Qasem Soleimani was no general

Middle Israel: Soleimani’s only known military training, by contrast, was less than two months’ basic training when he joined the Revolutionary Guards in 1979.

WOMEN HOLD pictures of Iranian Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani during a funeral procession and burial at his hometown in Kerman (photo credit: MEHDI BOLOURIAN/FARS NEWS AGENCY/WANA (WEST ASIA N)
WOMEN HOLD pictures of Iranian Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani during a funeral procession and burial at his hometown in Kerman
Saluting the ranks he wore, Qasem Soleimani’s many eulogizers made sure to preface his name with “general,” as the system he served crowned him: major-general for the nine years that ended in his death, and lieutenant-general for those that will follow it.
In all fairness, unlike most other generals in today’s world, the slain revolutionary saw war from within, big-time, having fought in the Iran-Iraq War, which he entered as a 23-year-old water supplier and exited as a 31-year-old division commander.
Not only did he not avoid battle, he was drawn to it, and once there displayed courage, habitually crossing enemy lines and at one time also getting wounded. And not only did he see war’s horrors firsthand, in 1987 he came under a gas attack in which 100 of his men were hurt.
Still, such baggage makes one a warrior but not a general, no matter how much brass is buttoned on one’s shoulder. To be a general one needs to either undergo training that Soleimani never underwent, or to be born with attributes that Soleimani never displayed.
AS A career path, generalship entails rigorous training courses, field exercises and large-scale maneuvers. Soleimani’s only known military training, by contrast, was less than two months’ basic training when he joined the Revolutionary Guards in 1979.
Whatever that constituted militarily – any IDF combat soldier’s training is at least half a year – it sufficed to send Soleimani to help quell an uprising in Iranian Kurdistan, but that’s policing, not soldiering. Soleimani never attended the kind of officers’ school and battalion-commander training where military careers ordinarily develop. Having purged the shah’s generals and colonels, Ayatollah Khomeini could hardly supply such military schooling when Soleimani joined his revolution.
This deficit itself does not mean Soleimani could not be a gifted military leader. Judah the Maccabi also didn’t go to officers’ school.
The question is what he achieved as a commander of a large force at war, a position in which a good general must display, in addition to military skill and creativity, the qualities of a statesman, as military thinker Carl von Clausewitz observed.
In other words, to be considered a general Soleimani had to be militarily effective, politically prudent and strategically adroit. He was none of the above.
THE WAR that fueled Soleimani’s career began as an Iranian fiasco.
First, it was an intelligence failure much like Israel’s in 1973. Then Iran failed to use its demographic advantage – its population was 40 million in 1980, three times the size of Iraq’s – in order to win.
The Iranian army did manage to block the invasion and, within two years, to chase the Iraqis back to Iraq. However, despite its commanders’ urge and Khomeini’s demand, the Iranian military failed to deeply penetrate Iraq, much less march on Baghdad.
There was some military excellence in the Iranian fighting, most notably in some of its fighter pilots’ performance, and in one operation’s deployment of helicopters in order to land troops in the Iraqi rear, where they destroyed artillery batteries while other units attacked from the front. This happened in winter 1982’s Operation Fath ol-Mobin, in which the city of Shush (biblical Shushan) was liberated.
Soleimani took part in this battle, yet not in its militarily inventive part but in its inversion – the Revolutionary Guards’ deployment of “human waves,” cannon fodder that were thrust into the enemy’s fire, line after line, until the Iraqis could not withstand the cumulative thrust.
Now Iran’s generals found a way to use their quantitative advantage, and while at it display their utter lack of military skill and ingenuity. In later battles this already appalling tactic became altogether obscene, when children, snatched from poor neighborhoods, were sent to run over mines wearing plastic keys on their necks, telling the sacrificial lads they are about to enter heaven.
Soleimani is not known to have been part of the children’s deployment, and reportedly also decried the costs of the human-wave attacks. Yet human waves are what happened in the battlefields he inhabited, those he later described longingly as “lost paradises.”
The “general,” then, did not know how to build, supply, train and deploy a varied military formation, or how to maneuver an enemy to defeat, for he was no Napoleon, Rommel or Hannibal, just a mid-level operator in a substandard military’s subhuman command.
SOLEIMANI’S lack of military training was part of a broader scholastic deficit, having had no education other than a remote, third-world high school’s.
That is why he and other undereducated Revolutionary Guards abhorred Tehran’s student protesters, and in 1999 threatened president Mohammad Khatami – a political philosopher – that if he did not storm the students, the Guards would stage a coup. That is also why Soleimani was at loggerheads with President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, both Western-educated PhDs.
That is also why the same Soleimani who was unequipped to excel as a general was unequipped to understand the futility of the imperial project he led in recent years.
Narrow-minded and poorly read, he did not understand that imperial stretch demands economic vitality, and that his brazen provocations of Western civilization, the Arab nation and, for good measure, the Jewish people must ultimately result in defeat.
Soleimani thus became an engine of Iran’s war on itself; the war that he first embodied, when the revolution empowered him despite, and maybe because of, his ignorance; the war he then inspired, when he demanded to storm youths thirsting for liberty and education; the war he ultimately led, when he wasted billions on fomenting violence in distant lands, while back home inflation raged, unemployment soared, rivers dried, jails overflowed, birthrates plunged and despair became a plague.
“No country benefited from protracted warring,” said military thinker Sun Tsu. Qasem Soleimani’s eventful life, bloodied legacy, and untimely death – concur.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019), is an interpretation of the Jewish people’s political history.