Saturday, July 10, 2010

Bikinis and Paint

Many people are impressed by the difficulty and length of my unit’s training schedule (maslul). What they do not realize is that training (in the Israeli army, at least), no matter the weight balanced on our back or the fear swallowed during aerial adventures, is really a glorified summer camp. Birthright in green, if you will. Sensible rules in place ensure that nothing we do can really endanger us. So the whole experience, of bundling off every week to drill something new in another forgotten corner of the country, has the disconcerting feeling of an all male summer Israel program.

If I had any lingering doubt that my maslul was not a summer camp, a in-house “Sports Day” recently settled the question. For no apparent reason, everyone in the unit was bused off to a nearby pool for a day of casual competitive sport and lounging in the sun. Most of the trainees, fighters and jobniks (army slang for non-combat soldiers) skipped the sport events and tried to stave off naps in order to ogle the opposite gender. Harder said than done considering how (a) little sleep we get and (b) the ridiculous high number of bombshells in my air force unit (don’t pity the girls, they have more than their fair share of good looking and obviously in shape guys to look at).

The rest of the week saw us back on base, sprucing up our camp and gear for a twice a year inspection by senior officers. And so it was I spent most of the week with a paintbrush in hand after taking responsibility for improving the look of our kit. I was the right man for the job. Not only was my grandfather a professional painter but following the 2006 Lebanese War I had joined forces with other volunteers to paint bomb shelters in northern Israel. The idea then was to reassure northern residents through beautifying the structures that defended them against enemy attack. The idea now is more or less the same. Strange how after seven months of training to commit violence, I find myself, paintbrush in hand, in a similar position from years past.

Krav Aggression

Your team tried to crush you today, break your every limb. Yet only one of you had the necessary retzach b’ainayim, that killer’s look in the eyes. And so the rest of you have nothing to show from your work here.

Two weeks of exhaustive krav maga drills came to a close with the instructor dismissing the painfully mastered technique as a waste of time. My team had just fought each other in staged battles pitting each individual against everyone else, one at a time, in thirty second bouts. These kravot, literally battles, had seen even the best guys become little more than moaning punching bags after a few minutes of ceaseless action. And now, according to the coach, it was all for naught. “Krav maga is not about form,” summed up the instructor. “The point is aggression- focused, ceaseless aggression.”

Krav maga, literally ‘contact combat,’ may not be at the forefront of Israeli public relations advocacy. Yet the no-holds barred defensive combat system is one of modern Israel’s most well known exports. And just like the hi-tech exports whose success is due in no small part to their roots in the Israeli defense community (read Start Up Nation for the whole story), krav maga has deep ties to the IDF. Developed by a Czech Jew in the 1930s in response to Nazi aggression, krav maga was fine tuned over the ensuing decades in the IDF. Today many special forces and law enforcement agencies the world over turn to the Israeli product for training. The rules, or lack thereof, are straightforward: counter-attack as quickly and aggressively as possible, with maximum force at your opponent’s most vulnerable points. Do not stop until the threat is over or an opportunity to escape presents itself.

I was first introduced to krav maga in basic training. Instructors from the Nachal Brigade (including a memorable Russian fellow) took full advantage of the opportunity to work with special force troops. The kadar, army slang for pointless intensive physical activity (kadar is shorthand for Klitah Derekh Reglayim, ‘absorption through the legs’!) was unrelenting. And the discipline was total. Nowhere else in the modern army are commanders allowed to leave soldiers in matzav shtayim (push-up positions) for painfully long periods of time. During krav maga sessions, soldiers are put in stress positions like matzav shtayim for the slightest diversion from the rules. Scratch your nose and boom, your entire squad will immediately be running suicide sprints.

The kadar and discipline remained the rule for krav maga sessions in tironut yechida (the two month stretch that bridged the gap between basic and advanced training). What was new is that sessions were now sprung on us in the middle of the night, waking us from sleep with seven minutes to dress and ready ourselves for the violence to come.

Krav maga sessions in advanced training have finally become about technique. That is, after ensuring that we are physically exhausted from endless sprints and push-ups, instructors introduce basic combat moves. Learning to punch, kick and disembowel the enemy comes at great cost however: blows are practiced on each other. All the padding in the world does little good when my job is to stand still and let my friends, riled up to imagine me as a horrible terrorist, let loose on me from a foot away.

Kravot, the draining bouts mentioned above, are normally used to close out a week of krav maga training. As exhaustive as they are—unless you have had to box twenty guys in a row, each one coming at you fresh and determined to prove a point, you can’t imagine it—they do not touch the ferocity and fatigue of the gauntlet. Native Americans are said to have made captives run through two lines of their warriors, raining blows until the unfortunate souls collapsed. We do more or less the same thing, except our peers fill us in from both sides while a meaty instructor pulls us backwards and another holds a punching bag in front of us. The guy in the middle has to surge forward, ignoring the pain and fists, and keep boxing the stuffing out of the bag. Several guys on my team went down under the incoming blows. But everyone got back, tapped his angry inner animal, and surged on to the end.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Issues with Commander & Team

My team came back from a week's training in the north that saw us sneaking past Druze villages, traversing the Hula Valley (including a memorable crossing of the Jordan River) and clambering through trees and up 'n down football length cliff-sides. Unfortunately, a few sour run-ins with my boss and some peers left me with a different takeaway from the week.

The trouble started on Saturday night. Returning to base from Jerusalem, I took a bus to the closest town and then jumped in a cab. One confused cab driver later and I ended up at the wrong entrance to the base. When my commander swung by to pick me up, he did not seem to care that I had made it to the (wrong) entrance well before the deadline. Furious at what he described as (a) my late arrival and (b) my failure to inform him in advance that I may not make it in time, he gave me a piece of his mind and then suspended me from the next 36 hours of active training.

Frankly, I thought his anger and the punishment were misplaced given the circumstance. The real issue, however, merits more attention. According to my commander, my failure lies in failing to recognize that a soldier's duty is to immediately inform his supervisor about all challenges. My understanding had been that that it is preferable to resolve a problem on my own before running to report it to the boss.

Our different perspectives were obvious by our choice of metaphor. I reasoned that as a 25 year old with ample experience of living on my own, it was preferable to clean up a mess before running to inform daddy that the milk has spilled on the floor. But if your officer orders you to take out target X and then something occurs that makes you doubt your ability to succeed, my commander replied, you are obligated as a soldier to report the problem before anything else. Because if you shoot and miss, he concluded, the responsibility is mine and not yours. Decisions, in short, are not to be made by little soldiers like me. And so we come back to Saturday night. If I am not sure how best to return to base on a Saturday night, so the reasoning goes, I need to communicate the problem to my commanding officer before attempting to take care of it on my own.

I wasted no time in embracing my commander's position. Regardless of what I may think, the merit and authority of his words left me with no alternative. The problems that came to light this week between me and my peers, however, require a more confrontational response. And so at the weekly open forum, I opened my mind and let loose.

First I made it clear that I never willfully misunderstand Hebrew instructions. One of the guys had accused me of using my weak Hebrew as a cover for simply not paying enough attention to instructions. The accusation stung. No one in my unit knows what it is like to struggle with oral instructions, I told my wide-eyed audience, and just because I increasingly do not advertise my troubles does not mean they have disappeared.

Language issues were the least of my troubles. Being treated as the confused American, viewed with a mixture of pity and humor, never taken seriously even when I am in full command of the situation--that is the real issue I unloaded on my fellow soldiers. Maybe I am being unfair in requesting that my peers acknowledge my persistent gaps in the language while also respecting my ability to perform as well as any of them. Perhaps it is simply too much to expect from a bunch of teens working in a high stress environment. Then again, maybe that is why I am here, someone to challenge them to be more than age or circumstance suggest.

"Take me for who I am," I implored my peers. "Do not treat me as a mascot. Because that is not what I am here to do. Trust me, there are far funnier Americans. I did not enlist, did not sweat to get here, to be a silly punching bag for cross-cultural confusion. Allow me to be me."

UPDATE: My appeal to the guys had the desired effect. No drama yet definite signs of improvement. And nothing was lost, quite the opposite in fact, in the feelings of friendship between us.

Our Rollercoaster Rep

Israel's top military units, like my own, have a passive-aggressive approach to fostering a culture of competitiveness. "The gibush (tryouts) is over," my team was told during the first week of basic training. "From now on all that matters are team results." While that message is constantly reinforced, commanders make no secret that individual merit is also weighed in light of the rest of the team's performance. Hanging over everyone is the grim reminder that every few months a few guys on the team will be binned, and so staying ahead in the rat race is a question of basic survival.

Competition is also rejected with one hand and embraced with the other between the various teams that make up my special unit. The is especially the case between the teams that began their training at the same time. Creating a name for ourselves as the top team from 2009 is constantly invoked as motivation by our commander. Our reputation during training, our commander insists, decides whether we will one day be the team chosen for the best missions. Our name (and since teams are named after their commanding officers, literally our commander's name), our reputation, is critical.

Since commencing serious training in May, my team has received feedback to the extent that we are something special, not only in relation to the other teams from 2009 but in contrast to teams over the last half-decade. Buttery words, enough to make what happened a few weeks ago all the more devastating.

Halfway through an in-house introduction to urban combat skills, one of the guys suddenly announced he had lost track of a fancy bit of night-vision equipment. Anytime anyone misplaces anything the entire team drops what it is doing and does whatever is necessary to find the missing item. But this was not a regular search. Our commander quickly informed us that the missing item was of such importance that senior figures in the Israeli and even American defense communities would be informed if we did not find it soon. We overturned and enlisted the help of the entire unit. We searched through the night. All to no avail.

The next morning the search continued. But the damage to our team's reputation had already been done. Thankfully there are many more months of training ahead of us, enough time to take a few more spins on the all important rollercoaster reputation.