The IDF Eliminated Delinquency

“The cadets who finish top of their class scare me the most,” sighs the commander of IDF colleges, Major General Gershon Hacohen, who is considered the army’s resident philosopher. “We have to promote adaptive thinking, not just technical thinking. The legitimate use of military force puts us in a dilemma on the international plain.” An exclusive IsraelDefense interview

The IDF Eliminated Delinquency

Commander of IDF colleges, Major General Gershon Hacohen (Photo: Meir Azulay)

The cadets at the National Security College were surprised more than once in their last year of study when the commander of IDF military colleges, Major General Gershon Hacohen, stepped into the classroom to talk with them and proceeded to go far in extolling what he terms “delinquency.”

Delinquency, according to Hacohen, is the courage to think outside the box, to break from the consensus and, yes, to do things that may run somewhat counter to their superiors’ directives.

“The IDF eliminated delinquency,” declares General Hacohen, in an exclusive interview with IsraelDefense. No, he doesn’t see this as a positive development. His raison d’être for prioritizing “adaptation in the military field,” has occasionally caused discomfort among his cadets.

Hacohen has recently completed a publication entitled, “Creating a Relevant Solution to a Threat—Between a Technical and Adaptive Answer.”

The research is based on a theoretical hypothesis, even though it lacks rigorous academic research. Nevertheless, because he regards himself first and foremost as a philosopher, Hacohen forgives himself for the shortage of applied methodology. In a special IsraelDefense interview, the philosopher-general laments the relentless push towards excellence that has become SOP in military circles. “Distinguished students frighten me,” he admits.

How are “delinquency” and the statement “officers don’t have to excel” connected to the concept of “adaptation?” 
“What I’m saying is that we often proceed technically in an effort to fit a workable program to every problem. We draft a program, and from that moment on, the problem is transferred to the care of loyal technicians and clerks. Only rarely do we approach a problem—an operative, military, or security matter—with a comprehensive adaptive outlook.

“At the end of the planning process, people of action, and soldiers like me, have to submit a plan for organizing and building the force. Of course, you have to know how to wield the force, and the use of force is always based on the idea of operational action whose components are basically technical. But when we speak about a solution and the difficulty in providing an answer, we’re speaking about the ability to reach some kind of balance point that includes all of the dimensions of action.”

What does this have to do with excellence? 
“Excellence is a contextual matter,” explains Hacohen. “Let’s say I’m setting out on an expedition to the North Pole and I need a doctor. I’m not going to take the number one eye surgeon in the country with me. The doctor in the emergency room, the one who wasn’t accepted to the most prestigious field of specialization, is best suited for my needs. He’s not a brain surgeon, he doesn’t carry out research, he hasn’t made any recent medical breakthroughs, but he sure as hell knows how to diagnose and treat an illness. He’ll know exactly what to do under the given conditions. So what if his medical school grades were average and not honor-level? “Or take another example. Two high school grads: one with a 100 in math and 0% in literature and sports, and the other with a 75 in all subjects. Who’s better? I haven’t the slightest doubt about who’s more complete. If I need a computer hacker, I guess I’ll take the one who scored a 100 in math, but if I need somebody to run my vegetable stall in the market or take care of the kids, I’ll probably choose the second one who ‘only’ got a 75 in everything, but knows how to get the job done.

“Education for excellence, as I see it, generally leads to a technical approach. Probably every field has its expert, and if there’s a problem in a specific field, we’ll turn to the relevant expert,” adds Hacohen. In this regard, a first-class officer isn’t necessarily the outstanding pilot who excels in all his assignments.

A chief of staff like Gabi Ashkenazi (who retired last February) was an excellent officer, continues the commander of IDF colleges. “Why? Because Gabi was a ‘coal miner.’ I regard myself a ‘coal miner’ as well. My argument is that whoever isn’t in the mine can’t possibly grasp the whole picture, even if he’s the operations manager. Sometimes it’s more important to understand what the global market says in relevant areas.

“The way the military field is built, whoever doesn’t really understand the mine will go astray, even if he knows how to market a particular point, because the test is in seeing the path between zoom in and zoom out.

“If you only see zoom in, you lose the zoom out; and if you only see zoom out, you miss the elusive shifting ground. Gabi knew this. He filled many posts in his career: a member of the general staff, director of operations, assistant chief of the general staff, and officer in charge of Northern Command, investing a great deal of time and energy into understanding the field conditions. So when I speak of the need for an adaptive outlook and creative observation, it doesn’t mean that I reject the technical view. Not by a long shot. When someone has an adaptive idea, he has to realize its technical aspects.

“The balance has to be found between realizing capability and creative skill. If an idea doesn’t come to fruition, if it isn’t realized, then it’s not worth anything, and vice versa. If a person has superb actualization skills but fails to see if a given task has relevancy for realization, he’ll end up banging his head against the wall. How do you make the right connection? I can’t say. However, I do know that it can be blocked when people are dead set on achieving excellence and are willing to do everything to reach it. For example, being a good pilot is a type of direction that channels development. In the end, you invest more in achievement as the output decreases. On the other hand, I evaluate officers, inter alia, by their adaptive ability. The lower levels in the military profession demand expertise; the higher up you go, so increases the demand for a holistic approach.”

“Adaptive Hezbollah”

 Throughout his career, General Hacohen has been considered a small-time “delinquent” whose statements cause discomfort in the IDF’s highest echelons. He’s one the last two officers on the general staff who served in the Yom Kippur War thirty-eight years ago. (The other is Ami Shafran, head of the Computer Service Directorate. Both Hacohen and Shafran are due to retire next year.)

Hacohen started his military career in the Nachal (infantry brigade) but transferred to armored corps after the war, when the branch’s officer cadre was being rapidly replenished due to heavy losses. He is the father of two little children, 4 and 6, and an older son, 28, from a previous marriage. He graduated from the national-religious movement’s prestigious “Nativ Meir” High School. Although he no longer wears a skullcap, he considers himself religious. His grandfather was one of the pioneers of the religious-Zionist camp, a farmer born in Kfar Hittim (a moshav near Tiberias), who convinced David Ben-Gurion to establish Kashrut (religious dietary laws) in the IDF (though this fact is omitted in most official military rabbinate histories.)

“Arab culture, to a great degree, observes reality with an adaptive eye,” states General Hacohen.

“For example, Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt, who signed the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had an excellent adaptive way of seeing things. He would say, ‘this is our diagnosis. We can’t fight the Israelis in the Sinai, because we’re limited in two main areas: air superiority and maneuverability.’ Then the technical outlook came into play and he said, ‘let’s see how we can improve these dimensions.’ But it was the adaptive outlook that led him in an entirely different direction.

“An organization like Hezbollah is revolutionary as well, from a professional military point of view. It’s the model of identifying one’s limitations and turning them into assets. Thus, without an air force or submarines, it poses a strategic threat to Israel. How? Its approach is holistic. It integrated the firepower doctrine into a comprehensive system that’s adapted to suit the political fabric in which it functions, in Lebanon. It also understands the legitimacy game.

“Even Hamas has displayed adaptive capability. Look what happened after Operation ‘Cast Lead,’ when the [the UN’s] Goldstone Report scathingly criticized Israel’s use of firepower. IDF firepower and military superiority were rendered irrelevant.

“The bible contains a sterling example of a holistic adaptive solution in the Book of Judges—in the story of Barak Ben Avinoam’s campaign against Sisera’s Canaanite armies. In deploying for war against Sisera, Barak Ben Avinoam identified an operational gap: Sisera has 900 iron chariots. Dealing with the problem technically, according to the patent method, means defining the gap in the ‘Planning Directorate,’ determining an acquisition schedule, replenishment, training, and readying the force for a ‘typical’ symmetrical clash: one military force with iron chariots against another military force with iron chariots.

However, Deborah the prophetess devised an adaptive solution that breathtakingly circumvented the need for replenishment with iron chariots. She instructed Barak Ben Avinoam to have his force ascend Mt. Tabor, safe from Sisera’s chariots. Then she waited for the right opportunity. When rain fell, she ordered Barak to ‘move out’ and go down the mountain to battle. In the muddy fields, Sisera’s iron chariots lost their relevancy.”

Are you comparing Israel today to Sisera’s force?
 “Well, it’s true to a large degree, and now the tables should be turned. If we’re Sisera, it’s because we’ve started to think like Sisera. It’s because we’re confident in our chariots and physical strength, and we’ve forgotten that there’s something else, and we’re lost. If we look like Sisera, then it’s because adaptive thinking, but if it’s because someone else decided to adopt our advantage, then this something else. However, what has happened to us, and we resemble Sisera in this regard, is that we’ve identified our areas of superiority and decided to maximize them.”

How do we get out of the Sisera position? 
“When we got into it, the basic assumption was correct. We entered it because we were few; we had superior technology and our troops had a qualitative edge. We took something that suited us perfectly, not only because of the fact that we had creative solutions, but also because our youth adopted the ideas. We began to believe to a certain degree that our advantage was mainly in materials and physics. In this respect, Barak Ben Avinoan is being realized in the Mossad, Shin Bet, and special forces, whose abilities are truly outstanding. We may look like Sisera, but we’ve developed superb capabilities that are left unspoken. Furthermore, you have to remember that physics is also important. Without it, victory is impossible. Even David wouldn’t have been able to conquer Goliath twice.

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