Secret Soldier

 Atlantic Monthly Hard Cover for North America

The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996

by Col. Moshe "Muki" Betser (ret.)with Robert Rosenberg

From "Spring of Youth"

The hierarchy in The Unit is very different from anywhere else in the army. It's friendlier, more intimate and thus more candid and open, and this unique atmosphere is best seen during the planning phase of an operation. Rank doesn't count in planning a mission. All that matters is inventiveness and originality. Everyone throws out ideas, in a round-table brainstorming session. Nothing is rejected out of hand, as the best ideas are set aside while more are raised. Eventually, the best idea stands out. Ehud (Barak) is brilliant at such sessions, encouraging new ideas, rejecting nothing out of hand, and creating an atmosphere in which everyone feels free to suggest the wildest as well as the safest approaches to an operation.

Helicopters were quickly ruled out. If we wanted surprise -- which every military mission wants -- we had to come by sea. That in itself would be no simple matter to organize. We'd need a dry landing on the beach, in rubber boats that we'd have to row as we neared the coastline. Beirut in those days was no war zone. It was a cosmopolitan city full of tourists. We couldn't march through the streets in uniform on our way to the target. So we'd go in as civilians, which meant that we wouldn't be able to swim. My sub trip came in handy, because I could report on possible to find dry landing spots on the coastline near the city. We'd be able to wear civilian clothes under plastic overalls as we rode into the beach from the mother ships deep in the darkness near the horizon.

From the beach we'd need to get to the targets. The Mossad was providing the information from Beirut. They'd be waiting for us with cars to take us to the targets. How many cars we'd need would be a result of how large a force we'd use, and that raised the question of firepower. The Israel Military Industries was already working on the mini-Uzi, a weapon The Unit had asked IMI to make for special operations. Ehud made a note, adding silencers to the list, in case of guards -- or worse, interruptions on the ride to the target. Explosive charges would be needed to break through the apartment doors.

There would be a separate unit for each target, and Ehud would personally command the entire operation from the field. The break-ins would be simultaneous in all three flats.

We marked out on the maps of the city all the known PLO holdings, to avoid any contact with them on our way in and out of the city. By our calculations, it would take twenty minutes from the moment the shooting began, before PLO and Lebanese reinforcements would reach the neighborhood. By then, we could be back on the beach, getting into our boats for the ride home.

Pocket Book for UK

Pocket Books, 1997

From "Smoke over Karameh

A soldier goes into battle thinking it won't happen to him. That makes it possible to face death. It should not happen to anyone. 'But if it does, at least it won't be me.' That's what I thought. Now I knew better. As the officer in charge, I was the last person here who should be wounded. But as my strength ebbed away, and the sensations of my body diminished, I let go of those thoughts. The shooting around me continued, but nothing mattered anymore. I said farewell to the world, ready to die. Still on my feet, I let my hand finally drop the futile effort to stem the bleeding at my throat. A hot blast of desert air seared my throat, surprising me as it filled my lungs, shocking me with the realization I would live -- if I survived the swarm of bullets around me...

"In a single stroke, my perceptions of the IDF and its strength, and of my own invincibility had changed forever. At Karameh I understood my own vulnerability, as well as the IDF's. Since then, before every battle, every operation, and every project I began, I have seen Karameh in my mind's eye, and planned to avoid its mistakes. At Karameh I learned to learn, and the first thing I learned was that if the IDF could fail so badly, peace was still a long way away."


About Muki Betser

Col. Moshe "Muki" Betser (ret.) was born in Israel's Jezreel Valley and grew up to become a senior commander in his country's most respected commando unit, Sayeret Matkal. Newspapers referred to the sayeret, or special reconnaissance forces, as the "tip of the spear" of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) -- and Muki Betser was the officer at the very tip of that spear, helping to plan and execute some of the best known anti-terrorist raids of the last 25 years.

Published to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Sayeret Matkal's most famous action, the July 4 1996 rescue raid on the airport at Entebbe, Uganda, Secret Soldier (Atlantic Monthly Press, June 18, 1996, $23.00) chronicles Betser's involvement in the El Al "air marshall" program, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and a number of successful - as well as unsuccessful - hostage/terrorist crises of recent history.


From Publisher's Weekly Review of Secret Soldier, April 15

" A captivating personal view of high-stakes special warfare... he speaks eloquently of the role of commando units, but also deplores violence, capping his riveting combat stories with a paean to peace that's all the more poignant because it's penned by a warrior."


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The Introduction to Secret Soldier

Muki Betser's life is full of cycles that open and close with historic events in the life of the State of Israel. Twice he was called to war just when he expected to go home to family and farm. On one occasion he returns in the most glorious fashion possible to an African country that he once loved and from which he was ignominiously evicted. And when he finally leaves the field of battle, it is because he has survived combat long enough to see his own son join the unit that Muki helped turn into the most elite in the IDF. But perhaps no cycle is as profound as the one that this book represents.

We began working on it a few weeks before the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. This introduction was written a few days after Rabin was assassinated in November 1995 in the very heart of presumably the safest place in Israel -- Tel Aviv.

"My commander, my general" is how Muki referred to Rabin, using the term in the way former chief of staff Rabin himself meant it used by soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces: as much teacher as officer, as much parent as leader, as much friend as manager, all roles that Muki himself filled in his years as an IDF commander. Indeed, if not for the assassination, Rabin might have written this introduction, for the old general turned statesman knew Muki well, going all the way back to when as chief of staff in 1965, he pinned Muki's first officer's bars to the then-young lieutenant's epauletes.

So, "if," as Rabin's successor Shimon Peres said at the unveiling of the Rabin tombstone on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, "almost all of Israel is now part of the Rabin family," then Muki is one of the favorite sons in that family.

A scion of the original pioneering families of the Zionist movement in the 20th century; a soldier turned civilian who regards deeds more important than words; a man who spent nearly 25 years fighting terrorism but remained constant in his belief that the only way to peace with the Arabs is by sharing the Land of Israel; Muki Betser's story is that of a generation that grew up believing in what Rabin stood for: a strong defense for the sake of a strong peace.

The first question I ever asked Muki, when we finally met face to face, was, "For years you've kept silent, why do you want to do it now?"Except for two interviews soon after retiring from the IDF in 1986, he refrained from making media appearances despite hundreds of requests over the years. His decision to tell his autbiography was a surprise -- I think even to himself.

"Peace is coming," he told me that hot afternoon in August, before either of us -- or the world -- knew that in a few weeks Rabin and Arafat would declare the time for bloodhsed was over. Nonetheless, it was clear that the Rabin-Peres government was determined to move the peace process forward.

"It's our only choice -- because we're now strong enough to make it happen. Reality changed. The Berlin Wall fell; there was a war in the Gulf. The Arab world has changed. So have we.

"If we did not try to make peace, how could we look in the eyes of the next generation when they ask what they are fighting for. And if the peace process does not work, then at least we can look into our own hearts and know that we tried.

"It's important for the next generation know that all along we fought for peace. My friends say that I have no choice, but to tell my story, so that the next generation knows what I know and all my comrades in the army knew -- that when we fought, we fought for peace."

I once asked Muki to show me the Sayeret Matkal pin he was given when he first joined The Unit. He promised to look for it, but he never did turn it up. Medals never interested him.

But framed and hanging in the living room of his home is the personal invitation he received by messenger from then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's office to attend the ceremonies in the Arava desert where Israel and Jordan declared peace between the two countries.

That ceremony was, after all, yet another circle closed in Muki's life -- it took place almost a stone's throw away from where, in 1968, Muki went on a reconnaissance mission in preparation for the first full-scale battle against the PLO, in Karameh, the place where he was wounded so badly he thought he was already dead.

This then, is not only the story of a Secret Soldier. It is the story of a secret dove, for whom peace, not combat, was the purpose of his military service at what the popular press sometimes calls "the tip of the IDF's spear." And as such, I believe it is an inspirational tale of both courage and humanity that reaches far beyond the borders of the Middle East.

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