Friday, September 24, 2010

Commando or Commander?

Nothing looks too different on the outside. The jawline is more defined, shoulders somewhat thicker. But inside, within the ticking tourniquet of the mind, my outlook on military service has undergone a world of change since first lacing on combat boots last December.

Solid Snake, GI Joe. Name your action hero and I once had visions of taking his place. Ideological motivation aside, military service was also an adventure, one where I wanted to be the big-time action hero. Combat, not a foreign policy based intel job, was what I wanted from my service.

Or so I thought when I first enlisted. The star-gazing is long since past. Today my desire is to contribute, to do my time and make a difference rather than star in a Leon Uris novel. I still seek a unique and challenging assignment. Yet the need to be remembered as a John Paul Jones no longer defines me.

I am uncertain how this shift in perspective will influence the remainder of my service. In one sense my action hero attitude had a key impact, driving me towards the elite ranks of the IDF. As I restart my service, I wonder whether that early chase of elite status was a mistake. After all, in many ways my experience and skills as a leader was the contribution I half-expected to make to the army. Commander, not commando, was the ideal I imbibed from the writings of Alex Singer and Yoni Netanyahu.

Commandos and commanders are really not so far apart. For soldiers from overseas, both positions require signing extra time (that is, serving more than two years). Most soldiers in top units are leadership material by virtue of the maturity and motivation that both positions require. Yet in the most elite units, few commandos will serve as officers. Top units simply cannot afford to see too many of their valuable fighters leave and become officers elsewhere. Commando squads like Sayeret Golani are another story. Because these special units are part of the regular infantry (Sayeret Golani is, for instance, part of the Golani Brigade), many of their soldiers are tapped to serve as officers for the regular infantry.

While waiting in line at the Tel Hashomer base, I began speaking to another soldier. A foreign born Garin Tzabarnik like myself, he confided that he was aiming for a top unit. "If I don't make it, I would go to infantry. And there I would most likely sign the extra time and become an officer." Underlying his words was the unsaid motto of lone soldiers, that the motivation that drives us to volunteer for the army also translates to serving at the highest level. I have no problem with the message. My concern is that in all the excitement of testing into elite units, I may have lost track of the element of leadership I hoped to contribute during my service.

A year has passed since that conversation. Again I find myself back at Tel Hashomer, standing in lines and awaiting assignment. My expectations for where I will serve are not quite the same naive heroics that excited the young soldier I once was. Whatever it is that has replaced those illusion, however, I cannot say for sure.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Back to the Beginning: Ready, Set, Protekzia

Day one of my rebooted army career brought me back to Tel Hashomer, the central induction base outside of Tel Aviv. Nine months ago I left the base with the guys with whom I hoped to spend the next four years of my life. Today I am back with eight of those guys, all of us looking to latch onto a new army unit after losing our spots in my old unit.

After waiting around for six hours, an officer gathered us together and explained our options. We can interview for two special units that would love to have us. We can request immediate reassignment to one of the regular infantry brigades (Golani, Givati, Nachal, Paratroopers, Kfir). Or we can wait till November when a dozen special units run interviews for the sixty some guys that have dropped recently from elite units.

The other guys quickly gave me the real lay of the land. Neither of the two special units that want us, they insisted, are good options for soldiers seeking real combat roles. Going straight to a regular infantry brigade means sacrificing any chance at ending up in a top unit. And the November option is swollen with desperate young guns all of whom have fancy former units (pilots, matkal, shaldag, shayetet 13, Unit 669) on their resume. Sixty guys fighting for maybe a dozen open spots. So much for the options, hey?

So, I asked my far wiser peers, where does that leave us? What can I do to make it to a good unit?

Protekzia, they uniformly answered. The Vitamin P of Israeli society. Russian for protection, Israeli speak for working your way around bureacracy through well placed contacts. Protekzia is essentially the local version of guanxi in China or the wasta of the Arab world. In my case it translates to having well placed friends in the IDF help me land an interview for a top unit. Considering everyone else in my situation have their older brothers and fathers tapping old army buddies, I can only hope that my few contacts on and off my kibbutz will be enough to open the necessary doors.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Miles to Go Before I Sleep

Yom HaKippur, my favorite day on the Jewish calendar, starts in a few hours. The year that was, the year that will be, this past week...

Like you, I have so much to keep me company over the next twenty plus hours of sheltered prayer. Too much of that remains buried within me, stories and ideas that have failed to arrive in this space.

In the days ahead, look for a blizzard of updates. Because it was quite the summer. And with what I discovered this week, the journey is now starting once again. Stay tuned.

Thank You. With special thanks to Robert Frost,
The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.

Monday, September 13, 2010

But...Game Over

We came to the land to which you sent us, and indeed, it flows with milk and honey, and this here fruit. But (Efes) – the people of the land are mighty, their cities are greatly fortified and we even saw the children of giants... We cannot challenge such a mighty people.
Numbers 13:28-31

Buts have served as heralds of calamity throughout history. Everyone is familiar with the routine: words of praise are suddenly upended into the meanest censure by that single adversative: the but (except, however, only, and yet are all poor cousins by comparison). History's earliest case of a harmful but may come from the biblical story of the ten scouts sent by Moses to reconnoiter the land of Israel. Ramban, the thirteenth century Jewish sage also known as Nachmanides, writes that the use of the single word efes in the scout's report is the actual sin that doomed a generation of Israelites to wander and perish in the desert for forty years. Efes means but. Though the literal meaning of efes—nothing—is also crucial to understanding the damaging consequence of using this word. When all the praise in the world is followed with a but... the preceding words are worth nothing. If you are like me, preliminary words of praise are warning enough that a big ugly but is on the horizon.

And so when a senior officer in my unit began praising me a few minutes into my va'ada, I understood my days as a commando in Israel's most lethal ground force were over. Nine months in and like too many others, I was binned. Kicked out on Tzom Gedaliah of all days, the Jewish fast that commemorates the assassination of a Jewish leader by his own people.

Kicked out?! Why me? And why now?

Some context: Like elite military units around the world, Israel's top special forces maintain a thriving tradition of winnowing out troops over the course of training. A few soldiers do not finish training due to injury. Yet most are shown the door for other reasons, a fateful procedure that takes place every four months. A sociometry test, allowing higher ups to gauge each soldier's status among his peers, is quickly followed by ordering several soldiers to report for va'adot (meetings). If a soldier is lucky, the higher-ups have not predetermined his fate and the va'ada is actually an opportunity for the soldier to make the case why he deserves another chance. Most va'adot are simply a charade, with a few presumptory questions and then a hasty sentence of begone with ye.

None of that explains why I have been binned. How my storybook journey as a member of one of the most respected IDF units is now abruptly finito. As Bernard Lewis would ask, what went wrong?

In my all too brief va'ada, after a senior officer I had never met finished telling me how wonderful I am, the same officer said my time was up because my commander does not think I will manage with the demanding pace that awaits in the rest of the training. In other words, my commander does not believe in me.

It has been common knowledge in my squad for months that my commander does not have the highest opinion of me. I first noticed that I had slipped from his good grace during tironut yechida, the two months of intensive fieldwork that bridged basic and advanced training. At first the signs were somewhat subtle, such as his never tasking me with any of the choice assignments during field exercises. Gradually his negative attitude towards me became apparent from infrequent one-on-one discussions. From speaking to the other guys in my squad, I realized that their discussions with our commander were not exclusively ten minutes of the boss highlighting their faults. When I was selected for the first round of va'adot in May, it was apparent that of the officers in the room, the only one whose vote I could not count on was that of my own commander.

After surviving that first va'ada, my commander made clear to me that in his eyes I very much remained in the doghouse. As an inveterate optimist, I resolved to change his perception by working even harder. It was not long before the guys in my squad noticed and positive comments began coming my way. From my peers, that is. As far as my commander was concerned, my star turns in krav maga, stretcher marches and parachute course were immaterial. His opinion of me only worsened, headlined by my grenade and navigation blunders.

In my va'ada the senior officer told me the grenade and navigation were not the reasons I was getting tossed. The smoking gun was a far more egregious failure, a charge so absurd I was unable to understand nor explain. I had failed Course Lotar, our three week course in counter-terrorism. When my commander had first informed me of the result, I was shocked. And confused. The guys in my squad felt just the same. Having performed as well if not better than my peers, none of us could understand why I alone had been singled out with failing the course. Several guys in my squad suggested that our commander had played a not so subtle role in producing the damning result.

I never was my squad’s Buzz Lightyear. Poor Hebrew and a hesitant attitude during basic training stamped me with a permanent identity of the “guy to help out” even as my language and confidence increased. And yet what sticks with me is my failure to bond with my commander. A young man (only a year younger than me) whose Zionism and desire to always be the best I deeply admire. Was it the cultural gap? Dumb luck that he overlooked my strengths? Miscues that are far more egregious than they appeared?

I will never really know. All I do know is that it is all gone. After flying through the clouds for a year my wings have been clipped. Curiosity forever curtailed. My disappointment runs deep, especially because having been on the inside I now know myth from reality. I know those who make it are not rare supermen but simply dedicated young soldiers. Like me (except for the young bit, I suppose!).

I never shed a tear. Yet I know the Fast of Gedaliah will never pass without me reflecting on what was and will forever never be.

Ramban's comment on the term Efes immediately came to my mind when the senior officer prefaced news of my exit with effusive praise. To my surprise, another message lies buried in the full account of the Biblical scouts. I will leave you to puzzle out what the mysterious fallen ones (Nefilim) have to say about my future.

The Land through which we have passed as scouts is a land that devours its inhabitants. All the people that we saw in it were huge! There we saw the fallen ones, the sons of giants from the fallen ones; we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so we were in their eyes.

I almost titled this post "I dislike Big Buts and I Cannot Lie." And then I decided no. Because hey, this ain't a joke. Its my life.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Running to the End

I have been keeping something from you all this week, something that kept me in my own little world during the m'sakem (war games). See, just before we set out on Sunday for the start of the m'sakem, our commander told me I had a va'ada at week's end. The same sort of va'ada we all know from last May, the sort of meeting which usually ends a soldier's service in our unit. It was difficult to focus on our first mission having just heard that this week could very be my last with you guys. Yet by midweek, when we were curled up next to each other in the bushes, what was a distraction became a reason to appreciate every moment. I know, it sounds silly, yet my secret made me treasure our lack of sleep, the heavy packs on our backs and especially the final stretcher trek up the highest peak in the Yizrael Valley.

One moment remains with me more than any other. Remember when the sun came up Thursday morning and we were ordered to scrap the original plan and make a run for the border? An hour into the march, with everyone pretty miserable to be trekking in the heat after three days of near zero sleep, we passed a Star of David and the words am yisrael sprayed sideways on an empty white hut. Crazy as it sounds, as I passed the graffiti I felt the same thrill from the day I made aliyah. My mind read the graffiti as proof that our dangerous mission into enemy territory was over. The aliyah-esque excitement, however, came straight from my heart. Seeing the graffiti reminded me why I am here. Why I always smile in disbelief when soldiers, even some of you guys, pester me about joining the IDF. Why did you ever leave the bright lights of New York City? How come you didn't enlist with the Marines? (side note: Israelis, like non-Americans the world over, believe that US Marines are the elite of the US Army. Why? Blame it on that Lava Monster ad).

That silly graffiti reminded me I am here because of my faith in this country. My desire to take part in the ongoing drama that is Israel. Faith, desire... fanciful words that disguise the simple answer: Israel has my heart. And what is love if not a relentless belief in the other, finding a partner with whom you can change the world?

I shared the above words (or at least an oral, Hebrew version of them!) on Friday night with the nearly two dozen guys that compromise my fighting team. We have been together since the first night of Basic Training in December. If my journey with them is to end in a few days, this shabbat was our last best chance to make sure they knew the real me.

My commander had a few words of his own to share with me the next day. Unlike my remarks (which he had not been present for), his words were caustically blunt. I don't think you should be in this unit, he said. If enough of your peers indicated the same on Friday's sociometry (a what? see here), you are done for. So, do you think the guys support you?

I was in no mood to defend myself against this unexpected onslaught. But I was determined to respond. And so I admitted that some of my peers likely gave me less than sterling marks on the previous day's sociometry. Lets face it, public blunders have a way of making bad impressions and I have a can't-take-it-back grenade and a nightmare of a navigation to my name.

Demonstrating leadership and responsibility, on the other hand, is how good impressions are made. Since the army is largely a top-down affair, leadership positions are not so much earned as bestowed by all-powerful superiors. Call me spiteful, yet since avoiding an early exit from the unit in May I never received a crumb of extra-responsibility. Everyone on my squad had a turn at team leader--save for me. Everyone was tasked with responsibility over a particular supply depot (signals, vehicles, warehouse gear, etc)--except for me. With guys as motivated and capable as they are, I told my boss in closing, chances to lead are chances to shine. Hamlet, not Horatio, wins accolades come sociometry time.

It was not necessary to spell out to my commander who may be responsible for keeping me from the limelight. Nor was it necessary to wonder if I had the support of my peers. Late on Saturday night, a dozen guys sat with me to put on paper a rationale for why I deserved to remain on the squad. The paper was their idea, not mine. As were the signatures of my entire squad that covered the final draft.

My va'ada was later postponed till after the Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) weekend. The delay meant I had three days at home to reflect on the portentous meeting. Three days that included a two day holiday dedicated to reflecting on the past and future years. Ironically, it was not until after the holiday that I finally came to terms with what awaited me on the morrow.

My thinking space came on a long Saturday night run. With no destination in mind, I let my feet and the occasional green traffic light guide my way through Jerusalem. For two hours my steps retraced nearly every path they have taken in the capitol. I ran by the tayelet overlook in the south; the dazzling Calatrava bridge at the western entrance to the city; the imposing Belz Temple in the ultra-orthodox northern neighborhoods; Hebrew University up on the eastern slopes of Mt. Scopus; and around the golden walls of the old city.

I doubt I blinked once. It was the people, fur-lined wide-eyed Belz hassids, nervous Arab couples cuddling by the wall, seminary girls touring the tayelet, haughty arsim racing past me in the shadow of the bridge, that held my attention. Their faces remind me why I am in uniform. The looks we exchanged remind me that despite the frustration of serving with a commander who looks and does not see, I cannot despair. Because my service is a privilege, a promise to defend all the eyes that crossed my own during my late night run.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Bike Light Nights

Dark skies torn apart by spinning helicopter blades and neon tracers were the lasting images from my first m'sakem. This time around a simple blinking bike light is what I will remember from the week long war-games that came to test what we had mastered over the past few months of training.

Like the first m'sakem in late April, this installment was mostly about lugging heavy packs in the dark of the night and hiding out from the enemy as dawn beckoned. Although we rubbed out a few pretend terrorists over the course of the week, the main idea was to remain undetected. So one night when our lead scouts spotted red lights approaching our ranks, the entire squad quickly concealed themselves in nearby bushes. Red lights, we had been told, meant terrorist baddies. With bated breath, two dozen camouflaged commandos prepared to fire as a strange pair of bobbing red lights approached our position.

As the seesawing figure grew closer, I struggled to keep the 100 pounds of kit on my back from throwing off the view through my gunsights. I had no idea of knowing when the order would come through to initiate contact with the enemy. But when the sound of heavy breathing grew so close that the leaves beside me seemed to stir from its breeze, I readied my finger on the trigger. Looking around, I saw my peers doing the same. Lucky for the other team our guns were stocked with phony bullets that would produce nothing save a bang and some smoke when fired. In our keyed up state, the result of our momentary broadside seemed beside the point. In seconds a symphony of violence would shake these woods.

The symphony never happened. Discipline trumped nerves when the bobbing red lights turned out to be the front and rear lights of two bicycles out for a late night ride. The bicyclists never knew what did not hit them. As they pedaled off into the night, my squad coolly stepped from our hiding places, shouldered heavy packs and moved off into the night.

A Test Without a Rope

The rope would have done me in.

Like the wall that nearly prevented me from passing the Bochan Maslul (army obstacle course), a twenty-foot rope threatened to ruin my Bochan Lochem. Used to evaluate the physical fitness in the top IDF units, the Bochan Lochem includes a 5 km run, maxing out on pull-ups and dips, and climbing a 20 foot rope without the use of your legs. For weeks my squad had included rope climbs in our daily workout. And for weeks I had never once succeeded in making it to the top without help from my legs. With the Bochan Lochem only days away, my only hope was that gravity would miraculously turn on its head and sweep me up the twisted twine.

The Bochan Lochem was to be administered by a brash new fitness officer. Days after arriving in the unit, his reputation was sealed when he led us on an early morning run. Coming on the heels of a tense all-nighter, the run was welcomed by no one. Even less welcoming was the nonstop instructions of the fitness boss-- arms should be at a 70 degree angle... The ceaseless chatter finally drove one guy to shout, "How about you just shut up!" Of course, the officer was too into his own verbal flood to hear the words that finally succeeded in waking (and cracking) us up.

Someone was apparently conscious enough during the run to report back to our commander that the fitness boss had voiced his approval for running shirtless. Our commander was not pleased. Okay, he finally agreed, from now on you can run without your shirts. But perhaps I should utilize the same guideline my commander applied when I was a trainee. He had us lift our shirts, my boss concluded with a smirk, and allowed the rest of the squad to decide whether a soldier looked good enough to run around topless.

Nearly everyone doffed their shirts a few days later for the 5k run of the Bochan Lochem. With all the guys that had joined the unit in November 2009 taking part, the race was a lot of fun. My squad embarrassed the competition, claiming twelve of the top fifteen spots. The best part of the run was having one of my best friends unexpectedly pass me during the final half-mile. I loved the statement he made by running a race no one suspected him capable of pulling off.

The rest of my love was reserved for the new fitness boss. Surprising everyone, he imperiously announced that the rope climb would not be a part of the Bochan Lochem. My joy was boundless as I cranked out dozens of pull-ups, eyeing the sinister rope whose clutches I had barely avoided.