Thursday, January 27, 2011

Caught in a Vicious Shavuz Circle

Economists love to describe the phenomenon of vicious circles, a self-enforcing series of events that leads to greater and greater instability. Thanks to the subprime mortgage crisis and the ensuing global recession, vicious circles are now a household term. Shavuz soldiers are unfortunately all too familiar with the concept. Like the housing crisis that helped launch the global recession, shavuz soldiers are caught in a particularly nasty vicious cycle. How so?

Shavuz means not caring a whit about the army. Not caring leads to stupidly breaking rules and otherwise falling from the straight and narrow path expected of the perfect soldier. Rule-breaking brings punishments, which only worsens the sense of shavuz leading to further mess-ups, punishments and ever deepening gloom.

My recent army life provides a classic example. While meandering in the abyss of the shavuz in recent weeks I was punished for flagrantly breaching a minor navigation rule. Closing shabbat on base was my punishment. Staying on my base for shabbat is reason enough to feel miserable. Considering I was already pretty shavuz, I did not make it very difficult for an officer to catch me sitting and reading during a particularly mind-numbing three hour sentry shift on shabbat. The punishment to come will likely mean staying on base during future off weekends, as good a bet as any to only deepen my sorry state of shavuz.

Unless I can kick the habit. While my January blues are not completely behind me, two recent incidents give me hope that I can soon lay this extended shavuzness to rest.

The first incident came when my samal (sergeant) pulled me aside and insisted we need to talk. Having never had a private discussion with my squad's much admired junior officer, I was grateful, if a tad leery, to speak with him. As I suspected, his intention was to snap me out of my debilitating state of shavuz. The way he went about doing so, arguing that my bad attitude comes from having failed to get over the differences between my past and present units, was off the mark. But his words forced me to realize that my key mistake is allowing hangups with my life outside the military create a bad attitude that I import into army life. A true professional does not allow personal distractions disrupt his job. While the army may at times seem like more than simply a profession, at heart it is a job I can only respect by engaging at the highest level. Doing so requires that I focus purely on the job at hand and not allow the ebb and flow of outside life impair the work I traveled halfway around the world to accomplish.

This reminder about the professional nature of my service was deeply strengthened by a chance encounter with a young soldier from the Nachal Brigade named Daniel. We got to talking about the relative calm that has prevailed throughout the Israeli army over the last few years. Since the fighting in Gaza in January 2009, military casualties have sunk to record lows. "I had begun to think my service would be untouched by tragedy," Daniel confided. "Until..."

Daniel, it turned out, was best friend's with the Israeli soldier killed two weeks ago in a friendly fire incident on the Gaza border. As Daniel began describing the funeral, my mind was a blur with images of young Israeli soldiers being laid to rest by their distraught peers. The images were the legacy of a young child who compulsively followed the news from Israel in the final years of the twentieth century. The harrowing news-photos of Israeli military funerals I was exposed to as a child shaped my perception of an army I gradually decided I needed to join. Those funerals suggested an army that was about sacrifice and commitment, values personified by the stories of fallen soldiers like Yoni Netanyahu and Alex Singer. The romantic in me clung to those values when I enlisted in the IDF. The realist and cynic, however, has come to terms with the mediocrity and malaise of the mass bureaucracy that is the army. Speaking with Daniel was a sharp reminder that this army, this profession I embraced come what may in the fall of 2009, has values that remain worth fighting for.

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