Sunday, December 12, 2010

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.

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