Saturday, July 30, 2011

Politics by Other Means

Give me liberty, or give me death!

My terms are less dramatic than those framed by Patrick Henry in his famous speech on the eve of the American Revolution. Give me kav or grant me tash, is how my battle-cry with my superiors has evolved since our initial firefight over the sarsap position. My central request has remained to serve with my peers as a combat soldier on our current deployment. Failing that, and acknowledging that transferring to another combat unit has never been a viable option (no unit would take a soldier with only two months left purely due to the paperwork hassle), my quest has been for maximum tash, slang for comfort, in other words finding the least numbing way to spend my remaining weeks in the military. My pursuit of either of those two terms has taken a variety of dramatic turns over the last month even as my position has remained decidingly static in the interim.

When I left off last time, my company commander (mem’pei) had scathingly informed me that I would be formally punished for resisting the lowly logistics position (sarsap) I had been assigned. My attempts to find advocates for my cause had seemingly come up empty and I headed to a week-long break (I was attending a lone soldier post-army career workshop) from my unit with little reason to be optimistic about what awaited me on my return.

My first week back set the stage for how I would pass the time over the remainder of the next month. With my entire unit deployed in the territories, I was assigned to be one of three soldiers that are needed to stay back and watch over the home base. With no real gear to watch over and everything locked up that has not been carted off to the deployment, there was little to do besides catch up on movies, reading, running and trading bitter jokes with one of the other soldiers marooned with me on our home base, a lone solder from Belgium with his own reasons for being on base.

There was a purpose to my staying on base this first week. At some point, promised my lieutenant, you will meet with the battalion commander (known as the magad, a senior officer that is my company commander’s immediate superior). The magad has a reputation as a nice guy and so when we met on Friday morning he let me say my piece. The problem was that the issue at play had now moved from my desire to remain a combat soldier rather than a sarsap (which had fueled the disagreement until now) to the magad’s insistence that I sign a third year. This new direction did not come as a surprise, since I was all too aware that the lone soldier advocate I had initially turned to for assistance, Zvika Levy, had for better or worse seized on this lone detail of my army story and communicated it to the senior officers he spoke to on my behalf.

I gave the magad a similar explanation to what I had told his manpower official during a previous encounter: When I came to the Paratroops eight month ago, I clearly expressed to the relevant officer that I wished to serve in a unit that did not require me to serve more than my remaining one year of service. I was nevertheless placed in the special forces, where soldiers are formally required to serve a full three years (quite rightly, as far as I am concerned), but without anyone asking me to sign extra time until now, two months before I am scheduled to discharge and begin the rest of my life. With all due respect sir, I concluded, at this point in time I find it difficult to be pressured into signing on an extra year, especially when I am by no means the only lone soldier to serve less than three years in this (and many other) special forces unit(s).

The meeting with the magad ended with him informing me that I had until Sunday to agree to sign an extra year. After he left, his manpower chief, who had been sitting in over the course of the meeting, approached me with a glint of undisguised menace in his eyes. That was the good cop routine, he paraphrased in referring to his superior’s words. Now I am going to tell you what will really happen. On Sunday you will meet me and either (a) agree to sign a third year, (b) disagree and I will sign it for you, (c) if I am unable to do so (which of course, he is, making his threat meaningless and frankly, hilarious!), I will instead make the remainder of your service a misery.

There was no reason to wait the weekend for me to tell these guys what they apparently had not yet absorbed: I had zero intention of signing on an extra day let alone another year. To clarify, my decision has nothing to do with a “hate the army” attitude or any such nonsense. It merely reflects the fact that I am ready to move on with my life and do not see my present circumstance as obligating me to serve more time as, for instance, they did when I initially agreed to serve a total of four years when I first enlisted.

The manpower chief was absent to receive my cataclysmic decision on Sunday. He also failed to make himself available over the remainder of the week. So after consulting with Tziki Aud, another noted advocate for lone soldiers, I regretfully set aside my central goal of continuing as a combat soldier and began the struggle for maximum tash. I had two weapons in my tash arsenal: (a) a meyuhedet, the thirty day vacation from the army all lone soldiers are entitled to once a year that I have never used; (b) Course Nativ, a seven week long course on basic Judaism all new immigrant soldiers have the right to attend. Had I remained as a combat soldier, I had intended to pass on both rights in order to maximize my active duty service. Now that my goal was maximum tash, the two tools seemed to offer me a smooth ride until mid-September when I would start chafshash, the vacation soldiers receive before their discharge from the army.

A lone soldier’s superiors are obligated to grant him a meyuhedet. But they get to decide when to grant him the month vacation. Since I am effectively out of the army come mid-September, my superiors seemingly had to grant me the break immediately. Guided by Tziki Aud, I also tried to persuade my superiors that doing so was the best option for all of us, since at this point I was not doing anything anyways and resolving my service without bitterness seemed in the best interest of everyone. My company commander refused to play ball. When he could not reject the request out right, he approved it for the final month of my service, effectively taking it away since I am already on break during that time from chafshash. According to military rule, he could only do this if he could cite an overarching military need to not grant the meyuhedet sooner. So he did, claiming that manpower shortages prevented him from granting me the break before the end of September.

Before I realized the lengths my company commander had gone to deny my meyuhedet, I came to the conclusion that I needed someone to intercede on my behalf and speak with him about my vacation request. He was not answering my calls, and considering our past discussions, I had little reason to believe he would even listen to my reasonable request for an explanation. So my kibbutz father called on my behalf and, instead of getting a straight answer as to why the meyuhedet was being held up, was informed that I would be granted a second meeting with the new magad that in the last week had replaced the genial man I had spoken with two weeks previously.

Two weeks passed and no meeting with the new magad was scheduled. I was not surprised: if I could not figure out why a meeting was necessary, why would a brand new battalion commander, with a hundred pressing responsibilities, see the need to meet with me? In the meantime, however, my lieutenant was replaced, a routine re-ordering of the ranks that always takes place to a special forces platoon at this point in its history. The new platoon leader told me he saw no reason why I should not return as a combat soldier. Suddenly it seemed that a simple solution to this whole unnecessary drama had arrived. My new lieutenant said he would speak to the company commander and keep me abreast of developments.

Another week passed with me still minding the store, so to speak, on base. In the last month I have watched more movies than I have seen in the past decade, not to mention returned to running every night like I did before joining the army. Since asking my kibbutz father to intercede on my behalf, I had taken a break from working the phones on my behalf, waiting patiently instead to meet with the new magad. Just as I was thinking time was nigh to become active again, my new lieutenant called and informed me that the company commander had ordered me transferred out of the unit immediately.

While I was shocked, the news also served as a call to action. For two days I returned to the phones, speaking with Tziki Aud, kibbutz friends and a new military office for lone soldiers (the office, to my surprise, were helpful within their limited abilities to help). Until I got to the bottom of why my company commander had effectively denied my meyuhedet request, it seemed unreasonable to transfer out of his unit and, as he clearly wished, allow him to slip away. The endless phone hours eventually revealed what I mentioned above, that he had claimed a manpower shortage in effectively denying my request. The excuse would have been bogus enough during the past weeks while I was whiling away the weeks providing no source of manpower. But now that he was ordering me out of his unit, the idea that our unit faces a manpower shortage so severe that I cannot be allowed out is impossible to keep up without acknowledging a craven act of dishonesty for what it is. When I called the company commander himself, he denied his own words and then simply said he did not care since I had to fulfill his order to leave his unit (and remove him from this whole stitch) or be charged with refusing an order and get sent to military jail.

I briefly considered refusing to transfer out of the company until my superior came clean about why he had lied and refused to grant me my meyuhedet request. Once I got that silly idea out of my system, I completed the necessary paperwork and said goodbye to the unit. There was no dramatic Dreyfus moment when I turned in my gun for the last time. This disagreement is far from over. And while I am not sure where events will move from here, I still have a few options left to keep things interesting.

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