Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ten Tips for New Soldiers

This entire blog has been designed in part as a guide for future lone soldiers. That said, here are ten tips I urge future volunteers in the Israeli army to keep in mind as they consider, and if they ultimately decide, to enlist.

1. The IDF is a big, insensitive, ideologically-barren, non-action packed institution

The IDF is an institution, not a Zionist summer camp. Nor is it an action movie-- few combat soldiers in front-line infantry units will be in a firefight, or ever fire their gun outside of training, over the course of their service. Like any institution, it is a big, insensitive, bureaucratic machine that often abuses the individual, intentionally or otherwise. It is not a feel-good, ideologically infused place to realize your Zionist or Rambo fueled dreams. This is the single most important piece of advice I can share because so many lone soldiers grow deeply disillusioned over the course of their service from their treatment by, and impression of, the army. While it is reasonable to take a grueling experience to heart, part of the disappointment lone soldiers develop comes from the unusually high ideals and strong motivations that led them to enlist in the first place. The point here is not to get rid of your idealism at the door but simply to understand what it is you are preparing to become a part of.

2. Do not forget why you choose to serve

Despite the fact that the IDF is essentially a military---rather than a Zionist-- institution, it is still valuable to draw strength from the values and dreams that led you to enlist. Hence, at least once a week you should reflect on the ideals—Zionism, violent videogames, a desire to be all you can be, etc.—that led you to choose to become a soldier. This is a valuable exercise despite, really because, the army itself can be so ideologically empty. It is important to reconnect to what inspires you, even if that dream does not quite jive with the reality.

If dwelling on shattered dreams only leads to disillusionment, then spend time instead reflecting how your service is truly a unique experience. Like all soldiers, foreign volunteers—who, let us not forget, did not grow up in a country drenched in militarism where joining the army is only a matter of finishing high school— tend to forgot how abnormal it really is to fire an automatic weapon, drive around in open hummers and spend weeks at a time in high-security military bases. While such experiences are rarely fun in the conventional sense, they are “once in a lifetime” activities that, placed in the proper context, can remind a disillusioned volunteer that his service does mean something. In other words, do not become a soulless zombie just because you are stuck in a lifeless graveyard.

3. Loss of independence

Joining the army means losing your independence, signing control over your life to a big nameless corporation whose representatives—your twenty year old commanders—often make pig-headed decisions directly against your best interests. Understand this going in and perhaps you will be more prepared to deal with all the frustrations that result from the lack of independence. See here for more on this theme.

4. Overcoming disappointment

Dealing with disappointment—not getting depressed over army frustrations—is essential to maintaining one’s equanimity in the army. Disappointments come early and often: not being able to attend a close friend’s wedding—or funeral; not getting selected for a desired course or unit; realizing that your service is not what you had hoped it would be, not what Yoni Netanyahu described as “to be in the army is to be inside—doing, believing, knowing that, after all, my work does bring peace closer or, at least, save lives and pushes back the threat of war from our gates.”

5. Come to terms with where you serve

Do not get too pent up with where you serve in the army. If you have a goal, go for it. But if you do not make it into the unit you dreamed of, move on.

The main reason for this advice, besides the importance of overcoming disappointment, is that serving in the army is fundamentally a rite of passage for foreign volunteers. Where you serve is far less relevant than that you serve. Army service is different for native Israelis. For ambitious locals, making it in the army—i.e. getting into an elite unit—is part of getting a leg up in Israel society, like attending an Ivy League in the States. While this may be relevant for lone soldiers that enlist straight out of high school, the majority of volunteers from abroad, especially those with a university degree in hand, will make their mark in Israeli society by virtue of their immigrant background.

I was taught this lesson firsthand the day I left my elite Air Force unit. One of the other soldiers on his way out was taking the news very badly. When I tried to reassure him that we would get over this disappointment, he explained that the two of us were coming at the army with different expectations. He had been counting on leveraging his service in our elite unit into his professional future. With my university degree and assurance of what I want to do professionally, the army for me was a one-time experience, not a critical piece in climbing up the Israeli socioeconomic ladder.

The second major reason not to get bummed out if you do not make it into your dream unit is that all combat units are far more similar than new soldiers realize. While some train more than others, the arrests and patrols (that is, the real work of combat soldiers) by a flashy unit like the Paratroopers reconnaissance battalion (Sayeret Tzanchanim) is no different than the arrests and patrols by a more modest outfit like Palchatz (the Home Front Command co-ed combat unit)—or for that matter, than the arrests by an elite unit like Shaldag. Shaldag does not spend every other weekend rescuing Jews in Ethiopia or taking out nuclear silos in Syria. Most of the time they train and twiddle their thumbs, gossiping with their friends in more active units on what it is like to actually get out into the field. Every combat unit, that is, has its own pluses and minuses but fundamentally they are equipped with the same tools and carry out the same work.

If you are just starting the army, appreciating this tip is very difficult. By the end of your service, especially if you have been exposed to a variety of units, you will easily appreciate what I have just written.

6. You are a role model

You are a role model. To everyone: friends, family and people you have never met overseas, Israeli civilians, and perhaps most prominently (and the main point I want to make here) to the soldiers that serve by your side.

If you are upbeat, with a welcoming laugh, you will not only spread good vibes. As the lone foreigner who made sacrifices they cannot imagine to serve by their side, your positive attitude will leave a lasting impression. If you are religious, your attachment to your faith will inform your fellow soldiers’ opinions about Judaism and religious Jews. Everything you do informs your peers about American Jews (or whatever your country of origin), a subject most nineteen year old Israelis know absolutely nothing about.

Lone soldiers are asked every single day by their Israeli peers why they made aliyah, why they left their home country behind for the menial life of an Israeli soldier, why they choose to make Israel their home. It pays to have a meaningful answer to this question (like this, but shorter!). Consider: Through your answer—and, more fundamentally, through how you conduct yourself everyday as a soldier—you are shaping their Zionism, their understanding of what it means to put community before the individual, what it means to make a decision as an adult to teenage kids who still live at home with their parents.

7. Excel and Give your all

The high motivation that drove you to volunteer (and your presence as a role model) means you should excel wherever you serve. Top soldier awards— and more importantly your peers’ esteem—are yours to lose. Furthermore, you should give your all throughout training: every drill, every run, every exercise. Trust me. As painful or pointless as a given sprint or physical demand may be, doing it—and doing it well—is the experience you came looking for in the army. In the moment it sucks but as Abraham Lincoln said, this too shall pass (gam ze ya'avor, in its well-known Hebrew rendering). One day you will look back and want to be able to say to yourself that you overcame the challenge kimo she’tzarich, as one should, in the best way possible.

8. Do not let the army take advantage of you

For all your determination to excel and be a role model and overcome disappointment and accept whatever unit you are in (i.e. most of the previous tips), you do not want to let the army take advantage of you more than is necessary. Volunteering to stay on base for the weekend is praiseworthy. But do it all the time and not only will your morale suffer, but your peers’ esteem will turn to pity at how much of a friar, or sucker, you are. Considering the operating credo in the army is shirking responsibility and taking advantage of others, being mister selfless can get you in real trouble. More generally, the army—as discussed above—is a bureaucratic machine that tends to take advantage of the little guy. You have to know when to push back, when to fight for the rights and respect you are owed as a soldier. See here for tips on protecting your rights and fighting the system.

9. Treasure your Garin

No one enlists in the army through Garin Tzabar because their main goal is to become friends with a group of like-minded individuals on a kibbutz. We came to serve in the army, with our garin and the kibbutz as benefits along the way. Nevertheless, your garin—or the social circle you rely on if you are a lone soldier not in Garin Tzabar—are likely to have as much an influence on your life as your time in uniform. A supportive group of fellow lone soldiers is so helpful in dealing with army annoyances and anxieties (really? read and believe). They are the people you turn to for advice and fun as a soldier and afterwards as a civilian. Far more than the soldiers you serve with, your garin friends will maintain your sanity in the army and remain active pieces of your life following the army. When I reflect on my most treasured memories from the last two years, far more of them are with my garin than I expected.

10. Treasure the Laughs

With all the stress of life as a soldier, there are endless reasons to laugh. A touch of humor keeps even the toughest of challenges—when you are short of sleep, overcome with pain, hating everything and everyone around you—in perspective. Because even when our ideals are crushed, laughter can still save us. To see what I mean, see here or do what I do and laugh at all the silly slang soldiers use.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks mate. Love your writing.
    - soon to enlist, Nov 2011