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?