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.

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