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Book Review: A Cautionary Tale of the Israel Defense Forces

August 12, 2016 (Photo Credit: Gefen Publishing House)

For students of warfare, Middle East enthusiasts or anyone inspired by stories of redemption after a fall from grace, a new English version of a book by retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Gal Hirsch, the original scapegoat of Israel’s 2006 Lebanon War, is well worth reading.

In "Defensive Shield: An Israeli Special Forces Commander on the Front Line of Counterterrorism," Hirsch engagingly escorts the reader through his 34 years in uniform, starting at age 15 in a pre-military academy up through the backbiting post-war period when he’s forced to fall on his sword for perceived wartime failings.

Timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of that hybrid war with Hezbollah, Hirsch’s account of the 34-day fight and its aftermath is a compelling, albeit subjectively cautionary tale of the best and the worst of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

From the former commander of the 91st Division that bore the brunt of the fight in that summertime war, we gain insight into forces trained for high-threat ground maneuvers, yet relegated to a deterrence-sapping, anti-ambush posture across more than 100 kilometers of the border.

From his impassioned yet narrow field of view, Hirsch paints a chilling portrait of comrades in arms who conspired and cowered in the face of the faltering leaders they were honor-bound to obey and the casualty-averse public they were sworn to defend.

“An evil spirit struck the IDF at that time, and officers — mainly senior — acted behind the scenes in subversive and manipulative ways. ‘Me’ came before ‘we’ and I was stunned by the extent of this phenomenon,” he writes.

In the year leading up to the war, Hirsch’s division thwarted four abduction attempts and engaged more than a dozen, limited responses to cross-border provocations; responses Hirsch dismissed as “firing at rocks.” All the while, Hirsch insists he repeatedly warned that the defensive strategy of restraint — adopted following Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 from its 18-year occupation of South Lebanon — was unsustainable.

When Hezbollah eventually managed to pull off a July 12 attack on Israel’s side of the border fence — killing two reservists and absconding with what later was determined to be the bodies of two more — Hirsch ordered an air power-supported tank and infantry force on cross-border pursuit. But Hezbollah was well-prepared with a massive mine that sent the tank up in flames, killing all of its crew along with two more sent on the rescue mission.

Within 30 minutes of the attack that would trigger Israel’s second Lebanon war, the IDF lost 10 men. By the time it was all over — after three weeks of standoff strikes followed by a too-little, too-late ground offensive — the IDF had lost 121 of its best and brightest, 60 of them under Hirsch’s command.

Another 44 civilians would die in the more than 4,000 rockets that pummeled the homefront.

Once the war fog cleared and the cease-fire took hold, Hirsch writes bitterly about his no less brutal battles with peers maneuvering to supplant him; an “hysterial” media seeking a fall guy; and superiors who hoped one head on a platter would spare them a similar fate.

In detailed accounts of after-action confrontations, Hirsch exposes critical intelligence that never made its way to Northern Command; petty and costly changes to operational plans in the name of morale-boosting photo ops; kangaroo hearings and other wrongs done to him by active-duty cadre and retired officers clamoring for his head.

And he names names.

His j’accuse includes Lt. Gen. Dan Haultz, then-IDF chief of staff; deputy IDF chief Moshe Kaplinsky; Udi Adam, the former commander of the northern front who now serves as director-general of Israel’s Defense Ministry; and then Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot, since promoted to the country’s sole three-star billet as IDF chief of staff.

“I was naïve and focused only on fighting the enemy, even as I was being stabbed in the back,” he writes.

Israeli Army Advances deeper Into Lebanese Territory
Gal Hirsch, center, here as an Israeli army division commander, talks with the service's chief of staff, Dan Halutz, right, as they watch troops advance from Israel into Lebanon Aug. 12, 2006, from an observation point along Israel's border with its northern neighbor.
Photo Credit: Abir Sultan/IDF via Getty Images

At times, Hirsch’s road to redemption reads like that of a jilted lover. “I loved you for 15 years,” he tells Halutz, urging the IDF’s top officer to back him against trumped-up accusations.

At other times, the book reads like a white-knuckled thriller.

Two memorable scenes take place far earlier in his career that give readers a sense of the true grit Hirsch would draw upon a decade hence in his quest to remain in the IDF’s top ranks.

The first involved an April 1995 overnight mission deep inside Lebanon. Hirsch at the time commanded the Air Force’s Shaldag (Kingfisher) elite commando force. As dawn approached, superiors back home were frantically urging him and his team to head for the CH-53 extraction point. But Hirsch refused to abort until the mission was complete.

The other scenario, as chief of operations for Central Command’s Regional Division in February 1998, was far more personal yet similarly illustrative of how Hirsch favored risk over rules to overcome adversity.

In a well-planned ambush, as he drove through the West Bank town of Birzeit, Hirsch’s jeep was literally crushed by a boulder dropped from a bridge overhead. With collapsed lungs, broken ribs, a shattered collarbone and a fractured spine that left him partially paralyzed, doctors doubted whether he would ever walk again.

After a year of painful recuperation, the wounded warrior had resumed his upward trajectory throughout the ranks.

A stint at the IDF’s Operational Theory Research Institute — an internal think tank for developing new battle concepts — was followed by assignments as brigade commander in the West Bank and then chief of operations (J-3) for Central Command. It was in his J-3 capacity for Central Command, the theater responsible for the West Bank and Jerusalem, that Hirsch put into practice the theoretical concepts he helped coin.

636065969168244121-galhirschpic-3-.jpg
At times, Hirsch's words read like that of a jilted lover. At other times, the book reads like a white-knuckled thriller.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Gefen Publishing House

Israel embarked on its 2002 Operation Defensive Shield in response to a suicide attack that killed 30 on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Passover. Designed primarily by Hirsh (hence the title of this book) with the promise of “defeating Palestinian terror,” the operation marked the largest campaign in the West Bank since the 1967 Six Day War.

Fourteen years after the fact, that operation and the technologies, tactics and procedures it prescribed are still credited in large part for maintaining the relative calm in the occupied territories.

But the most provocative parts of the book ultimately bring the reader back to Lebanon, where Hirsch, on balance, offers constructive criticism based on his experiences at the front lines. He devotes a full chapter to lessons learned, key among them:

  • Accomplish the mission, regardless of changes in plan.
  • Clearly identify war aims and communicate operational orders in language that is clearly understood.
  • Don’t allow fear of casualties to blunt momentum during ground maneuvers. “War is not a cake walk. … It is essential to do everything possible to avoid hysteria emanating from singular events; and to refrain from making sweeping, all-encompassing decisions based on them."
  • View airlift operations not as special missions but as another form of transportation for crack forces.
  • Make ample use of engineering forces to prepare the battle space.
  • Employ “swarms” of infantrymen to overtake key areas and outskirts of urban areas before sweeping in with armored forces driving on defined routes.
  • In all but cases of moral failings, commanders must assume responsibility for their subordinates — not “deflect criticism by throwing lower echelons under the bus.”

It took six years for the high command to welcome Hirsch — a man who could have risen to IDF chief of staff — back into the fold as an active reserve officer and deputy commander of the new special operations Depth Command.

Two years into that position, which he held from 2012-2015, Hirsch finally found full redemption by the judge who headed the government’s official commission of inquiry into the war. In a January 2014 letter to then-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Judge Eliahu Winograd exonerated Hirsch, insisting he would have done so earlier but that his commission at the time was precluded from appearing to interfere in personnel matters:

“Ever since the submission of the Winograd Commission report pertaining to the events during the Second Lebanon War, my conscience has tormented me, as we could not, as we had meant, include a warm recommendation that the IDF offer Gal Hirsch to return to full service in its ranks. ... It would be an expression of respect and appreciation to the man and his deeds in the IDF after the difficult years he underwent and is still suffering, since his forced retirement.”

As evidence of the full circle traversed by Hirsch, the book’s back cover bears this message from the IDF chief of staff, one of his former detractors: “Gal Hirsch [is] one of the main people to whom the residents of the north owe the [peaceful] period since the Second Lebanon War. I think you are a role model. You are an Israeli patriot.”

"Defensive Shield: An Israeli Special Forces Commander on the Front Line of Counterterrorism" was written by Gal Hirsch and published by Gefen Publishing House in 2016 as an updated and adapted version of the 2009 Hebrew book "War Story, Love Story."

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