The tragic death of two IDF soldiers earlier this week probably couldn’t have been avoided. They were some four kilometers away from the border, on a civilian road, with no intelligence suggesting an attack of that nature was imminent. That’s one side of the story. The other one is that if you had asked any IDF officer in the wake of the alleged Israeli assassination of Hezbollah and Iranian officials where Hezbollah was most likely to retaliate they would have named the Har Dov sector.
Putting aside the tactical issue of the army command decision-making process that led to those soldiers being there in the first place, it raises the question – what role do soldiers play in our society?
Over the last decade or so, since the height of the Second Intifada, the Israeli public has been much more concerned with the loss of soldiers’ lives than that of ordinary citizens. And while this can be seen as illogical, it does make sense when we remember that most of the soldiers that are in danger of being hurt or killed are 18-21 years old.
Ever since the Second Lebanon War and subsequent reservist protest, the government has been wary of using reservists during serious military operations (Cast Lead – Oferet Yetzuka, Pillar of Defense – Amud Anan, Protective Edge – Tzuk Eitan). Even where reservists were summoned, they mostly took over routine operations and were kept away from the battle ground. So the mission of patrolling and defending Israeli borders and citizens is the responsibility of mostly barely post high-school conscripted teens.
The idea of converting the IDF into a professional army has been brought up several times, but always turned down for various reasons. The main argument against a professional army is that because Israel is in a perpetual state of war, it can’t possibly allow men and women not to enlist. That’s part of the whole people’s army concept: past generations did their part to protect this generation, now it’s your turn to protect them and future generations. Add to this the benefits of the army serving as a ‘melting pot’ and a gateway into Israeli adult society.
But these arguments no longer hold water. Recent data released by the Ministry of Defense shows that less than 50% of males in the serving age group complete a full service (meaning 36 months), and the statistics are even lower for females.
That sends the people’s army argument flying out of the window.
Things get a little bit more interesting when we look at the people who do complete a full term of service. They can be divided into two main groups: the elite and the unfortunate. The elite are exactly who you imagine — the cliche Ashkenazi from north Tel Aviv that serves in Intelligence and has sushi for lunch every day. The unfortunate ones are highly motivated and wish they were part of the elite but simply don’t have the means for it. Now of course it’s a bit of a caricature and there are a lot of middle class and disadvantaged people who serve as well, but their army service profile isn’t distinct enough.
What do I mean by that? One could find members of the elite in all professional positions the army offers – from special combat units (sayeret), to classified ones, highly technological ones, those with best work schedules and those closest to home and shopping centers. Members of the unfortunate ones are almost exclusively in combat units. And not the glorious ones. They are in them because they normally come from the periphery, where schools don’t have a good infrastructure for technological education. Because they don’t have enough money to sign up for the psychometric exam while in school and try and make it into the Atuda program. But they do want to be a part of society. They want better opportunities for their kids. And significant army service is their way of doing so, or at least taking a first step towards achieving it.
And that’s why we have to offer them sufficient compensation. My proposal is to pay combat soldiers the equivalent of the median pay, roughly 6,000 NIS a month. This is limited to combat soldiers only – those that when necessary cross enemy lines. We are sending them to be in harm’s way, this is the least we could do.
But this creates a conundrum for the army command. Because under the current system the army decides who serves in which position. And while the army would have many more candidates to choose from for the combat positions due to increased demand because of the higher pay, it would also face criticism for discrimination. Because by that point the army won’t just determine a person’s occupation but also their pay. And knowing the way the army works – because it’s still the people’s army, they’ll probably end up offering everyone the same increased pay.
And that’s where the professional army argument kicks in. The relative portion of defense spending out of the GDP has been decreasing since the 80s, and that trend doesn’t seem to be reversing in the near future. If the army is to pay a median salary to all soldiers, they could never do it under the current budget. That means that they would have to cut down on number of recruits. And now we have a professional army.
There are many models for professional army service – from the American one, that is based solely on volunteers (except for state of emergency), to the German one, that is in fact still mandatory service but allows to any individual to opt out and trade their army service for a national one. I’m not advocating one over the other. This isn’t the purpose of this article.
Having a professional army is more financially beneficial. According to a study conducted by Keller, published in the Defense and Peace Economics journal, titled Military Draft and Economic Growth in OECD Countries, a country that gave up on it’s people’s army and enacted a professional army, enjoyed from 10% higher growth in GDP per capita compared to a country that hadn’t. In dire economic times as the ones we live in, this advantage is something to be seriously considered and not shrugged off offhandedly.