The Way We War

By Yossi Alpher

Published November 11, 2005, issue of November 11, 2005.

Three months ago this column was devoted to a comparison between the Israeli military and the American armed forces, focusing on the differing public attitudes associated with a conscription-based army as opposed to a volunteer force. In particular, the relative absence in the United States of organized mass protest concerning the war in Iraq, seemingly associated with the fact that American forces are volunteers largely drawn from the lower socioeconomic strata, seemed to imply a problem with public accountability for the use of force by the American system. On the other hand, Israel’s ongoing reliance on near-universal conscription generates problems of its own, such as when soldiers refuse to carry out allegedly politically-motivated orders, that might be alleviated by switching to a volunteer professional force.

As feedback to that article has made clear, there is yet more to glean from comparing the Israeli and American militaries, beginning with the issue of “collateral damage.” Though there are significant differences between Al Qaeda on the one hand and Hamas and Islamic Jihad on the other, the United States and Israel are both fighting Islamic extremists. Their fight against terrorism all too frequently takes place in crowded areas where it is hard to distinguish the bad guys from the good guys. Yet the two publics appear to take diametrically opposed attitudes toward the volatile issue of collateral casualties, or non-combatant civilians caught in the line of fire.

Last month, for example, American aircraft killed some 70 alleged Sunni insurgents in a strike in western Iraq; the local population claimed that many of these casualties were innocent bystanders. At the same time, in two separate incidents in Afghanistan four friendly policemen were killed by American forces in cases of mistaken identity.

Back home in America, the incidents were reported by the media, then promptly dropped. There was no uproar, no call for an investigation. Either the media and the public have a sophisticated understanding that things like this happen in anti-terrorist warfare and assumed the armed forces would investigate where necessary, or more likely they were simply indifferent.

In Israel, in sharp contrast, every instance of Palestinian civilian casualties is headline news. Knesset committees ask questions, petitions are signed and efforts are redoubled to perfect weaponry that enables more pinpoint targeting. Last week, when a Hamas militant was inadvertently killed because he was in the car alongside an Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades terrorist targeted (and killed) by an Israeli pilotless aircraft, Israel practically apologized to Hamas lest the killing affect the current cease-fire with that organization. A lot more ink was spilled when a 12-year old boy in Jenin was shot and killed because, from more than 600 feet away, he and his toy rifle looked like the real thing.

Are Israelis more humane and moral than Americans? Could they conceivably have a less sophisticated understanding of the pitfalls of urban warfare, when so many Israelis do military service and have first-hand experience of combat mistakes? Why does the Israeli media make an issue of these incidents, while the American media does not?

Surely the one maintains professional standards no less exacting than the other. Or is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict simply so much more intimate and closer to home, with reporters enjoying immediate access to every combat scene and everyone understanding that eventually we’ll all have to divide up the land and live together?

Another seemingly relevant area of comparison between the militaries concerns the demography of recruits. Because the American volunteer army draws its personnel from the lower socioeconomic strata, the daily lists in the American press of soldiers killed in Iraq indicate that around 85% are from small towns in rural America; rare is the American casualty from Los Angeles or Chicago.

If 85% of Israel’s military casualties hailed from peripheral development towns like Kiryat Shmona and Ofakim, there would be a lot of soul-searching in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Yet America seems content with this arrangement. Or, as several American acquaintances have professed, perhaps they do favor a balanced, universal conscription — as long as it doesn’t involve their own sons and daughters. Indeed, the American political leadership orchestrating the war in Iraq is made up largely of politicians who never did significant military service, and that too is alright with the public. In Israel, on the other hand, we sometimes seem to have too many ex-generals in politics.

Finally, there is the issue of torture and secret incarceration in Guantanamo and other, nameless locations deliberately selected outside the United States. Here there finally is a controversy in America, pitting Congress — led by a former prisoner of war, Senator John McCain — against an administration that still wants to waive the internationally accepted rules for dealing with prisoners when it comes to fighting terrorism.

No doubt, the traditional rules for treating POWs do have to be reinterpreted when it comes to dealing with terrorists who deliberately target civilians. Israel has been wrestling with this issue for years. Both the High Court of Justice and the Knesset have had their say, and yet the security services have still been able to function despite the rules imposed upon them.

In Washington, the administration’s reluctance to accept similar legal and humanitarian constraints suggests that a leadership with more direct military and intelligence experience of its own might be a good thing after all. But with the all-volunteer army system now so thoroughly ensconced in America, this appears to be far from likely.

Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.

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