Civil Fights: The military casualties myth

Israelis are willing to spend soldiers' lives to protect the state and its citizens.

funeral idf 88 (photo credit: )
funeral idf 88
(photo credit: )
One of the few points of Israeli consensus nowadays is that Israelis cannot tolerate military casualties. This theory dominates defense policy, from Lebanon to Gaza. Yet it suffers from one crucial flaw: The public's actual behavior patently disproves it. This myth is admittedly widely accepted, crossing all political lines. Last week, for instance, left-wing Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus declared a major ground operation in Gaza impossible because "as Israel approaches its 60th birthday, the public mind-set has changed. Israelis have stopped believing in victories, with or without quotation marks, for which scores of people have to die." A few weeks earlier, the conservative Shalem Center warned in the editorial of its quarterly Azure that reluctance to risk military casualties "has already taken root in Israeli public discourse, becoming a near-unimpeachable consensus that guides politicians and commanders alike" - and therefore devoted the piece to arguing that soldiers must sometimes be risked to protect civilians. Nor is there any doubt that this myth determines policy. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refused to order a major ground operation in Lebanon (until too late to do any good) largely because he feared Israelis would be unable to tolerate the projected casualties. His current refusal to order a major ground operation in Gaza derives substantially from the same fear. YET IN FACT, Israelis have shown no reluctance to risk military casualties in what they deem a good cause. To realize this, one need only examine two recent campaigns: Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002 and the Second Lebanon War in summer 2006. Defensive Shield involved a simultaneous IDF invasion of several West Bank refugee camps deemed hotbeds of terrorism. For years, the army had avoided these densely populated camps, with their narrow, twisting streets, for fear that fighting there would cause heavy Israeli casualties. And this was well known to Israelis who served in the territories, whether as conscripts or reservists. Yet when emergency call-ups were issued for Defensive Shield, the response rate exceeded 100 percent. Men who had evaded reserve duty for years reported for that operation, and some who had not been called came anyway, begging to be included. This was assuredly not because the reservists, all familiar with the camps' reputed dangers from their prior service, expected the operation to be a walkover. Rather, faced with a terrorist onslaught that had killed 133 Israelis in March 2002 alone, they were willing to risk their lives to protect their fellow citizens. Nor did sky-high public support for the operation waver when 26 soldiers were killed in less than two weeks. On the contrary: Then premier Ariel Sharon's popularity soared when he defied US President George Bush's demand for an immediate withdrawal. And even today, support for Defensive Shield remains nearly wall-to-wall. Israelis mourn every dead soldier, but the subsequent sharp reduction in terrorist killings clearly justified the price. THE SAME pattern initially characterized the Second Lebanon War. Once again, the response rate to emergency call-ups approached 100 percent. Again, this was not because reservists expected a cakewalk; Israel had withdrawn from Lebanon only six years earlier, so many had first-hand experience of this front. But they were willing to risk their lives to protect their fellow citizens from Hizbullah's attacks. And again, public support for the war initially remained sky-high even as casualties mounted: A Peace Index poll conducted three weeks after it started found that 93 percent of Jewish Israelis supported it, even though 33 soldiers (and 20 civilians) had thus far died, and continuing it would clearly cost more lives. Nevertheless, Israelis wanted the IDF to finish the job. It was only toward the end of the five-week war - as cease-fire negotiations accelerated, and Israelis realized that the government had no plan for either stopping the rocket fire or dealing Hizbullah a decisive blow in the time remaining - that public opinion turned against it. Granted, casualties also mounted during this period. But more important was the finding of another Peace Index poll conducted three weeks after the cease-fire: Fully 68 percent of Jewish Israelis thought the war had weakened rather than strengthened Israel's deterrence. In other words, public opinion turned against the war not because of the casualties per se, but because the casualties served no purpose. A HEALTHY society should object to throwing soldiers' lives away for no purpose. But that is very different from refusing to use the army for its intended purpose: protecting the state and its citizens. And for this purpose, Israelis are willing to spend soldiers' lives. That is why reservists reported en masse for both Defensive Shield and the Second Lebanon War: They were willing to fight, and even die, to defend their fellow citizens. It is why the public initially supported both campaigns overwhelmingly, though it was their own sons, husbands and brothers whose lives were at risk: They understood that this is what the army exists for. It is why support for Defensive Shield remains sky-high, and why even today, 63 percent of Jewish Israelis (according to this month's Peace Index poll) still consider the Lebanon war justified: The former achieved its goals, so the casualties were a price worth paying, while the latter, despite having failed, was nevertheless launched for a proper purpose. FINALLY, THIS is why a majority of Israelis currently support a major ground operation in Gaza. They are not fools; they know the likely price is dozens of dead soldiers, with their own sons, brothers and husbands possibly among them. But they also know that countries must protect their citizens, so ending the rocket fire on Sderot is the army's duty. One could make other arguments against a ground operation in either Gaza or Lebanon. But it is past time to take this particular argument off the table. Both in their response to emergency call-ups and in the uncomplaining dedication with which conscripts, reservists and their families endure military service year-round, Israelis have proven their willingness to suffer military casualties to protect their country and their fellow citizens. They deserve better than to have their sacrifices - and their country's policies - distorted by a baseless myth.