When Leaders Fail

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Written By Pinang Driod

“That film,” my friend Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general, said to me, “should be shown to all senior national-security officials and military officers. It is the most profound demonstration of what happens in the wake of slovenly strategic thinking.”

The occasion was a visit to Israel with a small group of military and national-security experts. The film was a 47-minute compilation of videos taken from dashcams, body cameras, and closed-circuit-television cameras. Some smartphone clips came from the perpetrators of the October 7 attacks in Israel, who delighted in the footage, and others from victims documenting their last moments. It is the most horrifying thing I have ever watched. It includes subtitles but no commentary on scenes of murder, mutilation, and bestial cruelty. It shows a beheading, performed before a cheering Gazan mob, and the despairing cries of sobbing, blinded, blood-smeared orphans. And it concludes with a chilling fact: This was only a tenth of the mayhem wrought on Israel that day.

Over the course of a week, we toured the Gaza and Lebanon borders, and spoke with senior military and intelligence officials, journalists, experts, and one key political figure. The 47-minute video capped the day we visited the shattered kibbutzim of Be’eri and Nir Oz and saw the detritus of October 7: shot-up motorcycles, cars, and trucks, and a collection of Hamas weaponry, including a drone, heavy machine guns, and large explosive devices—and lots of knives.

The haunted look of Israeli military and intelligence officials—some on active duty, some retired, most in that in-between world of reserve duty, which is a constant of Israeli life—left a lasting impression. The mild-mannered had become sharp; the forceful, oddly humble. October 7 was a comprehensive failure of the most ruinous kind. These officials were now battling feelings of acute guilt and shame, of responsibility and anguish.

Israel remains a society in trauma. To understand the dimensions of October 7, Americans should apply a rule of 30—Israel’s population being about one-30th that of the United States. So imagine that, in a single day, pitiless enemies had attacked the length of one of our borders, killing some 35,000 Americans, 9,000 of them soldiers—some surprised in their sleep, some fighting heroically in doomed bands of fewer than a dozen. A dozen simultaneous 9/11s, if you will. Imagine some 6,500 hostages taken, and 3 million to 6 million people displaced from their home along America’s borders. And instead of hundreds of rapes and mutilations, thousands. Imagine, too, that the ensuing war has already taken another 5,000 or 6,000 soldiers’ lives, with perhaps 10 times as many wounded, and no end in sight.

The attacks represented a political failure, because the Israeli government had prided itself on a deal that allowed—indeed, encouraged—Qatar to sluice money into the Hamas government. That, coupled with work permits for Gazans and the occasional retaliation for rocket attacks, was supposed to have kept Hamas quiet. Israeli officials are certain that many of those workers provided detailed intelligence to the attackers about the places where they worked.

The attacks represented an intelligence failure, because although Israel had knowledge of the Hamas plan, experts dismissed it as aspirational while brushing aside the repeated warnings from young female conscripts manning the observation posts. Many of those soldiers paid for their seniors’ arrogance with their life, or with the torments of sexual violence, or both. The closing-down of an open-source intelligence operation meant that clear indications from public statements and events in Gaza were similarly irrelevant to the high command’s thinking.

The attacks represented a strategic failure, as Israel deployed the majority of its ready forces to the West Bank. When warning finally did come, at 3 a.m. on October 7, no decision was made to take even the modest alert measures—placing attack helicopters on runway alert, making a wake-up call to kibbutz security officers, heightening the readiness of a few quick-reaction units—that might have diminished the disaster.

The attacks represented an operational failure, as Hamas storm troops—not terrorists merely, because that makes them sound like a gang, but rather a well-trained and disciplined army committed to terror—overran Israel’s major local headquarters in Re’im. The divisional headquarters and its two subordinate brigade headquarters, the top of the command system that should have responded to the attack, were forced to fight for their lives, leaving immediate responses uncoordinated.

The attacks represented a tactical failure, as thousands of volunteers streamed to the fight, but in uncoordinated packets, which achieved some successes but also suffered terrible losses. Sayeret Matkal, the Israeli equivalent of the U.S. Army’s Delta Force, lost more soldiers in one day than it had in the previous 30 years.

Even the most controlled of our interlocutors on the visit—experienced, hardened professionals—at one point or another exploded with rage. Not rage directed at Hamas, who are merely mortal enemies to be annihilated, but rage at their own system, which had betrayed the trust of the civilian population; rage at the abandonment of those who heroically interposed themselves, many outnumbered and equipped only with pistols, before the onslaught.

As is so often the case in Israeli military history, the system recovered with astonishing speed. The generals did indeed get a grip, although not until after some bizarre episodes, including one proposal—mercifully rejected—to attack Hezbollah early in the war. They have grimly put their heads down and their hearts into the fight, knowing that guilt and recrimination will come. Some of them have already announced their intention to accept responsibility and resign once the war subsides. Others will join them.

More important, junior and mid-level leaders, together with a hastily mobilized and self-organized civil society, helped deploy and supply reserve units with exceptional levels of voluntary action. “We are a nation of lions led by donkeys,” one Israeli friend lamented. Yes, but better that than the reverse.

This war will continue for many months, and it may very well expand. Israel will not indefinitely tolerate Hezbollah’s attacks and the depopulation of its northern borders; if the attacks do not cease, it will need to push Hezbollah back. Even in Gaza, the fighting will go on for some time, as Israel—doing what it can to minimize its own casualties, and exercising more care in succoring Palestinian civilians than Britain or the U.S. offered German or Japanese civilians in 1944—defeats Hamas and tracks down and kills its leaders.

At some point, the senior leaders of the Israel Defense Forces and the Israeli intelligence community who presided over this debacle will depart. Political leaders will be forced out, if they do not show the same sense of responsibility and leave voluntarily. Those who replace them will have less confidence in strategic warning and be more willing to strike first. They may not have been directly responsible, but they, too, will be scarred by this experience, and that will affect their behavior going forward.

There is a profound lesson in the trauma of Israel’s generals for the military and national-security leaders of the liberal democracies. American generals are no smarter, no more experienced, and no more humble than their Israeli counterparts. American national-security professionals are no less prone to hubris and wishful thinking, to solipsism and dismissiveness of dissenting views. Mick Ryan is right: They should all have to watch that film. There is plenty of potential for horror in this world, and none of us is safe from it, or immune to the failings that leave us exposed to it.

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