Sunday, December 12, 2010

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.

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