Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Released from the Game

On my final day in uniform, I stole, blackmailed, counterfeited, broke & entered, and otherwise made a mockery of the moral highroad I sought to champion when joining the army. Are the past two years of amoral alienation at fault, or can I pin the blame on endless screenings of The Wire over my last month in green?

I arrived at my brigade's home base near Netanya knowing that getting discharged would not be easy. Every time a soldier's status changes, no matter if the cause is six months of sick leave or six days of specialized training, he must complete exit paperwork known as tofes tiyulim. On paper, that means getting a dozen or so military offices (like medical, armory, logistics) to sign off that you have returned all the gear you were assigned and are no longer their headache. In practice, gathering these signatures is a mega headache, as most of the offices cause problems that make the signature merry-go-round more like a roller coaster.

Nevertheless, when I arrived at nine AM I naively hoped I would be home by lunchtime. Seven hours later I was palming off a stolen fleece to a corrupt warehouse fluky, having previously pillaged the property of the driver whose theft of my red beret forced this last act of depraved larceny.

The warehouse official refused to grant me my final tofes tiyulim signature until I returned my red beret. Regardless of the fact that the army traditionally allows soldiers to keep this one keepsake (memorabilia aside, the army has no use for used berets), I was prepared to hand it over if it meant I could get discharged. Except I had no beret, having gone without since a cowardly driver stole mine when I left active service last month. The official had no sympathy, explaining that if I failed to give him a red beret my only option was to pay a fine for losing military gear. I was not prepared to get punished on my final day in uniform for a crime committed against me. So with less than an hour to go before the warehouse closed for the day, I began searching the entire base for a stray beret.

Twenty minutes into my search, a soldier asked me what I was doing. I have a few spare berets, he casually said when I informed him of my quarry. As overjoyed as I was to reach the end of my hunt (army culture assumes soldiers are generous in such situations), I was even more stunned when the fellow proceeded to ask me for something in exchange for one of his berets. Um, what do you want? My watch? My sandals? A get out of the army early card? You were combat, the soldier told me with the oily ease of a used car salesman. There must be gear hanging around your unit's base you could snatch for me. I could not believe that this skinny desk soldier was really asking me to steal a spare mortar piece in exchange for a bit of red fabric. My desire to be discharged overcame my disbelief, and I raced through what I could salvage from my base to trade with this rascal.

Weeks earlier, when I left my unit's base for what I believed would be the final time, I took a quick stroll through the company commander's living quarters. The man had caused me no end of unnecessary grief over the last few months, and so I was determined to leave some sort of calling card in his property. A fleece on his bed made an easy target. The absence of any onlookers made it easy to dirty the fleece beyond repair. It was not until later that my friends made me second guess my pitiful revenge, when they mocked my failure to simply nab the fleece for myself.

It was not until I stood before the man with many berets that I thanked my lucky stars for the fleece remaining on my commander's bed. The soldier before me quickly agreed to trade a beret for the fleece. For a fleece with the insignia of the Recon Paratroopers, he gushed, I will even give you two berets! As I headed back to the commander's bedroom, the absurdity of the situation forced a detour to the warehouse official waiting for my red beret. My hope that he may agree to ignore my absent beret in light of the absurd bargain I had struck was turned on its head when he proposed an alternative solution: I instead give him my commander's fleece in exchange for him marking down that I had returned a beret, signing my form and releasing me from the army. Since I wanted his signature more than the other man's beret, I agreed to the bizarre proposal. Minutes later, tofes tiyulim complete, my army ID card was sliced in half and I was declared a civilian.

This last Faustian bargain was sadly par for my last day teeing off in uniform. Besides a beret, I was missing a jacket and goggles. It did not matter that I had never been issued the former and had previously returned the latter. If I wanted out, I needed to come up with both items. So I called a friend from my squad, now serving as the sergeant for a squad of trainees. His priceless advice was to root through his soldiers' gear and take what I needed. You are a great friend and a horrible commander, I told him as I followed his advice and soon found what I needed. I did not feel too bad, as every soldier knows in the army there are no thieves, everyone is just getting his stuff back. There also is a long established tradition in the IDF of paying debt forward, with new conscripts giving more veteran soldiers the gear they need in order to complete their release from the army. Of course this means that the army does not have as many jackets and goggles (and guns and...?) as it thinks it does (see the definition of chaf'shash in the tash dictionary).

In between hunting down signatures and missing gear, I was determined to leave the army having at least tried to reclaim the pins that were stolen along with my beret. The drivers that had carried out the vile crime were not on base. But their stuff was. After breaking into their room through a window, I rifled through bags and bedsheets looking for what was mine. The bitterness I had stomached for the last few months, instigated by the way certain commanders had treated me and crowned by the theft of my pins and beret, came out as I fruitlessly looked for my stolen pins. I really do not know which driver nabbed my belongings. But I do know that as I threw one driver's bag on the roof of the building (I am truly curious how long it will stay there-months? years?) and pocketed another's military pin, I was tapping an inner rage I barely recognize.

It is probably for the best that the drivers were absent. When I arrived home, one of the drivers called and asked for his pin back. It was easy to play coy, neither admit nor deny having his pin, and explain that I was prepared to help him as he would help me. He blustered, he threatened and eventually I hung up. For the first time in many months, I was in control. But I did not feel good in rubbing the driver's crime in his face. I just felt dirty.

Two years ago I enlisted with some vague sense that I could be an inspired moral force in the army of the Jewish state. As a college educated, liberally minded, deeply Zionist, believing Jew, I hoped my values would leave an impact on eighteen year old Israeli peers impressed at the sight of an older American volunteer in their ranks. Instead, as they say on The Wire, the game is still the game. As if to cement the fact that the system gamed me, on my last day in uniform I employed every dirty trick in the book.

The way things went down with the thieving drivers really drives all this home. It is not that I believe my response to the thieving drivers was unjustified. As an matter of self-respect, of standing up for what is right, of reminding wrongdoers that there is a price for their actions, I have no concern with how I acted. The price I claimed from them was hardly just. But it was just insofar as it reflects a humble attempt to right a wrong using the rules of the only game in town.


As if yesterday's scheduling did not have enough layered irony, the release of Gilad Schalit the same day I am released from the army brings its own joyful coincidence. Today, let freedom ring!

1 comment:

  1. I don't know if you remember me but we did gibush matkal together. My blog is called dreaminginaforeignlanguage. mazal tov on your shichrur and re-entrance into civilian life. I enjoyed reading your entries -- you're a talented writer. what are you up to now?

    ben bar asher