THE ARMY THAT CHANGED US – LETTER TO AMIR

Dear Amir,
 

For many years now I’ve been preoccupied with thinking about the army’s role army in our lives, our addiction to using force as a solution to problems, and the far-reaching physical and socio-cultural implications for the future of the State. I wanted to share these thoughts with you; perhaps they will prove meaningful for you and for your writing.
I’ll start out in the form of a letter to you. First I’ll mention a number of subjects, which I will then address (albeit not necessarily in the exact order presented below). This will impose some kind of order on the ideas set forth hereunder. I don’t think I can formulate and abstract my thoughts into an actual article. These are the things about the IDF that disturb me greatly:

 

1. Our approach to warfare during the Second Intifada (mass killing) as a collective punitive action, and the ramifications on society and the soldiers themselves (my children and yours).
2. The Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead.
3. The culture of lying in the IDF, such as the announcement about Iraq possessing nuclear weapons, which was completely false and is now known to be a deliberate lie told by Western intelligence forces in order to provide an excuse for the politicians to declare war. Where was the IDF’s appraisal of the situation?
4. Portraying the army and serving in its ranks as the ultimate expression of being a Zionist.
5. The perception of aggression as a solution to problems (killing the civilian population in order to leverage…what??) as opposed to the diplomatic alternative. Where is Realpolitik?
6. The Iranian threat (the attitude toward the atom bomb and our existence here) and the policy of deterrence (when do we engage in war, how much deterrence is necessary and against whom – the nuclear submarines) and bombing the reactors in Iraq and Syria.
7. The willingness to drop atom bombs on any of our enemies if we feel there is no other solution.
8. Conclusion – what I want from you, and why I am writing this letter.

 

The Second Intifada: During the Intifada, I became aware that there is no warfare here and no objective beyond that of killing (almost for its own sake). In some military actions, senior officers even claimed that no targets had been defined and all the military activity was for purposes of deterrence (revenge). Against whom? (The civilian population.)
Arik Sharon, who was aggressive and manipulative, used terrorist attacks as leverage for implementing his worldview that you answer force with greater force, and if necessary you use a great deal of force. Without any attempt to negotiate with the partner on the opposite side, out of loathing, he led the army in disgraceful forms of warfare that would have nauseated even himself (if he had been able to look himself in the mirror). I slowly discovered that there’s no warfare here but reprisal acts that have an obvious price tag.
I will illustrate with just a few examples. Killing Israeli security officers by firing 2,000 rounds on them (is that warfare?). I was taught that you only fire on someone who is threatening your life, and even then only through gun-sights and using single shots. But when there is a culture of killing (with a light trigger finger) then this is the result. It’s just that these were Israelis, so the facts were exposed to us… There were certain periods during which we went into the Gaza Strip every day and killed 15 “armed” men, with absolutely no casualties on our side. It doesn’t take much interpretation to understand what really went on there.
There was a case in which the naval commando unit was accused of confirming a kill. What was published in the newspapers was that they were acquitted of the charges, but the story was reprehensible. They had received an order to capture a terrorist (alive) at his home. Before they could break in, a man came out of the house, and they opened fire and killed him. Maybe they didn’t confirm the kill, but they killed the wrong man. The terrorist got away. They accidently killed a man and didn’t capture him, even though their lives were not in danger. How can you explain such a wretched level of soldierly conduct??
This is the naval commando unit we’re talking about, and the Maglan commando unit was the one responsible for killing the Israeli security officers. And these are considered elite units. So no wonder we reached the disgrace of the Marmara. If the mighty flame fell in the cedars, what will the lichen say? We’ve become an occupation army that fights children. Our (military) level has deteriorated to the lowest possible point.
One day, while in an airport overseas, I saw pictures on television that attracted my attention because I recognized our region. I drew nearer and what do I see but helicopter pilots pursuing four armed men in Gaza. There’s nothing but sand all around; they have nowhere to hide, and the pilots are firing at them. In a panic, the gunmen resort to crawling, and the game continues. They are shot at. The pilots finally tire of the game and finish them off. What can we say – mission accomplished, four gunmen have been eliminated. How do those pilots keep on living with themselves? They go back to their lovely wives as if nothing happened??
These small examples showed me that the IDF has no warfare morality. The Arabs are vermin in their eyes and not really human beings, so killing (no matter the extent) is always justified. Aviv Kochavi once let slip, “Terror is so deeply ingrained in [the Arabs] that even when we shoot at random we find out that 50% of those killed had been involved in terror.” He didn’t even realize what he was saying – that first we kill, and only then do we check whom we are killing.
Throughout the time that I followed the numbers killed in these reprisal actions, the statistics of those uninvolved in terror was always 70%, and 30% of those were children.
That was the case in Lebanon and also in Operation Cast Lead (I’ll relate to the latter separately). At the end of the Second Lebanon War fiasco, the army carried out a campaign in Gaza, and General Galant was proud that we killed 400 Palestinians (he didn’t even have to say they were armed). B’Tselem activists checked and found that the actual number was only 174. An IDF general lies to the media, boasting about killing civilians. What have we come to??
The Second Lebanon War. 95% of Israelis were in favor of this delusional war. Since I was against it from the outset, all its failings were clearer to me than most (and later specified by the Winograd Committee). I won’t elaborate on this war because it’s all common knowledge at this point. I’ll just say that for me this was the continuation of what had been revealed about the Second Intifada, just minus Arik Sharon. First you indiscriminately kill and bomb civilian targets. Four or six days later, the supply of targets is depleted but our brave pilots keep on bombing and finishing off the entire inventory of bombs in the strongest military in the Middle East, on what and against whom?? (a militia of 2,000).
At the end of the war, when it was already clear that a ceasefire was being signed, thousands of cluster bombs were dropped. When a senior officer (sorry but I can’t remember ranks) in the Air Force asked his superior officer why we were using this dubious weapon when the war was already over, the reply was that we need to get rid of old inventory. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Lebanese children lost limbs weeks after the fighting had already ended, when they played with these unexploded bombs, thinking they were a kind of toy.
During this war the tactic of fighting without battles was discovered. “Counter-fire” is created (i.e., bombing civilian targets) to inflict maximum destruction, following which the wounded civilians are supposed to pressure their government to stop the fighting. If that doesn’t happen, then you bomb even more. The important thing is not to endanger our forces by engaging in ground warfare. When Gadi Eizenkot was asked (two years after the end of the war) what lesson had been learned from that war for the future, he repeated the same approach, saying that now we would do it with much greater force. Killing, killing and more killing of civilians (babies, women, old people…premature infants and other patients in hospitals who die when their respirators are cut off due to electrical blackouts), and that’s what they call war.
Planes shot at fleeing civilians who flew white flags on their car roofs, under the pretext that terrorists might have been hiding inside the cars. This is just more of the same approach. Arab vermin are not people so it doesn’t matter if you kill them or how many. But in this war the cowardly approach of not putting our forces in danger was discovered to also harm our soldiers and cause their abandonment. Paratroopers saw their comrades dying 500 meters away from the fence of the Israeli border, because sending a helicopter would put the pilots at risk and evacuating the wounded on stretchers by running with them to the border would also endanger our soldiers. In Cast Lead, almost no infantry forces were brought it, so as to avoid a similar dilemma. It’s a known rule. The further away from the target that a weapon strikes, the more brutal and massive the killing. And that’s the path we chose.
Cast Lead. That war caused a deep rupture in how I felt toward the State and the army, which has not healed to this day. I understood that we are committing war crimes and becoming war criminals, perhaps even committing crimes against humanity. I experienced the war while abroad, so I was exposed to atrocious sights that people in Israel didn’t see. After the murder of the police officers, I called Ofer Shelah (who is a friend of mine) and told him that if this doesn’t stop right now, we will no longer just be censured for excessive use of force, since where I am people are getting to the point of questioning the legitimacy of the State of Israel’s existence. Whoever thinks like Gadi Eizenkot and his ilk about this kind of war, where the other side’s civilians are cannon fodder and we can kill them arbitrarily, doesn’t understand the world he lives in (but I’ll discuss that in the conclusion).
Cast Lead was conceived in the mind of an arrogant man (Olmert), frustrated by the failure of the Lebanon War. There he wanted to eradicate Hezbollah and here he wanted to eradicate the Hamas regime. Against him stood a spineless man (Barak) who grasped that this was unrealistic, and (again) an aimless war was created (that’s the disgrace and the abomination) in which the killing of women and children was the only goal. The ground forces were not even brought in. The eruption of Israeli/Jewish evil, unleashed without restraint, reveals the monster that is constantly consuming us. (The Goldstone Report was superfluous.) And what was all the killing for??? There was a fragile ceasefire (which could have been made stronger). No one had been killed on our side before this awful operation. What was worst of all for me was seeing that no one refused orders.
When my son was little he played with his friends at a kind of war game against the forces of evil, where in the end you had to confront the evil sorcerer using your wits. Along the way you would meet powerful, violent creatures. If you used force against them, you’d gradually use the intellectual capabilities that you would require at the end, because there you’d encounter the head sorcerer, who could only be defeated by your intelligence. So you had to refrain from using force. And our military, which chooses to use force and more force, is losing out on the most important thing – wisdom and sophistication – “by way of deception” and becoming a witless force of evil.
I understood that I had to change my position on the army. I understood that we have raised a monster that is devouring all the good that used to be in us, and it must be restrained – the approach of force as a solution without any political approach. (I once met a man from India who, upon learning I was from Israel, responded, “You people don’t understand the world. You shoot at every problem you see.” How true.)
The IDF is no longer an instrument of defense or a vehicle to provide politicians with new options for action. It is a beast that operates on the primitive instinct of vengeance, from which the moral element (not to kill innocents) is lacking. And perhaps this is the essence of my letter to you, how to break up the army’s monopoly on the Israeli soul and demote it by maybe half in our national importance (make it of equal import to the police or national insurance). It’s a long, complex story, since our entire collective identity is built around the Holocaust and military service. If you take that away, what would be left?? A dark, fanatical, people-hating religion. Building a country whose political identity centers around social justice and civil rights here in the “holy” land of our forefathers – does that sound realistic to you??
The culture of lies. From 2000-2006 and maybe before that, I saw how the army tells outright lies. Just see the doctoring of the tape that Dan Halutz sent the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and the accusation that the United Nations is transporting rockets in its ambulances. (Only after the UN asked to check the pictures for itself did the IDF apologize and say it had been mistaken; it was actually just a stretcher.) These are two small examples of a destructive culture of lies.
But the most important thing (which the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee should have stood up against) was how we lied to ourselves and to the world about Saddam Hussein having nuclear weapons. Bogie (Chief of General Staff at the time) even got up and barked (after the Americans checked and found he had nothing of the kind) that they should let us go in Iraq and find the weapons of mass destruction, which was the reason for this insane war. What happened? Either we knew something that wasn’t true, or we didn’t know…and purposely bluffed the whole world. A country that dares to lie like that to itself and the rest of the planet, and creates regional tensions and wars (verging on international conflagration), due to the paranoia of a disturbed child who thinks it’s okay for the whole world blow up as long his every whim is cared for and his (disputed) security needs are satisfied at any cost – such a country has probably lost its right to exist. It is a global timebomb that must be neutralized.
The Iranian threat and the strategic approach to it. This is a tangible danger to the very legitimacy of our existence as an autonomous state.
About a year ago or longer, I was writing a letter to Ze’ev Raz (who led the attack on the Iraqi nuclear plant), in which I laid out my deep anxiety about the attack in Iran, and I asked him to perhaps rethink the necessity of this campaign. I wish to quote a passage from my letter and a passage from an article written by Shlomo Gazit on the same matter.

 

This is what I wrote Ze’ev Raz a year ago:
The bombing of the nuclear reactor.
At a meeting with S., I asked him if he was interested, had researched, or had ever asked himself, what the actual outcome of the bombing had been. Had they stopped Iraqi development of the atom bomb?
He looked directly at me and said: No. From what I’ve read and the little bit I researched it, it was clear to me from all the evidence that attacking the nuclear plant didn’t affect anything – quite the contrary!
According to one theory, there had never been any intention of developing an atom bomb, and only after the attack did this idea arise and become real.
Bottom line – bombing the plant hindered almost nothing in developing the Iraqi bomb.
A lot of actions that are considered militarily successful are a political disaster – see the assassination of Abu Jihad: today we might be in an entirely different place with the Palestinians if he hadn’t been taken out.
The myth of the attack on the nuclear reactor in conjunction with the myth of the Holocaust is deadly, and at this given moment it could lead to the collapse of the State.
In an anonymous interview with pilots who had been assigned to participate in the attack in Iran, everyone demonstrated unbridled enthusiasm and pride. The reporter wrote that none of them expressed the slightest misgiving. And that’s the problem – there was no brave man who stepped up and said: I’m not going to actively take part in the destruction. Everybody toes the line. Personal integrity and courage have been lost. 
Right now – more than any other time – our fate depends on the courage of the civilian heart in the Air Force and not on the courage of the operational heart.
If an Air Force commander will say this is madness and refuse to do it, the whole business will cease. If he tells his two “leaders”: I am at your command! – then we all know what the outcome will be.
Maybe at this juncture, your opinion can also make a difference.
And this is what Shlomo Gazit (head of IDF intelligence from 1974-1979) wrote about ten days ago about the Iranian subject:
There is real anxiety here about nuclear weapons in the hands of a fanatical, crazy and irresponsible regime; and yet I am among those who rule out the idea of a military attack. I rule out the idea of an attack – whether an Israeli attack or an American attack – because it will not achieve the goal; it has no way of preventing and revoking Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
We in Israel repeatedly bring up the story of the Israeli “Operation Opera,” the assault by Air Force aircraft on the Osirak reactor near Baghdad, Iraq.
This, according to the storytellers, was a successful operation that totally destroyed the nuclear plant. Except that the lesson from this operation should be the complete opposite. The Israeli attack did not wipe out the Iraqi nuclear program. Quite the contrary – it convinced Saddam Hussein, then the president of Iraq, of the essential need to achieve nuclear weapons. He therefore abandoned the idea of a reactor and proceeded to pursue weapons procurement more vigorously. He established a covert system of centrifuges scattered throughout his country that secretly worked on producing enriched uranium.
Again, there was no possibility and no chance of a second military strike.
The importance of Shlomo Gazit’s words lies in changing the myth. Stupid heroic tales give rise to the falsehood that all you need is courage and all your problems will be solved. There’s no evidence of that, and the relevant question is what solution was gained by all these heroic exploits; we might just be piling up damage. We are turning into a bully nation that endangers world peace, a nation from which any decent person would want to distance themselves.
It’s important to verify the truth of this story and the intimidations and threats that our leaders are barking out day and night. Presenting things in another light than what is now being told might build relations of trust between society and the army. Interpreting this event and others like it bears great significance for our perception of ourselves in a region that is usually hostile and threatening, because we think about the present and future based on our perception of the past. And our view of the world is that it lies somewhere between being evil and being an idiot that only wants our detriment. There’s no one we can trust and we with our 200 atom bombs will impose order based on our paranoia. Someone seeing this from the side would tell themselves (even if they didn’t know the lunatics currently in power and the even worse lunatics that will come next) that something has to be done to end this story of the tiny nation that is driving the whole world crazy today, and that tomorrow, Heaven forbid, could destroy it.
I am writing this long letter (it’s not my habit to write at such length) because I fear that there are already people among us who think and are ready to use a nuclear bomb (or something like it that’s just called another name, let’s say an electromagnetic bomb) to solve difficult problems (such as a nuclear Iran) that have no such simple and schematic solution as the Israeli mind has become accustomed to thinking so far.
The existential danger to the State of Israel is external and internal. Externally – the State is seen by outside forces (the Arab nations and the Western world) as being crazy and out of control while possessing weapons of mass destruction. A state that doesn’t accept the laws of the international community and therefore must  be constrained by a strong, tough external block that will either restrain or smash it (I leave it up to each individual to interpret this line as they will).
Internally – people like Netanyahu and those of the Right and religion who see political solutions through the messianic religious approach and not through Realpolitik. The army that has taken over the nation and become Moloch (maybe Gantz was a welcome but short-lived interlude) and will claim ever more budgetary funds for its delusional plans bordering on the insane. The combination of an army with nuclear capabilities and messianic religious views sends shivers through any thinking person.
From everything said here, a picture arises of a people that has surrendered to the intoxication of military might that controls a country and not the other way around, an approach that doesn’t recognize others and renounces every moral position. It believes in the righteousness of its path with an almost messianic fervor and blatantly disregards the other nations of the world and its neighbors.
I think a man such as yourself can change or fight the entire range of these severe phenomena. Perhaps in your wise writing you can crack the chauvinistic callousness and try to lessen (slowly) the army’s importance in the Israeli-Zionist approach. Try to explain to the inhabitants of this country that the military should not be given precedence over the police. As soon as people internalize that being an educator in Dimona (through civil service) is no less important than being a platoon commander in the Golani Brigade, then there will be room for hope in creating a healthier society.
The army should be entirely disconnected from rabbis and religious messianic approaches. It needs to live inside rational political thought, to show there’s no need for religious soldiers, and mainly not for ultra-Orthodox soldiers. There are now enough soldiers for the security challenges of the future. Repeat what Ashkenazi said, that military service needs to be one of the options (not even the highest one) of service available to young Israelis. That will decrease its monopolistic importance in shaping Israeli identity.
And perhaps most importantly, with your help a serious dialogue will ensue here about for what and when we go to war. I accept what Dagan said, that war is embarked on “only when the sword is against your neck.” It’s been many years since we’ve been in a no-choice war (even the Yom Kippur War could have been avoided, if we had been more attentive to the other side). Maybe if we take a serious look into this subject then we won’t kill our children for nothing or kill the other side’s women and children.
In conclusion, I think that setting out for a new horizon mandates our returning political thinking to center stage. The Realpolitik approach.
Seeing the Arabs around us not as baby-killing vermin but as neighbors with whom we should live in understanding and mutual respect. Aspiring to political settlements on all fronts, which perhaps will lead in the more distant future to peace (which is currently considered a dirty word). Removing the IDF from the center of our existence and becoming a society where justice and social equality are our main aspirations.
Understanding in depth the danger of nationalism and especially the danger of the Jewish religion when it takes over politics and practical life in a modern society. And banishing it as quickly as possible from every contact with the army (which has 200 nuclear bombs).
I think I’ve found a person with the power to change such fundamental matters. I have discovered you to be a brave, determined journalist; and someone, sometime, has to start trying to change our course, which is currently set towards destruction.

 

Sincerely yours,
Michael Kovner

​(Eventually wasn't sent)

Things I wrote to Haaretz Editor

© 2013 by MICHAEL KOVNER