Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bus and Kitchen Blowups

Foreshadow: To present an indication or a suggestion of beforehand.

In retrospect, the two obnoxious incidents that came my way at the start of this week should have been fair warning for the real misery that lay in wait. Blind to these hints, the only lesson I took from the week’s bumpy start was the sorry state of leadership in the Israeli army.

The first incident took place on a bus. The bus in question was parked outside the Joe Alon Museum of Bedouin Culture, the first stop on a week devoted to unwinding (nightly barbeques and dance parties) and educating (nature hikes and history tours) my unit about the territory we will be responsible for patrolling starting next week. I was sweating my shirt off on the unconditioned bus, having volunteered to watch our bags while my peers entered the museum. Suddenly I heard an infernal hollering. I stepped outside to discover the deputy commander of the Recon Paratroops yelling that he wanted to speak with whoever was guarding the bus, namely, me.

“Why were you sleeping on the job?” the senior officer snarled.

“Sleeping?!” I managed to mutter through puzzled lips. “I was wide awake the entire time…”

“Now you lie to my face? Your next weekend leave is cancelled (closing Shabbat, in army parlance), and you are lucky I do not keep you on base twenty-eight days straight (a rituk) as further punishment.”

Fast-forward twenty plus hours to the following afternoon. Again, I was minding house while my peers gallivanted around in the hills. I had volunteered this time for kitchen duty, attaching myself to the crusty and irritable Mizrahi fellow in charge of our meals. This supervisor is widely known for exaggerating his displeasure with the soldiers assigned to work for him. So I thought nothing of his occasional outbursts as the day dragged on. Until the rest of my unit arrived for dinner, that is, and informed me our company commander had remanded me to kitchen duty for the rest of the week as punishment for sloughing off today.

Neither punishment stuck. In the first case, I pointed out to my unsympathetic platoon leader (mafkatz) that the senior officer had seen the driver, not me, sleeping on the bus. When another soldier came forward to verify my story, the lieutenant spoke with the deputy chief and the affair was brushed under the table. The kitchen duty fiasco fell apart even quicker when the kitchen boss spoke to my company commander on my account and clarified I had been an exemplary worker.

Despite slipping past both incidents unscathed, I was left with a bitter taste of my officers' leadership approach. For starters, angry yelling is the de rigueur form of communication. As someone who values keeping cool in heated situations, the average officer’s hollering strikes me as a lack of self-control rather than confident authority. Worse than the yelling is that authority types in this army tend to fall on their subordinates immediately. The average officer never grants his soldier the benefit of the doubt or, shudders, stop to consider whether his soldier’s version of events may be contrary to the impression the superior has gathered from secondary sources. For some men granted authority in the army, this crapping on those beneath them seems to act as a churlish boost to self-esteem. For others, blaming the simple soldier comes as merely the easiest way of resolving a problem. My superior is blaming me for something one of my soldiers is said to have done? Fine, let me just lash out at the soldier and the problem is solved. Passing the buck downward, in short, seems to be the menial leadership ethos embraced by far too many authority figures in the Israeli army.

If I turn the lens inward, and ask myself how I stumbled into two ugly incidents on what is supposed to be a week of vacation, four answers suggest themselves. (1) Stop volunteering for crap jobs. (2) Bad luck, which is about as unsatisfactory an answer as there can be. (3) Uncouth commanders. (4) My own attitude, which after a year and a half in the army can more or less be summed up as not taking crap from anybody. I say more or less since I exclude taking the normal crap any soldier must expect when serving as a simple grunt in this man’s army.

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