Friday, June 17, 2011

Training, & Marching, On and On

The first quality of a soldier is constancy in enduring fatigue and hardship. Courage is only second. Poverty, privation and want are the school of the good soldier.

I had no idea until this year that the Palestinians had a day set aside on their national calendar to commemorate the Six Day War known as Al Naksa, the setback. Considering that before 1967 the West Bank and Gaza were under the control of two Arab states that did everything in their power to shackle Palestinian national aspirations, the necessity of mourning Israel’s occupation of those territories seems a little unnecessary.

Be that as it may, the entire army was on edge as Al Naksa Day approached on Sunday June 5. Three weeks before, on May 15, Palestinian demonstrators in Syria and Lebanon had marked Al Nakba Day (‘the catastrophe,’ the day Palestinians commemorate the displacement that accompanied the creation of Israel on May 15 1948) by attempting to cross the border into Israel. Violence at the border and elsewhere in Israel had resulted in the death of fifteen Palestinians and one Israeli. Palestinian leaders promised even greater demonstrations on Al Naksa, so the army responded by canceling home leaves and moving troops, including my unit, towards the Syrian border as the weekend approached.

The resulting protests were similar to those on May 15. Palestinians in Syria, bused to the border by a government eager to distract opinion from the regime’s brutal repression of its own people, threatened to cross into Israel. Thoroughly prepared, the army warned the demonstrators not to cross the international border. When the warnings failed to do the trick, snipers from my unit were given the green light to fire at the legs of anyone seeking to illegally cross the border. As the snipers fired, other troops from my unit were on hand to ensure the mass of demonstrators did not surge over the fence into Israeli territory. The snipers, all close friends of mine, two of whom are the most innocent-looking, dimple-cheeked nineteen year olds I have ever met, are reported to have injured somewhere between twelve and twenty demonstrators.

While some of the squads in my unit were defending our northern border, my own squad was left fending off a storm of mosquitoes on a deserted base in the Golan Heights. Despite not seeing any action ourselves, Al Naksa Day still marked a rare distraction from the last two months of repetitive yet grueling training. This training comes on top of the formal training my unit completed in April. The day after wrapping up that fourteen months training odyssey, my squad joined the months-long refresher training (known as imun) the entire Paratroops Brigade has been engaged in since early March.

While I am eager to start the real life of a special forces combat soldier, this extra training might have been manageable had it introduced new skills or sharpened techniques briefly introduced in the past. Instead it has been one long mindless and taxing bore. My squad was unlucky enough to join this rotational training round after the more relevant and exciting training weeks (urban combat, etc.) had been completed. All that was left, and all we have done over the last two months since we thought our training was finished, is week after week of simulated war games. What that means in practice is trekking night and day under a heavy pack, rarely firing a shot, dragging ourselves and our heavy gear from one imaginary ambush to another.

These field weeks have been almost as difficult as the incredibly grueling misakmim at the end of formal training in late March. In some ways these last few weeks are even harder. In March we had mentally prepared ourselves for several weeks of incredible physical challenge that would soon conclude the last fourteen months of training. Our current exercises just grind on and on, serving no real purpose as far as grunts on the ground are concerned. Guys joke that the only takeaway from these weeks is convincing everyone that war is hell and we should all vote for the most left-wing parties in the next election. Others have noted that it is a shame Hamas and Hezbollah do not conduct similar punishing exercises. No doubt their own rank and file would grow similarly disillusioned about starting a ruckus with Israel if they had a taste from such exercises of the hellishness of large scale violence.

Our war games are, of course, designed for our senior officers’ benefit. One hopes that they at least are learning something from moving grunts like me up and down hillsides like so many lowly pawns. The true status of an infantry soldier, a lowly pawn, is my own takeaway from the last few weeks of drudgery. The only solace pawns like me can have is knowing that thanks to the Israeli system where every officer was once a lowly grunt (Israel has no equivalent to West Pointers or ROTC grads that commence their military careers as officers), the higher-ups have some understanding what they are doing when they shuffle us across the board.


The endless marching over the last few weeks has allowed for one unexpected fun activity: Chinese language teaching! One of my peers first expressed interest in learning basic conversational Chinese. When I began teaching him a few vocabulary words for every mile we marched, others took an interest and a small cadre of language learners has emerged. Our attempt at Chinese gibberish while we march allows me to taste, if only in my imagination, what Mao and his Long Marchers experienced on their epic journey across China in 1935.

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