Two new English translations of books by senior Israeli military officers are available from Geffen Publishing: “Under Fire: Diary of an Israeli Commander on the Battlefield,” by Yoni Chetboun and “Defensive Shield: An Israeli Special Forces Commander on the Frontline of Counterterrorism” by Gal Hirsch.
The two works give their readers excellent portrayals of what it takes to serve in the Israeli Special Forces units, to become and to serve as a combat officer in the IDF, and the operations of the Israeli military since the start of the so called Second Intifada at the end of 2000. They also provide important insights into what exactly went wrong for the Israeli military during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
For those of us who lived through it here in Israel, the second war in Lebanon was frustrating and shocking. It was frustrating because of how little our military and defense leaders knew about the capabilities of Hezbollah, specifically the range and power of their missiles. It was shocking because of how little our political leaders were prepared for a war – any war – and their level of incompetence was not to be believed.
The most surprising part of it all, however, was that the leaders held on for as long as they did after their very public failures. About six months after the end of the Yom Kipur War Golda Meir was forced to resign as Prime Minister of Israel and retire from politics. Her Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was also forced out of office. They were replaced by the next generation of Israeli leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres respectively.
We had no such luck after the second war in Lebanon. The Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held on for another two and a half years. He was only forced to leave office and to call for early elections because of the criminal scandal which eventually led to his conviction and imprisonment.
Olmert was an accidental Prime Minister to begin with. He took over after Ariel Sharon was left in a coma from a brain hemorrhage and he was only in the position of second in charge because Sharon liked him. No one else did.
Olmert then became the leader of the Kadimah Party which was best known as the Ariel Sharon Party. With Olmert in charge instead of Sharon, it lost more than a quarter of the votes in the elections of 2006 that Sharon was expected to get.
His Defense Minister was the leader of the Labor Party at the time, Amir Peretz. Peretz ran in the 2006 elections on a social welfare platform promising to raise the national minimum wage and to increase social spending while raising taxes on the rich. So he of course immediately accepted the position of Defense Minister when offered it by Olmert, in spite of having zero credentials for the post.
It is not clear who we should blame more for this debacle: Ehud Olmert for making the appointment or Peretz for accepting it. This was the man who was famously filmed on television observing over the border with Lebanon while looking through oversized binoculars which still had their lens caps on. Talk about a blown photo op. It made Michael Dukakis riding that tank in 1988 seem like a smart move in comparison.
During the war itself Amir Peretz made the absurd boast that the leader of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah would remember his name. He certainly does. And did Peretz resign in disgrace after the war?
Of course not. He held on for almost a year until he was ousted as Labor Party leader in internal party primaries by Ehud Barak who made it clear that he would return to public office for the first time in six years by taking over the Defense Ministry himself.
The shame of it all were the young regular Israeli army combat soldiers, kids really, who were forced into unnecessary operations for political reasons. Some served in one of the elite units of the IDF known as Egoz. This is the unit in which Yoni Chetboun served.
The unit’s name means walnut in Hebrew. But don’t let that fool you. And don’t ask me why the IDF named one of its Special Forces units for a type of nut.
This former Special Forces officer states that his book “Defensive Shield,” was written for, “any individual who cherishes the State of Israel.”
Chetboun’s parents moved to Israel from France in the late 1970’s, inspired, in part, by the successful raid on Entebbe. That raid by the Israeli military in 1976 freed hostages taken from a hijacked Air France jet who were held at the Ugandan airport. The commander of the raid, Yoni Netanyahu, was the only Israeli soldier killed there. When he was born in 1979, Yoni Chetboun’s parents would name him for Yoni Netanyahu.
Thirty five years later Colonel Chetboun would act as the deputy Prime Minister of Israel under Binyamin Netanyahu, Yonatan Netanyahu’s younger brother.
Egoz is an old unit which at one time was disbanded, but was reformed in the 1990s to deal with the new threat posed by Hezbollah. The unit specializes in guerilla warfare. This was the type of warfare required in the second Lebanon war. It is also what the Americans learned the hard way that they needed to get better at in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Close quarter fighting in cities has fed the need for smaller rifles which is why both the IDF and the American military switched over to the smaller M16 which is called the M4. Israel also now has its own new rifle called the Tabor.
Colonel Chetboun began his officer training just as the so called second Intifada erupted at the end of 2000. This was when Yasser Arafat unleashed a pre-planned and well-coordinated new wave of terrorism on Israeli civilians after he rejected the deal offered him by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at a Camp David Summit in the fall of 2000.
So as a new lieutenant in command of soldiers barely younger than himself, Yoni Chetboun was forced to fight and lead in combat when his Jewish cousins abroad his age were mostly partying on university campuses. Yoni gives us some idea of what combat was like, but as the saying goes… “If you weren’t there you wouldn’t understand.”
Gripping. That’s one of the words used way too frequently to describe movies and books. Every new thriller is “gripping.” I suppose that means that the story “grips” the reader.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines something that is gripping as so interesting or exciting that it holds your attention completely.
Fascinating, spellbinding, riveting, enthralling and mesmerizing are all synonyms for it. In the case of “Under Fire,” however, gripping is certainly the most applicable word.
It was the only word which came to mind when reading Yoni Chetboun’s firsthand accounts of his experiences in direct combat against terrorists in the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield and during the second War in Lebanon in 2006.
I won’t deter from these accounts by writing any synopses of them here. You will just have to read the book.
In his own words, though, Yoni says that he, “made decisions during very extreme moments. I give the readers the ability to make their own decisions at such moments, even if they never serve in the military,” He also describes “Under Fire” as a “very Zionist book because I speak about all of the sectors of Israeli society. I speak about what is the meaning of a people’s army. A better understanding of the IDF as a people’s army and as a Zionist reserve.”
These are not quotes from the book but statements which he made to this writer so do not worry that “Under Fire” is written in Israeli English.
The second book, “Defensive Shield,” comes from former Brigadier General Gal Hirsch. This book contrasts from the first in that it is written more as a textbook on military practices and tactics. While Hirsch also gives the reader a brief autobiography at the beginning and glimpses into his personal life throughout, he provides much more detail oriented accounts of the military operations in which he was involved, all from different levels of command ranging from rookie lieutenant to general in command of a division.
These accounts might be hard to follow for someone who has little knowledge of the military or has no interest in military tactics. But they are informative enough for the American military to have ordered hundreds of copies of “Defensive Shield” for its training courses at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
Here are just a few samples of the stories which Gal Hirsch has to tell:
Sometimes you hear stories in the news about the irresponsible behavior of officers and just have to wonder how that person was able to get that far in the first place.
Anyone who has ever served in the military has had at least an officer or two who falls into this category. Someone who seems to be too dumb or clueless or both to have ever been accepted to the officer training program in the first place, let alone complete it. I recently saw a documentary about the IDF’s officer training school. The senior staff was shown holding meetings where they discussed which candidates should be dismissed.
One person dropped had not simply broken guard duty. He went back to sleep without ensuring that his replacement had fully awoken and taken over his position.
This once happened in my unit. As a punishment, we had to have two people on the watch every night for a week. But that was a regular soldier who screwed up and it was during basic training.
Hirsch tells several stories about junior officers whose irresponsibility with their weapons was hard to fathom. These were not just any officers. These were people in the Special Forces who had to go through unbelievably difficult screenings and extra training just to make it into their units to begin with. This makes the following so insane.
One platoon leader discharged his sidearm at night and the bullet went through a vehicle which was occupied by soldiers at the time. He was lucky that no one was harmed. To make matters worse, the platoon leader lied about it to his commanding officer.
Another time, a different platoon leader decided to surprise his men while they were sleeping with a mock assault on their position. Rather than fire blank bullets or even use dummy noise grenades, this lieutenant chose to throw live grenades around the corners of their compound while his mean were still asleep. The reader is left wondering how anyone could rise to such a serious position, an officer in an elite reconnaissance unit, and be so stupid.
Hirsch was rightfully surprised and annoyed when his superiors did not agree with his desire to remove these men from their commands.
He learned from these experiences when he later took command of the IDF officer’s training school known as “Bahd Ehad,” a Hebrew acronym for the words “Training School One.”
General Hirsch implemented a variety of new policies during his tenure there in order to improve the quality of the IDF officer corps. These ranged from the smaller scale such as requiring that all officer candidates know the lyrics to the Israeli national anthem by heart to the integration of women trainees into the school. Previously all women IDF officers were trained elsewhere.
As with “Under Fire,” I will not abridge Gal Hirsch’s accounts of his combat experiences. Read them. Especially what he reveals to have transpired behind the scenes between the senior IDF brass during the second war in Lebanon.
The major problem with “Defensive Shield” is what it does not say. All such memoirs about military service in Israel must pass the scrutiny of government and army censors who redact any content which they deem to be “sensitive” or “classified” in some way. This has led to criticisms about politically motivated censorship.
Perhaps because he continues to serve officially as a reservist, perhaps because he wished the book to deal specifically with the military side of the wars in which Hirsch participated, the author chose not to mention either Amir Peretz or Ehud Olmert while writing about the second war in Lebanon. General Hirsch makes only cursory references to the failures of the Israeli government.
In his opinion, the people in the government at the time took too long to acknowledge that the fighting in Lebanon had become an actual war. Hirsh also states that they worried too much about every individual tank destroyed and every soldier lost.
While Gal Hirsch does criticize former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz who was in command during the war, these criticisms are limited to the way in which Halutz treated Hirsch on a personal level. Hirsch was bothered by the Chief of Staff’s failure to show support for his subordinate’s while speaking to the press during the fighting and even seemingly agreeing with criticism leveled against Hirsch’s performance as a division commander.
Halutz was vilified by the Israeli public for his personal failures in Lebanon both as a military tactician and as a leader. He would resign early from his position as IDF Chief of Staff.
Hirsch does offer some sharp words for the government of Israel when describing how it allowed political considerations to push for direct attacks on the Hezbollah leadership rather than on taking out as many of its terrorists as possible. He also describes how late in the war his unit was ordered to capture a village just so the politicians could have a victory for the headlines and not because the village in question was needed for strategic purposes.
Plenty of books about the second war in Lebanon have been written by Israeli journalists as well as works on the many operations conducted by the IDF since the end of 2000 such as Operation Protective Edge and Operation Defensive Shield. But who knows where journalists get their information from. “Under Fire” and “Defensive Shield” will give you firsthand accounts of these events from men who were actually there.
“Under Fire: Diary of an Israeli Commander on the Battlefield,” By Lt. Col. Yoni Chetboun,
Pub date: July 1, 2017
List Price: $16.95
“Defensive Shield: An Israeli Special Forces Commander on the Frontline of Counterterrorism” by Gal Hirsch,
Pub Date: July 17, 2016
List Price: $29.95