Tarnished silence

All of us, whether we have lost someone directly or not, need to evaluate the recent war and whether our political and military leadership was negligent in its management.

Lebanon war 224.88 (photo credit: AP )
Lebanon war 224.88
(photo credit: AP )
In these days before the Wednesday release of the final portion of the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War, two groups seem to coming to the fore of the public discussion: reserve officers and bereaved families. And the proper role of these groups in the debate over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's future is proving controversial. The first issue is whether it is appropriate for IDF officers to petition the government as officers, rather than as citizens regardless of their rank and army experience. Some argue that the petitions represent an abuse of the officers' positions and threaten to politicize the military. This concern has been heard in other instances, such as when officers publicly objected to the policy of targeted killings of terrorists, to the withdrawal from Gaza and to the first Lebanon War. Though we tend to agree with the officers' protests in this case more than in others, there is an important principle at stake that should transcend the matter of whose ox is being gored. Just as it is wrong for officers and soldiers to publicly refuse to serve on political grounds, whether from the Right or the Left, it is inappropriate for those serving in the military to employ their ranks to weigh in on controversial political issues. This is not to say that those in active or reserve military service - a substantial portion of the public - must be silent or inactive. On the contrary, they have the right and responsibility to be involved in public debates - but as citizens, not as representatives of the IDF. When soldiers and officers involve themselves as citizens, their military experience and personal commitment to service and sacrifice should legitimately add weight to their voice. It was certainly wrong for Olmert to insinuate, as he did in his Herzliya Conference speech last week, that these officers and even the bereaved families had become political tools and were therefore by definition illegitimate. "Political," in this context, is not a dirty word. When citizens demand the resignation of their prime minister, they are acting in the political sphere. Their demands are not tainted just because they are political. This is how democracies are supposed to work. If anything, a case can be made that our citizenry is not acting "political" enough. Why should the debate over the prime minister's future be left to relatively narrow slices of the public, notably the war veterans and bereaved families? It should not. In this light, the complaint of one Winograd Committee member, who reportedly said that these groups should not be allowed to "run the country," was both out of place and correct. It was out of place because civic activity from any group should not be deprecated, certainly not from people who have been willing to or have sacrificed everything for their country. And it was correct as an indictment of the broader public - for letting itself succumb to apathy toward a situation it wants to change but has become convinced it cannot. Being bereaved does not give one a monopoly on truth. It does not necessarily sharpen judgment. Nor is there any reason for those who have personally experienced devastating loss to necessarily agree with each other on major political issues. Most importantly, the elevation of the political role of the bereaved tends to let the rest of the public off the hook - as if only the families directly affected care about losses in battle. Such an implication is corrosive for Israeli society, and is unfair to our citizenry. All of us, whether we have lost someone directly or not, need to evaluate the recent war and whether our political and military leadership was negligent in its management. Groups with direct experience and knowledge may be justified in having a somewhat heightened participation in this debate, but not as a substitute for the voice of the wider public. It is evident that the prime minister and his allies are trying to dismiss their opponents as limited only to the supposedly small groups that are speaking out now. If the wider public remains silent, it will be complicit in its own disenfranchisement. Accurately or not, in a democracy silence is interpreted as acquiescence.