Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Closing the Circle, Wedding Remix

With joy and tears this story has come full circle, closing as it began with weddings that provide the most idyllic of departing memories.

Two years ago my older brother got married. Within a week of his wedding I was off to Israel on aliyah, my feet and hands still tingling from dancing with my family and composing a letter to explain why I was heading so far from home to build a new life and join the military. My first day in Israel felt like a second wedding, with dancing and speeches greeting me as I descended from the plane and formal paperwork awaiting my signature to confirm my new status as a citizen of the state of Israel.

Two months later I met the fifteen lone soldiers that would become my garin, brothers and sisters in building the intimate community that would see us through the duration of our lives as soldiers. On arriving at our new kibbutz home, we were of course promptly invited to a local wedding. That wedding was our communal baptism of sorts. Dancing and feasting together, joy and sweat tying the knots that would bind our garin with each other and with the kibbutz over the next two years. Had I known my adopted kibbutz family at the time, I would have understood that the way in which they opened their home (as the yichud room!) to the young bride and groom was an experience I would come to treasure for myself.

And then I joined the army, an exclusive relationship whose demands often seemed reminiscent of the less appealing sides of married life. While I was in the military there were many weddings I missed as I sweated out lonely nights running and gunning in the southern deserts and the northern hills. Yet even as I skipped weekends back on kibbutz, my garin grew ever closer.

Two garin members in particular became very close, to the point that when I finally made it to kibbutz I became the last one to realize that two members of our garin were forming a relationship whose path would continue far beyond our service in the army.

Two weeks ago my garin concluded our lives as soldiers. No longer a community of lone soldiers, each of us was left scrambling to make a new life in a country that seemed far too strange for the place we had been living in for two years. One by one we made plans to move off kibbutz, some to start college, others yeshiva and a few plucky fellas off to India. Two members of our garin had another idea however. Their love had deepened, and before the garin dispersed they wanted our help in celebrating the new life they had decided to build together.

Tonight, under a chuppah bound by a cloudless sky across the valley from our kibbutz, my garin's two brightest stars became as one. My garin stood by and cried, smiles splashed across our faces as the young bride and beaming groom enlisted in an adventure far grander than any of us had imagined when we came on aliyah, moved to the kibbutz, formed a community and joined the army. The bride and groom represent all that is best about the last two years. Both came to Israel bound by an old-fashioned Zionism, a commitment to explore their growing religious faith while putting their lives on the line for the country. Neither spoke much Hebrew. Neither was an obvious candidate to excel in the army. Yet more than anyone else in our garin, the bride and groom excelled, each of them repeatedly earning acclaim from their peers and superiors. As their Hebrew improved their values never slackened. Not only did they persevere through more than their fair share of military frustrations but the secret weapons they relied upon to do so - laughter and an understated resolve- was always shared in generous supply when the rest of us were facing our own challenges.

Tonight they are married. Beginning the next chapter in a story far more intriguing than anything you may have read through this open journal over the last two years.

As they placed rings on their fingers and shattered the glass there was no reason to restrain the tears of joy I hope to always remember when I reflect on the last two trying years of my life.

The story has come full circle.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Released from the Game

On my final day in uniform, I stole, blackmailed, counterfeited, broke & entered, and otherwise made a mockery of the moral highroad I sought to champion when joining the army. Are the past two years of amoral alienation at fault, or can I pin the blame on endless screenings of The Wire over my last month in green?

I arrived at my brigade's home base near Netanya knowing that getting discharged would not be easy. Every time a soldier's status changes, no matter if the cause is six months of sick leave or six days of specialized training, he must complete exit paperwork known as tofes tiyulim. On paper, that means getting a dozen or so military offices (like medical, armory, logistics) to sign off that you have returned all the gear you were assigned and are no longer their headache. In practice, gathering these signatures is a mega headache, as most of the offices cause problems that make the signature merry-go-round more like a roller coaster.

Nevertheless, when I arrived at nine AM I naively hoped I would be home by lunchtime. Seven hours later I was palming off a stolen fleece to a corrupt warehouse fluky, having previously pillaged the property of the driver whose theft of my red beret forced this last act of depraved larceny.

The warehouse official refused to grant me my final tofes tiyulim signature until I returned my red beret. Regardless of the fact that the army traditionally allows soldiers to keep this one keepsake (memorabilia aside, the army has no use for used berets), I was prepared to hand it over if it meant I could get discharged. Except I had no beret, having gone without since a cowardly driver stole mine when I left active service last month. The official had no sympathy, explaining that if I failed to give him a red beret my only option was to pay a fine for losing military gear. I was not prepared to get punished on my final day in uniform for a crime committed against me. So with less than an hour to go before the warehouse closed for the day, I began searching the entire base for a stray beret.

Twenty minutes into my search, a soldier asked me what I was doing. I have a few spare berets, he casually said when I informed him of my quarry. As overjoyed as I was to reach the end of my hunt (army culture assumes soldiers are generous in such situations), I was even more stunned when the fellow proceeded to ask me for something in exchange for one of his berets. Um, what do you want? My watch? My sandals? A get out of the army early card? You were combat, the soldier told me with the oily ease of a used car salesman. There must be gear hanging around your unit's base you could snatch for me. I could not believe that this skinny desk soldier was really asking me to steal a spare mortar piece in exchange for a bit of red fabric. My desire to be discharged overcame my disbelief, and I raced through what I could salvage from my base to trade with this rascal.

Weeks earlier, when I left my unit's base for what I believed would be the final time, I took a quick stroll through the company commander's living quarters. The man had caused me no end of unnecessary grief over the last few months, and so I was determined to leave some sort of calling card in his property. A fleece on his bed made an easy target. The absence of any onlookers made it easy to dirty the fleece beyond repair. It was not until later that my friends made me second guess my pitiful revenge, when they mocked my failure to simply nab the fleece for myself.

It was not until I stood before the man with many berets that I thanked my lucky stars for the fleece remaining on my commander's bed. The soldier before me quickly agreed to trade a beret for the fleece. For a fleece with the insignia of the Recon Paratroopers, he gushed, I will even give you two berets! As I headed back to the commander's bedroom, the absurdity of the situation forced a detour to the warehouse official waiting for my red beret. My hope that he may agree to ignore my absent beret in light of the absurd bargain I had struck was turned on its head when he proposed an alternative solution: I instead give him my commander's fleece in exchange for him marking down that I had returned a beret, signing my form and releasing me from the army. Since I wanted his signature more than the other man's beret, I agreed to the bizarre proposal. Minutes later, tofes tiyulim complete, my army ID card was sliced in half and I was declared a civilian.

This last Faustian bargain was sadly par for my last day teeing off in uniform. Besides a beret, I was missing a jacket and goggles. It did not matter that I had never been issued the former and had previously returned the latter. If I wanted out, I needed to come up with both items. So I called a friend from my squad, now serving as the sergeant for a squad of trainees. His priceless advice was to root through his soldiers' gear and take what I needed. You are a great friend and a horrible commander, I told him as I followed his advice and soon found what I needed. I did not feel too bad, as every soldier knows in the army there are no thieves, everyone is just getting his stuff back. There also is a long established tradition in the IDF of paying debt forward, with new conscripts giving more veteran soldiers the gear they need in order to complete their release from the army. Of course this means that the army does not have as many jackets and goggles (and guns and...?) as it thinks it does (see the definition of chaf'shash in the tash dictionary).

In between hunting down signatures and missing gear, I was determined to leave the army having at least tried to reclaim the pins that were stolen along with my beret. The drivers that had carried out the vile crime were not on base. But their stuff was. After breaking into their room through a window, I rifled through bags and bedsheets looking for what was mine. The bitterness I had stomached for the last few months, instigated by the way certain commanders had treated me and crowned by the theft of my pins and beret, came out as I fruitlessly looked for my stolen pins. I really do not know which driver nabbed my belongings. But I do know that as I threw one driver's bag on the roof of the building (I am truly curious how long it will stay there-months? years?) and pocketed another's military pin, I was tapping an inner rage I barely recognize.

It is probably for the best that the drivers were absent. When I arrived home, one of the drivers called and asked for his pin back. It was easy to play coy, neither admit nor deny having his pin, and explain that I was prepared to help him as he would help me. He blustered, he threatened and eventually I hung up. For the first time in many months, I was in control. But I did not feel good in rubbing the driver's crime in his face. I just felt dirty.

Two years ago I enlisted with some vague sense that I could be an inspired moral force in the army of the Jewish state. As a college educated, liberally minded, deeply Zionist, believing Jew, I hoped my values would leave an impact on eighteen year old Israeli peers impressed at the sight of an older American volunteer in their ranks. Instead, as they say on The Wire, the game is still the game. As if to cement the fact that the system gamed me, on my last day in uniform I employed every dirty trick in the book.

The way things went down with the thieving drivers really drives all this home. It is not that I believe my response to the thieving drivers was unjustified. As an matter of self-respect, of standing up for what is right, of reminding wrongdoers that there is a price for their actions, I have no concern with how I acted. The price I claimed from them was hardly just. But it was just insofar as it reflects a humble attempt to right a wrong using the rules of the only game in town.

BONUS

As if yesterday's scheduling did not have enough layered irony, the release of Gilad Schalit the same day I am released from the army brings its own joyful coincidence. Today, let freedom ring!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Changing Stations by the Mount

Fireworks above, flaming letters below, stirring music and laser lights roll across the cliff-sides as forty odd glow-sticks snake their way down Israel's iconic desert fortress. Masada, linchpin of Jewish resistance in Zionist lore, is once again hosting a military commencement ceremony. In March my training culminated with a grand ascent of this desert plateau. Five months later, the young men I started my training with, in the unit I once called my own, are rushing down the mountain to conclude two long years of rigorous training.


Note: This image is not from the ceremony, as no photos taken at the ceremony can be shared in a public forum

I am not by their side. Instead I watch from the side. This morning I was officially released from the army. While I will not process my paperwork until tomorrow morning, the irony is not lost on me: The same day that would have marked the conclusion of two years of training and the start of a lifetime as a lohem in one of Israel's most lethal commando units instead marks my return to civilian life. Instead of saluting with my peers as we peer into the crowd for our proud loved ones and reflect on the past two years of training and the two years to come of military service, I am returning to familiar waters laced with electric uncertainty. Grad school, professional opportunities, where to make a home and build a life in a country that suddenly feels so very new...

My words reflect the conflicting emotions surging within me as I watch the head of the air force salute my proud peers. I am proud as well, proud for the young guys standing at the foot of Masada, for the many kilometers they have crossed, the many kilos they have carried and the many instructors they have impressed to make it here together. I have my share of regrets, knowing I had the opportunity and have the capability to be standing on the stage below. Most of all I am excited, energized as I have not been in far too long at the prospects that await now that I have completed the army and returned to a life of freedom. Whereas once I treasured the word hitga'asti 'I enlisted,' a term I associate with the young men standing before me this evening, my new favorite Hebrew word is hishtacharti 'I was discharged.'

BONUS

Irony of ironies. As if it is not enough that I was scheduled to leave the army the same day that I would otherwise have finished two years of training, my path to today's ceremony included an unexpected daunting trek. Like the grueling misakem maslul (a week long loop of intense training marches and firefights) my former peers concluded last week in the Golan Heights (count on a unit formed in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War to conclude two years of training the day before Yom Kippur overlooking that war's most dramatic battlefield), I sweated and risked life and limb in order to arrive at tonight's ceremony at the foot of Masada.

My solo-march to Masada occurred when the local bus dropped me off on the wrong side of the desert fortress. In order to arrive at the right location, I had no choice but to circumnavigate Masada. Visiting hours had passed and so simply scampering up one side of the rugged plateau and descending the other was not possible. Instead I climbed up two-thirds distance and then followed the narrowest and steepest of goat paths around the mountain. When the path disappeared, I was left scampering across the cliff-face on hands and knees. When it returned, I raced to make up lost time. Fortune smiled on the whole madcap endeavor and I arrived at the site of the ceremony just in time, covered in perspiration yet delighted to see so many familiar faces and a delicious spread that no visitor enjoyed as much as me.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How to Fight the System

Sometimes you are clearly wronged. A right guaranteed by army rules is ignored by an ill-informed or ill-intentioned commander. Other times you just feel wronged. Like when a commander keeps you from attending a close friend’s wedding for no reason. While soldiers must come to terms with the reality of a rules-bound hierarchy riddled with self-aggrandizing superiors, there are wrongs worth opposing.

There are also people in and outside the army who can help you right those wrongs. It is always better to not go over your officer’s head, or outside the army, if you do not have to (Why? Because nothing will piss your boss off more). Most of the time you will have to, of course, since a lowly soldier in a hierarchical system needs someone on his side when his beef is with his direct supervisors.

The following is a list of all the relevant people a soldier can turn to resolve an army problem. In general it is worth following the order in which I have listed the suggestions, though there are times when playing politics is necessary and the normal rules go out the window. There are also times when no amount of protekzia, or effort by your part to resist a wrong, will make much headway. An egocentric supervisor opposed to your request will resist the old boys network that call him on your behalf and will always unearth some arbitrary army regulation to negate the rules in your favor. So understand when you go into battle against the system that there are some battles you cannot win.

Note, I have direct phone numbers (and emails) for all of the following, save your officers/adjuncts/parents. Provide your email in the comments section and I can share any requested contact information.

1. Your platoon leader (the katzin, lieutenant)

Lieutenants are tasked with looking out for their troops, not just under fire but personal needs as well. Following chain-of-command, a soldier usually first raises his request with his squad leader (mak, mifaked klitah) or platoon sergeant (samal), either of whom will then pass your message onto the lieutenant. As long as you have a reasonable relationship with your lieutenant, he is always the first person to turn to for assistance with any problem. This is because every dispute will ultimately be decided by your superior. Every other person on this list, in fact, is merely there to intercede on your behalf with your superiors. If speaking with your lieutenant does not help, then you should continue up the food chain, requesting to speak with the company commander (mem’pei, mifaked plugah) and, as necessary, the battalion commander (magad, mifaked g’dud).

2. Mashakeet tash

The female staff soldier (one per company) responsible for soldier’s personal affairs and basic rights is often the first person to speak to for any personal request or problem, including needs and rights of lone soldiers. A soldier may prefer to have the mashakeet tash approach his lieutenant on his behalf. A good mashakeet tash is unafraid to defend, and good at securing, soldiers’ rights with less than sympathetic officers. Unfortunately, most mashakeet tash are far from professional, so often soldiers, especially lone soldiers with many extra personal needs and rights, are left to fend for themselves. Note that in basic training, there is usually an additional female staff soldier responsible only for the needs of foreign born soldiers known as a mashakeet aliyah.

3. Family & Friends

Protekzia is essential to resolving most army disputes in your favor. Having concerned people call your officer on your behalf puts pressure on him to resolve the situation. These people can also advise you what to do, and give you the confidence to continue fighting for what is right.

Working protekzia means starting local, first speaking to those closest to you, and then building on their contacts to reach out to people you previously did not know. If you live on a kibbutz, your host family and others on the kibbutz will usually know a few senior military types that can intercede on your behalf. Your first port of call, accordingly, should be to your host parents (or parents, if you are not a lone soldier). Israeli army officers are expected to be in contact with their soldiers’ parents, and Israeli parents are well known for using this contact to their children’s advantage. As a kibbutz family hosting a foreign born volunteer, my host parents had unimpeachable Zionist credentials in their favor when they reached out on my behalf. The next ring of people to reach out to, such as your local Garin Tzabar facilitator or the professional Garin Tzabar staff, share similar credentials. These credentials are important insofar as they validate going beyond your officer’s back. Lone soldiers can always claim, in fairness, that they only turned for help to the very people charged with aiding lone soldiers such as themselves.


4. Moked Chayalim Bodedim (Lone Soldier Office)

The army opened an office in 2011 to look out for lone soldiers. The office has no executive powers but in my experience it can effectively channel concerns and information between you and your officers (often the katzin/a tash, your mashakeet tash’s superior).

5. Tziki Aud & The Lone Soldier Center in memory of Michael Levin

Tziki Aud had been aiding lone soldiers for three decades when in 2010, together with former lone soldiers and the support of Michael Levin’s family, he opened a center headquartered in Jerusalem, dedicated to assisting lone soldiers. With a wealth of experience, patience and authentic concern, Tziki is perhaps the best address for lone soldiers in need of assistance. The center has a wealth of other qualified volunteers worth turning to for advice and protekzia.

6. Tzvika Levi

Like Tziki, Tzvika (yes, it is easy to confuse their names!) is a deeply experienced advocate for lone soldiers. His name recognition amongst top army officers is unparalleled. In the Paratroops Brigade in particular, Tzvika can seemingly speak to any of your officer’s bosses’ bosses with ease and a voice carrying real authority. The mark against Tzvika is that he is always so busy that it is difficult to even reach him, let alone speak to him long enough so that he really understands the full extent of your problem. Nevertheless, he means well and can be a very effective advocate for your cause.

7. Netziv Kvilot Chayalim (Army Complaints Office)

If you are convinced that your superiors have ignored army rules in wronging you, then the official place to log a complaint—and possibly really screw over your officers if they are found culpable—is Netziv Kvilot Chayalim, the army ombudsman. Within the military, saying you want to lichvol (lit. to handcuff, though it means to file an official complaint) a superior is often taken as a threat, or merely the whine of a disgruntled soldier. The process carries serious ramifications. While the complaints office is not military court, its decisions are entered into an officers’ permanent record. Filing a complaint is a long and complicated process, requiring a soldier to fax a written record, the complaints office to investigate and agree to take up the case, and the retired general who runs the whole operation to publish his final report. The entire process can easily take two months.

8. Letter writing & media

If none of the regular army channels and lone soldier advocates can help you, then there are two further options. The first is sending letters to senior military figures (really senior, as in generals and division heads). Even if only one letter is read, the trickle-down effect can lead the officers who are causing you such grief to get a phone call from their boss telling them to mend their ways.

The second option follows the same principle. But instead of reaching out directly to top army men, this time you contact media figures and ask their assistance in sharing, and possibly publishing your army issue, through their media networks. Nothing forces an officer to quit screwing with you faster than a story in the newspaper or radio detailing his crummy treatment of you. The chance of a journalist actually publishing your story is slim. Plus you have to keep in mind that soldiers are formally forbidden from speaking to the media (this is easily evaded by reminding the journalist that your “parents” were the ones to speak to the media). That said, the media can be a powerful weapon depending on the circumstances. I have experience with Yaakov Katz of the English language Jerusalem Post. The most well known and recommended media figure is without question Carmela Menashe, a radio journalist nationally recognized for her advocacy on behalf of soldier’s rights.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ten Tips for New Soldiers

This entire blog has been designed in part as a guide for future lone soldiers. That said, here are ten tips I urge future volunteers in the Israeli army to keep in mind as they consider, and if they ultimately decide, to enlist.

1. The IDF is a big, insensitive, ideologically-barren, non-action packed institution

The IDF is an institution, not a Zionist summer camp. Nor is it an action movie-- few combat soldiers in front-line infantry units will be in a firefight, or ever fire their gun outside of training, over the course of their service. Like any institution, it is a big, insensitive, bureaucratic machine that often abuses the individual, intentionally or otherwise. It is not a feel-good, ideologically infused place to realize your Zionist or Rambo fueled dreams. This is the single most important piece of advice I can share because so many lone soldiers grow deeply disillusioned over the course of their service from their treatment by, and impression of, the army. While it is reasonable to take a grueling experience to heart, part of the disappointment lone soldiers develop comes from the unusually high ideals and strong motivations that led them to enlist in the first place. The point here is not to get rid of your idealism at the door but simply to understand what it is you are preparing to become a part of.

2. Do not forget why you choose to serve

Despite the fact that the IDF is essentially a military---rather than a Zionist-- institution, it is still valuable to draw strength from the values and dreams that led you to enlist. Hence, at least once a week you should reflect on the ideals—Zionism, violent videogames, a desire to be all you can be, etc.—that led you to choose to become a soldier. This is a valuable exercise despite, really because, the army itself can be so ideologically empty. It is important to reconnect to what inspires you, even if that dream does not quite jive with the reality.

If dwelling on shattered dreams only leads to disillusionment, then spend time instead reflecting how your service is truly a unique experience. Like all soldiers, foreign volunteers—who, let us not forget, did not grow up in a country drenched in militarism where joining the army is only a matter of finishing high school— tend to forgot how abnormal it really is to fire an automatic weapon, drive around in open hummers and spend weeks at a time in high-security military bases. While such experiences are rarely fun in the conventional sense, they are “once in a lifetime” activities that, placed in the proper context, can remind a disillusioned volunteer that his service does mean something. In other words, do not become a soulless zombie just because you are stuck in a lifeless graveyard.

3. Loss of independence

Joining the army means losing your independence, signing control over your life to a big nameless corporation whose representatives—your twenty year old commanders—often make pig-headed decisions directly against your best interests. Understand this going in and perhaps you will be more prepared to deal with all the frustrations that result from the lack of independence. See here for more on this theme.

4. Overcoming disappointment

Dealing with disappointment—not getting depressed over army frustrations—is essential to maintaining one’s equanimity in the army. Disappointments come early and often: not being able to attend a close friend’s wedding—or funeral; not getting selected for a desired course or unit; realizing that your service is not what you had hoped it would be, not what Yoni Netanyahu described as “to be in the army is to be inside—doing, believing, knowing that, after all, my work does bring peace closer or, at least, save lives and pushes back the threat of war from our gates.”


5. Come to terms with where you serve

Do not get too pent up with where you serve in the army. If you have a goal, go for it. But if you do not make it into the unit you dreamed of, move on.

The main reason for this advice, besides the importance of overcoming disappointment, is that serving in the army is fundamentally a rite of passage for foreign volunteers. Where you serve is far less relevant than that you serve. Army service is different for native Israelis. For ambitious locals, making it in the army—i.e. getting into an elite unit—is part of getting a leg up in Israel society, like attending an Ivy League in the States. While this may be relevant for lone soldiers that enlist straight out of high school, the majority of volunteers from abroad, especially those with a university degree in hand, will make their mark in Israeli society by virtue of their immigrant background.

I was taught this lesson firsthand the day I left my elite Air Force unit. One of the other soldiers on his way out was taking the news very badly. When I tried to reassure him that we would get over this disappointment, he explained that the two of us were coming at the army with different expectations. He had been counting on leveraging his service in our elite unit into his professional future. With my university degree and assurance of what I want to do professionally, the army for me was a one-time experience, not a critical piece in climbing up the Israeli socioeconomic ladder.

The second major reason not to get bummed out if you do not make it into your dream unit is that all combat units are far more similar than new soldiers realize. While some train more than others, the arrests and patrols (that is, the real work of combat soldiers) by a flashy unit like the Paratroopers reconnaissance battalion (Sayeret Tzanchanim) is no different than the arrests and patrols by a more modest outfit like Palchatz (the Home Front Command co-ed combat unit)—or for that matter, than the arrests by an elite unit like Shaldag. Shaldag does not spend every other weekend rescuing Jews in Ethiopia or taking out nuclear silos in Syria. Most of the time they train and twiddle their thumbs, gossiping with their friends in more active units on what it is like to actually get out into the field. Every combat unit, that is, has its own pluses and minuses but fundamentally they are equipped with the same tools and carry out the same work.

If you are just starting the army, appreciating this tip is very difficult. By the end of your service, especially if you have been exposed to a variety of units, you will easily appreciate what I have just written.

6. You are a role model

You are a role model. To everyone: friends, family and people you have never met overseas, Israeli civilians, and perhaps most prominently (and the main point I want to make here) to the soldiers that serve by your side.

If you are upbeat, with a welcoming laugh, you will not only spread good vibes. As the lone foreigner who made sacrifices they cannot imagine to serve by their side, your positive attitude will leave a lasting impression. If you are religious, your attachment to your faith will inform your fellow soldiers’ opinions about Judaism and religious Jews. Everything you do informs your peers about American Jews (or whatever your country of origin), a subject most nineteen year old Israelis know absolutely nothing about.

Lone soldiers are asked every single day by their Israeli peers why they made aliyah, why they left their home country behind for the menial life of an Israeli soldier, why they choose to make Israel their home. It pays to have a meaningful answer to this question (like this, but shorter!). Consider: Through your answer—and, more fundamentally, through how you conduct yourself everyday as a soldier—you are shaping their Zionism, their understanding of what it means to put community before the individual, what it means to make a decision as an adult to teenage kids who still live at home with their parents.

7. Excel and Give your all

The high motivation that drove you to volunteer (and your presence as a role model) means you should excel wherever you serve. Top soldier awards— and more importantly your peers’ esteem—are yours to lose. Furthermore, you should give your all throughout training: every drill, every run, every exercise. Trust me. As painful or pointless as a given sprint or physical demand may be, doing it—and doing it well—is the experience you came looking for in the army. In the moment it sucks but as Abraham Lincoln said, this too shall pass (gam ze ya'avor, in its well-known Hebrew rendering). One day you will look back and want to be able to say to yourself that you overcame the challenge kimo she’tzarich, as one should, in the best way possible.

8. Do not let the army take advantage of you

For all your determination to excel and be a role model and overcome disappointment and accept whatever unit you are in (i.e. most of the previous tips), you do not want to let the army take advantage of you more than is necessary. Volunteering to stay on base for the weekend is praiseworthy. But do it all the time and not only will your morale suffer, but your peers’ esteem will turn to pity at how much of a friar, or sucker, you are. Considering the operating credo in the army is shirking responsibility and taking advantage of others, being mister selfless can get you in real trouble. More generally, the army—as discussed above—is a bureaucratic machine that tends to take advantage of the little guy. You have to know when to push back, when to fight for the rights and respect you are owed as a soldier. See here for tips on protecting your rights and fighting the system.

9. Treasure your Garin

No one enlists in the army through Garin Tzabar because their main goal is to become friends with a group of like-minded individuals on a kibbutz. We came to serve in the army, with our garin and the kibbutz as benefits along the way. Nevertheless, your garin—or the social circle you rely on if you are a lone soldier not in Garin Tzabar—are likely to have as much an influence on your life as your time in uniform. A supportive group of fellow lone soldiers is so helpful in dealing with army annoyances and anxieties (really? read and believe). They are the people you turn to for advice and fun as a soldier and afterwards as a civilian. Far more than the soldiers you serve with, your garin friends will maintain your sanity in the army and remain active pieces of your life following the army. When I reflect on my most treasured memories from the last two years, far more of them are with my garin than I expected.

10. Treasure the Laughs

With all the stress of life as a soldier, there are endless reasons to laugh. A touch of humor keeps even the toughest of challenges—when you are short of sleep, overcome with pain, hating everything and everyone around you—in perspective. Because even when our ideals are crushed, laughter can still save us. To see what I mean, see here or do what I do and laugh at all the silly slang soldiers use.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Common Concerns: Gadsar vs. Gdud

Coming from overseas to volunteer in the Israeli army is a gutsy move, by definition laced with a minefield of unknowns. By sharing my own story, this blog is an attempt to help others best navigate that minefield. Sometimes common concerns get lost in my story, however, and so I am going to try and tackle some of these concerns. If you have any questions you would like to see me address, please post them in the comment sections and I will do my best to get to them in due time.

The Question:
I am a guy getting ready to enlist in the infantry. Should I serve in the regular brigade (the gdud) or try out for the special-forces reconnaissance battalion (the gadsar)?

Every motivated male IDF volunteer faces this question. Lets start with some brief background for the uninitiated (to skip to my answer, jump down to the third paragraph).

After getting assigned to one of the army's five infantry brigades (Givati, Golani, Kfir, Nachal, Paratroopers), new recruits have the chance in the first few weeks to try out for the brigade's special-forces battalion, colloquially known as the sayarot and more properly termed the gadsar (shorthand for gdud sayeret, reconnaissance battalion).

The try-out is three days of relentless sprints and crawls, more or less the same as gibush matkal (the tryout for the army's most elite units). Following the try-out, new recruits are assigned to one of the brigade's three regular battalions (the gdud) or to one of the three companies (Palsar, Palchan or Orev) that make up the gadsar. Unlike gibush matkal, where the elite units take the guys they want (i.e. luck aside, the best guys get selected), standing out in the gadsar gibush does not guarantee selection. The army wants to keep some of the best guys in the regular infantry (the gdud) and so not all the best guys are chosen for gadsar.

Is it better to serve in the Gadsar than the Gdud? Most gung-ho volunteers seem to think so, following the conventional wisdom that the more "elite" a unit is, the better. Based on my experience, gadsar may be better than gdud in the following four ways:

1) Pride
The pride you have in where you serve does wonders for the experience. And while every battalion has its own traditions (and t-shirts, and cheers, and sponsors...), the nature of being in a more selective and more respected unit means that gadsar tend to have more pride than gdud.

2) Higher Quality Peers
The guys you serve with do more to determine your time in the military than anything save for combat experience. Because gadsar selects its soldiers, and because gadsar is viewed as the better place to serve, the guys there tend to be, on average, more responsible, intelligence and ambitious than their peers in the gdud. I write this with some reservation because while conventional wisdom insists it is true, my personal experience leaves me unconvinced.

3) Training (navigation, krav maga, ...)
A gdud trains for seven months (basic and advanced training) and then are assigned to kav (front-line duties). Gadsar train for a year. The extra training time is filled with specialized courses (far less glamorous than they sound!), krav maga sessions and, primarily, field navigation. If you really want to be exposed ('train' is too strong a word for the slapdash regime soldiers receive) to IDF navigation and krav maga, then go for gadsar over gdud. Every gadsar also takes the two week paratrooper course, so unless you are in the Paratroops Brigade (where everyone, gdud and gadsar alike, do jump course), another key difference between gdud and gadsar is getting to jump out of a plane.

4) Active Service
Following training, combat soldiers do three things for the rest of their service: a) more training, b) war, c) patrols, arrests and guard duty along the border or occupied territories (duties collectively referred to as kav). Nowadays there is little difference between what the gdud and gadsar do on kav - depending on where they serve, the gadsar will do more arrests, have less (boring) sentry shifts, and more down time but the trend is towards both units pulling similar tasks. At times of war, like Lebanon in July 2006 or Gaza in January 2009, everyone is deployed and depending on the scope of the conflict, no unit will necessarily see more action than any other. That said, in a limited war, the gadsar are called up before the gdud. In a more expanded conflict (like Lebanon 1982), the gadsar would theoretically go first and provide the reconnaissance for which they are trained.

So where should you serve? The answer comes down to time and personality. The less time you serve (i.e. less than the normal three years), the more you should prioritize the gdud. I have written elsewhere about where to serve if you want to maximize your taste of action (see that article for whether or not gadsar actually requires one to serve the full three years, regardless of age). The more your prime motivation is to soak up Israeli culture and do your time, the more the answer is gdud. The more you are a self-starter that does not let your surroundings psyche you out, all the more reason to go with the gdud. If your idea of success is getting into the most well regarded college, if you are desperate for jump course, krav maga and land navigation and if you are willing to possibly sign for the full three years, then gadsar is for you.

In short, if you are going to serve the full three years, gadsar is the better bet than gdud. If you are serving less time (a possibility even in the gadsar, despite the official rules saying otherwise), then the question becomes more about how you prioritize the four factors discussed above.

In my case, I chose gadsar over gdud because I wanted the extra training perks like navigation and krav maga. I was not concerned with the reputation of where I served, nor am I convinced that the quality of the guys differs greatly between gadsar and gdud. With little personal experience on kav and none with war, my sense is that had I gone with gdud over gadsar, as a soldier serving just two years I would have had more front-line experience and leadership opportunities.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11 & Chafshash: A Day that will Live in Infamy

The anniversary of 9-11 is a day for solemn reflection. This year however, the tenth anniversary of the devastating terror attacks was a day for incomparable joy. For me, at any rate. After two years in uniform, and two final months of senseless annoyance, today--September 11, 2011--I left the army. While my formal exit is not till October 12, today I began the customarily vacation (known as chafshash, chofesh shichrur) soldiers receive before leaving the army. And so at least in my world, modern America's day of infamy now has something of a silver lining.

It is a strange day to be leaving the army. Besides the ironic overtone of 9/11, I am discharging as Israel's enemies are showing their teeth. The Palestinians are threatening a third intifada on the heels of trying to win independence next week at the UN. Iran's nuclear weapons program continues with no restraint in sight. And two longtime quasi-friends, Turkey and Egypt, are acting like mortal foes. Just yesterday, mobs in Cairo torched the Israel Embassy even as the post-Mubarak military leadership makes vain excuses and shamelessly imprisons American-Israeli Ilan Grapel. Just last week, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan suspended ties with Israel and threatened to send Turkish warships on patrols off of Israel's coast. When Israel's least worrisome border lies in the north with Hezbollah, the strategic danger facing the country is pretty obvious.

On the morning of 9/11, I was not thinking grand strategy. Joy and sorrow wrestled for my attention. The joy came from not only leaving the army but finally having the chance to put to use one of the Israeli combat soldier's most prized possessions: the teudat lohem (combat soldier ID-card). Israeli soldiers normally have to be in uniform to take advantage of the free travel privilege accorded to members of the military. With a teudat lohem, a soldier can dress anyway he wants as he travels freely aboard any bus and train in Israel. Combat soldiers receive the sought after card two-thirds of the way through their service (at the end of their second year, in other words). Since I am only serving two years, I was supposed to receive my teudat lohem back in March. Per the carelessness and insensitivity that reigns in the Paratroop Reconnaissance Battalion (i.e., my unit, Sayeret Tzanchanim), I did not receive my card until last week. One of the joys of chafshash for a combat soldier is maximizing his travel privileges during his final weeks in the army. I am excited at the chance to take advantage and finally see some of the country I moved to and have defended for the last two years.

While I had the joy of a teudat lohem in my hand, the absence of military pins on my chest was cause for sorrow. Minutes before leaving my base, I discovered that one of the twenty year old drivers attached to my unit had stolen my pins when he went home on Thursday for the weekend. Military pins represent where a soldier serves and are the main keepsake he takes from the army. Two of the pins stolen from me are worn only by soldiers that completed fourteen months of rigorous combat training in the Paratrooper Reconnaissance Battalion. I received these two pins at the ceremony last March when I was finally made a lohem, a combat soldier, in the Israeli army.

The third pin that was stolen from me is the paratrooper wings (known as kanfatz) that I received in May 2010 for completing five military parachute jumps. My wings had belonged to our course instructor, who had personally given me his old-school wrought iron insignia as the best soldier in the course. While I was saddened at the robbery of the two lohem pins, the loss of my parachute course instructor's wings left a special pain. Completing that course, and winning the plaudits of the instructor, had been one of my most cherished accomplishments as a soldier. Even as someone that tends not to idolize his possessions, losing those wings hurts. Especially because they were not lost but were stolen, taken by a fellow soldier as I am literally exiting the army forever.

BONUS

For several days following Sunday, September 11, I tried to recover the pins that were stolen from me. I tried to reach out personally to the drivers, sending them a message that I had no interest in them getting punished and just wanted my pins back. I got no response. I tried commanders, bugging the lieutenant of my former combat squad and the Rasar, the desk officer that had served as my final superior. None of them expressed any interest in helping me out. Robbery is so taken for granted in the army that they were not interested in holding the thief accountable. The only advice they had for me was to go to a military surplus store and buy imitation pins--something I have no interest or intention of doing.

Losing my pins on the last day of my normal service to a petty thief hurts. If there is a message being sent, it seems to be that I must leave the army as I arrived, leaving aside any mental or physical impressions that came my way over the last two years.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Deconstructing Start-Up Nation

Disclaimer: Like nearly everything on this site (aka, my public journal/blog), the following purports to tell the truth as I have experienced it. My account is not designed to make money, to present anyone/anything in the best or worst light, nor to do anything but share my experience and attitude about my military service. I am a Zionist and am committed to the wellbeing of the Jewish state. But this blog is not intended as an instrument of hasbara (advocacy)--unlike the work which we will now discuss.

I love Start-Up Nation, the Malcolm Gladwell-esque bestseller that pitches Israel as a phenomenal economic success story. My passion for the book is summed up in the message a seasoned Israeli conveys to a young American Zionist in one of the early chapters: “Israel does not need more professional Zionists or politicians, Israel needs successful business people.” Inspired, the young American abandons a career as a professional advocate for Israel and becomes one of Israel's leading venture capitalists, a full time preacher for financial investment in the Jewish State. He is not selling out on his ideals--he is selling in, focusing his energy on the very front Israel must succeed in to remain relevant in the modern world. Too many young idealists come to Israel believing they will make a difference by joining the army or making peace with the Arabs. Start-Up Nation is a reality check, a reminder that Israel can best help itself, its neighbors and the wider world by thriving as a center of commercial creativity.

So much for the love. My issue with Start-Up Nation is the book's own love for the IDF--and the glowing terms it uses to describe an institution that sounds nothing like the beast I have tangled with over the last two years. I have no problem with someone loving the Israeli army (some of my best friends suffer from this strange illness ;-). But when the object of their affection is more myth than fact, as a member of that falsely mythologized military I am compelled to tell it like it actually is.

The Israeli Army in Start-Up Nation is the incubator of all incubators, responsible for creating the gutsy, quick thinking, networked entrepreneurs at the forefront of Israel’s economic miracle. Dozens of IDF vets that have gone on to achieve startling success in the private sector are quoted crediting their military service for their current success.

A careful reader may note that all of these veterans are graduates of only the most elite units, places where soldiers enjoy far more latitude to innovate than in the regular army. In fact, these elite units tend to serve as stand-ins for the whole army throughout Start-Up Nation. To the extent that conscription allows the IDF place the brightest kids in the best units and thereby produce a future business elite (capitalism by its very nature demands a business elite, the have and have-nots), I agree that the IDF plays a critical role in nurturing Israeli innovation. But the writers go further, arguing:

Talpions (graduates of the hyper elite Talpiot unit) may represent the elite of the elite in the Israeli military but the underlying strategy behind the program’s development—to provide broad and deep training in order to produce innovative adaptive problems solving—is evident through much of the military and seems to be part of the Israeli ethos: to teach people how to be very good at a lot of things, rather than excellent at one thing.

If only this was true. The reality is that combat training in the IDF is quite "broad." What is missing is the second part of the equation: the depth. My peers in some of the IDF's top combat units routinely complained that our scattershot training--a week of navigation, a day of shooting, maybe an hour of krav maga once a month--left us with few relevant skills. Success in combat depends on responding to a threat as a team. As the American journalist Sebastian Junger wrote after spending a year with an American platoon in Afghanistan, "Stripped to its essence, combat is a series of quick decisions and rather precise actions carried out in concert with ten or twelve other men. In that sense, it is much more like football than say like a gang fight. The unit that choreographs their actions best usually wins." In the paratroops, my platoon devoted so little time to fine-tuning our "combat choreography" that when the rare exercise placed us in a simulated firefight, chaos reigned. Our training was to blame. Instead of learning to fight as a military unit, we spent weeks learning a little bit of nothing, dabbling in navigation and ruck-marches, training seemingly designed to build up our resolve rather than our combat wherewithal.

Regardless of the effectiveness of IDF training (there is a lot of good, along with all the bad and ugly), Start-Up Nation is chiefly concerned with presenting the Israeli army as a bastion of responsibility and initiative. According to the book, soldiers, especially officers, are entrusted with vast resources and life and death decisions that leave them well placed for success in the private sector. There is a lot of truth to the first part of that statement (the second part is pretty tough to argue one way or the other). Eighteen year old grunts sign off on expensive military hardware, meaning they assume vast financial responsibility (for loss or injury to the gear) even before they shoulder the mortal responsibility that may come with using the hardware. Likewise, twenty-one year old lieutenants often find themselves wielding real power, especially if they are combat officers and are tasked with leading their peers into battle.

The flipside to these admirable lessons in responsibility is a culture that teaches soldiers to be decidedly irresponsible. Part of the problem is that the army is the very worst sort of welfare state. It feeds, clothes and orders its charges around, creating a corp with a baseline infantile responsibility threshold. Soldiers have no motivation to take responsibility when the army will either boss or provide all their
needs.

This bottom-up (the 'bottom' expects someone 'up above' will take care of everything) side of the problem parallels the real rot in the system: the top-down tendency to force your subordinates to take responsibility for the work you should do. Everyone in the army knows that the military resembles a pyramid--the higher you are in the system, the more people beneath you. And if you have subordinates, then they are the people you pass on the chores that your boss passed on to you. The buck stops no where in this army. Everyone dumps on the people beneath them. Grunts end up covered in everyone's filth. Perhaps that is why the miasma of irresponsibility that plagues the Israeli army is often referred to by that most dispiriting of army slang terms, zrikat zayin. In common usage, the phrase means not giving a damn. When applied to the wider army culture, it captures the sense of disinterest in taking responsibility when you can just throw the obligation on to someone else.

The ugly reality of this ethic exposes the myth that Start-Up Nation builds of military leadership. While the army certainly provides peerless leadership opportunities for those that lead men in combat or control vast resources and complex systems, the brunt of officers operating in military bureaucracy easily fall victim to the push the buck philosophy. With national security at stake, failure is not an option. Unless, of course, someone else can be blamed. Israeli politics follows a similar credo, perhaps because the ex-generals and ex-commandos that govern the country learned how to operate in the army.

Initiative, not responsibility, is the real concern of Start-Up Nation. To prove that the former is rife within the army, the authors explain what the slang terms rosh katan/gadol are all about:

In the Israeli army, soldiers are divided into those who think with a rosh gadol—literally a “big head”—and those who operate with a rosh katan, or “little head.” Rosh katan behavior, which is shunned, means interpreting orders as narrowly as possible to avoid taking on responsibility or extra work. Rosh gadol thinking means following orders but doing so in the best possible way, using judgment and investing whatever effort is necessary. It emphasizes improvisation over discipline, and challenging the chief over respect for hierarchy. Indeed, ‘challenge the chief” is an injunction issued to junior Israeli soldiers.

Rubbish. For starters, 'challenge the chief' does not exist outside of elitist intel units, pilot squads and the prestate Palmach militia. In the rest of the army, including top commando squads, questioning your officer--sometimes even voicing a contrary opinion--is a surefire way to find yourself in the dogbox. Push your luck too far and the insecure chief who does not enjoy having his authority challenged will likely make the remainder of your service horrible. More to the point, the army does not reward rosh gadol behavior. Often a soldier is praised for displaying a rosh katan. The point is that initiative is largely secondary. What matters is knowing which insecure authority figure will judge your behavior in any given circumstance and acting accordingly (see slang dictionary for more).

The Israeli army that I know from mine and numerous close friends' lived experience is unfortunately not defined by young men and women taking responsibility and getting rewarded for their initiative. Yet the absence of that reality is not my main concern with Start Up Nation's portrayal of the IDF. My real gripe is the book's pollyannaish presumption that Israel has its compulsory military service to thank for producing a nation of mature university grads that even have international experience due to the global trek Israelis embark on after the army. An alternative narrative, absent from Start-Up Nation but no stranger to anyone attuned to contemporary Israel, is of young Israelis that try to escape the dispiriting experience of serving in the IDF through several years of itinerant global travel, dominated by drugs, danger and lording over disadvantaged local peoples. This is a narrative that takes into account the many conscripts whose military experiences best resembles the metaphor painted by a former lone soldier: “quiet gentle guys [like] Hayim are like sweet fruit. Then the army comes along and mashes them into a pulp.” Start-Up Nation wants you to believe that the Israeli army is the Ivy League of Outward Bounds, an experience with only positive externalities for the state. It is a grand claim, makes great PR, yet unfortunately is distinctly off-key.

Perhaps my ear was so attuned to the writers' military misstep because one of the authors is closely tied to the most authentic portrayal I have ever read of what it is actually like to serve in the Israeli army. I have written several times about the writing of Alex Singer, an American volunteer whose letters were published by his family after his death in battle in 1987. Alex’s published journal spares no punches in expressing the frustration and angst of the typical Israeli soldier. His words echo in the life my friends and I know as soldiers in the same force Alex served in two dozen years ago. His words are absent, though, in the IDF that his older brother portrays in Start-Up Nation. It is not my place to begrudge Saul Singer, Alex's older brother and one of the author's of Start-Up Nation, the opportunity to build on his brother's legacy in the manner he chooses. Nevertheless, the legacy Alex left with me, and with so many other conscripts, is the harsh reality of an often hopelessly frustrating military. Portraying that military otherwise, even for the best of reasons, leaves a kernel of disappointment within my general admiration for Start-Up Nation.

My criticism is less fair if we agree that Start-Up Nation is not about the IDF as much as it is a book designed to advertise Israel's economic miracle, and by extension, Israeli society at large. If allowing the IDF to be portrayed as a shiny, one-trick pony advances Israel's image, then--in this case, at least--count me in as a believer.

BONUS

The other popular book I recently finished reading is Dance with Dragons, the ponderous fifth tomb in the best sword-and-sorcerer series since Lord of the Rings. The originality and quality of the earlier novels in the series, the ponderous pace of publication and a popular HBO serialization wrapping up its first season have brought tremendous attention to this latest read. Attention it unfortunately does not deserve.

Yes, the book is a bore. Anyone who has read the previous four books, each one nearly a thousand pages, will naturally hang on every word (over 400,000 words, they say). When you have followed characters through so many pages, slowly imagined a world that is gradually expanding from book to book (and now even onscreen), anything that continues the journey will be well received--especially because the author remains a fine wordsmith. What he has lost is a keen sense of drama, of suspense, and most damning of all, imagination.

I started reading the series in the late nineties, shortly after the second novel was published, when I stumbled across the first book in the public library. The cover illustration of the dark haired protagonist on a dark charger in a snowswept forest caught my imagination. The first novel, of course quickly exceeded my best expectation, hooking me for a series that a decade later looks like it likely will never end.

Tolkein invented a formula that the genre has never abandoned, alternatively its greatest strength and weakness: the imagination to create entire worlds, with vast histories and fables. The best books in the genre are merely Dungeons & Dragons games put to pen by a serviceable wordsmith with a slightly original plotline. They write a first standout novel, imaging a world that wins countless admirers whom are then taken along across numerous sequels, each more disappointing than its predecessor. There are many lessons in this, perhaps the most sublime is recognizing that in our passion for innovation we take refuge in the familiar rather than demand the constant imagining that truly excites us from the start.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Suicide in Uniform

Last Thursday a soldier was killed fighting terrorists on the Egyptian border. Last night a soldier was nearly killed by jumping off a three story building on my base. One a hero, the other a suicide. So it goes.

The would be suicide climbed atop my three story barracks building late on Tuesday night. Onlookers thought at first he was trying to get a cheap view into the top-floor girls shower-room. It was not until the soldier began hollering and approaching the edge of the rooftop that he got everyone's attention. As a few soldiers tried to talk him back from the edge, the instant response team--normally charged with responding to border infiltrators--crept up behind the unstable soldier and pulled him to safety.

I was minding my own business in bed when I first became aware of the attempted suicide. A senior officer barged into my room with a distracted soldier in tow. "Get dressed, and get outside," the officer told me bluntly. "Me and my friend here need some privacy for a few minutes." I slipped out the door wrapped in a sheet and quickly discovered that one of my roommates, the skinny guy now sequestered in the room with the officer, had just tried to jump to his death.

My roommate, a noncombat soldier serving as a truck-driver, had a long simmering beef with his assignment in the army. Matters had come to a head and he was now desperate to be reassigned to an "open base," where soldiers return home after the close of the workday. His superiors had not expressed much interest in his request and so, stressed into a corner, he had ended up at the edge of a three story rooftop late on a Tuesday night.

Suicide is rarely the decision of a stable mind. Yet what surprises me about my roommate's attempted suicide is not the deed itself but the fact that relatively few peers follow his lead. I am by NO MEANS calling or in any way wishing more soldiers would commit suicide. I am merely commenting on what anyone within the army knows to be true: the attitude among most soldiers is so negative, there is such a culture of bitterness and repressed anger, that a fair observer can only be surprised that the number of attempted suicides is not even higher.

Suicide is already a problem within the Israeli Army. Exactly how much of a problem is difficult to say (cursory research reveals no public data on the number of attempted suicides, a more relevant figure than successful suicides), since data is scarce--no doubt in part because the army does its best to prevent the media from reporting on soldiers taking their own lives. Those articles that do make it to the mainstream media tend to be about particularly bizarre suicides, like two Druze soldiers that killed themselves in April 2010 within moments of the one hearing of the other's death. Or the soldier who killed himself as French President Sarkozy left Israel in June 2008. Nearly a decade ago, a surge in soldier suicides (35 soldiers killed themselves in 2005, far more than the number of soldiers killed in training or the line of fire) led to a spate of public scrutiny and new army measures designed to sensitize commanders to the risk of suicide.

Understanding why Israeli soldiers commit suicide is really not so difficult. The reason is not, as some left-wing and anti-Israel critics like to claim, a response to human rights violations or having been turned into cold-blooded killers by an immoral occupation force. Instead the cause is rooted in the age and culture of a mandatory military. Soldiers are the same age as the demographic (19-25) that is most prone to suicide worldwide. While the Israeli army tries to avoid inducting youth with suicidal tendencies, universal conscription makes its simple for troubled teens to still find their way into uniform.

Once in the army, the problem is not that the army makes people violent (if anything, the Israeli army teaches combat soldiers to express violence in a controlled fashion). The problem is that the army makes people frustrated and embittered. The nature of a restrictive, insensitive institution is that young people with problems get even more embittered. For every Israeli that glides through the army, two dozen of his peers reach the end of their service with so much buried resentment that a year long trip overseas becomes the necessary means of finding the inner peace to move on with their lives.

The army likes to claim that extensive investigation has shown that suicide is not directly connected to military service. These reports miss the whole point: Most soldiers consider suicide because they find themselves unable to effectively come to terms with non-"military issues" insides the confines of the military. Claiming that the military has no role in such suicides is as morally obtuse as it is functionally dangerous in designing an effective response.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A Fallen Orev in the Attack near Eilat

The soldier who died yesterday was one of ours. For over an hour on the afternoon of Thursday August 18, heavily armed Palestinian terrorist squads attacked civilians and soldiers on the southern desert road leading to Eilat. Eight Israelis were killed, and more than thirty wounded. Moshe Naftali, 22 years old, was, like me, a sergeant in the Orev reconnaissance battalion. His Orev unit is part of the Golani Brigade. Mine is attached to the Paratroopers. Besides the color of our berets, the training and duties asked of us is mostly the same. Before his unit began patrolling the site of yesterday's attack, my unit was responsible for security in the area. Had yesterday's attack take placed six months ago, the soldier under fire could easily have been me.

Before I joined the army, I tried my best to sympathize when Israeli soldiers and civilians were killed by terrorists. As a soldier charged with defending the state of Israel, my feelings today are very different. If civilians are killed, like the Fogel family in March, I am frustrated at my--and the army as a whole-- failure to not do more to prevent such attacks. When soldiers are killed, I am reminded of my commitment to make such a sacrifice even as I fight a frustration that comes at not finding myself closer to the action. Casualties also remind me that the relatively calm security situation in the last three years is deceptive. Violence in this region is never far removed from daily events. As a combat soldier (in name, if not in present reality!), yesterday's attack is a bloody reminder that several months of calm in no way reduces the risk of the work we do.

As the rumors ripped around my base yesterday afternoon, it was difficult to grasp what was really happening down in the southern desert. First we heard a bus had been blown up. Once that report was updated to a bus taking fire from marauding terrorists, everyone on base spoke of heavily armed terrorist squads at loose in Israel's southern desert territory. Then came reports of rocket fire. Was Eilat the target? Were the rockets originating from the Egyptian controlled Sinai desert or the Palestinian Gaza Strip? And what were we, what was the army, doing in all this mess to get the situation under control?

By nightfall, authoritative news finally reached my base and I learned of the series of attacks on traffic along the main highway to Eilat, as well as the military response. The Israeli army had actually been prepared for an incursion in the area by Palestinian terrorists for several weeks. So while the exact timing of the raid surprised security forces, soldiers were in place to prevent a greater tragedy. Handcuffs found on the bodies of the terrorists suggest that a key goal of the attack was to kidnap soldiers, ala the (kidnapping of Gilad Shalit near the Gaza Strip, plus the) Hezbollah attacks on the northern border that prompted the war in Lebanon in July 2006.

Had soldiers been kidnapped, or had the army not succeeded in preventing more civilian casualties, there is a good chance that yesterday's violence could have spiraled into a larger conflict akin to the war in Lebanon or the fighting in Gaza in January 2009. Thankfully, that bullet seems to have been dodged. If not for a laundry list of laudable reasons (prevent further bloodshed and misery), then at the very least for one selfish one: Nothing would make the menial duties I am presently engaged in until the end of my service further demoralizing than if a conflict erupted and instead of participating in what should be the cumulative test of my service, I am left behind on base cutting weeds and collecting garbage.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

To the Point of No Return

No Nativ for me.

I was shocked when the army informed me less than a day before I was to commence Course Nativ (a seven week military seminar on basic Judaism) that my spot had been rescinded. I was one signature and ten minutes away from ending the fiasco that had dogged my last two months in the Paratroops Brigade. Instead I was ordered back to base, slapped with a draconian punishment, and returned to my previous duties cutting weeds and collecting trash for the remainder of my military service.

How the hell did this happen?

When I last left off, it was Tuesday, August 9, the Fast of the Ninth of Av, and I was watching my base recede into the distance for the last time. After two weeks of menial avodei rasar (serving as the base’s garbage collector and weed whacker), I was finally putting the mess that remained of my career in the Paratroops Brigade behind me. Having failed to receive the meyuhedet clearance I am entitled to, I had cut my losses and set off to file the paperwork that released me from the Paratroops and assigned me to Course Nativ for the remainder of my service. The manpower office had given me clear instructions that I leave our forward operating base on Tuesday to collect my gear at home and report Wednesday to our permanent base to give in my gear and transfer out of the brigade. Thursday morning I had to be at the Jerusalem offices of Course Nativ to ensure I did not lose my spot in the seven week education program.

I followed these instructions to the letter. My mistake is that neither I nor the manpower office informed the desk officer that had titular authority over me for the last two weeks that I was transferring out. I had not informed him partly out of a mistaken conviction that the manpower office would do so. But also because until Wednesday morning, I was still holding onto a slim hope that my request for a meyuhedet would be approved and instead of starting Course Nativ, I would be getting out of the army on the thirty day break every lone soldier is entitled to. I had not wanted to overwhelm the desk officer that was serving as my superior for less than twelve days with these various stratagems. Instead I erred and left him in the cold, a mistake that would prove fatal to my desire to get away from this mess once and for all.

My mistake was all the more egregious because my superior since August 2 was the Rasar, a career army desk-officer charged with overseeing brigade-wide discipline issues. In other words, my mistake happened on the watch of the very man obsessed with procedure by the nature of his position. The Rasar interpreted my absence as having gone AWOL. When he contacted me on Wednesday, he refused to accept my explanation that I was merely following orders and processing transfer paperwork. Instead he ordered me to return to the forward operating base to be punished for going AWOL. Having already reached the door of the base where I was to complete my exit paperwork, I made a shot at seeing if they would sign me out and let me skip past this latest confusion. No dice. By this time it was too late to make it to the forward base that the Rasar had ordered me to. Wednesday ended with my communicating to him that I would sleep in nearby Jerusalem and arrive on base the following morning after attempting to speak to the Nativ officers and reserve a space in their course.

The Rasar took my stopover at the Nativ offices Wednesday morning as further sign of insubordination. For my part, I was glad I went since the Nativ officers promised to save me a spot if by Sunday morning I had resolved the AWOL charge. The Nativ registration center was a riot of foreign language, with Russian easily the most common language among the new immigrant soldiers. Besides reserving a spot for Sunday, my highlight of stopping by was running into the Russian soldier that had served as my parachute course instructor—and given me his own parachute insignia that is easily my most treasured keepsake from my military service.

With Nativ taken care of, there was only one thing keeping me from returning to base to face the wrath of the Rasar: the wedding of one of my closest friend tonight in Jerusalem. Returning to base would mean not attending a wedding I had looked forward to for months. While I knew the risks of not returning until Friday morning, I was not certain that missing such a close friend’s simcha was worth the hell I could expect awaited me on my return.

While debating what to do, I took several steps against my commanders for the ugly events of the last few months (not including this latest fiasco). The Lone Soldier Center helped me draft and fax a Hebrew letter to the army complaints office, known as the Netziv Kvilot Chayalim, that outlined how my company commander disregarded army rules in mistreating me. Others helped shared my story with several media figures, including Carmela Menashe, the most prominent advocate for soldier’s rights in Israel. Another sympathetic stranger put me in touch with a former commander of the Paratroop Brigade. After hearing the entire story of the last few months, this senior officer, who still carries great weight in the brigade, agreed that my superiors’ actions had crossed the line on several occasion. He advised me to return to base immediately, promising he would do what he could to ensure my commanders did not screw me over once again because of this latest mess. With a heavy heart, I heeded his words and passed up on my friend’s wedding to return to base.

A series of small miracles ensured I caught the very last bus back to base. Buoyed by this spurt of good fortune, I arrived on base to meet the battalion commander (Magad) as ordered to by the Rasar. The Magad I met had only recently begun his command. As if to make up for his brief tenure and boyish looks, he had already acquired a reputation as a real terror. Our meeting made good on that reputation. Instead of the discussion I had been promised over the phone by the Rasar and the former brigade commander, the Magad ambushed me with a formal hearing to determine my guilt and punishment for the last two days events. Shock turned to rage as he found me guilty of going AWOL, accused me of making a mockery of his command, and remanded me to base for the next twenty-eight days under the command of the Rasar (i.e. the garbage and weed detail). Before leaving his office, I collected myself to tell him, politely yet with barely concealed disgust, that it was him and his officers that were making a mockery of my service and that I had nothing but disdain for this shanghaied judgment.

My disgust turned to seething anger as I left his office. By my nature I am calm and collected. While the last few months have frustrated me to no end, I have maintained a sense of humor and reflective distance at even the worst of times. But this final joke of a sentence, stripping me of the course that was to finally get me out of this mess because of a mild error in miscommunication?! After everything else, my patience was done with. For two months I have played the game, hoping that logic, protekzia and the basic justice of my cause would see me through. All that was over. This was no longer about what was right and fair. And it is all too obvious that my well-meaning friends can not be of any real help. If I want something to happen, it is in my hands. The way I saw it, the shmucks in charge had now falsely punished me for going AWOL. So what should I do? Go AWOL on them for real.

As I stewed on base over the weekend, well-meaning friends thought to dissuade me from running away. Everyone warned me what I knew all too well: that if I just upped and left, I was jeopardizing my future in this country. Not a future career or reputation—but the opportunity to simply remain in Israel and avoid extended jail-time. Running away from the army now, with just nine weeks left, meant I would never be formally discharged and forever branded a runaway, liable to be arrested if I return to the country in the next two decades.

One friend urged me to remember that my faith in the country will return far easier than the country’s faith (so to speak) in me. If one of you has to take the hit in the broken faith you have in the other, let it be you, she insisted. Do not do something that will place the country against you. Better to do something that will place you against the country.

More than anyone else, I understand that I came to Israel to live here, not to serve in the army. Enlisting was about affirming my citizenship. To allow my service to harm my deep-seated Zionism seems completely irrational. Of course, the irrationality is part of the reason I was so determined to stand up for myself and leave.

My resolve to do something drastic finally slipped when a close friend urged me to see the next month as my being unjustly imprisoned in order to ensure the future success of my life in Israel. While he urged me not to let several douche-bag commanders ruin anything beyond the next few weeks, I decided not to do anything too crazy to avoid upsetting the faith in Israel of those who love me—friends, family, siblings, mother and most of all, my father. Sometimes running off into the wild to escape the hypocrisy and idiocy of institutional life is right for every reason save for that which is most important: the faith and love others have for you.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Very Best Day of the Year: Civilian Avatar

August second was the very best day of the year. Having been robbed of my military ambition—prevented from deploying with my fellow combat soldiers—I was ordered to report to my new task as a garbage collector and weed cutter (avodei rasar) on the first Tuesday of August. En route to exile, however, the discouraged soldier had a chance to temporarily live the life of his civilian avatar. The biggest surprise I had in switching from soldier to civilian for a day is that it left me bouncing with positive Zionist energy. My disillusioned army self was recharged thanks to the new vistas I saw waiting for me in my future life as a civilian. A chance, even for a few hours, to engage in the sort of creative and dynamic activities that have been persona non grata in my military service had such a welcoming effect that I arrived at my sorry excuse for a final military assignment bursting with goodwill and misplaced yet appreciated enthusiasm.

This most satisfying of days began at night. Hours before I had fled the army to a friend’s apartment, looking forward to one night of freedom before reporting to my mindless new assignment on the morrow. As the final minutes of August first slipped off into the night sky, my sister and I connected on the phone for the first time in over a month. She had just returned from an extended overseas vacation, and was on the verge of starting medical school. Her anxiety and excitement at turning over a new leaf in her life was contagious. I rode the vibes from our phone conversation into an impromptu four way brainstorm session, convened at my request to discuss plans for a project we intend to spring on two close friends in the near future. When my fellow brainstormers called it a night, I kept going. The creative juices we had unleashed would not let me sleep, and so I hacked away at the ideas we had developed all through the night.

Morning’s glory brought more good news. When my friend finally awoke, he lent me a mad-cool blue shirt and sent me off toward Israel’s take on capitol hill. My business was not at the Knesset but nearby, inside the sparkling headquarters of the Joint Distribution Committee (known colloquially as the Joint, as the JDC). The Joint had asked for a meeting to discuss a project they are developing on which I have unique experience. It was refreshing to have a long and intelligent conversation for perhaps the first time in two years where my creativity and knowledge were called upon and respected.

Too soon I was heading back to the army. But the day’s delights were not over. En route to the central bus station, I overheard two female soldiers debating when to get off. After providing them with directions, it was natural to fall into conversation with one of them, especially when it turned out that all of us needed to take the same long bus ride south. It was even more natural to sit next to the girl I was speaking with, not only because she was strikingly attractive but also because she displayed an intelligence and humor well beyond her years. Most of our conversation turned on what it means to be an observant Jew. She insisted she was completely secular, having never observed Shabbat nor a single Jewish holiday. But when I explained that my Jewish faith is fueled in large part by an attachment to community, she agreed that she shares this faith as well. She in fact turned out to be a passionate advocate for Jewish customs and tradition, values that she eventually agreed suggest that she is not as divorced from Judaism as she had previously supposed. If there was one thing lacking in the previous night’s brainstorming and the morning’s discussion at the Joint, it was a really cute girl to converse with. Granted that favor at last, I boarded the final bus that would take me to my new assignment in an incredibly good mood.

All the creative juices, intelligence conversations, and cute girls over the last twenty-four hours had turned a day that could have marked the nadir of my military service into a day I hope to not soon forget. I was feeling so good that I even convinced myself that the next few weeks of demoralizing work were akin to the volunteer labor of selfless Zionists like Rahm Emanuel, who travel from halfway across the world to do manual labor in programs such as Sar-El. Except unlike those suckers who pay out of pocket to clean moldy gear and paint fences, I would be doing similar work for a wage. Two weeks of blue and white service, was how my recharged Zionist self insisted on looking at the task that lay before me.

I knew I only had two weeks with a shovel and mop in hand because I had already received a go-ahead to attend the next seven week education course on basic Judaism that is offered to all soldiers born overseas. Known as Course Nativ, the only course I could take before discharging from the army in October was the one that began on Thursday August 11. What that meant was that I had until Wednesday the tenth to receive approval from my new superiors for the same meyuhedet vacation I had unfairly been denied by my former superiors. Since the previous company commander had not granted me my requested meyuhedet on the spurious grounds that he lacked enough combat soldiers to let me leave, now there seemed no reason why my new company commander could possibly not approve the meyuhedet. If I could not seal the deal on the meyuhedet by the tenth, then I realized it was worth it to simply get the hell away from the whole battalion, abandon any hope for the meyuhedet I by right deserve, and decamp to Course Nativ for the remainder of my service.

The new company commander never raised any problems with my meyuhedet request. The problem is that he never raised anything at all in failing to meet with me (whether willfully or through plain negligence, I cannot say for sure—army rules order him to meet with me within a single week regardless) for the two weeks I was under his command. The writing was on the wall: it was well past time to put as much distance between me and the battalion as possible. So on Tuesday August 9, the morning of the Jewish fast of Tisha b’Av, I left base to complete the army paperwork that would transfer me to Course Nativ. As the military base faded off into the distance, I was sure I was seeing a forward operating base for the last time as a soldier (outside of reserves one day, of course). The Ninth of Av, a day of mourning marking the destruction of the Jewish Temples and dispersion of the people into exile, seemed to be providing a fitting coda of sorts to my military odyssey.

BONUS

I had one final reason to celebrate on August 2. Three of the guys that had departed with me from our Air Force squad were starting lieutenants’ school. I felt only happiness for them, especially since two of them were again serving side by side in the same squad, training now to assume command and lead the future young soldiers of the IDF. Mixed up in that happiness, however, was the irony that on the very same day that my peers were commencing the ten-month long lieutenants course, I was starting my own new assignment as a garbage collector and weed cutter. How it came to pass that I ended up here, and they made it there, is a question that lingers as I grit my teeth and look towards finishing the last few meaningless weeks of my military service.