Monday, February 18, 2008

Remember civilians' extraordinary morale

Center Field: Remember civilians' extraordinary morale

Posted by Gil Troy

Jerusalem Post, Wednesday Feb 06, 2008

In early January, a small ceremony that balanced out the drama of the recent Winograd Commission pronouncements took place in the Israeli Air Force personnel offices, at "HaKiryah," IDF headquarters in downtown Tel Aviv. An Air Force colonel awarded certificates of appreciation to seven civilians who crisscrossed the country boosting soldier's morale during the Second Lebanon War. (Full disclosure: I was one of those honored, having played a minor role in the initiative).

The main honoree was Haim Avraham. Haim's son Benny Avraham, z"l and two other Israeli soldiers were supposedly kidnapped but actually killed by Hizbullah along the Lebanese border in 2000. As soon as the fighting broke out six years later, Haim mobilized his wife Edna, their two daughters, Efrat and Dafna, two colleagues from the Ramat Gan Histadrut, and others of us who helped the family during the torturous years when the Avraham, Avitan, and Souad families traveled the world trying to ascertain their sons' fate. Haim and his family recognized their symbolic role in this new war, having lost Benny under eerily similar circumstances. Thirteen times over the next six weeks they visited the Northern border and military bases throughout Israel, dispensing 250,000 shekels worth of donated soda, cigarettes, books, candy, underwear, and aftershave to comfort soldiers. More important, they hugged the soldiers and cried with them, giving them the priceless gift of a morale boost from a family that understood exactly why Israel needed to fight.

Haim considers the war "an important success," rejecting the Winograd Commission's labeling the war a failure. As a veteran who served in Golani, Battalion 13, and in the Air Force's cargo plane division for a quarter of a century, Haim acknowledges "there were problems, there were personnel issues, there were tactical mistakes." Still, he sees three central accomplishments. First, "we pushed back at Hizbullah, destroying much of the group's infrastructure, leveling Hizbullah headquarters, and restoring some deterrence." Second, "we built a consensus in Europe against Hizbullah, and now Hamas." Haim is thrilled that the United Nations Security Council put an international force in Southern Lebanon . Finally, "the support for Hizbullah in Lebanon weakened." A realist, Haim confesses: "We couldn't have achieved all our war aims without destroying Lebanon , so we stopped. Still, we bought some quiet for a few years."

According to Haim, while every war has a military element and a political element, another, equally important, element is "the morale of the people and of the army." This dimension the Winograd commission overlooked. It is essential during wartime to tell both soldiers and civilians that "we care about them, we think about them," Haim explains. "I thought I could give of myself, pay attention to the little things," he says. "What did I bring them? Nothing - but soldiers reacted to the fact that someone from the home front was paying attention, especially seeing that someone who had already paid the ultimate price understood exactly what the soldiers were doing. The soldier is working hard, eating the dust, breathing in the smoke. We met many right after battle exiting from Lebanon ," Haim recalls. "And make no mistake about it, war is war. Friends were killed near them. They exited dirty with sweat and mud, the smell of battle still hanging on them, looking at you through eyes that hadn’t slept all night. And then, all of a sudden, when the soldier sees a civilian who hugs him, it raises his morale. It reminds him what the fight is all about."

Haim is right. During the extraordinary day I spent with Haim and his merry band of morale raisers, I saw what Israel 's "Dr. Hug" could do. I saw all these tough, gruff battle-scarred recruits melt right back into the extremely young - and quite frightened - boys they are, when Haim hugged each and every one of them, at each and every stop.

Haim's initiative was one of hundreds of volunteer efforts that flourished during the summer of 2006. We forget amid this nearly-two-year orgy of recriminations how magnificently the "home front" performed. Secular and religious kids streamed up north, working together to help the people who had nowhere to go, as Israelis in the center and the south opened their homes - and hearts - to friends, relatives, and strangers, displaced by Hizbullah's hellish hail of Katyusha rockets.

These stories fill out the picture of the war. They do not compensate for the shoddy preparation, the equipment shortages, the air-force-heavy strategy, the hesitance to commit ground troops. Haim's analysis, focusing on the importance of morale, in fact highlights one of the Winograd commissions' most scandalous findings - that it took almost a month before the army issued a general order to deal with the Katyushas. This fact alone would justify calls for Ehud Olmert's resignation. Generals are paid to be arrogant, to dismiss Katyushas as military insignificant annoyances that should not distract from their mission. But healthy democracies need civilians in charge, with enough empathy for the people and standing with the army to redirect the military when generals minimize civilian suffering.

A government's primary function is protecting its people. Sadly, in the summer of 2006, Israel failed to fulfill that task for half a million civilians. Remembering, nevertheless, Israel 's successes - and Israel 's marvelous morale, one walks away not sugarcoating the results, but appreciating a fuller picture. The people outperformed their military and political leaders.

The magnificent people of Israel should get the kind of leadership they not only merit but that they earned with their acts of heroism, large and small, both military and civilian, during the Second Lebanon War - and at so many other points during these last 60 years,

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University . He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel , Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His next book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, will be published by Basic Books this spring.

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