Monday, July 6, 2009

Guns & Roses

Syria, I wrote to my cousin, will be a terrific place for me to contemplate my decision to serve in the Israeli army for the next two years. Save for the need to keep my Judaism a closely guarded secret, I could not have picked a more ideal police state to consider whether I am really ready to enlist.

My commitment remains unshaken. When it did weaken, however, it was not because I found Syrians so gracious and hospitable. Truth be told, I expected no less. The times I found myself questioning my decision to give the next two years to the Israeli army came when young Syrians would share with me the lengths they go to avoid serving in the Syrian army. All Syrian males, except for only children, are required to enlist for two years. And all Syrians, or at least the dozens of guys I spoke with over the summer, have nothing but absolute distaste for the army. Soldiers are rarely granted home leave and their training seems to mostly consist of a series of demoralizing exercises. Or as one Syrian told me, "the two years serve one purpose: making Syrian guys into lifelong alcoholics."

With uniform antipathy for serving in the army (even the army guide that escorted me around the military's memorial to the 1973 October War was dismissive of serving in the Syrian army), Syrians only differed in explaining to me the unique measures they had adopted in order to evade the army. One had obtained dual citizenship in Jordan (thereby invalidating his ability to enlist) through a combination of bribes and family marriages. Another found a doctor who provided him with the drugs that convinced the military board he was medically unfit to serve. Others first deferred their service with university and then fled to the Gulf to earn enough money so they could avoid enlisting once and for all. Paying off the government seems to be the most straightforward way of avoiding the army. The financial option explains why a military officer told me that the army is nothing like what it was in the 1970s. Three decades ago, he insisted, men were eager to die in defense of their country. "Today," the officer explain, "only the poor and those without education are foolish or desperate enough to embrace the army."

My discussion with Syrians about the Syria army naturally led them to inquire how conscription works in other countries. America, I told them, had enough of conscription due to the student movement and the fallout from the Vietnam War. A Danish friend of mine explained that in his country matters work a little differently. He was selected through a lottery to serve as a sentry outside the Queen's palace in Copenhagen. Quite the cushy post, though not tempting enough as he simply told the military he was going to university instead.

I did not have the chance to speak to any Lebanese about their country's army. And so I left only with what I saw. And from appearances alone, the Syrian and Lebanese armies could not be more different. The Syrian army is still driving around in Soviet tanks from the 1970s. And many of their soldiers can be seen in t-shirts and jeans because the one uniform they are issued either does not fit or is too ragged to wear. The Lebanese army, meanwhile, are dressed as if they just raided a North Face factory. The reality is that their spiffy uniforms--and even shinier looking guns and tanks--reflect the millions of dollars of equipment the West has donated to Lebanon. The idea seems to be that a strong army is Lebanon's best hope against the ethnic militias that could return the country to the dark days of the Lebanese Civil War. I am curious how effective this strategy works in practice, as it seems to be the go to move in countries across the Middle East.

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