About 25 years ago, during the second week of my army basic training, I lost a water canteen. Trembling, I went up to my squad commander and reported the loss. The commander reassured me, explaining that there was plenty of time before roll call and that if I searched carefully I could find another canteen. I didn’t really understand what he meant, so I asked him where he thought I should look. He waved his hand in the general direction of the neighboring company and said, “Go look. I’m sure you’ll find one.” I asked him if he was suggesting that I steal a canteen. The squadron commander, who in retrospect was just a pimply 19-year-old kid, became agitated and started yelling at me not to put words in his mouth. He told me to get lost and watch my ass if I turned up at roll call without a canteen.
Unlike the recent and much talked-about moral conduct of Gen. Yoav Galant—a former candidate for the position of IDF chief of staff who was found to have taken public land for his own use and lied at least twice in court documents about it—this trivial episode required no governmental investigation committee or an opinion from the attorney general. Anyone who served in the army can recount many such moments. I don’t know a single soldier who didn’t have to lie and cut corners during his service, to cover for himself or for a friend or, more commonly, to cover for a commander who had to be kept happy. I must admit that the three years of my military service were the three years during which I told the most lies of my life.
So, if one thing surprised me about the recent revelations in the Galant affair, which led to his dismissal, it was not so much his lies as the total surprise and shock displayed by most commentators in the media. In a country where a president has been convicted of rape and a prime minister is mired in a chilling corruption trial, the iniquities of our civic systems are taken for granted. But for the candidate for chief of staff to lie? The man about to take charge of the army we Israelis so love to call the most moral in the world? Now, that is unfathomable. Perhaps this is the time to mention that the title of “most moral army in the world” is, to my ears, akin to being lauded as “man with least facial hair in the Hezbollah leadership.” Because, after all, an army’s purpose is not to feed the hungry or act as a crutch for the crippled and maimed but rather to fight and exact casualties from its enemies. Still, a myth is a myth. The IDF’s image as a scrupulous and unfailingly just military has always been Israel’s sacred cow, and it refuses to die no matter how many times you take a slaughterer’s knife to its neck.
A short perusal of the code of ethics proudly adopted by the IDF 16 years ago, written by a committee that comprised a general and a leading Israeli scholar on moral philosophy, reveals the 10 values that define “the IDF spirit.” The first is perseverance; that is, striving for victory. “This value,” the code notes, “appears first in order to emphasize its centrality.” The second value is “responsibility.” “Trustworthiness” is only third on the list.
It is very possible that a military system cannot be managed any other way—I don’t profess to understand anything about how to run an army. But what is absolutely clear to me when I see the surprised, hurt look on Galant’s face, or on the faces of Brig. Gens. Imad Fares and Moshe Tamir, who were both caught lying about minor personal issues and forced to leave the army, is that they are not a few bad apples in the general staff’s unblemished bushel but rather graduates of the army apparatus who learned the system only too well. They always persevered and strove for victory, and, as long as it didn’t mean contradicting those principles, they also told the truth. They did these things while protecting their country and fighting its enemies, and they kept doing them when they wanted to build an addition without a permit or cover up a questionable motor accident. Only when it came time for their hazing in the town square did they discover that the patterns that had served them so well when they were busy cutting corners in the army don’t really work in civilian life. Harsh as it is, dismissing these kinds of commanders is completely appropriate in my opinion. Somewhat less appropriate is the sanctimonious way several commentators and politicians have exploited such episodes to prop up the hobbled myth of the IDF as a pure, untarnished, unimpeachable organization.
When the state comptroller published a report about three weeks ago discrediting Galant, a military trial came to a close slightly further away from the limelight. It was the trial of Lt. Col. Omri Borberg, a regimental commander from the armored corps implicated in the shooting of a handcuffed protester in Na’alin, a town in the West Bank, and of Leonardo Korea, the soldier who actually pulled the trigger. Koria had argued that Borberg had ordered him three consecutive times to shoot the handcuffed protester with a rubber bullet. Neither man was sentenced to any time, and the colonel was allowed to keep his stripes. During the trial, Borberg maintained that he had not asked the solider to shoot and that it was a tragic misunderstanding. After the verdict was read, Borberg burst into tears of relief and said he wanted to go back to the army and continue serving his country. One day, if fate and his commanders are willing, he too will be an officer in the upper echelons of the IDF, and someone had better warn him right now that what works when you’re talking about shooting a handcuffed protester isn’t quite so palatable when it comes to illegal construction or seizing lands you don’t own.
Translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.