A battalion commander's anger

Admitting error is out of the question. Everyone has an alibi.

merkava tank 298 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
merkava tank 298 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
I have known Danny (a pseudonym) for many years but never have I seen him as angry as now. He is a commander of a reserve battalion in the armored corps and a moshav farmer in civilian life. His epaulets rank him as major. Tall, muscular, bulky, in his late forties, he cuts a dashing figure speeding in his armored jeep through a curtain of diesel fumes and whirling dust alongside his clanking, snorting column of Merkava tanks returning to base from Lebanon. Danny is angry at the last three chiefs of staff - Ehud Barak, Shaul Mofaz, and Moshe Ya'alon - for having neglected the land forces in favor of the air force, for sacrificing ground mobility on the altar of high-tech wizardry, and for squandering tank specialists in the nooks and crannies of the intifada. Danny is angry at them for slashing the army budget by 13 percent, and for downgrading the reserves by a whopping 25 percent. To be in top form, a tank reservist needs a five-day refresher exercise each year. Most hardly got that in the course of three years, others in the space of five, and yet others none at all. Danny is angry at the rushed fashion his reservists were mobilized, with depleted provisions, outdated equipment, and insufficient supplies. Their transition from family normality to a place of hazard and death was too abrupt to allow for battle conditioning. His reservists, living by a bond that is impossible to describe and impossible to break, had too little time to pound themselves into front-line discipline through tough exercise, ruthless discipline, and absolute obedience. Some were so out-of-shape they caved in under the grueling stress. DANNY IS angry at the lack of aptitude of the younger enlisted recruits. Tankists by designation but drafted into the intifada as foot soldiers by necessity, their stance was not that of tank crews but of crack commandos. Full of drive and guts, they know more about tracking down terrorists in the labyrinths of the refugee camps in Jenin and Nablus than a tank's maneuverability, technology, and self-protection mechanisms in Lebanon. Inevitably, the first such crews to cross the blue line had little notion of how to function in the forbidding and grim terrain of the fractured Lebanese battlefields, with their steep hills, dry stream beds, twisting roads, deep ravines, and Hizbollah's formidable anti-tank arsenal. Danny is angry at the armchair pundits for disparaging the formidability of Israel's main battle-tank, the Merkava. Its latest version, the Merkava 4, is perhaps the finest in the world. Born of necessity in the seventies when countries refused to sell Israel their main-line tanks, a brilliant armor tactician named General Israel Tal conceived the Merkava whose latest innovative design combines maximum fire power and maneuverability with paramount crew safety. There is no such thing as an impregnable tank, but the Merkava 4 is the closest thing to one. NOW IN its fourth generation, the Merkava 4 proved its mettle in the harshest tank battle of the war, fought in a precipitous gorge west of the crook of the Litani River in the central sector - the battle of Wadi Saluki. Two of the eight Merkava 4s were knocked out of commission and their commander was mortally wounded, caught in the sights of long-range, Russian-made, Syrian-supplied, laser-beamed, self-propelled Kornet anti-tank missiles, with their lethal dual warheads that penetrate the armor and then detonate incendiary blasts within. But the reserve commander saved the day, rushing to the rescue of the other six by leading their climb up sheer slopes to the top of the gorge, an ascent few other tanks in the world could navigate. In all, four crewmen died in the battle of Saluki, a battle which was an unqualified triumph of the Merkava 4. Had those tanks been of an earlier generation, not equipped with state-of-the-art technology and active self-protection mechanisms, 50 crewmen might well have perished. DANNY IS angry at being caught off-guard by a highly sophisticated, well-armed guerrilla force, shielded by civilians in villages now laying coated with brown dust from the shattered walls of houses and pockmarked with the debris of battles which time and again one of our generals declared to have been won - places where our wounded were slow to be rescued, where the smell of unbathed, dehydrated men lingered long for lack of logistics, mingling with the stench of blood and medicine and dead bodies. Danny is angry at the initial reports claiming the enemy was decisively beaten and that Hizbullah's retreat was a rout and a flight. He was suspicious at the lack of the signs of disorganized retreat: why so few prisoners? Where were the jettisoned boots, the dumped weapons and ammunition along the roadsides? Who in Military Intelligence knew of the fight-to-the death doctrine of the fanatical foe, or of the ten-meter deep bunkers and tunnels, impervious to the greasy black puffs of the 130,000 bursting shells which rained down on them through the hot summer sky of this futile campaign? DANNY IS angry at the strutting Napoleonic pomposity of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz at the war's start, and at their unrealistic war goals, not least the return of our two kidnapped soldiers. Standing now amid the tumbled shambles of Israel's hopes, they remain magically unperturbed with a marvelous incapacity to admit error. All is laid at the door of the generals: had but the prime minister been told this, retreat would have been an advance; had but the defense minister been told that, defeat a victory. Danny is angry at a government whose conduct of the war was marked by sluggishness, negligence, divided counsel, and fatal misjudgments. Lax management at home translated into lax management in the field causing contrary and confusing orders. Once divinity of doctrine was questioned by the troops, there could be no return to perfect faith. And thus it was that on the very eve of the cease-fire, the cabinet squirmed uncomfortably through a long summer morning and afternoon, unready and unwilling to grasp the nettle until it was too late, until there was hardly any point any more to what they said and did, until more young men had to die. Like a fated creature blown by the winds of Homeric gods, they did not change direction. Cutting losses, removing blunder, altering course - these are repugnant to this government, to any government. Admitting error is out of the question. Everyone has an alibi. Danny is angry most of all at the shirkers of Shenkin Street - a metaphor for the bon ton, chattering, elitist draft dodgers who mock and scoff and sneer and leer at every symbol of Jewish patriotism which he and his fellow reservists cherish. A wise prince aught always be a good asker, said Machiavelli. What Israel needs now are great askers. Danny and his angry men are the greatest askers of all. The writer is a veteran diplomat. [email protected]