Sunday, February 28, 2010

Is the Army Fun?

Is the army fun?
Question I get asked by friends all the time.

Maybe fun is my friends designated term for inquiring about my well-being. Or maybe they really are curious whether my military experience is full of good times ala summer camp or an all night karaoke parlor in coastal China. Or perhaps the question is their way of expressing the hope that I am still approaching the usual deprivation and all out suckiness of the army with a smile. A smile, of course, because when folks say the challenges in the army are all mental, what they really mean is that they are far easier to overcome if you approach them with a positive spin and twinkle in your eye.

The army is also far easier to tackle if you feel good about the guys by your side. It is hardly a secret that unit cohesion is the sine qua non for a successful military endeavor. Watch or read any military themed work of fiction and the message will be something along the lines of "I do this for the guys by my side." Trust and communication, the basis of any relationship, are also the difference between taking out terrorists in a pre-dawn raid and coming to terms with a friendly-fire tragedy the morning after. In special units like my own, special attention is paid to group cohesion with commanders empowered to kick out soldiers they deem socially delinquent. Feeling upbeat, finishing the course and successfully rubbing out the bad guys, in short, are nearly entirely a reflection of the friendship that exists between the troops.

All of which brings me back to the question friends ask, a question I asked and answered while standing guard in a rainstorm this past Thursday night. The rest of my platoon were off performing a comic skit for the Nachal soldiers we had trained with since early December, a lighthearted way of saying farewell as my unit prepared to depart Nachal with the close of basic training. Someone had to guard our tent while the merrymaking took place. Having not been provided with a role in the skit, I was informed by one of my guys that the least I could do was fill the guard position so one of the folks who had been included in the group activity need not waste his time in the cold. A B.A. in East Asian Studies was hardly necessary to read the casual message my peer(s?) were sending me by failing to include me in the evening's fun and games.

And so I stood all by my lonesome, out in the blistering rain, reflecting on where and why I had failed to bridge the credibility gap with my peers over the course of basic training. Part of me considered reaching back to my experience in university and use my frustration and casual isolation as motivation to work even harder and truly excel in the tests that lay ahead. A wiser voice urged another path, understanding that the path I had chosen in university has a limited lifespan. I also considered that one of my goals in the army was to learn to succeed without succumbing to the isolated workaholic-ism that had governed my school years.

Standing in the cold rain is a good way to come to terms with the obvious. The obvious answer to whether I find the army fun is not yet. Not until I really relate to the guys by my side, not until I see them in a similar light as I would were they twenty of my best buddies from my past will our collective challenges, painful as they may be, pass the fun question with flying colors.

1 comment:

  1. I like this post, especially because you probably posted it well after the event took place and were still able to capture the feelings of the moment.

    Part of me wants to assure you that it will come, just be patient, but 2 points:
    1) The army is a lot more fun in retrospect. There are moments we can enjoy and have perspective about as they happen, but as humans, the physical difficulties, time pressure, and increased lack of control as compared with daily life can make things unpleasant. In fact, part of what makes it fun in retrospect is that it was not fun in the moment. I guess that just bounces us back to where you started with the definition of fun, sorry.
    2) Having recently started working at an Israeli office, I've noticed how much of a difference our upbringings have made. I don't think I can ever be real buddies with any of the people at work. I'm not familiar with the body of pop culture off which they make references, and my humor works slightly differently than theirs. Of course, there can be friendship and mutual respect - and that rare kindred soul from a totally different background - but the elements for being close friends are mostly missing. Kinda makes you wonder about the elements that make up friendship...

    Having said all that, you and the guys in your unit are going through the ultimate shared experience. Because of its length and the fact that it comes during a still formative time in your lives, you guys are in a sense sharing an upbringing.

    I am sure at later times you will be amazed at how much your unit appreciates and respects you.