The relief of the young Israeli soldiers, jubilation even, was only too evident as they locked the security gates in the frontier fence with Lebanon. The deployment to Lebanon, first to the Litani River, and then the full-blown invasion to Beirut in Operation Peace for Galilee in 1982, and Grapes of Wrath two years ago, had been harrowing experiences. Over the years, the soldiers had become the targets of Hizbollah's booby traps, bombs and snipers.
For much of its 25 years, the Lebanon assignment was an unpopular one, messy and controversial. The conscripts and soldiers became less and less enamoured of it. Since Israel first went into Lebanon, its society has changed and, with it, the make-up of its army. Israeli society is far more complex than it was in 1976, with the influx from eastern Europe and the growth of the Sephardim communities. The Israeli Arabs now number more than a million, against 150,000 in 1948. Few young Israelis are imbued with the pioneering spirit of the founders of the state or of those who started the first kibbutzim nearly a century ago.
Many of the conscripts of the IDF (the Israeli Defence Force) have made it plain that they do not think Lebanon is worth dying for. Morale among some units, particularly the infantry, has been noticeably poor. The army, which swept to victory in the wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, now looks somewhat less invincible.
There is nothing exceptional about young Israelis. Conscripts in western Europe, and Russia even, are just as reluctant to fight unquestioningly for their country. They are part of a new passive generation who would prefer to keep war confined to the realm of computer games. But the crisis in the Israeli ranks has long been predicted by one of its foremost critics, Professor Martin Van Creveld of the Hebrew University, whose The Sword and the Olive: a critical history of the IDF was published last year.
He dates the decline in morale to the beginning, 12 years ago, of the intifada, the protests in the occupied terri-tories of the West Bank and Gaza. Young Israelis, particularly conscripts, did not like facing unarmed, stone- throwing Arab youths. He marvels that the British Army could have continued so long on its security operations in Northern Ireland without a collapse of discipline.
But what has been most difficult, according to Van Creveld, is the deployment of women. As the British armed forces are being encouraged to employ more women in or near the front line, the Israeli forces are pulling back; women are no longer deployed on the front line in the occupied territories. In his forthcoming book on women in the armed services, Van Creveld questions the equal opportunities recruitment policy of forces such as those of Israel and the United States. Armies with more than 15 per cent women seriously compromise their combat effectiveness, he says. Men are squeamish about seeing women comrades injured, and their presence and flirtatiousness distracts them, to the extent that even women clerks can be a problem. These may not be politically correct observations, but they have been demonstrated in trial after trial. Nor will Van Creveld accept that the Red Army, which recruited women by the thousand in the Second World War, is an exception - most served in exclusively female units.
The Israeli forces are a victim of their own mythology. After the lightning victory of the Six Day War in 1967, the emphasis was on the dashing tank heroes and the pilots. The infantry, which has been in the front line in Lebanon, was always at the less glamorous end of public and media perception.
Not that there is anything unusual in the reluctance of Israeli conscripts to go abroad or into the occupied territories on reckless adventures, and the even greater reluctance of their families to let them do so. In many developed countries, soldiering is regarded as, at best, outmoded and, at worst, a regressive and savage activity. For some years now, many of the Nato armies have been described by some critics as "mammista" armies - where soldiers are not the sons and daughters of guns but of the mamma back home. US politicians are now obsessed with the body-bag count, for fear of upsetting voters. Van Creveld himself has predicted that no advanced democracy is ever likely to go to war again with another. The era of industrialised warfare, which reached its height when Hitler launched an army of a million at Russia in June 1941, is all but over.
For historical reasons, both the United States and Israel are obsessed with casualties. In Israel's case, it is because the forces of a small country simply cannot afford great losses on the battlefield. Today, Israel's Mirkava main battle tank is known as "mother's friend" because it has such heavy protection for the crew inside.
The mother of a US Apache helicopter pilot sent to Kosovo a year ago summed up the mammista case on the Today programme: "My son joined a peacetime army, not for war. He has got too much ahead in his life to go to war - he's getting married this autumn." The anxieties of the mothers of the US forces are amplified in the views of the legislators on Capitol Hill. Their mantra now is that American sons and daughters should not be "put in harm's way" unless it is on a mission of vital US national interest. This has made the ground troops of the greatest military power virtually unusable in most international peace-enforcement or peace-support operations. One consequence is dubious military practice, such as ordering the bombing of Serbia from 15,000 feet.
This has led the US into avenues of strategic and security planning that few, if any, of its allies can follow, because of the enormously costly technology involved. It has led to the reluctance to put US forces under the command of any ally. It has led to a whole theology around what is known as "force protection doctrine" - which means that US lives come first, and hang the mission. When US forces went to Tuzla as part of the Nato implementation force in Bosnia after the Dayton cease-fire, they were not allowed out at night, and British troops therefore had to protect their more sensitive positions.
The Americans have real grounds for their fears, and not just dating from Vietnam. In 1984, 241 US marines were blown up in their base in Beirut; in 1993, 12 US rangers were killed, two helicopters downed and the body of a soldier dragged through the streets after a botched raid on a warlord in Mogadishu; and in 1995, 19 US airmen were killed by a truck bomb in their barracks in Dhahran. So the US now relies on the geeks and gismos of smart weaponry, guidance systems and intelligence rather than on human fighters. The Clinton White House is being pushed to invest in a brand new national missile defence system - which will protect America from the missiles of rogue states, but leave its allies vulnerable.
The new hideous buzzword among US defence academics is "full spectrum dominance", which means aiming to overwhelm a potential enemy, but also offers the false prospectus of conflict without combat - risk-free warfare. When he visited US troops at their Camp Bondsteel base in Kosovo last November, President Bill Clinton congratulated them on "winning the war without having a single casualty".
Kosovo was supposed to be the air war to end all ground wars - and yet it was probably the threat of ground action, led by the British and the French, that persuaded Milosevic to give up when he did. The combatless use of forces is attractive to many western governments, including new Labour. The Dutch, once the fiercest of fighters by land and sea, were humiliated when the Serbs captured the Srebrenica enclave, while it was under the tutelage of Dutch UN troops, and massacred about 7,000 unarmed Muslims in July 1995. Today, the Dutch are trying to phase out conscription, but they are finding it hard to get enough volunteers for an all-professional army.
Of all the Nato countries, only Britain and France now have the capability and willingness to project their forces globally, while also being fully prepared to fight and risk casualties. But there are signs that the British government is also embarking on the mammista route. It began with the verdict of the Oxford coroner's jury on the deaths of 11 British servicemen hit by US aircraft "friendly" fire in the Gulf in 1991. The jurors held that this was a case of unlawful killing: in other words, the battlefield is now susceptible to all the legal norms and constraints of civilian life.
The argument is about to be taken one step further. This autumn, the Human Rights Convention is due to become British statute. Unlike their French and German counterparts, the British defence chiefs have gone along with this. Under the Human Rights Act (as it will be), a soldier may refuse an order and be represented legally against any reprimand. It means that a soldier could decide in battle whether he or she wants to fight now or live to fight another day - and with no comeback from the RSM.
For all the hype about the digitalised battlefield, smart weapons and full spectrum dominance, we live in an age of ragged, open-ended wars and ethnic conflicts, and these will be won by the presence of boots and bayonets on the ground. The men of the 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment - soft berets, minimum body protection and all - brought peace to Pristina last year and Freetown this year because they looked as if they believed in their mission and were prepared to fight for it.
The writer is a special correspondent for the London Evening Standard. He is preparing a book on the future use of military force