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The Soldiers’ Testimonies–Another View

March 27th, 2009by Haim Watzman · 7 Comments · Politics and Policy

Haim Watzman

Have Israeli soldiers’ values—and the moral choices they make in combat—changed? Do the soldiers’ testimonies from the Rabin pre-military academy show that the IDF and its soldiers have adopted values different from those of earlier decades and earlier wars?

I’m not convinced. They might, and the charges made in the testimonies certainly need to be thoroughly investigated (impartially, not by the brigade commander, who says he spoke to the soldiers involved and denied that the incidents took place). But I’m dubious about jumping to conclusions, as I think Gershom did in his post yesterday.

Gershom argues that Israel’s strategy in the Gaza war—which involved the use of intense fire power in densely-populated civilian areas, so as to ensure a minimum of Israeli casualties—gave soldiers the message that human life on the other side was of no value. Rules of engagement were eased up and soldiers were given the message that they should have few hesitations about killing ostensible non-combatants.

It’s certainly possible that the grand strategy made an impact on the actions of individual soldiers. But we don’t, at present, have any empirical evidence of that. We’d need to see statistics showing that proportionally more incidents of unnecessary shootings of civilians by soldiers took place in this war than in previous wars. Yet the incidents described by the soldiers from the Rabin academy, while extremely disturbing, are not different in kind from what has happened in the IDF’s previous wars, or indeed in wars fought by the countries of other Western nations in the past half-century.

The soldiers’ testimonies certainly make some of their comrades sound quite different from the idealistic, peace-loving soldiers who related their experiences in The Seventh Day (called Siah Lohamim in Hebrew), the oral history compiled after the Six Day War by Amos Oz and Avraham Shapira. But, while The Seventh Day represented Israel as it wanted to see by others and as many Israelis wanted to see themselves, it was highly selective. Oz and Shapira excluded the testimonies of soldiers—in particular, religious soldiers—whose values conflicted with the image of the Israeli soldier they wanted to project, and heavily edited the testimonies they did include.

It’s certainly true that the demographics of Israel’s fighting forces are different today than what they were in 1967. There are far more religious soldiers, graduates of the religious-Zionist educational system where messianic, nationalist ideology prevails. And there are fewer socialists and secularists from Israel’s kibbutzim and moshavim.

But here’s a caveat from my own experience in the army—I saw that men’s political and religious ideologies were not accurate predictors of their behavior toward Arab civilians. Some of the meanest, least considerate soldiers I knew were vociferous advocates of territorial compromise and accommodation with the Palestinians, while some of those who went above and beyond the call of duty to treat Palestinians as human beings were advocates of Greater Israel and settlements.

One little-remarked detail that stands out in the testimonies from the Rabin academy are that, time and again, these men mention how bored and frustrated they were during their long weeks in Gaza. Motivated to fight for their country, they found that the air force and artillery had done much of the work for them before they even arrived. They saw little action and spent most of their time holed up in houses they had commandeered. They had little to do, felt largely useless, and endured all the discomforts of a war zone—they ate bad food, had nowhere to shower, and had plastic bags for toilets.

The training that the Rabin graduates received may have helped them deal with that frustration better than other soldiers could. But, again, my experience is that boredom and frustration can cause highly-motivated combat soldiers—and I mean men who in other circumstances are thoughtful, intelligent, and sensitive—to lose their moral bearings.

I don’t know what was in the minds of the soldiers who allegedly shot a mother and her two children in one incident and an old woman in another. Were they motivated by ideological passion? Were they apathetic to human life as a result of seeing their army bomb Gaza? Had they come to seen Arabs as less than human? Possibly. But it’s no less likely that, bored by inaction and eager to fight, they jumped at the opportunity to shoot at what seemed to be a legitimate target.

This is not in any way to excuse these actions. Soldiers must have more moral presence than this. But if we’re to prevent such things in the future, we need to understand what caused them. If it’s moral apathy brought on by boredom and frustration, we need more programs like the Rabin pre-military academy and stronger leadership by officers. We may also want to seek to balance the army’s demographics and reconsider the strategy pursued in Gaza—but for other reasons, not because of the killings reported by the Rabin graduates.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 george a.hilborn // Mar 27, 2009 at 6:53 pm

    As a combat veteran I can empathasize with a young Israeli soldier in essence fighting in an area next to his own country, who if he is well-trained will follow orders given to him or her. It is to the credit that in Israel such a discussion of the morality or lack thereof of the Gaza strife can even be had , but Israel is a small country with a somewhat homogenous population with a free press.and a vocal media.
    When I was loading 155 mm. shells I gave little or no thought to who was on the other end; they were just ” gooks” or “slopes” or subhumans not Koreans or Chinese,but I just a 18 year old kid who thought what I was doing was my duty like every soldier.The first time there was an outcry was the Vietnam war but we still don’t identify our alledged enemies as people ;thus ,we have problems with our image worldwide as Israel is now and it goes right to the treatment of the enemy as human beings especially the innocents and the command’s attitude conveyed to the troops.
    We up until bush did not have religion getting in the way of command officers using religion to justify our military conduct . Fortunately our separation of church and state is a constitutional guarantee and it prevails.

  • 2 Debbie R. // Mar 27, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    Are Israeli soldiers more humane than other soldiers? I believe that American soldiers in Iraq have had to act with restraint at a cost to themselves. And yet there are always unfortunate incidents.

    Looking at the larger picture, Israel engaged in an operation and sustained 10 casualties while the Palestinians sustained 1000. Including 300 civilians. At least.

    Israel wants any Palestinian State to not have a strong military, but it has no problem reminding Palestinians that it essentially controls their destiny, and that their lives are being lived at Israel’s discretion. If Israel wants to make the claim that it can be trusted with weapons while the Palestinians can’t, doesn’t it behoove them to show restraint in using them?

    It is a given that Israel cares less about Palestinian lives than Israeli lives. Yigal Amir’s family’s house wasn’t bombed even after he killed Yitzhak Rabin. Imagine if a Palestinian had done it. Collective punishment wasn’t imposed on the members of Baruch Goldstien’s family either.

    It is a myth that security considerations are beyond politics.There are politics to every war. For example, Golda Meir made alot out of the fact that Egyptians attacked Israel on the holiest day of the year. The politics of this war, a war that was not fought out of desperation, were disastrous.

  • 3 sean // Mar 29, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    When you’ve been on the receiving end of an Israeli operation, these “revelations” are nothing new. In 1982, somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were killed in the Israeli invasion. People continue to die in the south due to unexploded cluster munitions fired in 2006.

    People have been telling the Israelis for years that war crimes are being committed, but Israelis don’t seem to trust the testimony of anyone but Jewish Israelis. So when Gazans or the people of South Lebanon or Western media outlets show evidence of Israeli war crimes, it’s all dismissed out of hand as Jew-hating propaganda. But when Israeli soldiers say the same thing, the nation feels it needs to address a crisis of conscience.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s laudable that Israeli society permits such criticism, and Israelis should be proud of their free press. But at the same time, it’s always disheartening to see Israelis act like something has all of a sudden changed, that the brutality of the IDF, the “most moral army in the world,” is somehow news, when the rest of the world has been talking about these problems for decades.

  • 4 dana // Mar 29, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Israelis love going around in circles, dissecting individual, specific stories of atrocities, everyone doing their part to put on display a Greek tragedy, with the world as both participant and observer. The same was done when Mohammad al-Dura was shot (who, us? never. Must be a doctored up video) or Sabra-Shnatilla (who, us? we didn’t do it – the Phallangists did). Details change, but the play seems to always consist of five acts:

    Act I: The crime: pictures of dead civilian bodies, juxtaposed with Israeli tanks, drones and well-equipped idf soldiers.

    Act II: The aftermath: Greek chorus singing condemnation of Israeli soldiers shooting up Arabs and destroying everything in sight. The chorus frames a stage on which individual soldiers describe what they have done on one side, with palestinian/arab victims telling what they have witnessed to the other side. Above the stage we have scrolling headlines from the Israeli press – prominent among which is haaretz, echoing world press.

    Act III: The Official narrative. This act consists of retelling by other IDF, exalting positive acts, debunking and raising doubt about the crime. Chorus (now in the background) repeats a line: “The most moral army in the world”. The action on stage is a confusing mixture of stories, counter-stories, witnesses traced, recounted, debunked. The world press role is played by a Child wandering across the stage, pulled this way and that way by story tellers, spokesmen, military types, red cross, foreign activists and ragged-looking palestinians. Greek chorus sings “Rashomon Tales” as Child sits on laps of president/prime minister, general in uniform, a hijab-clad refugee woman in. General later strips off uniform, becomes prime minister, coddles child again. Chorus breaks up.

    Act IV: The investigation. On stage is a court room where an Israeli investigation of the crime takes place. The chorus is now seated in a jury box. The verdict is handed out in lengthy strolls that eventually cover the stage: Chorus echoes the verdict: it wasn’t us that did the worst. Others were at fault too. Individuals failed but the system is fine. Chorus starts pianissimo, rising through the act to a crescendo: War is Hell! Stuff happens!

    Act V: The Great Society. The child who is the World Press returns, now dressed in military uniform and a judge’s wig. The child announces solemnly that Israel has investigated itself, the population went through painful soul-searching and concluded they were culpable, but not at fault. A Talmudic scholar enters. He has an ax with which he splits small and thin twigs. Behind him, the chorus are trees shedding leaves of red, humming in a whisper, suggesting reverence. The child embraces the scholar. Soldier enters, his arm around hijab-clad refugee woman. To the side of the stage, there are sinks where the actors wash their hands over and over, including the general and the Prime minister. On the other side, there’s a psychiatrist couch with a soldier-patient. Greek Chorus shed red, revealing white gowns, repeats two lines: “where else but in israel?” and “The Open Society”. Child takes off wig and garb, revealing play cloths. Prancing across stage reading a copy of haaretz till he joins in with chorus. Curtain falls.

    Epilogue: The awards: Dancing with Brashir gets prize. Chorus, dressed in formal wear seated in chairs in front of the curtain, claps in rhythm. In the background – theme song from Exodus.

    This beauty of this production is that it can be repeated in as many permutations as needed, and restaged in classical to avant-guard versions and countless languages. The play length can be adapted to the patience of local audiences, the mise-en-scene to existing budgets. It is – and will always be – timely.

    So, Haim (who never deigns to engage with yours truly): which part do you want for yourself?

    PS I think I’ll trade-mark this play, so stay off the grass(!)
    PPS Thanks for the inspiration….

  • 5 Haim Watzman // Mar 30, 2009 at 7:51 am

    Dana, Greek tragedy is deterministic, and the characters archetypical. The protagonist can’t change fate and he and the other characters represent nations and peoples. I reject determinism and archetypes. People can make choices and act on them. So I simply don’t accept the premise that Israeli self-criticism, its free press, and its multitude of opinions is simply a masque that hides the true intentions of The Nation. Stuff changes. When I was a child in the U.S., blacks and whites couldn’t use the same bathrooms , women faced huge barriers to embarking on serious careers, and gays had to live in their closets. We’d be in much the same place now if cynics (and Marxists, since this was their line) had convinced everyone that civil rights activists and feminists were simply tools in the hands of the racists and reactionaries.

  • 6 dana // Mar 31, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Haim, thanks for the reply. Alas, I must disagree in part, the evidence of history having converted me to the great historian Arnold Toynbee’s view that “civilizations die from suicide, not by murder.” He wrote on this theme in his classic A Study of History, which seems strangely applicable today:

    “A civilization is not like an animal organism, condemned by an inexorable destiny to die after traversing a pre-determined life course. [A] succession of catastrophic events on a steeply mounting gradient inevitably inspires a dark doubt about our future, and this doubt threatens to undermine our faith and hope at a critical 11th hour which calls for the utmost exertion of these saving spiritual faculties. ”

    This would appear to encapsulate the cyclical nature of history, with that of the jews being Exhibit I (perhaps not entirely accidentally). I do happen to believe that this particular history – in all its detailed records and the mountainous commentary gathered around it – is, at its core, a morality tale. A chapter is unfolding now – challenging us to recognize the patterns of the old cycle, daring us to break it.

    You happen to think that this time around, the cycle can be broken, because “history is not deterministic’. I agree that history accords us choices, in the past it did too. But the pattern requires an ACT OF WILL of such depth and scope as to reduce the likelihood of such turn of events to miniscule levels. In other words, the act of breaking the cycle is A BLACK SWAN event.

    That you don’t see it so (and neither does your blog partner Gershon) only means that you haven”t had [yet?] a jeff halper epiphany:

    Halper, in his recent book, An Israeli in Palestine, wrote the following of the moment he became a “critical Israeli” (h/t to Phil Weiss):

    “I first became aware of being an ‘Israeli in Palestine’ on July 9, 1998, the day my friend Salim Shawamreh calls ‘the black day in my life and in the life of my family’. On that day the bulldozers of Israel’s Civil Administration, its military government in the West Bank, demolished his home for the first time. It was an act so unjust, so brutal, so at odds with the ethos of the benign, democratic, Jewish Israel fighting for its survival I had absorbed on ‘my side’ of the Green Line that it was inexplicable in any terms I could fathom. It had nothing to do with terrorism or security. It was not an act of defence or even keeping Palestinians away from Israeli settlements or roads. It was purely unjust and brutal. As the bulldozer pushed through the walls of Salim’s home, it pushed me through all the ideological rationalisations, the pretexts, the lies and the bullshit that my country had erected to prevent us from seeing the truth: that oppression must accompany an attempt to deny the existence and claims of another people in order to establish an ethnically pure state for yourself.”

    From the fact that I comment here, you may gather that I have not made my tent with the cynics of either camp (and am not likely to). Rather, I see my role (one among many others) to point out the patterns where I observe them. Right now, the patterns seem to foretell of a great tragedy up ahead, but like Jonah, I hope to be proven wrong.

  • 7 noam // Apr 5, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    Haim,

    You are wondering how to make the soldiers behave better, but I think it is a lost fight. The escalation is all but inevitable, given the fact that’s it is more and more difficult for Israel to maintain the occupation (remember Prof. Leibowitz’s prophecy).

    Of course, this does not absolve anyone from personal responsibility, but the basic point is this: Israel has decided to solve its political problems with the Palestinians by using more and more force. Until this policy is changed, we will hear more and more stories like this.

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