Friday, February 19, 2010

Camping with the Reserves

When the cry rang out at midnight to wake-up and make ready to leave our make-shift campsite, I had every reason to think that the week-long division size army exercise involving my company was going to be pretty demanding. Chill and serene ended up being the more apt metaphors for what will likely remain the most relaxing week of my service. Much of my time was spent with soldiers on reserve duty sitting around a campfire in the wooded hills of the Galilee. They taught me to roast canned tuna and luf, told me about their past and present homelands and left me with a persuasive profile of the reserve duty that Israeli civilians (in theory, at any rate) are called upon to fulfill in the years following their service as conscripts.

Reserve duty has long served as the backbone of the Israeli army. While day-to-day tasks are often carried out by the other two legs of the military, the small professional force and young conscripts like myself, the reserves are the troops called upon when larger threats emerge. In an increasingly post-ideological society, it is hardly surprising that reserve numbers are suffering, with many Israeli men shrugging off what in practice is essentially a volunteer service. Those who do serve come despite the costs to their academic, professional and family lives. A lesson for my fellow conscripts, one I perhaps know all too well.

The reserves I was with had plenty other lessons to teach me while I waited around to "ambush" other soldiers participating in the exercise. Having driven World War II vintage jeeps to our assigned position in the woods, the three reservists by my campfire had nothing to do but tend to the fire, roast our field rations and tell me stories about their varied ethnic backgrounds. Considering that one was Bedouin, another Russian and the last Ethiopian, the stories ranged from ice escapades in Moscow to Passovers in the hills of Abyssinia. When the three called home to their various sweethearts, they liberally mixed Arabic, Russian and Amharic into their conversation. Not only did it make for a colorful blur of contemporary Israeli demography but since the reservists were unarmed and instructed not to participate in my ambushes, we laughingly all agreed that their role in the simulated drama was playing the unarmed United Nation observer forces stationed along Israel's northern border!

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