The Young Army of Israel
S. L. A. MARSHALL,who served for forty years in the United States Army, is one of this country’s foremost military specialists. He was the youngest second lieutenant during World War I, became a combat, historian with the rank of colonel in World War II, and, as a brigadier general, was infantry operations analyst in Korea. In 1956 he went to Israel to cover the Sinai war for the Detroit NEWS and has since returned there four times.
ALTHOUGH today it seems as though I am talking of old, old friends, my introduction to the young Army of Israel was in 1956, during the lightning campaign across the Sinai Peninsula. It is the youthful vigor of this army which is its most startling characteristic. In age count, at all levels, it is probably three or four years junior to any army on earth. As now organized, the Army has been going only eleven years. In absolute contrast to this brief history is its veteran steadiness and emotional maturity.
Several months ago I returned from my fifth visit with the Israelis. There had been a concluding talk with Major General Zwi Tsur, the youthful soldier who is chief of Tzahal, the Israel Defense Forces. He was going over main problems and had just made the point in passing: “So long as Israel has air superiority, it can survive.”
The rest of it, he put this way: “We’ve got to have a little army. We can’t afford a big one. Quality is the main thing. But it isn’t easy to maintain when you depend on reserves. So what do you do? You must work all the time with the commanders. My reason for optimism is that we’ve got a great bunch of young people. When given work to do, they’re enthusiastic. Yes, we’re criticized for turning officers out of the Army in their early forties. But there’s no choice in that if we are to keep our velocity high. The quiet frontier is wonderful, but it promotes a special danger for Israel. Our people become lulled to sleep. Look at the military budget; in proportion to the budget as a whole, it gets smaller every year. Every Arab state is spending relatively more.”
I asked him, “Are you under pressure to cut your standards?”
He said, “All the time. Make training easier. Shorten the period of national service. But these things we cannot do. If it comes to that, I’ll turn in my suit.”
Over the years I had heard almost identical talk from Generals Moshe Dayan and Haim Laskov, General Zwi Tsur’s predecessors in office. This fixed view is the sine qua non of what I term veteran steadiness in Israeli forces. When the national economy requires it, the High Command will defer projected arms purchases or slash reserve training programs without argument. But it will not yield on what is required to keep soldiers tiptoe-ready for battle.
They were so when the whistle blew for the Suez war in 1956, when I first met them. It did not occur to me before I went that I would return again and again and might someday know them better than the United States Army, in which I served forty years. All that I had read of Israel’s forces in military literature had persuaded me that they were remote, mysterious, secretive, a quite foreign body reflecting the military peculiarities of the region, and probably not capable of teaching the rest of us anything.
After forty-eight hours with them in the Sinai Desert, I knew that all of these preconceptions were dead wrong. No troops anywhere are more approachable. From file closers and cooks to the General Staff, these are receptive men who relish professional conversation and bless it with a refreshing candor. Even their intelligence officers, unlike that strange breed elsewhere, do not play the canary-swallowing cat. They talk straight.
Yes, the Army talks Hebrew and operates in that language. That would make it a little hard to follow but for the fact that practically every officer and most N.C.O.’s speak English. Also, some of its tactical tricks and training procedures are uniquely Sabra. But as to its discipline, comradeship, philosophy, and general way of going, the Army is as Western as the ideas of Steuben, Cromwell, and Sir John Moore, the great architects of military organization within free systems. It is a relaxed army, probably more so than any other, being confident of its fighting competence.
Since the Sinai campaign, no modern staff college elsewhere has questioned the fact. Never before was a reputation for combat superiority gained so quickly. That the Egyptian Army, weakly officered, did an indifferent job of defending the heavily fortified ridges had to be taken into account. Even so, the performance spoke for itself. The plan was limitlessly audacious. The Sinai wastes virtually prohibit military movement. Where not irrupted by saw-tooth ranges and mountainous dunes, the country is boulder-strewn wadi or trackless sand. That work horse, the American-built jeep, is stopped by this terrain within its own length when it quits the hardsurface road. I know, having tried it repeatedly. Even so, the brigades went at the barrier, some of them moving on city buses and ice trucks, for lack of combat carriers. Against fire, these soldiers traveled faster and farther in less time than regiments have ever moved before. It was a triumph, less of motorization than of mobility wrought with human nerve and muscle.
The performance of the brigades in Sinai was consistent with the maxim of Marshal Foch — Always audacity. In all ranks, it was risk, risk, risk. In the midst of danger, leaders went first. At all levels, undeviating response to command from above was the one inviolable rule. But other things were to be noted. Amid battle stress, in the moment of decision, Israeli commanders did not call halt because supply was running short. Like the late General George S. Patton, they move and depend on supply to catch up. One other rule by which they conserve force is that, if troops are worn out, they rest them irrespective of situation, a battlefield precept which American forces are slow to learn.
But troops do not shine in battle merely because certain rules are laid down. My subsequent visits with the Israeli Army had this mission: to determine whether combat performance directly reflected High Command doctrine and derived from a rigorously realistic training standard.
The answers, drawn from close observation over the years, are yes in both cases. The doctrine calls for chance-taking in combat to an extreme which we would call reckless. Why not? Gideon believed in it, and the centuries haven’t proved him wrong. Battle is a fog. Nothing is ever certain.
IN ISRAEL, Army training is two or three times as demanding as in America. Most of it is in the field, devoted to combat exercises. Even the reserves train that way, away from their families, with a diet of iron rations and a greatcoat for a bed, just as it would be in war. Recruits, trying to qualify for N.C.O., think nothing of having to march forty to fifty miles, across hills, with light packs, three days in a row.
So there came of the Sinai campaign a glittering reputation, difficult to maintain. But it was not won by hard-core men-at-arms. Israel’s is the smallest standing army serving any modern state. Its sword and shield are a citizen army which must be summoned from the streets, shops, and olive fields within a few hours. The population is approximately one million smaller than that in the Greater Detroit area. But this trained and ready reserve, male and female, about equals in number the total reserve of the United States, exclusive of the National Guard.
Here we have the only full measure of what a free people may do to bring forth a sufficient military manpower from a civilian mass when freedom’s survival may well depend on other communities seeing the light, and quickly. As Frederick Martin Stern has so well written: “What has led most political and military leaders to accept western weakness in conventional and territorial forces as inevitable is mainly the prevailing welter of misconceptions about the character, cost and effectiveness of a real citizen army.” In the Sinai campaign, there was no marked difference in the performance of the Israeli brigades, regular and reserve. As Tsur says, it isn’t easy, but there are ways of doing it.
But the untold half of the story — how Israel screens and qualifies its soldiers, and through the agency of Tzahal moves its society to higher ground — is more heartening, more characteristic of the state. Once the northern Negeb was unvegetated desert; now young forests bloom. Once Huleh was a marsh; now it is a fertile farmed frontier. It is like that with the people. Israel’s supreme gift is not soil for the uprooted, but fresh roots for individuals who had none in their former environment. Its success comes not from being served by a higher percentage of brainy, well-educated folk, but from persevering beyond any other society in giving usefulness and a satisfying existence to the lowest common denominator.
Tzahal is a main instrument to that end. My last trip took me to Tel Hashomer — “Hill of the Watchman” —an unpretentious camp outside of Tel Aviv. In one sense, it is properly named, or, though it rests on flat ground, this induction and classification center is the watching eye, scanning and refining manpower policies so that the moral strengthening of the society is served not less than military security.
As for selection, literally there is none. Except for the Women’s Army Corps, which can afford to be selective, Tzahal takes them as they come — the flat of feet, the color-blind, the slow learners, the illiterates. Unless they are in the near-idiot class, emotionally beyond salvage, or in need of prolonged medical attention, they are inducted, they serve their time, and the standards of Tzahal do not suffer thereby.
Currently, in the United States, the recruiting offices and draft boards reject Class IV and V material — the slow learners, the boys with low IQs. At present force levels, they are not needed to fill, and the theory is that accepting them would impose a drag on military operations. This has been policy for the past four years. The Israeli psychiatrists at Tel Hashomer say: “We take into account IQ because it is an interesting factor. But our data show no significant relationship between IQ and job performance under arms when classification is sensibly conducted.”
By turning them down, the United States deprives those in Class IV and V of the opportunity to establish a base of self-confidence and new aptitude which success in uniform might afford them. There are no volunteers in the Israeli Army. Universal service is a fact. Every fit man of military age travels the same road. The acceptance of those in Class IV and V is not from adherence to the principle. The object is to put a new foundation under people. In service, they are made literate, taught Hebrew, their own history and geography, how to work with others, new skills or a trade. They return to civil life, after their two and one half years, doubly useful citizens.
TZAHAL’S screening and classification methods have been in operation ten years. The experts at Tel Hashomer check back on every soldier after he has been in service approximately one year, by which time, it is reckoned, he has got over his initial fright and is familiar with the grind. His superiors don’t know the reason for the checkup. They are simply asked to rate all the men on job performance. The statistics show that, in service, the Israeli soldier whose equivalent would be discarded for low IQ in the United States in nine cases out of ten is rated equal to the general standard of the Army by his commander. Surprisingly, the highest average of good performance by those with low IQs occurs in the technical services. The lowest is in infantry.
Through the years, the overall rejection rate at Tel Hashomer for all causes, physical disability being the main reason, has run between 7 and 10 per cent of the nation’s eighteen-year-old males. During the World War II emergency, when the Army sweated for more divisions, the United States rejected 5,250,000 young men, or 29 per cent of the total number examined. Are the Israelis by nature a tougher breed? They say no at Tel Hashomer, that they have just as high a percentage of handicapped, misfit, and lowpromise people, though they add that Israelis are more rarely muscularly flabby.
Take another example, from the Women’s Army Corps. It happened this year. Force levels dictate only a 25 per cent intake of the female eligibles. So, like the U.S. armed forces, “Chen” looks for the cream. Of that came the latest noble experiment at Camp Deborah, near Tel Aviv, where the girl soldiers train.
Lieutenant Colonel Tzila Rabinovitz showed me the results on Passing Out Day, when I visited Camp Deborah to see the latest class of recruits in their graduation drill and review. These more privileged little ladies put on an exquisite performance, with snap and rhythm to match the dear old Guards at trooping of the colors.
But Tzila’s mind was on the other company, and it was this she wished to talk about. Having a little money to spend, the Corps had just finished an experiment. Two hundred young women had been specially inducted and made a training company. We would call them the dregs. They were of low IQ or illiterates, with no station in life and relatively little prospects because of their lack of background. Recent immigrants, they spoke thirty-six languages among them, and none spoke the tongue of the country. So here was raw material to make a drill instructor despair.
For four months, the company schooled together. There were but four subjects — Hebrew, knowledge of the country, personal hygiene (howto take a bath and make a bed), and how to get along with other people.
For the next two months, they underwent formal military training. At the end of the six months, 170 of them, after comprehensive testing, were rated, in all respects, up to the standards of the Women’s Army Corps. The other thirty were put back for a sixty-day refresher course in the nonmilitary subjects to see if they, also, could be upgraded with a little more time.
Are we talking here about military training or about higher education, as it should be, in Israel and over the world? As a process narrowly limited to the intellectual advancement of the already favored few, Israeli military training has no vitality, no promise proportionate to today’s obligation to the problems of tomorrow. But as a system of ideals toward broadening life’s horizons for all men, it extends the teachings of the saints and the prophets.
This is a great part of Israel’s aim through Tzahal. Reflecting the national policy, the job at the Hill of the Watchman, and elsewhere through the establishment, is so to handle the youth of the nation that the burdens of military service will fall equally on all, and, more important still, that all will have an equal opportunity through military service. All democracies pay lip service to this ideal. Only Israel makes it come true.
No Israeli youth is rejected by the military because life denied him a chance to attend school. There is no educational requirement for induction, and there is none for officership. Family position and scholarly achievement have nothing to do with whether the youth is routed to a relatively safe job in the technical services or assigned to armor or infantry. If his preservice psychometric testing shows that he is a combat type and can take the stress, that is where he is put.
While still in school, at age seventeen, six months before induction, the Israelis are screened. The tests are constructed to reveal emotional stability, skills, job potential, and leadership aptitudes. The boy may come from screening already tagged for line service and N.C.O. school. There is no road to officership except noncommissioned service.
Every soldier with an IQ rating above 104 is considered a candidate for commission. But Tzahal goes all the way with him. Eight months after induction, all soldiers rated 105 and over are brought back to Tel Hashomer and given a threeday test to determine whether they are qualified to be officers. While going through group problems at the center, they are anonymous and are known to one another and to the examiners only by a number. I have watched this operation; the Israeli testing of recruits is more strenuous and trickier than similar tests given at Fort Benning to test the leadership quality of American junior officers. About 20 per cent of the total make the grade at Tel Hashomer. Most of them are already N.C.O.’s or en route to a rating. Among Israeli eighteen-year-olds, fewer than 5 per cent are illiterate. On the other hand, practically none have had higher education.
The military system — the people at the Hill of the Watchman does the testing when a youth seeks deferment for educational reasons. There is but one criterion: he must be mentally and emotionally superior. Unless he is qualified for leadership overall, by IQ, personality, and bearing, a young man is not deferred. He may be highly intelligent — the whiz kid of his class —but if he lacks magnetism, imagination, and the aura, he must come in at the regular time. The subject may have a potential for leading in fields other than the military, such as diplomacy or science. The decision is still up to the experts serving Tzahal. Their office has a priority list which states the nation’s leadership needs. It governs deferments.
Some days after the Sinai campaign ended, I sought out Moshe Dayan because I wanted some answers. How was it possible to get such uniformity of action in an army? From the chief of staff on down, every man seemed to respond in about the same way. There was everywhere bold initiative. When communications were knocked out, the people left in the dark all had the same grasp and knew how to anticipate orders.
Dayan’s answer: “It’s easy for us. We’re all friends here. We know one another.” It sounds too simple, but there is much in it. Israelis have a warmer comradeship than is found in other armies. Perhaps for that reason, though theirs is a hard, hard row, they seem to get more joy out of soldiering than other people. At the same time, no other army pursues its professional studies more sedulously.
Yet, if peace could be truly assured the Middle East, this is an army which would beat its tanks into plowshares and fade back into the landscape. There is great military power in Israel. There is no military ambition. The society is not militarized, nor is it even militant, though that word, mistakenly, is often applied to it. Israel is the very opposite of these things. In the truest sense, Israel is an armed people, and there has been nothing quite like it since the time of ancient Rome.