Military Virtue, and Virtue

By Aryeh Tepper
Monday, February 28, 2011

On February 14, Benny Gantz was appointed the twentieth chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). It wasn't supposed to be that way. Yoav Galant, a decorated soldier and former head of the IDF's southern command, had been named to the position at the end of 2010. Galant's appointment was canceled, however, following a public scandal in which he was accused of seizing public lands near his home.

The cancellation could easily be extolled as a victory for Israel's democracy.  No man is above the law, even the country's top soldier. But should moral or even legal considerations trump expertise when it comes to choosing a wartime general?  After all, as Gabriel Herman, a professor of ancient history at the Hebrew University, recently noted, "Most of history's great military leaders were not morally pure."

Consider the case of Moshe Dayan, one of Israel's most famous warriors.  Dayan, who served as the IDF's fourth chief of staff (1953-58), played a major role in developing Israel's classical military doctrine of seizing the initiative and the element of surprise. His principles were on display in the days leading up to the Six-Day war in 1967.  Serving as defense minister, Dayan lulled Israel's enemies, already on a war footing, into a false sense of complacency by sending thousands of reserve soldiers home. In a surprise attack, the IDF was then able to devastate 75 percent of the Egyptian air force on the ground in the first hours of combat.

What about Moshe Dayan the citizen? By no account was he a paragon of virtue. To cite but one example: like many Israelis in the early days of the state, Dayan fancied himself an amateur archeologist. He began amassing artifacts in 1951 and continued to do so for three decades, sometimes availing himself of IDF equipment to aid him in his digging. His garden at home was decorated with his finds, some of which he sold to collectors and museums. All well and good—except that it's a blatant violation of Israeli law to conduct an archeological dig without official permission. As one figure in the Israel Antiquities Authority put it, "Moshe Dayan didn't deal in archeology. He dealt in plundering. He was a criminal."

If Moshe Dayan were to be vetted today for the job of chief of staff, it's fair to assume that his personal corruption would keep him from getting the job. But it might also be fair to say that the country as a whole would be worse off without him.

Does this sound like a recommendation for some kind of Machiavellian—and very un-Jewish—deal with the devil? Actually, the Jewish tradition itself, with consummate moral realism, acknowledges that great leaders are not always free from serious personal failings.

Consider King David: among other things, a great military leader, a great sinner—and a great penitent. David slept with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his top warriors; when he learned that she was pregnant, he ultimately sent her husband Uriah to death in battle. With Uriah out of the way, he then married Bathsheba. Thereupon God sent the prophet Nathan to reprimand the king, who, when confronted, admitted his crime. David's punishment was to lose his child, and his house was cursed with turmoil to the end of his days.

A particularly pertinent interpretation of this episode is offered by the 14th-century religious philosopher Joseph Albo in his Book of Principles. Albo compares the cases of Saul and David, Israel's first two kings. Both sinned, Saul by disobeying God's command to kill Agag, the Amalekite king, and David with Bathsheba. Saul, however, was punished by losing his kingdom, while David, despite being made to suffer in other ways, was not. What accounts for the difference?

Albo rejects the interpretation offered by some commentators to whom the difference lies in David's confession of his sin whereas Saul presented excuse after excuse for his conduct. This, for Albo, is too pious. What really made Saul unfit to continue on the throne, Albo argues, was that his sin was essentially a public one: the failure to perform one of the tasks for which kings are chosen in the first place.  David's sin, by contrast, did not impinge upon the performance of his public duties, and the incredibly steep price he paid for it was likewise meted out to him in his private capacity.

Whatever one makes of Albo's interpretation, the point is that even a religious tradition almost single-mindedly focused on the cultivation of individual morality recognizes that morality doesn't always trump every other consideration, particularly when it comes to choosing a military leader.

Does this mean that the decision to nullify Galant's appointment was a mistake? Maybe; maybe not. As it happens, Israel is engaged in a protracted internal campaign to root out government corruption; Galant's aborted candidacy needs to be seen in that context. Paradoxically, though, his transgressions, which would no doubt have been overlooked in a more ethically lax time, might also be more easily tolerated in a more ethically refined time, i.e., one less nervous about individual lapses than the present one. Another paradox is this: while Moshe Dayan's daring contributed to the victory in 1967, his hubris arguably played a decisive role in the Yom Kippur debacle of 1973, and his hubris can't be separated from his corruption.

Which is only to say that there are no black-and-white guidelines for going forward.  What needs to be resisted, however, is the temptation to make personal virtue the single overriding arbiter of fitness for public office, particularly if the office in question is one that that from the outset requires knowing how to kill and, often, to deceive.


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