Friday, January 8, 2010

Sacred Trinities: Time, Checklists & Gear Tune-ups

Time management, checklists and endlessly fine-tuning our gear are the three fundamental practices drummed into us young recruits every single day. The tremendous emphasis placed on these three disciplines correlates to the three core values of the IDF: discipline (mishmat), responsibility (achryut) and professionalism (mikzo'ute). It is not a coincidence that the two trinities parallel each other, such that time management (checklists/fine-tuning gear) is essentially applying the value of discipline (responsibility/professionalism) in the real world.

The Holiness of Time

Z'man Kadosh - time is holy, is a common refrain of basic training. My commanders routinely order my platoon to repeat wearisome tasks, insisting we chant "z'man lifni miseema - the time has priority over the mission," as we scamper forth under nearly impossible time constrictions. Over and over we are told that are efforts are meaningless if we are not standing at attention when the allotted time to do something has concluded. Even if that means the assigned task remains incomplete. Keeping your head out of the water is how our sergeant describes the lesson. Even in the midst of a chaotic mess, the soldier must remain cognizant of the time restraints under which he is operating. Time management often seems like the only point of basic training. Everything we do--eating, cleaning, shooting, studying, running--is given a limited amount of time. "Tiftach sha'own! - Start your timer" concludes every set of orders. The extent to which I now rely on my stop-watch has allowed me to understand why the wrist watch was a creation (in WWI, as it happens) of military necessity.

The Responsibility of Rashmatz

Israeli soldiers perform a disarmingly simple procedure before every mission: they snap a picture of all their gear neatly organized on their bed (like this fella). The picture comes into play after the mission, when everything is laid out for another inspection. On one level, this procedure--an exercise we perform sans pictures at the close of every week--is simply to make sure that everything is accounted for, that no gear has been overlooked or left behind. Yet the point is also to stress the cardinal ethic of responsibility.

Lowly trainees like myself are introduced to this ethic through the misdar koninut. Designed to test how quickly a unit can be ready for action (and how well a team works together under high levels of stress), a misdar koninut is dropped on soldiers when they least expect it. Everyone runs like fiends to dress for battle, slapping on heavy vests, knee-pads and helmets. While a few guys pass around materials to clean our guns, others race to check that all team equipment is present and accounted for. The checking continues to the final second when someone yells "times up" and we jump into formation. And then breathe.

My platoon never leaves or returns from an exercise without checking that all our gear is present. By exercise I mean pretty much every activity we do save for physical exercise. In other words, anything from a three day sortie in the desert to a ten-minute classroom lecture. Making sure that all the pencils and pistols are safe and secure is far more complex than you can imagine. Given a limited amount of time to prepare or strip apart an exercise site, we must also check that every bit of string, marker, nail and whatever else we brought with us is present. Every item must be visually and physically examined per the mandatory checklist that accompanies every vest and chest that is taken into the field. This includes our personal gear. Every soldier's vest includes a checklist where everything he has--from a watch to the Velcro band added to the rifle--is carefully noted. This checklist, and the act of checking, is known by that most characteristic of army slang acronyms: rashmatz, from the Hebrew phrase rishimat tziud - gear checklist.

Tikkun Olam - Perfecting the World

Discipline and responsibility reach perfection in professionalism just as fine-tuning our gear comes about through effectively managing our time and having a devoted attitude towards our equipment. None of the gear we receive avoids refinement. Everything undergoes shifzurim, (an army acronym from the words shipul tzurah, improving the shape; verb: l’shaptzer), the venerable culture of innovating and improvising to improve our gear through the application of tape and string. The tradition dates from pre-state militias like the Haganah who were forced to improvise their own arms in the difficult early years. Shifzurim also are a child of Jewish tradition. From finding room for innovation within the established tradition to seeking to perfect our world despite the constant wear and tear dreams receive when they engage reality.

History aside, there are very practical reasons to spend hours messing around with tape and string. In the loud chaotic abyss of battle, equipment that is not tied down and taped up can easily be left behind or fail to operate as needed. Shifzurim are time-tested methods to ensure that when things get really hairy, our equipment will take care of itself. This lesson is enforced in basic training by prohibiting carrying anything in our pockets that is not tied down. The culture of fine-tuning our gear is also greatly responsible for the widely cited (Start-Up Nation, anyone?)impact the IDF has on Israel's successful entrepreneurial business culture.

My own squad has already developed a few original shifzurim mashups, combining traditional shifzur technologies into new disciplines. One guy threaded a string through his kippa, ensuring an army buzz cut is no reason to doff the Jewish head covering. I followed his lead and threw some tape and string at a pocket-sized prayer pamphlet, transforming the pamphlet into a battle-ready tool. An even more enterprising fellow added pull-out shelves and back-pack straps to the wooden trunks that hold our team gear. All the stray strings and glossy tape may not look professional. Yet it is these hours spent in arts and craft that will leave us polished and ready in the battles ahead.

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