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.

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