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

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.


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.

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