War Is War

By February 2, 2017

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 406

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The modern approach to many issues dictates that we try to control events around us, but war is chaotic by nature and does not yield to predetermined processes. The prudence with which the 2014 Gaza campaign was waged deserves the public’s full confidence.

Even before State Comptroller Yosef Shapira’s report on the 2014 military campaign in the Gaza Strip has been released to the public, the media has been hysterically quoting excerpts from leaked minutes of the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet’s meetings. It is using the leaks to lambaste Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and other top military officials, including the IDF Chief of Staff and Director of Military Intelligence.

The voices leading public discourse in Israel this week resonated with doubt over Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s iconic statement: “May every Jewish mother know that she has placed her son’s fate in the hands of commanders worthy of the task.” Some have even suggested that we have placed our sons’ fates in the hands of an unworthy national leadership.

Public interest in the state comptroller’s report on Operation Protective Edge focuses on two core questions. The first seeks to understand how it was that the government led Israel to war with Hamas in the summer of 2014. Was a military campaign in Gaza really necessary? The second wants an explanation for what seems an affront to national pride: How did we find ourselves, as a nation and a military, ill-equipped to deal with the threat posed by Hamas’s grid of terror tunnels?

One must stress that the defense establishment focused on both questions as soon as the fighting concluded, and did not attempt to shirk responsibility. The IDF, the Shin Bet security agency, and the Diplomatic-Security Cabinet were familiar with the tunnel threat long before the summer of 2014, and the comptroller’s report notes as much.

The issue that needs to be reviewed in depth is how the threat was perceived and understood, and what was done as a result of those perceptions.

This is a serious question, but the public discourse has been marred by leaked minutes from cabinet meetings, tailored to manipulate certain individuals’ political image when the public comes to judge who foretold the situation, who wanted to fight, and who was dragging his feet.

Any sensible person understands that cabinet discussions on fateful national issues must be held behind closed doors to maintain their integrity and keep them free of personal interests. If anything, such discussions are a test of ultimate national responsibility. Still, there is always concern that someone will go on the record, either with the aim of catering to public opinion or in an attempt to land on the right side of history.

I have not read Shapira’s report in full, and it is far too early to judge its findings. I believe, however, that there is room to ask how the comptroller addressed systemic questions, such as whether the 50-day war could have been avoided. Many wars in history were avoidable, and the government may have been able to prevent Operation Protective Edge.

The Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, for example, could have been avoided had the government not decided to mount a full-scale response to the abduction of IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev by Hezbollah. The decision to launch a military campaign is a fundamental one that often presents a leader with his greatest challenge and shows his true loneliness at a crucial juncture.

The question of the righteousness of going to war always remains in the background, even when the decision-making process goes by the book. It transcends the technical authority of the state comptroller or any commission of inquiry.

Reviews of the technical scope of a military campaign, such as weapons function or malfunction, inventories, force competency, and so on, follow methodologies designed to identify the cause of the failure. When reviewing strategic decisions, however, an investigation cannot focus on technical aspects.

Past commissions of inquiry appointed by parliament, such as the Agranat Commission, which investigated the military’s failures leading up to the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Winograd Commission, which reviewed military actions during the Second Lebanon War, operated according to the modern premise that if something went wrong, one of the individuals along the chain of command must have been negligent.

The modern approach to many issues is to expect to be able to control events around us, even in war. But war is a naturally chaotic situation that involves the unknown. This is why military intelligence surprises, as well as crisis management issues that arise during wartime, lead to audits. If only we knew who was at fault, we could replace them and regain our peace of mind.

So how do comptrollers make decisions on strategic issues? The real test is where the desired outcome lies. In a football game, the end result – the score – is clear. But wars are different, and their results can only be seen by determining whether their achievements stand the test of time. When it comes to war, outcomes can remain far from clear even years later.

From a professional standpoint, audits seek to discern what the objectives of the war were and how many of them were achieved over time. This is a complex question that depends on various criteria. We tend to focus reviews on standard, proper decision-making processes. This approach assumes that proper procedures necessarily yield correct decisions.

Unfortunately, this assumption does not stand up to a reality check. That does not dissuade advocates of proper government from demanding adherence to structured work procedures, especially when dealing with crucial questions such as launching a war.

Commissions of inquiry or comptroller audits often focus on process: When did the cabinet meet? What information was presented to the ministers? What dynamics characterized the debate? Did the appropriate experts appear before the forum? and more. The public sector has committed itself to thinking in legal patterns, even in matters concerning war. This has caused public discourse to focus, in turn, on procedure rather than substance.

The country’s leadership and the military are not exempt from any effort to prepare for and successfully meet fateful challenges – on the contrary. But first, we must examine ourselves as a society and review the exaggerated expectations we vest in processes and procedures when it comes to managing affairs of state.

War is, by definition, an event that can spiral out of control. Those who seek to use investigations as a means by which to turn war into an event managed according to a predetermined, set process, as if it were a production line, are trying to determine a baby’s nature before there is even a pregnancy. Even in modern times, man cannot control everything.

To the best of my judgment, as a member of the IDF General Staff at the time and as someone who reviewed Operation Protective Edge in the weeks following its conclusion, the prudent and responsible way in which the campaign was waged by the political and military leadership deserves the full confidence of the public.

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Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen is a senior research associate the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battle on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. He was a Corps commander, and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in Israel Hayom on January 27, 2017.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family

Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen
Maj. Gen. (res.) Gershon Hacohen

Served in the IDF for 42 years, commanding troops in battle on the Egyptian and Syrian fronts. Was a Corps commander, and commander of the IDF Military Colleges.