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Israel’s Naval Inquiry into the Mavi Marmara

aid-shipLife in the Military Box

One of humanity’s perennial problems is that soldiers almost never think "outside the box." Indeed, they are trained to think about the most effective way to carry out orders. The orders always define the box and so it becomes difficult, even dangerous, to think critically about the orders themselves. The result is that, from the highest to the lowest, soldiers are locked into a system where to think about the legitimacy, the legality, the rationality of one’s orders is like challenging a god. You are going to end up harshly punished if you do.

So you usually don’t. That helps to explain why often apparently ordinary people end up doing very horrendous things–they can and do always claim that they were just following orders. And, this soldiering business, according to most people’s perceptions both past and present, is "an honorable profession." Go figure!

The Israeli naval officers who did the internal investigation of the Mavi Marmara debacle came forth with their report today (June 20, 2010) and both the findings themselves, and the words chosen to express those findings, all display the hopeless, in the box, psychology that has gotten Israel (among others) into such hot water. Here, according to Haaretz, is some of what the report said. The italics are mine and inserted for emphasis.
1. The "commando unit" was "inadequately prepared, lacked sufficient intelligence" and did not go into the action using proper tactics. This seems to have happened despite the fact that "Operation Sky Winds 7...was carried out according to standard operating procedures established during a mock exercise with more than fifty soldiers."
2. The possibility of a "mass offensive" being initiated against he Israeli commandoes "was not taken into account." Israel’s naval command did not expect anything beyond "the resistence like we encountered in Bil’in." Thus, "they [the commandoes] "wanted to wear their ceremonial uniform(s)" and "expected to engage with the passengers in conversation." The report concluded that this expectation "was a defect" in the planning of the operation.
3. The Israeli navy’s "general consensus" is that there was need for "greater mental preparation of the force before the operation’s execution" based on the fact that what they encountered was not "disorderly conduct that deteriorated. This was a planned terrorist attack." Elsewhere, the naval investigators explained that "we did not know that we would be coping with tens of rioters."
4. "The raid on the ship should have only been conducted after hosing the attackers downs with water hoses and [using] smoke grenades."
5. However, "in light of the situation that developed they [the commandoes] acted accordingly."
What is depressing about this report is that there is nothing unusual about it. The American, the British, the French, the Chinese, the Canadian, the Pakistani, the Egyptian military investigators, ad nauseam, would have rationalized away similar situations in exactly the same way. It might be the case that some of the Israeli soldiers feel "ill used" by the incompetent handling of the operation, but they would never question whether the assault itself was necessary. "Ours is not to reason why. Ours is but to do or die." This is one of the incredibly stupid aspects of the military mind worldwide.
Let’s take a closer look at this report. Not that we will learn anything very new about the Israeli military mind, but because it is worth noting how their mental box shapes their conclusions.
A. The passengers on the Mavi Marmara are never described in terms accepted as accurate by the those having a humane understanding of the Gaza blockade. They are never humanitarian aid activists, the are never passengers on a ship in international waters. They are either "terrorists" or "rioters" who had pre-planned an "attack" on the Israeli commandoes! Now, of course, this is the sort of thing soldiers do. They have to defame those they are attacking in order to justify the inevitable violence. That is part of the box they live in. Sometimes the other side might be doing the same thing back to them, but that is not the point. The point is that what average soldiers see as real is not based on any effort to understand the situation from a humane perspective. Reality is simply a tactical issue. That is why most of them can usually live with all that "collateral damage" they cause.
B. They thought it was going to be just like Bil’in and so wanted to wear their "ceremonial uniforms" and "engage the passengers in conversation." What the heck is that all about? First of all, Israeli soldiers don’t spend their time at Bil’in "engaging the [protestors] in conversation." They use real violence. Those "rubber bullets" are really steel pellets with a black vinyl coating. And, they have this curious habit of firing the tear gas canisters at the protestors’ heads. But then the Israeli navy does not operate at Bil’in, so maybe the naval planners and investigators really think that Bil’in is the site of some sort of civilized debating club.
C. The notion that the commandoes were in any way justified in their actions, or that their officers and government were justified, can only be believed if you discount international law. That is, at the very least, the Mavi Marmara was sailing in international waters when it was attacked by the Israeli navy. Since the Israel government has long ago concluded that international law is just for sissies, it should come as no surprise that their soldiers did not give it much thought. But it is more basic than that. Very few soldiers, the world over, give the law much thought. And, when I make this assertion I am not just referring to international law. I mean they don’t give much thought to any kind of law.
I once spent a semester teaching a history course on an American army base. It was a revealing experience. During that time the following sort of scenario repeated itself over and again. If you were in a room with privates you could hold a relatively normal conversation. If a sergeant entered the privates almost immediately deferred to his opinion. If a lieutenant entered the room both the privates and the sergeant would then defer to the opinion of the lieutenant and so on it would go. Of course, this was not necessarily true if what you happen to be talking about was the food in the cafeteria. However, it always was true if you were talking about the Viet Nam War that was waging at the time. And none of them, under any circumstance, would talk about the issue of international law relative to that war, or the notion that President Johnson might have misled the country into war. They were all trained to see the world from the military box. And, of course, to fear punishment if they strayed outside the box.
That’s the way it is with the honorable profession of soldiering. And, if you haven’t noticed, the civilians generally believe that this is what keeps their world safe.

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