Monday, December 27, 2010

Americans to the Rescue!

Krav Maga instructors are trained to instill aggression and a quick jab into their military charges. So I was quite bemused on Sunday night when my instructor in the no-holds barred Israeli fighting style fussed with my collar. After asking me to check that his uniform was picture perfect, he announced we were ready. "We are going in on my command," he instructed in a voice of barely concealed menace. "Everyone stay calm and remember, you are paratroopers in the IDF."

I had little idea what I was doing outside an old stone Moroccan style house. Last night my commander had informed me to meet our Krav Maga instructor by the bus station in Jerusalem. I arrived to find the instructor, a twenty-five year old South African lone soldier, waiting with two other American lone soldiers from Sayeret Tzanchanim. The instructor knew why we were here. But he was not very interested in talking, seemingly concerned that his professional mask of grim detachment may slip in the company of fellow native English speakers.

When the instructor gave the word, I entered to find three dozen American Jews gathered to celebrate the Bat-Mitzvah of one of their own. They had wanted to include soldiers, particularly lone soldiers, in the festivities. One call led to another and the special forces of the Paratroopers were assigned this challenging mission. A few drunken uncles and a zesty Sfardi dance number (yes, the Krav Maga instructor got down with it as well!) were the highlights of an evening of unbridled joy I will not soon forget.


Fueled by our commander's words, the guys in my unit have become obsessed with how we can collect contributions to purchase better equipment. I find the ceaseless discussions excessive, especially since there is a limit to what we actually need (flashlights, hiking boots, and some winter wear) and what guys insist we can not do without (Swiss army knives, hiking backpacks, even laptops!). Nevertheless I agreed to serve as the English language go between when one of the guy's told us a wealthy friend of his grandmother would consider providing us with a generous contribution.

Soon I was speaking to this old American lady almost everyday. She was a tough character and was not willing to contribute unless her demands were met. Her final request was to come and speak with my unit. When she explained that she wanted to share with my peers why Americans support Israel, I promised to do everything to ensure her request would be approved. Any attempt at removing the web of myth that clouds Israelis' understanding of the American Jewish community is a good idea.

Or so I thought. I was not sure whether to laugh or cry when the old lady addressed my unit. Speaking in English with the help of a translator, she explained to my credulous peers that American support of Israel is based on the work that her and her fellow post Holocaust donors/lobbyists do to pay off American political leaders. When I tried to ask what she thought about Peter Beinart's recent take on the widening gulf between the present and future leaders of the American Jewish community, she dismissed young Americans Jews as politically naive and hopelessly misguided. After she left, I assured my dumbstruck peers (who were still wrestling with her detailed description of how payoffs work in the US Senate) that her words reflect a particular perspective within the American Jewish community, one whose cold realpolitik is forever shaped by the stunning devastation they experienced in the Holocaust. There are many other narratives, I insisted. After all, yours truly did not leave the go-go life of Washington behind because of any political payoff.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tremp to the Valley

US military enlistment tries to sell armed service as a constant rush of high-risk excitement. The reality, at least in the Israeli army, is anything but. Training to be a frontline combat soldier is a marathon with few edge-of-the-seat joy rides. Courting risk, ironically, comes into play on off-weekends.

Hitchhiking (tremping, in Hebrew slang) to kibbutz late on Friday afternoon was risky business. Less than two hours remained until shabbat began and no one I knew had ever hitched from the capital to our kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. More importantly, I was in uniform. Israeli soldiers are prohibited from tremping to counter the real threat of kidnapping. If a military policeman did not spot me, I ran the risk that a tremp would leave me off in a Palestinian settlement along the road north. While not my first choice, Jerusalem seemed a much better option for shabbat than a Palestinian village.

A hipster girl by the trempiada (hitchhike station) in northeast Jerusalem gave me my first piece of luck when she volunteered to grab a ride for both of us. Her kindness allowed me to take a step back from the curb and avoid any accusations that I was actively seeking a tremp. A long wait finally ended with a ride to the Almog junction. The main road from Jerusalem continued east to the Dead Sea. I needed to turn north on what is known as the Gandhi Road after the assassinated Israeli politician Rehavam Ze'evi. The Gandhi Road, aka Highway 90, runs right up along the Jordanian border to my kibbutz. Straight through the future state of Palestine. "Take your shirt off," advised the young man who had driven me as far as Almog. "You don't want to shout out that you are a soldier on the rest of your ride north."

Sundown was just an hour away when a middle aged Russian immigrant stopped at the lonely turnoff. "I have a few stops to make along the way in Arab villages," he cautioned, "though with some luck we should make it north in time." Giddy-up.

The first stop was for fresh produce at a roadside grocer. Later we made our way to a family style gas station to fill up on gas. And my driver's last errand was through an Arab village and into a field to pick up large squares of manure from two Arab brothers. "Makes good fuel," explained my driver. "Nice and cheap."

The manure was not the only cost effective purchase. The foodstuff was purchased for five times less than what can be found in Israeli territory. And the gas? "I don't pay a thing," claimed my driver. "The Arab owners know me, I know them, and we have an understanding."

While congratulating the driver for his savvy fiscal sense, I reminded him that the sun was sinking. His sympathy was evident when he turned down the manure tradesman's offer to stop and have tea. "My friend and I will come back some other time," my driver assured the courteous manure man. "Now we have to make it home for shabbos." I felt like Big Gedalia Goomber as we sped off toward the date fields that ring my kibbutz home.

We said our goodbyes by the turnoff to my kibbutz, eight kilometers from home. Candle-lighting was in a few minutes. Little more than twenty minutes was left before shabbat descended on the valley. My luck had graced me with no baggage save for a pair of running shoes my commander had insisted everyone take home from base. He had requested we make time for a five kilometer run. He got his wish and I got one of the most thrilling runs of my life, a frantic dash past fish farms and date fields with my army boots clutched in either hand. I bounded past the Tiv meat factory and into kibbutz just in time. Shabbat, and a relaxed weekend at home, had begun.

Tradition of the Tossed

Three guys were tossed from my new team. Lined up and sent away in seven shocking minutes. I wish I could say I felt terrible. Or that I was surprised. The reality is that I am too new and too surprised at the low standards of certain members of my team to be much taken aback at the decision to let some of the worst offenders go. Two of the soldiers binned were simply young men who never should have been in a special forces unit to begin with. A combat unit is ultimately not a charity ward. Get too wet and at some point there is no more room in the lifeboat.

The third soldier tossed, however, caused more heartache. Known to one and all as Chewbacca, he was the most popular kid on the squad. He made up for a lack of size or speed by making himself indispensable to all the little things that tie together a cohesive team. What he lacked above all, however, was the ability to overcome a fear of heights. After three failed tries to complete jump course, the decision went all the way up to the overall commander of the Paratroops. His decision - that a soldier without jump experience could not serve as a paratrooper - brought Chewbacca down.

When I left my former squad there were hugs and handshakes. One guy cried. Here we said goodbye to the departed with a no-holds barred punch-out. Everyone jumped them and for five minutes exchanged blows with the three soldiers leaving our troop for the final time.

The Girls of the Gil

Flirting with young female instructors played a crucial role in teaching me Chinese. For whatever reason, most Chinese teachers in mainland China are young women. I was never very good at memorizing characters or remembering intricate idioms. But I did appreciate that to master the language, I had to practice speaking as much as possible. And so every chance I had, I would chat with the teachers. Or maybe flirt. It never seemed very important as long as the language coming out of my lips was Chinese.

Learning how to shoot one of the IDF's most advanced anti-tank missiles reminded me of my Chinese learning experience. My team spent two weeks with a cadre of young female instructors mastering everything there is to know about the lethal missile. Hours of Hebrew language class time made the course fairly challenging for yours truly. I was saved by the instructors, who made extra time to tutor me one and one on the material. Their efforts paid off when I walked away with the highest mark on the two tests administered at the end of the course.

The extra tutoring was not all that brought my former Chinese instructors to mine. I was struck by the contrast between the two groups of young female instructors. In China, the state employs a cadre of young ladies to teach the language and share the national culture. Here young women of a similar age are engaged in teaching young men like me how to kill.

Call it soft versus hard power. Call it varied security dilemmas. All true. And yet the comparison refused to leave me alone as we studied a weapon without ever touching upon the horrible destruction it causes on impact. Shooting this missile is like playing a video game, staring through a small screen and guiding a missile with pinpoint accuracy. We watched dozens of real life recordings of the weapon in action and rarely did the missile miss its mark. Yet never does the camera dwell on the target after the initial impact. Others are left to pick up the pieces.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Worst Friday in the World

The worst part is that the day began so well.

A huge crowd for the bus to Jerusalem greeted me when I arrived at the Beersheva bus station. It was Friday morning and so the crowd of green uniforms jostling to get home was no surprise. As I walked toward the crowd, I saw the bus everyone was waiting entering the station. Not skipping a beat, I slipped through the crowd and was in the perfect position to be the first on the bus when it glided to a stop alongside the surging crowd (see below, for my tips for conquering the bus crowds).

Good got great when a pretty blond katzina, a female lieutenant, took the adjoining seat. An easy lead-in question led to conversation that lasted till she had to go at Latrun. I had mixed feelings watching this complete stranger slip so quickly out of my life. Little did I know that the day would slide downhill fast.

My bus arrived in Jerusalem. Ten stairs took me to the food court where the grim reality of the day first hit me: today is Asara B'Tevet, the Tenth of Tevet, a minor fast day commemorating the siege (and eventual fall) of Jerusalem by that evil old Babylonian, Nebuchadnezzar. A fast day. A day when food and drink, twin symbols of all that can be enjoyed outside the army, are off-limits. A soldier's day of celebration had been transformed into morning. Sunlight into storm-clouds.

Damn you Nebuchadnezzar, I whispered as the day refused to die. You and your conquests. Ah, history hates me.


If you take inter-city buses in Israel on Thursday evening, Fridays or Sunday mornings, chances are you are familiar with the crowds, nay hordes of travelers seeking one of the precious few seats on any given bus. Most of the travelers are likely uniform wearing soldiers, meaning your competition is a race of teenagers whose desperation to get onto the bus is fueled by the knowledge that missing the bus means incurring the wrath of their commanders for getting to base late.

That said, here are some tips for getting a seat on any bus, no matter the crowd. These tips may not sound like much. All I can say is I follow them and have never failed to get onto a bus, no matter the crowd size.

1) Standing as close as possible to where the door will open is key.

In large bus stations, this is fairly easy to accomplish since there is a designated space where the bus pulls into. Huge crowds often cause havoc, however, and bus drivers sometimes stop before the end of the designated space because foolish souls are standing in the way. One should never stand in the space reserved for the bus. That space, however, is the key to gaining the best position on the curb, right on the edge near the end where the door will be when the bus comes to a stop. To get this prime real estate, make your approach in the space where the bus will come to rest. Then simply hop up on the curb at the right moment.

Street stops are more dynamic and privilege quick reflexes more than subterfuge. The bus may stop before, after or right at the stop. Like a goalie facing a penalty shot, you cannot be sure. So you have to trust your hunch and then when the driver makes his move, have the quickest jump in the direction the bus is heading.

2) In a crowd of soldiers, there is always at least one old civilian granny waiting to board. This is important because soldiers will make room for her, clearing space so she can board first. If granny is absent, chances are a few bozos will make room so a female soldier can get on first. Either way, same tactic applies. Trick here is simply to get behind the old lady and like an ambulance through busy traffic, follow her onto the bus.

3) Do not travel with a large bag. If you must, have a buddy put both your bags under the bus while you get on the bus and save a seat for him. If you are alone and the situation is desperate, then you have no choice but to face the anger of the driver and attempt to board with your large bag. In this case, sling the bag off your back and carry it with one hand, trying it keep it behind your leg and out of the main line of vision of the driver. If he complains, be apologetic, mumble something in a mixture of Hebrew and English, give him the sad puppy face and scoot onwards. As for the bag, the best place to stash it is next to the small trash bin by the rear door.

4) Crowds lead to pushing and shoving. Never sink to this level. Instead, use the jostling of the crowd to your advantage. Let the pushing of the horde ease you into position to board the bus. Think of the shoving as a wave and your body as a creature far more skilled than anyone else in this maritime environment.

5) Believe you will get in. Picture yourself sitting down in that bus. Then make it happen!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Support the Troops!

Money is arguably the key difference between the two military units I have called home. In my former Air Force unit, a generous budget meant we rarely lacked for any sort of gear. Warm winter clothes were provided gratis. Tape and other basic necessities were ours for the taking from a well stocked on-base warehouse.

My current unit is a very different story. A low overhead is reflected in the poor quality of our food and the dismal condition of our rooms. The most critical effect is our dismal lack of gear. Many guys lack thermal underclothes against the cold. Only a few possess a headlamp that is necessary for waging war by night. And our lack of tape and string means we are unable to transform our gear into the battle-ready tools that could decide life and death.

My unit has a simple solution to the chronic lack of funding: donations. As the only American on my team, my peers and even my commander expect that I can find generous supporters to donate monies for all our missing gear. While I am under no false pretense that donating to my army squad is without a doubt the most deserving of charities (the Sabra Hummus haters certainly would not agree!), there is something to be said for supporting young Israelis who themselves have sworn to donate even their lives if necessary to the defense of the Jewish state.

I am seeking to raise funds so that everyone on my team can be provided with a pair of well-made hiking boots. Combat soldiers in elite units are allowed non-regulation boots because the army issued footwear is far from kind to a soldier's feet and legs. Hiking boots costs $150. Providing for my whole team means my fund-raising goal is $4,500.

If you wish to donate any amount, please contact me directly or leave a comment below and I will do my best to follow up as soon as possible. My thanks in advance.

Rahm Emanuel is likely the most famous former participant of Sar-El (acronym for Sheirut L'Yisrael, Service to Israel), the three week program run by the IDF that allows foreigners of any age to volunteer their service to the nation's defense. When Emanuel was cleaning tanks during the 1991 Gulf War, I doubt he ever witnessed a show like that staged by my officers for the Sar-El group working at our base. My team was put through hours of intensive combat training and Krav Maga while the twenty year old American volunteers watched from the sidelines.

Watching them watch me and my guys reminded me how easily I could be in their shoes rather than where I am. Despite the sweat, tears and fear, I raced through the evening's "performance" all the more grateful that I had the chance to perform on stage rather than watch from the wings.

Command or Conquer

I wish I had twenty-two more guys like you in my brigade. We'd just have to name the squad after you.

There was not much I could say after my company commander (mem"pei) began and ended our first meeting with the above words. Two weeks have passed since I joined Sayeret Tzanchanim and my high-energy level and standout performance on recent navigation exercises have obviously left a positive impression. The good vibes extend past my sit-down with the boss. A cursory dental check-up this week wrapped up with the dentist declaring to her staff that I had the best teeth in the Paratroops Brigade! My last dental checkup, a year ago during basic training with the Nachal Brigade, had ended with another dentist making a similar pronouncement about Nachal. Two brigades down, I told this latest dentist, three more to go, all thanks to lucky genes and good brushing!

The positive reception I have received in my new unit leaves me rethinking the two goals I made for myself when I joined Sayeret Tzanchanim. One goal is focused on getting real service experience (serving on kav, in army parlance), regardless of whether the relative peace since January 2009 means there will be few firefights. A second goal is to assume a leadership position, a process that starts by getting selected for the army's NCO course. Known as "Course Makim" since most of those who complete the course serve as squad commanders (Mifaked Kitah, a Mak), the course is the first rung on the command ladder in the IDF.

These two goals are essentially mutually exclusive. Pursuing active duty (kav) means finishing my training in April and serving on kav until I leave the army in October. Becoming a commander means I would start Course Makim sometime in February. When the three month course concludes in late May, I would likely be assigned as a squad commander (mak) for a troop whose training would continue till the end of my service in October. I could be attached as a samal (a sergeant) to troops on kav, and the chance even exists that I would be sent straight onto the army's ten-month long lieutenant course, but past example within Sayeret Tzanchanim suggests I would find myself training rookie soldiers. Going the command route, in other words, would mean serving as something of an instructor for the rest of my army service. Instructing rookie troops is obviously part of the attraction of command. But it would be hard to stomach finishing my army service having never seen active duty.

My dilemma is one that all Israeli combat soldiers face if they are deemed fit for command. Many lieutenants in this army serve four years (the mandatory three plus an extra year lieutenants are required to add) having bounced from one course to another without ever seeing active duty. Those who finish their command as NCOs(mak or samal) rarely face this reality since a full three years service means they will be rotated back onto active duty after serving with a unit in training.

For lone soldiers in special units, the choice between course makim and serving as a mak versus sticking with active duty service is more acute. This is largely a matter of timing: a) special units train for over a year; b) lone soldiers over the age of twenty-one tend to serve less than the full three years; c) course makim is three months and serving as a post-course Mak for rookie troops is usually at the very least another three months. Do the math and it is clear that lone soldiers in special units who serve less than three years and choose to become a NCO will likely never see active duty.

The math is less interesting than the question of motivation. Lone soldiers tend to have fairly distinct reasons for why they enlisted. Ideological reasons aside, most combat soldiers are driven by a desire to experience active duty. While no one wants to get shot, those in front-line units do tend to hope that they will have a chance to put their months of grueling training to use. From the frustrations of a checkpoint to the fear of a predawn ambush, active duty is what a combat soldier enlists for. Serving in the line of fire is the essence of what it means to be a soldier. And active duty encounters are where a soldier truly learns what this conflict is all about.

Serving as a NCO or even a lieutenant draws from another realm of military legend. As a military leader, one is charged with transforming a group of young men into a cohesive squad of soldiers. A commander has an unparalleled opportunity to really influence others during his brief army service. For the lone soldier there is also the challenge of commanding native born Israelis, cementing an acculturation process that began by enlisting as a foreign-born volunteer in the Israeli army.

While I hope to see enough of active duty to know what it is like, my heart lies in serving in a leadership position. Exactly whether I will be selected for Course Makim remains unclear, since despite positive hints from higher ups no announcement will be made for another month. In the meantime I can continue to explore an alternative of sorts: perhaps I can emerge as something of an informal leader for my peers, providing the chance to make an influence without the need for formalized ranks and courses.

Memory Lane on Navigation

You are Moses. Now lead us to the Promised Land!

With these dramatic words, one of the guys on my team called on me to lead him and a few other lost souls to the end of a recent navigation exercise. At home in our surroundings, I could only laugh at his request. Months ago, I had stumbled through these same hills during a traumatic navigation that helped usher me from my former unit. Many months earlier, my army career had begun here as well with the pre-military Gadna program.

Not only were the valleys, pathways and, most importantly, dangerous svach (undergrowth) familiar, I knew the local history. As my small troupe of disorientated navigators walked alongside, I recalled how sixty years ago, a select group of German Jews had trained here as Nazi officers. The group were part of a desperate attempt by the Haganah to ready the Jewish community of Palestine for a Nazi occupation they feared was imminent with Rommel advancing on the Holy Land. As we reflected on the recent past, we followed an ancient walkway whose stones were first laid two thousand years ago by the Roman Empire.

A week later navigation training had relocated to the south. Now we were training in urban settings, learning how to find targets in a smattering of Bedouin towns. Navigating through the Arab towns by night, in full gear with only one soldier by my side, is the closest I have felt to an actual mission. We slipped through courtyards, avoided raging sheep-dogs, and meandered for hours looking for the "color of the door on the third house on the right" or "what tree is planted in front of the white house." One could only hope that colors, trees and address numbers had not changed in recent years.

Our urban navigation training made me feel at home for the second week in a row. This time I could not credit prior experience in the region, although I had paid a brief visit to one of the Arab towns years ago. The familiar feeling came from applying our generally field based navigation training to avenues and driveways, an urban jungle I easily connect to the cities and towns I have lived in my entire life. The army is usually the den of the field mouse. So when the games come to the city, city mice like me can only feel at home.

Breaking Rules, Going Black

Yesh li tzipor katan b'lev, Ani shachor, Ani Orev!
I have a small bird in my heart, I am black, I am Orev*!

* Orev, the nickname for my unit, literally means raven.

I am a rule breaker. By choice, if not by nature. My weakness is my cellphone, and the internet I can access by powering up the little gizmo when my commanders are out of sight. Cellphones have been blacklisted since basic training, when a one-hour grace period every evening was the only time (besides shabbat) my fellow trainees and I could touch our phones. Special units maintain this ban, without the cushy hour break, until the end of training.

With fourteen months of training behind me and a few more to go, I have not succeeded in playing by this rule. In my former unit, I had to keep my sinning from my peers. If they did not report me to our commander, they certainly would make me pay on the next sociometry.

My current unit is a very different animal. Here there is one ironclad rule: never snitch on your fellow soldiers. If you want to break a rule, from checking email to lighting up a cigg, all the power to you - just make sure a commander does not catch you. Our one rule, of course, negates following any other rules. With few exceptions, the eighteen year olds around me are black as sin, an apt idiom if there ever was one as to be black in the army means to not follow rules. Black (shachor) is the opposite of yellow (tzahov). And just as a yellow soldier carries of a whiff of the despised teacher's pet, black often qualifies as cool in army circles.

As the cool label suggests, breaking a minor rule here and there--as long as the commanders do not catch one red-handed--is not a big deal. Orev even has a song (see above) that takes pride in our blackness. Nevertheless, the culture of breaking rules outside the mandate of our officers has pernicious effects. One need look no farther than navigation training to understand why.

Israeli soldiers spend more of their training on navigation exercises than anything else in special forces units. The thinking seems to be that an all night navigation through difficult terrain tests a soldier's stamina and decision making more than hours of shooting or urban combat training. The absence of commanders is a basic element of navigating. Soldiers are expected to get by on their own wits and resourcefulness, turning to their officer for instruction only when they truly are lost. Checking a map, joining up with other soldiers, overusing a flashlight or going so far as to use GPS or ask local Bedouins for directions are all actions that can only be taken with the direct permission of a commander. In short, they form a brief list of prohibitions that if performed without permission make the navigation far easier while defeating the very idea of the exercise.

Outside of a few select units, navigation training in the rest of the army is rife with cheating. Opening a map is simply too attractive an option when the risk of getting caught (and the consequences for that happening) is almost nil. I arrived in my current unit with a purist's attachment to the rules of navigating. What I found was startling. One navigation saw forty soldiers join up only five minutes from the starting position. As a "golem" without an active role in the first round of the exericse, I watched as the mob of "navigators" argued about how to proceed, maps in hand, lit flashlights marking our slow progress to everyone in the neighborhood. Before the night was over, my partner had thrown himself at the mercy of a Bedouin gas station attendant, asking him if the local teen could make sense of my partner's map and the GPS he had downloaded on his internet equipped cellphone.

At no point did my partner even consider asking our commander if, in light of his dire situation, he could use his map. His response is sadly not unusual. Soldiers on navigation are by and large ready to do anything save follow procedure and simply inform their officers that they are lost. It is difficult to understand why. Officers know that a certain number of their men are miserable at navigating. They also know that this hardly matters, since navigating (without a map and GPS device) is a skill few soldiers will ever be called upon to employ.

The "black culture" within my unit is hardly confined to navigation training. Ironically, the one rule I have trouble following - cellphone usage - covers the same ground as the value most victimized by the ubiquitous rule breaking: communication. Communication, of course, is a two-way street, the very act that builds trust, that makes real our internal obsessions. And so when my fellow soldiers and I keep our officers at a distance, we are also distancing ourselves.

A Commander at Last

The essence of the military is that to be a good leader you must truly love your men, and then you must be willing to kill that which you love. The paradox of war is that those leaders who are most willing to endanger that which they love can be the ones who are most liable to win, and therefore protect their men.
David Grossman, On Killing

Your commander and fellow soldiers are the two components that determine a soldier's satisfaction in the army. My former officer was an enigma, a man I wanted to admire despite his obvious lack of interest in me. I left his squad hoping that no matter where I went in the army, I could find a commander to truly admire. The young man leading my new team has exceeded my most ambitious hopes. In two weeks my new commander has provided a more scintillating example of military leadership than anything I was exposed to in the prior twelve months.

The more elite the unit, the more polished and impressive the commanding officer. Or so goes conventional army wisdom that is not ringing true in my case. Whatever I may think of their leadership capabilities, my current commander has served in units that mark him as the equal if not the better of my former officer. Bragging rights aside, the importance of having an officer who has served in the most elite units is that his standards are at the highest level. My current commander arrived in Sayeret Tzanchanim only a month before me, having replaced the officer who trained my new team for the first eight months of their army service. As a new officer trained by the most elite units of the Israeli army, my commander is committed to raising the professionalism of our unit. He is savvy enough to realize that (a) change cannot come all at once and (b) in order to effect real change, he needs allies. Having come from similar units, my commander sees me as a natural ally in importing higher standards. I am of course all too pleased to do my part. Not only do I share the same goal but working closely with him provides me with a first hand look at how a military leader can transform his troops for the better.

My current officer's most striking difference from his predecessor lies in his personal skills and joie de vivre. Unlike my previous boss, my commander genuinely enjoys relating to his soldiers and peers on the personal level. He even embraces the chance to provide his soldiers with time off. In my former unit, speaking to my commander about taking off for a day to in order to take care of necessary non-army needs or attend a close friend's wedding made me feel like I was taking advantage of his and the unit's limited goodwill. Now such requests are met with approval and a smile. My officer's approach seems to be that if he respects his men as people rather than just soldiers, they will prove better at both tasks.

As much as I am enjoying the opportunity to learn from his example, I am also unnerved by the way guys in my new unit perceive their officers. In my former unit, soldiers and commanders were united in a desire to train as well as possible in order to gain recognition as the most capable team of warriors. Commanders were feared yet respected and honesty and communication was at least theoretically maintained between both parties. Contrast that to the environment in Sayeret Tzanchanim where the soldiers view their officers as the opposition, taskmasters committed to making us soldiers suffer in grueling exercises. Ratting on a fellow solider to the boss is seen as the worst offense, especially since guys take every opportunity to break rules when the commanders are not present. The dissimilar attitudes between my past and present units seem almost generational, a matter of maturity between how high school and university students relate to their instructors. For my new peers sake, I hope they can shuck off this sorry approach to our commander and not fail to take advantage of the opportunity to serve under such a remarkable officer.

A Few Good Boys

I had the good fortune to join Sayeret Tzanchanim on the cusp of two weeks of navigation training. While navigation exercises are one of my favorite parts of military training, they also provide a golden opportunity to get to know one's fellow soldiers. Navigation training uses a buddy system, whereby one man navigates while the other tags along as a safety precaution (the two switch roles midway through the night). The extra man, known as the golem (kind of like the legendary Jewish Frankenstein of Prague), has nothing to do save make conversation. I took advantage of this social angle and in no time flat had exchanged life stories with most of the guys on my new team.

My former commander liked to talk about the incredible diversity of our team. With soldiers of Ethiopian, American and Yemenite descent, he was mostly right. Until the day I left the unit along with nearly all the guys who are not Ashkenazim from a kibbutz or the urban elite. Serving in the Paratroopers has returned me to the diversity of modern Israel. My new peers are of every ethnicity: Ethiopian, Russian and a mishmash of Sefardi backgrounds. We have secular kibbutzniks, religious settlers, arrogant arsim, and rich kids from northern Tel Aviv. Nearly everyone has an opinion on Judaism. The only exception may be the Russian immigrant who makes no qualms about having taken advantage of the Law of Return (the immigrant law that allows all Jews to move to Israel) despite his Christian faith.

Our diversity is a fulcrum for a rich cast of characters. There is a short Ethiopian known as Day-Glow whose family has little idea that he is serving in a combat unit. Our Russian Christian has a smoking habit so bad that the second the officers are out of sight a cigarette appears between his lips. And then there is the most popular kid, a lovable runt nicknamed Chewbacca. Unlike his namesake, our Chewbacca is a foul-mouthed little operator whose charm covers up a fear of heights that has prevented him from passing paratrooper jump course. Another team member is known throughout the army for barely surviving jump course. Both his principal and reserve parachutes failed to function until seconds before hitting the ground. Jump course left my new team with one final legacy. The week after wrapping up the course, one of the guys reported to the wrong base on Sunday morning. He never returned and no one has seen him since.

At my swearing in ceremony way back in January, a friend commented that the young men in my former unit looked visibly more mature than your average nineteen year old. Not only are my former teammates physically and emotionally mature for their age, they also share a high level of motivation and commitment to their military service. My current team is much more of a mix. A third of the guys are real stars, with the necessary tools and attitude that would have allowed them to succeed in the most elite units. Another third know their stuff yet lack the full-on commitment to always give their all. Ask them what part of training they most enjoy and "free-time" is the easy answer. The final third have little discipline, no maturity or are just plain lazy. How they remain in a special forces unit would be a mysterious save for the fact that guys are very rarely tossed from our unit. Unlike my former unit, Sayeret Tzanchanim has no culture of weeding out weak links. Commanders are instead challenged to meld what they have into an effective fighting force.

The relative immaturity of my current unit has made me far more conscious of my advanced age. Not only do I have half a decade on most of my peers but having joined a team who enlisted in March 2010, I have four more months of army experience. In my former unit, my advanced age was rarely a factor largely because my entire team was more or less the same age in "pazam years" (how long we had served), the key judge of a soldier's seniority.

Finally feeling older has brought unexpected advantages. Confidence has slowly replaced the insecurity and confusion that characterized the start of my army service. Having always been a late bloomer who only really succeeds after truly mastering the environment, I now feel ready to bring my full personality into play.

Past & Present Units Compared

"After ten months on the lam, you have finally joined the real army. Welcome!"
Friend's response to my description of the differences between my current and former units.

On my first day in the real army of Israel, I was issued a one-piece insulated jumpsuit known as a chermonite. Signing off on the Snuffalufagus outfit is not simply a sign that winter is coming. It also means that I will be spending parts of nearly every night in the chilly months to come on guard duty. Sayeret Tzanchanim (Paratrooper Special Forces), unlike my former Air Force unit, has a lovely custom of insisting that within our very own base a soldier must always stand guard. Hence I can now say with near certainty that a weekday night will not pass in the next half year without my getting woken up mid-slumber to slip into my chermonite and stand guard over an empty courtyard for thirty wretched minutes.

I left the Israeli Air Force knowing that wherever I ended up things would be very different. No longer would I wear a well tailored tan uniform on my weekends off. Nobody would henceforth have reason to mistake me for a pilot. And no explanations on my part would be necessary to clarify that despite my Air Force tans, I am training to be every bit the combat soldier like the boys in green.

Now that I am one of those boys in green, a freshly minted member of Sayeret Tzanchanim, the real differences between my past and present units are all to apparent. If my former outfit was run and funded like a top-flight engineering firm, my current unit resembles an old mechanic shop struggling to make ends meet. Neither the training nor the facilities where I now serve can compare to what I experienced over my first year in the IDF.

Tash is army shorthand for all the good things in military life (food, facilities & fun)) a soldier is entitled to (Tash comes from the phrase t'nai sherut, service conditions). Elites units like my former outfit are known to make up in tash what they sacrifice in grueling exercises. Add to the mix that the Israeli Air Force is uniformly known as having the best food and the prettiest girls in the IDF (If privacy concerns were not a factor, I would provide photos of some of the girls from my former unit. You'll just have to trust me!) and you can imagine how far down the tash slide I have fallen in my new posting.

The food has gone from plentiful and tasty to scarce and barely edible. The pretty girls and former models have sadly disappeared. Money for unit social evenings has ceased to exist. Also gone is top quality and freely available equipment, from combat tools to the basic tape and fabrics used to fix and clean up gear. My new base is a disorganized mess, populated by several competing units, among them a cache of incarcerated soldiers dressed in US Army fatigue as they serve time for violating army rules. The rooming accommodations are even worse, eight guys packed into a room with half a dozen beds and barely any space to organize our belongings. My new junior officer even had me and a few others go scavenging in a maze of broken housing for loose shelves. I have returned to living out of my bag, an experience I thought I had left behind in the tent I called home during basic training.

The only obvious tash upgrade is weekends off. During training in Sayeret Tzanchanim, every weekend (save for the unfortunate bloke who "volunteers" to stay and guard the empty courtyard within the base) is a shabbat at home. Hopefully the extra time off means I can make a stab at forging a real life and a real blog outside of the army!

Training rather than tash is what really defines the dissimilarities between my past and present army homes. On paper, our exercises look more or less the same. A week of navigation training in both units follows the same rules and routes. Yet the commitment, organization, culture and, above all else, pacing are so different between the two units that training similarities are far from apparent. My former unit cherished professionalism and insisted on living up to the highest standards of discipline and performance. This culture is reflected is a frantic pace where rarely a minute is wasted and soldiers are always busy at something. In Sayeret Tzanchanim, the priority seems to be instilling in soldiers the resilience to withstand the grueling reality of warfare. Professionalism is sacrificed on the altar of valor and grit. Yet intense drills are offset by a relaxed culture that welcomes frequent scheduling gaps. So it was that the other day, a grueling twelve km stretcher run and two hour krav maga session were thrown at my team just as we returned to base on the heels of an all night 25 km navigation exercise. What the relentless series of drills lacked in professionalism they offset in hardship and raw aggression. The goal seems to be about creating young lions that throw their all into a fight yet are quick to slide into inactivity when the danger has passed.

Those young lions, one must not forget, are also conditioned to spend hours as shivering sentry Snuffalufagi. The worst part about our sentry assignment is not the long cold nights on my feet in lonely silence. The guard duty itself, in short, does not concern me as much as the reason why. In my former unit, we never interrupted our sleep to stand around and count stars on base because there was no fear of theft. In the rest of the army, by contrast, pilfering is so common that even in the sanctuary of one's own home locking the door is not enough protection. The mantra soldiers live by is that there are no thieves in the army - everyone is simply trying to get his stuff back! Stories like the Golani infantrymen who repainted and then took off with another brigade's storage container make our seemingly senseless sentry duty slightly more palatable. Even if it means many more hours to reflect on the countless differences between what once and now is.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Lights in the Darkness

It almost was not necessary to light candles this Hanuka. With a forest fire raging across northern Israel the eternal lesson of light amid the darkness was all too cruelly laid before my eyes. As I navigated through the Galilee woods on the second night of the eight day holiday, the western sky glowed a cheerless orange shade. A more reassuring fire was waiting at the end of the navigation. Tired and cold soldiers huddled around a late night campfire, a very different amber shine radiating off the faces of these modern Maccabees. The reflected light in the Galilean hills reminded me of the legacy of the original Maccabees, and the privilege I have to be serving in the defense force of the first Jewish state since Judah and his brothers took up arms against the Greeks so many centuries ago.

One night later and I was again seeking light amid the darkness. My unit spent the Hanukah weekend on the southern border with Egypt, charged with stopping infiltrators from crossing into Israel. Darkness is the border smugglers only hope for evading our watch and so the cold night hours required careful vigilance. For hours I looked for any sign of light, any indication that a Beduin smuggler may be silently approaching the flimsy border marking.

The light of a thousand distant suns provided a dazzling distraction from the repressive gloom. Another distraction came from a soaring fortress of light, a nighttime apparition formed from the red and green antenna beams of a distant IDF base. The most distracting lights, however, were kindled in my memories by the sight of the stubby Hanukah and shabbat candles, stalwart sentries whose flickering light guarded over us guardsmen. The candles reminded me of family and friends standing by my side on so many holiday and friday nights. My Hanukah on the Egyptian border became part of that continuum, new lights glowing along the dark pathways of my mind.


Theodore Herzl, the prophet and proponent of political Zionism, famously envisioned Arab and Jewish harmony in the future Jewish state. His utopia has yet to come to pass. Thanks to an innovative Arab pastry chef, however, this Hanukah some may get a taste of Herzl's vision by biting into a hummusganiah. The name says it all, a combination of the classic Hanukah sufgania (jelly doughnut) with the region's most famous spread, hummus. I cannot think of a better cross-cultural confection to embrace this holiday.

With thanks to the Yediot Ahronot Hebrew newspaper for bringing the hummusganiah to my attention.