ישראל נאמן | Lectures, Articles, Tours: Israel | Mideast onTarget | Elliot Chodoff & Yisrael Ne'eman | The Power of Casualties

The Power of Casualties

8 May 2007

by Yisrael Ne’eman

Many are wondering whether this government and especially PM Ehud Olmert will survive the fallout from the Winograd Interim Report. If it were only the current Report and even the final document in July, it is possible he could survive. The fact the PM is under criminal investigation may have more to do with his eventual ouster than the results of the Second Lebanon War against the Hezbollah last summer.

Many are comparing this war to that of Yom Kippur in 1973 and expect this government to fall just like Golda Meir’s did in the spring of 1974 (taking Defense Minister Moshe Dayan with her). The Olmert government may fall but the differences are enormous.

In 1973 Israel almost lost the war in its totality; it is said Dayan was considering surrender. Others were weighing the use of the nuclear option. The Syrian army on the Golan front was on the way to overrunning the Galilee and there was a day or so when Israel stood on the edge of destruction. In 2006 people were harried in the north with Katusha rockets falling and close to a million refugees fleeing south but Hezbollah was not going to destroy the country. Today the feeling is of deep disappointment and that we certainly could have crushed the Hezbollah but missed the opportunity, at least in part. In the aftermath of 1973 there was a visceral personal and national fury at the government. To add further insult the Agranat Report only dealt with military failure and did not touch government behavior of decision making. To this day many call for its cancellation considering it a cover-up. Winograd is investigating everyone, including previous governments.

Next we have the casualty counts, something which very few want to discuss. Close to 3000 soldiers died in the Yom Kippur War (over the years casualty counts go higher as more soldiers die of their wounds) when Israel’s population was less than half the size it is today. Last summer 119 soldiers and several tens of civilians lost their lives. Proportionally we are speaking of 2% military casualties this past summer in comparison to the Yom Kippur War. Examining the 1967 Six Day War with some 700 killed and a population 40% the size of today’s, the number of casualties suffered last summer is 7% in comparison. Let us not forget there are 3 times are many wounded as killed, another permanent reminder for everyone. Furthermore the 1967 War is seen as an enormous victory and unfortunately those killed and their bereaved families were largely forgotten in the national memory in lieu of victory celebrations and despite Memorial Day remembrances over the past 40 years.

This is all very “politically incorrect” and downright insulting to the bereaved families but first and foremost the nation recalls the results of the war and then decides whether it was “worthwhile” when weighing how much of a victory was obtained. Israelis do not believe they defeated the Hezbollah and therefore the casualties were “for naught”. The former Chief of Staff Dan Halutz fought a very careful war (except for the last few days), utilizing the air force to its fullest extent. But despite the best use of air power wars are won on the ground. As his friends and apologists have so correctly pointed out - had Israel gone for a full ground victory (and obtained it) casualties would have been much higher. Is that the price the Israeli public was willing to pay? As usual there is an abyss (call it a contradiction) between what is wanted on the national level and what one is willing to pay personally for “glorious” victories.

As a result of the shift in values away from collective, societal rights to those focusing on the individual in all western societies including Israel, the media and national spotlight illuminates the personal loss suffered by each individual family much more than previously. Soldiers cut down in their teens and 20s with their whole lives in front of them seem the greatest loss of all despite their military status as defenders of the nation. Their loss is amplified greater than previously but once the journalistic exposure has run its course and the collective pain has passed, the deep never ending anguish of the bereaved families remains forever.

Here numbers count and the defining moments in a nation’s history are made up through mass euphoria (1967) or fury (1973). Expectations also play a major role as in 1967 Israel expected to lose in the order of 10,000 men where as in 1973 one would have been hard pressed to find someone who expected war to break out. The summer of 2006 held expectations for a victory without casualties, a contradictory myth. It is extremely difficult to measure success when battling a non-state entity such as the Hezbollah since it is not a state and quite amorphous. Not killing Hassan Nasrallah or returning our abducted soldiers became symbolic of what went wrong.

Finally a bit of perspective may be in order. The deep long term anger at the end of the Yom Kippur War is not with us as the average person was affected in the short term only. The economy is doing quite well (it took a nose dive after the Yom Kippur War) and few Israelis are suffering the effects of the war even if there are suspicions concerning the future. Despite all the media coverage and the Winograd Report, casualties were low and that most vulnerable raw nerve was not squeezed as happened 33 years previously.

Olmert and his advisors recognize the situation for what it is and figure they can ride out the storm provided the final July report is not a total catastrophe or he gets nailed on a corruption charge. The PM is a clever politician having played the game for more than 30 years. Without sentiment he knows, “It ain’t over, until it’s over.”