Monday, October 03, 2011


An Officer And A Professional

Last month, under the auspices of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies and the Technical Command College, several hundred IDF officers – including scores of freshly minted lieutenants along with a sprinkling of top brass – packed an auditorium on the campus of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan to hear ranking commanders and scholars talk about military life as a profession. What qualities does a fine officer need to possess? Does character still play a role on the 21st century battlefield where technological prowess can be more devastating than physical dexterity? How can officers better understand the politicians they need to advise?

The United States army has its military academy at West Point; British officers are trained at Sandhurst. These are essentially military colleges that graduate cadets as junior officers complete with undergraduate degrees.

In contrast, IDF officers usually start their careers straight out of high-school as conscripted privates. The road leading to a junior commission in the Israeli military typically begins when a private is identified as having leadership potential or some other desired skill and is invited to make a further service commitment – periods vary – by enrolling in a course of less than six-months at the Haim Laskov Officer Candidate School (BAHAD 1) near Mitzpe Ramon.

Ground forces cadets pursue an area of specialization (armor, Special Forces, logistics and so on) while navy and air-force enrollees undergo their own expert training. In addition, there are a variety of other training programs for elite units within the IDF. A separate pre-recruitment selection system operates to tap high-school youths bound for elite volunteer units who may or may not become officers. Most officer cadets will anyway not make a career in the permanent army. No matter their path toward a commission, officer cadets must ultimately complete their undergraduate degrees. Those who do want to move up the ladder of command must ultimately pursue further advanced security and academic credentials. While today's officer training is more structured than in Israel's early years the Jewish state has never had the luxury of sending its officers off to years of uninterrupted study.

Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, head of the Northern Command, a plain-speaking rising military star, said the qualities he looks for in an officer are the ability to think creatively, plan meticulously, and instill morale through personal example. For

Maj.-Gen. Sami Turgeman, the Ground Forces Commander, the key is an officer's ability to execute doctrine learned in the classroom under actual field conditions. "Even when you know what needs to be done, applying it is the hard part." Good officers have to build their forces for war 365 days a year. Continuing military education is essential, Turgeman asserted, adding that he was intent on protecting the army's training budget from recently proposed austerity measures.

Prof. Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics challenged the military men and women to consider how waging war from behind computer consoles, for example sending remotely piloted aircraft (drones) on targeted killing missions, might affect their ethos as warriors. Cyber-warfare may remove a soldier from immediate danger yet they must nevertheless struggle not to allow technology to diminish their humanity. Human behavior is invariably inconsistent depending on circumstances so character-building matters. This places added demands on building esprit de corps. In Iraq's Abu-Ghraib prison, for instance, highly motivated U.S. Navy fighters refused to take part in ongoing prisoner abuse.

Officers should also know how to give advice to politicians, Prof. Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins told the assembly. There is no straightforward training for the role of strategic adviser; expertise is developed mostly through self-education. Cohen, who counseled former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, noted that "advice is a dangerous gift even when given from the wise to the wise." Since war is a constantly evolving situation, advice-giving officers need to time after time ask – precisely because they may not get satisfactory answers – "What are we trying to do?" "What are our priorities?" "Why do we think this will succeed?" "What else is happening in the political and security environment?" and "How will we define victory?"

A professional officer needs to muster the courage to disagree with his superiors – something that, paradoxically, may be easier within the military system (especially in Israel) than when advising the political echelon. For this, a good liberal arts education and overseas experience is essential. Those who understand an organization's sub-culture (be it the White House or the Prime Minister's Office) are better positioned to sway decision makers. Courage and character come fatefully together as life-and-death decisions are made in the absence of complete information.

Meanwhile, the scope of what Israeli warriors are required to know keeps expanding though there is little time for extended educational breaks. Ideally, a good officer should study philosophy (as a means of enhancing clarity of thought) while achieving mastery over ever more complicated machines of war. Doctrine must be constantly updated and disseminated especially to reservists.

Though the IDF remains primarily a people's army, the unremitting threats the country faces has long demanded that it be professionally organized. Its officer corps – standing army and reserves – is rightly renowned for the legendary battle-cry “Acharai!” – “Follow me!” All the same, Israeli parents who send their children into the army have every right to expect that officers' decisions will be informed – less by idealistic notions of heroism – than by the skillful application of the art and science of warfare.


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