Friday, November 19, 2010

Sorry Purple, Paratroops it Will Be

Kol HaZman TzanChan, Kol HaZman MuChan...
Always a paratrooper, always ready...

From the strangely addicting song played at the closing ceremony of the IDF jump course.

A call from the army last night instructed me to report on Sunday to the 35th Brigade, also known as the Paratroopers (Tzanchanim). Givati, I hardly knew ye.

So there it is: After nearly three months on the lam, I have returned as a paratrooper. If that sounds glamorous, it is because the Paratroop Brigade is as misunderstood as the US Marines. Like the Marines, whom foreigners the world over believe to be the most elite American armed force, the Paratroop Brigade is imagined by non-Israelis as an elite corps. The reality is that save for a one day tryout (gibush) and a two week jump course, the Paratroops train and serve just like the other four infantry brigades (Golani, Givati, Nachal & Kfir). The Paratroops are not even the most esteemed infantry force among young Israelis. That honor goes to the Golani Brigade, which routinely is listed as the top choice by draftees (in the November 2009 draft, one in ten conscripts were accepted by Golani. Tzanchanim took one in eight).

The confusion over Tzanchanim's real and imagined reputation is reasonable. In the Israeli army, entrance tryouts (gibushim) and jump course are the hallmarks of an elite unit. Tzanchanim retains both practices because decades ago the brigade did in fact serve as the army's only elite force. In the 1950s, when the morale and professionalism of the IDF was very poor, Ariel Sharon's elite commando squad, Unit 101, was merged with a paratrooper force called Battalion 890 to create the Paratrooper Brigade. The idea was to create an elite infantry brigade that would be capable of carrying out commando raids like Unit 101 while also inspiring other brigades like Golani and Givati to raise their own fighting skills. In these early years, famous officers like Sharon and Rafi Eitan led what was unquestionably the army's most capable and glamorous force. Sayeret Matkal, Israel's elite commando force (essentially, the heir of the long defunct Unit 101) evolved out of the Paratroop Brigade, becoming an elite within an elite force. By the late sixties, however, the Paratroop Brigade had become what it is today, a regular infantry force that does exactly the same training (save for jump course) and service as any other brigade.

While I can see past the false glamor of the Paratroops, I am as susceptible as any other young Zionist who grew up on the writings of former Tzanchanim like Yoni Netanyahu and Alex Singer. Myths aside, serving in the Paratroops means I will now be able to write more openly about my service than I was capable of doing in the past. So stay with me as my second life in the IDF now commences.

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