One of the reasons the Azaria case captivated Israel was because, since almost all young Israelis serve in the IDF, each Israeli parent could imagine his or her own son or daughter in the same situation in which Azaria found himself: in the West Bank, adrenaline rushing after surviving an attack, and making a bad decision that would have far-reaching consequences. It’s worth noting that the Azaria incident took place at the same time in which a new wave of terror was sweeping through Israel and the territories and had heightened the fears of many Israelis. “He’s everyone’s boy,” Azaria’s defenders cried.
No, no he is not, firmly replied the IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot. “An 18-year-old man serving in the army is not ‘everyone’s child.’ He is a fighter, a soldier, who must dedicate his life to carry out the tasks we give him. We cannot be confused about this.”
Eisenkot’s words, and the verdict itself, put the IDF’s senior officers in Tel Aviv at direct odds with the populist rightwing government in Jerusalem. Extreme rightwing protesters chanted that Eisenkot would join his assassinated predecessor and former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin if he kept going, and some of prime minister’s political allies made a point of showing up at Azaria’s trial and complaining about the “leftists” in the IDF leadership and the security services.
The stress on the IDF as an institution showed, and in my meetings with Israeli counterparts over the next several days, I made a point to mention how much I appreciated not only their strategic leadership but their moral leadership.
Many Americans are now expecting that same kind of moral leadership from their own men and women in uniform—especially since Trump has so many retired generals among his closest advisors, using the stars on their shoulders to generate support for his policies. And for the moment, the uniformed officer corps still carries with it the moral authority to tilt the public debate. My own dad is the kind of Trump supporter who thinks the president is being reasonable when he talks about getting tough with terrorists. But as soon as someone like Jim Mattis weighs in against torture, my dad’s views change accordingly because of the respect he has for America’s military leadership.
In time, though, I worry military leaders can lose some of that moral authority. And to a degree, Americans will all be responsible when they do: Over the past several decades, retired general officers have grown more political, most notably taking on more prominent roles as surrogates for political campaigns of both parties, and all of us partisans have been complicit in that.
Every four years, the Democratic and Republican parties compete to see who can amass the longest list of retired general officers supporting their presidential candidate. Everyone remembers retired Army lieutenant general Mike Flynn’s inflammatory rhetoric at the Republican National Convention, but retired Marine general John Allen gave a highly partisan speech of his own a week later at the Democratic National Convention.