Why ‘leave no man behind’ can be the wrong call

By Guy Dorrell @GuyDorrellEsq

On Saturday, Hamas appeared to have captured alive an Israeli junior army officer.

Pundits immediately feared that ordinary Gazans would face an armed response more ferocious than anything yet seen in this already dirty and bloody conflict.

Lieutenant Hadar Goldin seemed to have been taken during a firefight that saw two of his colleagues killed. In moments of huge uncertainty, one thing can be relied upon; Israel will do everything it can to have Lt Goldin returned.

Gilad Shalit

In the only case in recent times of another Israeli soldier being captured by Palestinian fighters, Gilad Shalit was held captive for five years before a prisoner exchange that rated his worth to the Israeli people as equivalent to 1027 Palestinians.

Those who were accused of holding Lt Goldin now are only too aware of what they see as Israel’s sentimental weaknesses.

This sentimental affection that regular armies have for their soldiers has been exploited any number of times by the underdog in asymmetrical conflicts. Palestinian fighters certainly see the capture of an IDF soldier alive as the highest prize, short of overall victory, giving them huge bargaining chip.

The unwillingness to leave any man behind, and soldiers’ knowledge of that creed is a bedrock of the profession of soldiering. In Israel’s case, the imperative is unshakable. Recent polling shows that 95 per cent of Israelis believe their forces have done nothing wrong in Operation Protective Edge and a vast number of the forces involved are conscripts or reservists.

No army relying on conscripts can ever allow the idea of expandability to permeate its ranks, to do so is to ensure reticence or reluctance and, during periods of action, virtually guarantees higher casualties than would otherwise be suffered.

Long War

The British Army learnt the lesson of the vulnerability that a completely opposing view of the expandability of combatants brings, in the Long War against the Provisional IRA.

On 5 May 1981, Bobby Sands, Officer Commanding the South West Belfast Brigade of the Provisional IRA died, being the first of ten PIRA prisoners to die due to their hunger strike.

Sands’ death, along with those of the other prisoners, was one of the turning points of the Troubles, because it spelt a turning point in British military doctrine.

British Army chiefs realised that a war against an enemy for whom death holds no fear, or is positively welcomed, is unwinnable. In this realisation, tactics and approach were reconsidered and changed.

Learning Lessons

Generals and army officers have shown that they can heed these lessons, politicians – with their shorter careers subject to a capricious voting public – seem either to be unable or unwilling to learn from events. Certainly, in Israel where the toxic mix of former high-ranking military personnel turned politicians is far more prevalent, unwinnable wars are not on the agenda.

If still alive, Lt Goldin finds himself, perversely, in the same situation as Bobby Sands was in, but for wholly different reasons. Both men’s value was in their being kept alive. That, at least, viewed in light of the Shalit case, should do something to lift the spirits of his family and friends.

Since writing this article, events have moved on; Lt Goldin has been declared killed in action by a board headed by the Chief Rabbi of the IDF, Brigadier Gen. Rafi Peretz, though no mention of Lt Goldin’s body was made. Sketchy details have also emerged of the IDF’s ‘Hannibal Doctrine’ – where soldiers fearing that a colleague might be captured are cleared to undertake a blue-on-blue shooting to avoid that soldier falling into enemy hands.

This morning, the IDF has announced a pull back to defensive lines and a ceasing of offensive operations. In doing so, the possibility of recovering Lt Goldin’s body effectively disappear. Hadar Goldin’s father, Simcha – himself a former serviceman and reservist said: “It’s unthinkable to me that the IDF would abandon one of its fighters”. The idea that a serviceman should be declared dead by a Board of inquiry, the lack of a body to return to Goldin’s family and the continued sticking to the mantra of ‘leave no man behind’ create a vulnerability that those wishing to cause harm to Israel and Israeli service personnel can exploit.

If the Israeli Defence Force is to move forward tactically and doctrinally, perhaps the possibility of leaving a man behind – for the well-being of greater numbers on both sides, should be considered.

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