The perils of Israel’s ‘Follow Me!’ ethos

Leading from the front during Operation Protective Edge, soldiers in command positions accounted for 44% of IDF deaths. Is that cost inevitable?

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Col. Ghassan Alian, the commander of the Golani Brigade, addressing IDF troops in Gaza, August 2014. Alian was lightly injured during fighting in Shejaiya (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit/ Flickr)
Col. Ghassan Alian, the commander of the Golani Brigade, addressing IDF troops in Gaza, August 2014. Alian was lightly injured during fighting in Shejaiya (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit/ Flickr)

In April 1948, shortly after a bullet tore the skin around his eye socket, Yoram Kaniuk, the award-winning author, heard “something like a crawling sea,” and realized, along with the other 10 warriors stationed on the peak of the Castel, an old Roman fort on the path to Jerusalem, that they were under mass attack, and that “this was the end of us.”

After a while, he wrote in his memoir, “1948,” he heard a call over the radio: We’re coming. Twenty-three men under the command of Nahum Arieli arrived on the scene, and platoon commander Shimon Alfassi yelled, while under fire: “Privates retreat. Commanders cover them!”

Kaniuk, noting the way the figs and carob pods, hanging from the trees, were shredded by the incoming bullets, described the scene: “The officers commanded by Nahum Arieli stood like a human avenue on both sides of the path, between charred buildings and amid an inferno of firing, and we passed between them as if on our way to the wedding canopy,” he wrote. “Slowly, one after the other they were hit and fell and those left standing continued to cover us and at the same time went on firing at the attacker but also to die. With one eye I can see them shielding me as they fall like dominoes and I want to fire but I’m out of ammunition.”

All but one of the commanders were killed. And thus, perhaps, was born the Israeli ethos of commanders leading from the front – a practice that has received renewed attention during Operation Protective Edge, in which, the army weekly magazine Bamachaneh revealed, a full 44 percent of the 64 dead soldiers were killed while in command positions. Additionally, the magazine reported, one out of every five battalion and brigade commanders fighting on the ground in Gaza was wounded during the 18 days of Operation Protective Edge’s ground phase.

An officer preparing to turn and lead his troops in Gaza (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit/ Flickr)
An officer preparing to turn and lead his troops in Gaza (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/ Flickr)

These figures are not unusual, said Maj. Uzi Ben-Shalom, the head of research for the Concept, Doctrine and Training Department of the IDF’s Ground Forces Command.

He turned toward Shakespeare’s Prince Hal in order to explain the rationale, and the need, for leading from the front. “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,” he said, quoting “Henry V.” That declaration, he said, underscores the fact of “shared danger.” Every soldier knows that his commanding officer will demand of himself, at bare minimum, that which he demands of others.

“There is no other way,” said Col. (ret) Gabi Siboni, the director of the Military and Strategic Affairs Program at the INSS think tank and a former commander of the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance unit.

An officer commanding his soldiers “Forward!” rather than yelling “Follow me!” he said, would never work. “I don’t need to see research or a study about such things,” he said. “It’s something you understand from your stomach. It’s totally intuitive.”

The other half of the rationale, he said, relates to the nuts and bolts of leadership, the access to information. Positioning yourself at the front, he said, “allows the commander to understand the battlefield firsthand.”

As for the cumulative toll of dead commanders in the field and the way that might hobble a fighting force, Siboni said the army is built for the next-in-command to continually step forward and that it is a system that has proven itself.

Since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, there has been some renewed scrutiny on the positioning of brigade commanders, as there was a sense after the conflict that senior commanders remained too far behind the front lines.

As old as time

Low- and mid-level commanders have always fought from the front, said historian Martin van Creveld, who has authored 17 books on military history and strategy. “As to senior ones, tribal chieftains led from the front. However, their religious leaders–think of Moses, think of the prophet Samuel–did not.” [The Israeli officers school motto of “Look on me, and do likewise” was taken from Gideon, who led his 300 well-mannered troops into battle against the Midianites with that phrase.]

Greek and Hellenistic commanders, surrounded by bodyguards, often fought in the first rank, he wrote in an email, but Roman ones did not. Medieval and early modern senior commanders frequently fought in person, but ceased doing so during the period between 1560 and 1630. “From then on, the distance between commanders and the front tended to grow, peaking in World War I when the senior ones were often located in country houses miles behind the front.”

However, as war became more mobile, the need to lead from the fore became more pronounced, said Andrew Exum, a former US Army captain, who led a platoon of Army Rangers in Afghanistan and has served as a Middle East adviser in the Department of Defense. “In earlier eras of combat,” he wrote in an email, “officers might have exposed themselves to fire out of some sense of noblesse oblige, but in the fire-and-maneuver era of combat in which we live, officers expose themselves to fire out of necessity.”

They die in battle, he wrote, not by doing anything particularly heroic, “but just by doing their jobs.”

IDF soldiers operating in Gaza, quite likely led by an officer (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit/ Flickr)
IDF soldiers operating in Gaza, quite likely led by an officer (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/ Flickr)

Exum, referencing a US Army field manual, said that platoon and company commanders are “rarely if ever at the very front” of their formations but rather one notch behind the lead element so as to maintain control of the entire force in the event of a firefight.

Ben-Shalom indicated that Israeli doctrine was very much the same. In the field, though, Israeli officers up to and including battalion commanders, all of whom started their service as privates, are almost always positioned at the very tip of their forces. This was starkly evident in the killing of the three Givati soldiers on the morning of August 1 on the outskirts of Rafah.

Shortly after the onset of a ceasefire agreement, the commander of the Givati Brigade’s recon unit, Maj. Benaya Sarel, saw suspicious activity ahead. He, and not a forward squad, approached the figure, whom he believed to be a Hamas spotter, along with his radio operator, Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni, and Lt. Hadar Goldin. The three were killed in an ambush. Goldin was abducted. And when the deputy commander, Lt. Eitan, reached the front and realized that Goldin was gone, he descended into the tunnel through which Goldin had been kidnapped and, at first with a small squad, and then alone and in near dark, sprinted toward the end of the tunnel to find his fallen friend.

Lt. Eitan chased the kidnappers of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin into a tunnel on August 1, 2014.
Lt. Eitan chased the kidnappers of 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin into a tunnel on August 1, 2014.

According to his account on an IDF blog he told the soldiers with him, before running ahead, “I will run as fast as possible to reach the tunnel’s entrance. During this time, call the other soldiers into the tunnel. If I’m not back in 5 minutes – I’m dead.”

Ben-Shalom said that low-level officers should not place themselves in greater danger than their troops, but rather “similar danger,” and that “Nahshonite actions” – a reference to the biblical character of Nahshon ben Aminadav, who was said to have leaped first into the Red Sea before it was parted as the Israelites began their exodus from Egypt – were not part of the job description.

A former team and company commander in the elite Maglan unit, in describing the burden and benefit of leading from the front, chuckled when asked how this was inculcated in him in officer’s school. “You come with it already built in,” said Maj. (res) Nimrod Ackerman, noting the emphasis placed on military sacrifice throughout the Israeli educational system and, in his case, the Scouts youth movement.

As an officer at, or very near, the front of a fighting force, he said one feels “unequivocally” more vulnerable. “But there is no other alternative.”

Speaking of a desire for information in order to make the right decisions in real time, he said that if something seems off, and one wants to slow the force, have the troops take a knee and pause, listen in the dark, and scan the section ahead, the only way to make that call properly is by being up front.

Ackerman, the head of an educational charity that places volunteer senior citizens in teaching positions in the elementary school system, said that in reserves, after years of service with soldiers who are more peers than underlings, the nature of the leadership role changes, revolving more around the professional capacity to make decisions than the demonstrative need to walk in front of everyone else.

And yet, Ackerman, an empathetic officer who always wore his authority affably – I served under him during the Second Lebanon War – put it this way: “Do you want to be a cow in the herd or a cowboy?” he said.

After a moment’s consideration, he added, “There are some comforts to being in the herd.”

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