How Have Heroes Fallen

For those of you who are too young, or have forgotten: there used to be a time when the Israeli military was supposed to be one of the best, perhaps the best, in the world. This was particularly the case between about 1967 and 1973. In 1967 the Israel Defense Force (IDF) only took six days to defeat several Arab armies which, between them, enjoyed a two-and-a-half to threefold numerical superiority over it. In 1973, though similarly outnumbered, it succeeded in repulsing a surprise attack and ended by threatening both Damascus and Cairo. At the time and later—but especially at the time—rivers of ink were spilt in an attempt to explain the “secret” behind these performances. Here I don’t intend to recapitulate the literature in question. Suffice it to say that, when everything is said and done, all of it came down to three factors: motivation, motivation, and motivation.

Today, though, that motivation is no longer there. Official figures how that the percentage of conscripts who volunteer for combat units, especially but not exclusively the armored corps and artillery, has reached an all-time low. What follows is a brief analysis of a few of the causes that have got the IDF into this sad state.

  1. Social changes. In the Israel in which I grew up, the Israel of the 1950s and 1960s, the best thing anyone could be was a soldier and a “fighter” (in English). To the point where the first Hebrew-language song I, having arrived from the Netherlands as a four-year old, learnt had to do with how wonderful soldiers were and how the girls should welcome them (instead of looking for opportunities to accuse them of sexual harassment, as is currently the case). To the point where people sent each other New Year cards with pics of soldiers, tanks, jeeps, etc. And to the point where youngsters who for one reason or another were not drafted sometimes committed suicide. But no longer. Much the best positions the IDF has to offer are in intelligence, computers, and combinations of the two. To the point where people are prepared to pay for having their offspring enter them. And with good reason: as was described in D. Senor and S. Singer’s Startup Nation (2011), it is these units that lead to good jobs and, here and there, great wealth. Adding a hundred dollars to combat soldiers’ monthly pay, which has recently been decided upon, is unlikely to change this situation.
  2. The role of women in the military. The IDF during its years of glory was the world’s only army to draft women and provide them with some kind of weapons training, albeit that it was almost purely symbolic. In return for not having to fight or shed their blood, women served for shorter periods, had to be content with less glamorous work, and enjoyed limited prospects for promotion. No longer. Owing to their physical weakness, women are still very rare in any units where they have to do excessively heavy work, let alone such in which they might become casualties if war breaks out. For example, when announcing the graduation of the first thirteen “tankwomen” the other day the IDF was careful to point out that they would not serve in any dangerous sectors. Nor is it clear who is going to do the heavy maintenance work required. Women can volunteer for “combat” units if they feel like it; men are assigned even against their will. Meanwhile, in units and positions that do not come under fire and do not require such work, women have gained complete equality. Women in other words, get all the cushy jobs. Nor, owing the above-mentioned social changes, can men compensate by serving in combat units. Not to put too fine a point on it, men get screwed.
  3. Until 1973 inclusive the IDF always fought enemies stronger, or at any rate more numerous, than itself. As it did so it heaped glory on itself. No longer. Starting as far back as the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, it has fought weak opponents almost exclusively. So much so, indeed, that in many cases the term fought—as against Palestinian kids armed with nothing more dangerous than rocks—has become a misnomer and should have been put in apostrophes. Fighting the weak, the IDF became weak. Its performance deteriorated and its victories no longer counted as such. To quote Friedrich Nietzsche, nothing is more boring than a victory endlessly repeated. Especially because, as the very need to repeat them shows, the victories in question are, in reality, no victories at all.

So far, the IDF. But this blog gets read in many different places around the world. Does any of this remind anyone of the situation in your own countries?



The recent celebration of “international women’s day” gave the Israel Defense Force (IDF) an opportunity to publish some figures as to the number of women serving in its ranks and the Military Occupation Specialties (MOS) in which they do so. What makes the question important is the fact that the IDF is the only army in the world to conscript women. Consequently it has more of them, proportionally speaking, than any other. From 1949 to about 1970 it was also the only one which gave them weapons training, albeit one that was purely symbolic. Foreigners attending the annual Independence Day parades, or happening to meet the women as they went on route marches, marveled to see the combination of cleavage and Uzi submachine guns. One which, for reasons Freud might explain, few could resist.

3As Western armed forces, with the American one at their heads, started expanding the role of women beyond administration (secretaries) and medical services (mainly nurses), from 1970 on, the IDF was left behind. Only in the late 1970s, owing to the vast expansion occasioned by the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, did an acute shortage of manpower lead to a reassessment. The next push was given by American-style feminism which reached Israel in the mid-1980s, not long after peace with Egypt was signed. Since then Israeli feminists have been loudly demanding women’s right to serve in any capacity, combat included. Now that the figures have been published we can answer the question, how successful have they been?

First, the background. The IDF active force, including both regulars and conscripts, numbers 176,000 troops. Of those about 30 percent (58,000) are female. The mobilized force, reservists included, numbers 600,000 (on paper). However, since women in spite of recent changes in the law rarely serve in the reserves, their percentage in it is much lower. According to the figures, the total number of female “fighters” in the regular force is said to be 1,593. All are volunteers; unlike men, who are assigned, women only serve in “combat” if and when they want to. In other words, under 3 percent of female soldiers serve in “combat” units.

Women’s inferiority to men in respect to physical strength, aerobic capacity, endurance and, above all, robustness, is obvious to all. The price is paid by their male colleagues; when a female trainee in a mixed unit breaks down, as often happens, guess who is going to carry her and/or her weapons and pack? But the price women have paid for serving in “combat” units has been much higher. Many of the documents in question are classified so as to avoid angering Israeli feminists, an aggressive and often obnoxious lot, by presenting them with the facts. Some, however, have been published by a former student of mine, Colonel (ret.) Raz Sagi.

The picture that emerges is not pretty. Less than 3 percent of IDF “combat troops” are female. However, over the last few years they, or the lawyers acting in their name, have served 10-15 percent of the suits concerning compensation for injuries suffered while on “operational activity” (whatever that may mean). In proportion to their numbers, women sue three to five times more often than men. Sagi’s book bristles with interviews with young women who served as, or trained for, “combat” MOS and were seriously injured, sometimes for life. Such cases are brought before the courts almost every day.

Now let’s take a closer look at what “combat” actually entails. The largest group, 442 out of 1,593, serve in three mixed battalions named “Caracal,” “Leopard,” and “Lions of the Jordan” respectively. In each of these they form 60 percent of the total. What all three have in common is that they are permanently deployed along the borders with Egypt and Jordan. Those in turn have this in common that, over the last forty years, they have seen hardly a shot fired in anger. The remaining women are divided between “combat intelligence collection” (meaning that they look for all kinds of interesting things after the battle is over), border police (meaning that they stand guard against terrorists, as Hadar Cohen, who was mentioned on this blog a few weeks ago, did), civil defense, and artillery.

It so happened that, a day after I completed this article, I watched a clip of artillery troops on a route march. The men, heavily loaded with equipment of all kinds, sweated, grunted and did their best to keep up. One or two female soldiers were marching along, carrying a much smaller pack and looking as if they were on a lark. Whatever they may have been doing there, clearly they were not being tested as the men were. (You can find the clip on

Neither the infantry, nor the armored corps, nor the engineers, nor the special units, which between them form the bulk of the IDF’s “teeth,” have any women at all. Scant wonder that, during Operation Protective Edge back in the summer of 2014, out of 66 Israeli troops who died not one was female.

Meanwhile the terminology has been changing. Having just celebrated my seventieth birthday, I can remember the time when the term lohem, meaning fighter or warrior, used to be the highest compliment anyone in Israel could receive. Nine cases out of ten, it referred to a soldier, a male one of course, who actually fired at, and was fired on by, the enemy. Now its female form, lohemet, also refers to all the above units, not one of which are meant to face an armed and trained enemy soldier able to fire back. Scant wonder that, in popular slang, the plural form of lohemet, lohamot, is often explained as meaning lo-hamot, “not-hot.”

Why does all this matter? For four reasons. First, as the term “not hot” implies, in Israel as in all other modern countries armed forces the presence of women has contributed to the decline in the prestige of those forces and, with it, their ability to attract high-quality male manpower. Presumably that is why the “Lions” (arayot, in Hebrew) battalion, in spite of being made up mostly of women, is not called leviot “Lionesses.” Or else surely any proper man would have shot himself rather than serve in it.

Second, in Israel as in all other modern countries that presence has led to “gender norming” and, with it, falling standards which, in case of war, could be dangerous. Third, as the above figures show, too many women who, whether out of idealism or sheer penis envy, volunteer to serve in “combat” units are injured, with bad consequences both for themselves and, since they have to be paid pensions, the defense budget. Fourth, outside Israel quite some people, being misinformed about the true state of affairs, still take the IDF as an example to follow.

But this is 2016, not 1967.

Whom the Gods Want to Destroy…

IDF-Soldier-who-shot-neutralized-terrorist-is-suspected-of-murder-Israel-PalestineThe killing last week by an Israeli soldier of a wounded Palestinian terrorist who was lying helplessly on his back has sent the country into a turmoil. No sooner was the picture published on the Net then the Israeli media mounted a wave of protest. Taking up from there, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Minister of Defense Yeelon, and chief of staff Eisenkot quickly denounced the deed and promised that the soldier in question would be put on trial and punished. This was followed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) attorney general’s announcement that the charge would be murder.

Israelis like to think that theirs is “the most moral army in the world.” Consequently there was much palaver about the IDF’s “ethos,” its “values,” and so on. But not everyone agreed that the killer was in fact being treated as he deserved to be. Not only did his family and friends stand by him, but images of him, in handcuffs, led to an equally strong wave of protest in his support accompanied by rioting. That caused Netanyahu, a weathervane if ever one there was, to soften his original stance on the case pending a court investigation. Not content with that, right-wing politicians, smelling blood, entered the fray. They lionized the soldier and accused the chief of staff of failing to back his troops. One notorious extreme right-wing activist, Itamar Ben Gvir, demanded that the police investigate Be-Tzelem, the humanitarian organization responsible for taking the image and spreading it. One rabbi has even suggested that, for having the soldier tried, the chief of staff himself should be put on trial.

In his defense, the soldier claimed that the terrorist was moving and that he was afraid that he, the terrorist, might be carrying an explosive belt on his body. This was denied by the man’s commanders and made doubtful by the fact that the terrorist, who had been lying there for no fewer than six minutes before he was killed, had been examined and found unarmed. As always happens in such situations, charges and countercharges quickly multiplied until they congealed into a single opaque, stinking, tissue of truths and falsehoods. I do not know what the outcome is going to be. But I am prepared to bet that the soldier will not be punished as murderers in Israel usually are, i.e. with life in prison. Assuming he is punished at all, almost certainly he will get a pardon of some kind.

All this is still in the future. Meanwhile the fallout from the case is splitting Israeli society from top to bottom. Not to mention other soldiers’ justified fear that, should they be caught in a similar situation or commit a similar deed, their superiors, instead of backing them up, will wash their hands of them. To be sure, the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are not the world’s worst human rights offenders. Unfortunately, though, they are bad enough.

Sun Tzu, in the first chapter of his celebrated On War, says that victory will go to the side who keeps the favor of heaven—meaning, the moral advantage—by formulating rules of behavior and sticking to them. I agree. For those of you who have never read my best-known book, The Transformation of War, or who have forgotten its contents, here is what I wrote about this topic a quarter century ago:

“[Suppose a war] where one belligerent is much stronger than the other. Under such circumstances, the conduct of war can become problematic even as a matter of definition… Over the long run… fighting the weak demeans those who engage in it, and therefore undermines its own purpose. He who loses out to the weak loses; he who triumphs over the weak also loses. In such an enterprise there can be neither profit nor honor. Provided only the exercise is repeated often enough, as surely as night follows day the point will come when enterprise collapses… Since the very act of fighting the weak invites excess, in fact is excess, it obliges the strong to impose controls in the forms of laws, regulations, and rules of engagement… The net effect of such regulations is to demoralize the troops who are prevented from operating freely and using their initiative. They are contrary to sound command practice if they are observed and subversive of fighting discipline of they are not. Hence Clausewitz’s dictum, plainly observable in every low-intensity conflict fought since World War I, that regular troops combating a Volkskrieg are like robots to men.

A sword, plunged into salt water, will rust…A strong force made to confront the weak for any length of time will violate its own regulations and commit crimes, some inadvertent and others not. Forced to lie in order to conceal its crimes, it will find the system of military justice undermined, the process of command distorted, and a credibility gap opening up at its feet. In such a process there are neither heroes nor villains, but only victims: whom the gods want to destroy, they first strike blind.”

Mr. Netanyahu, are you listening? For God’s sake, GET OUT OF THE TERRITORIES!!!

Hand-to-Hand Combat: A Short History

israel1Not long ago, I was approached by an Austrian-German-Dutch producer who wanted me to participate in a TV program he was preparing about Krav Maga (Hebrew: “touch combat”) as practiced in the Israel Defense Force (IDF). Doing a Google search I was surprised at the number of references to it, not only in Hebrew but in various other languages as well. It turned out that Israeli instructors in the field are active in many countries and that their services are in demand. Given the obvious public interest in the subject, I thought a short survey of its role in the history of war in general, and in the Israeli military in particular, would not be out of place here.

The term “touch,” or hand-to-hand, or close, combat is misleading. In reality it comprises two very different things. One is combat without weapons, as in various kinds of martial arts; the other, combat conducted at such close quarters as to enable the combatants to look into the whites of each other’s eyes, as the saying goes. To avoid confusion the two must be kept separate.

Martial arts have been practiced for thousands of years. They may, indeed, go back all the way to our ape-like ancestors. Ancient Egyptian soldiers engaged in regular wrestling matches which were sometimes attended by the Pharaoh in person. The window from which Ramses III (ca. 1187-56 B.C) watched the bouts still exists. In the Iliad, boxing is mentioned. The champion, a certain Epheios, was the same man who later built the Trojan horse. During classical and Hellenistic times martial arts, including wrestling, boxing and pankration, a form that allowed the use of both arms and legs, formed an important part of sport. At Olympia, the site of the famous games, the statue of Agon, contest or struggle, stood right next to that of Ares, the god of war.

Martial art training took place in the palaestra, or gym. Opinion on its relevance to, and usefulness for, war was divided. The great comic poet Aristophanes claimed it was the secret behind the victory of his Athenian compatriots over the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C. One second-century A.D Greek author, Lucian, devoted an entire treatise to the subject, concluding that martial arts training helped citizens defend their cities and maintain their independence. Many others, both writers and commanders, disagreed. They believed that war required not all kinds of leaps, kicks and holds but the ability to face steel and bloody slaughter. The Romans tended to look down on it. The orator, statesman and soldier Marcus Tullius Cicero even named it as one of the causes of Greek “degeneracy.” Echoes of this debate can still be heard today as many armies make their troops engage in wrestling and boxing matches or else play rough team games such as American football.

Unarmed combat is close by definition. So is combat with edged weapons such as swords, spears, battle axes, and halberds. In general, technological progress has caused fighting to take place at greater and greater ranges. Never more so than after the introduction of firearms around 1500. To that extent, both unarmed combat and hand-to-hand fighting became more and more of an anachronism—as may also be seen from the declining percentage of bayonet wounds. During World War I the latter only accounted for less than 1 percent of all casualties. However, unarmed combat and hand-to-hand fighting did retain some role in trench fighting (World War I), commando operations, etc.

In Israel before it gained its independence in 1948 “face-to-face” combat, as it was called, was taught in the various paramilitary organizations such as FOSH and PALMACH. One reason for this was the need to compensate for the lack of weapons; another, the fact that such arts could be practiced in the open under the guise of “sport” without interference from the British Mandatory authorities. Later this tradition was carried over into the IDF. However, since unarmed combat was seen mainly as a substitute for the real thing its status was low. As late as 1973 Egyptian intelligence, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the Israeli soldier, concluded that he was intelligent and resourceful, but afraid of hand-to-hand combat. To this day many soldiers are afraid to train in the field; leading to a strong, some would say too strong, emphasis on safety measures.

Both in Israel and elsewhere, what changed the equation was the rise to prominence, after 1990 or so, of various forms of anti-terrorism, counterinsurgency, etc. Two factors were involved. First, operations of this kind differ from conventional ones in that they are often conducted at extremely close range. Soldiers on- and off duty must know how to defend themselves against attempts to kidnap them or snatch away their weapons; conversely, you cannot kill a terrorist with the aid of a cannon at fifteen kilometers distance. Second, many operations have to be conducted amidst the population, with the result that avoiding civilian casualties becomes supremely important. As with the police, often it is a question of using minimum, not maximum, force; of disarming and capturing the opponent, not killing him.

In the IDF today, “touch combat” instructors are selected from those who join the service with some experience in the field and given the appropriate training. It is taught at three levels. First, there is the low-level training received by most soldiers (including female soldiers, to help them resist sexual assault either by their own comrades or by others). Second comes the training given to all combat troops. Third is that given to special units involved in commando and anti-terrorist activities. Competitions, both individual and collective, are held. There are also exchange visits with experts from foreign armies. Many former IDF instructors have set up their own schools both in Israel and abroad.

As the demand for Israeli instructors shows, “touch combat” as taught in the IDF is held in high regard in many countries around the world. However, three reservations are in place. First, it is not clear whether such a thing as a unique Israeli style of “touch combat” really exists. Since it is said to mix many different styles, from jiu-jitsu to kickboxing, one would be surprised to learn that it does. Second, even within the IDF, there seems to be no single style all instructors use. To the contrary: as training is becoming increasingly outsourced, each instructor, now operating as a civilian, tends to develop his own style. One which, he claims, is superior to all the rest.

Last not least, in a world dominated by technology the possibilities of “touch combat,” or whatever it is called, remain limited. For some it is a sport. For others, especially police officers and anti-terrorist commandos, it is an essential part of their skills. However, it is neither war nor a substitute for it.