metaphorical canaries in the mineshaft: When they’re silenced you know you’re in trouble – at least those of us who are willing to tolerate dissent and feel that contrarianism is not only healthy, but desirable.
So while I wish there had been more than 43 signatories, the number seems to have been just right – not so many to have paralyzed a system, but more than just the odd kook or two. Enough, in fact, to make us sit up and take notice. ■