Archive | March, 2014

End of the Beginning

19 Mar

Although we have not really accomplished anything, we have accomplished so much. Last week we concluded basic training, which while significant in a number of ways, some of which are not yet known to me, still leaves us with a significant portion of training on the horizon. Therefore, we have reached not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. Over the past five months, I have gathered a number of observations about Israel through the lens of the army, as well as observations about the army itself.

Isolation is beautiful. When serving in the army, being located far from centers of civilian life seems to be fairly commonplace. While potentially isolating, it also provides countless opportunities to catch glimpses of Israel that are relatively rare to the permanent city dweller. First of all, the sky is packed with glittering stars, and a new appreciation is found in tracking the cycles of the moon, especially as it relates to the holiday calendar. Various wildlife makes regular appearances, nobody was more surprised than I when a herd of camels decided to visit the gate of our base while I was on guard duty. The solitude also presents the opportunity to think without the interruption of officers or other soldiers, to sing, to pray. I am relatively certain that I would not trade my favorite Shabbat minyan in Jerusalem, but singing solo and welcoming Shabbat in a guard tower was a unique experience. Sunrises, sunsets, while always the same, never the same twice.

The army hurts. Crawling, running, carrying, sit-ups, push-ups, crouching, standing. Learning to separate different types of hurt was a skill that I learned in the first two weeks of my service. With a bloody lip and a developing black eye, there was no reason to stop, nothing that had happened to me was going to cause long term damage. Cuts, scrapes, and bruises are part of the deal. Unless any of those things are actually serious, you gather yourself and wait until you have a moment to survey the damage. Like in the famous book, The Red Badge of Courage, it becomes are mark of honor to have calloused hands, nicked up knuckles, and a couple good black and blue marks. Nobody actually wants any of these things to happen, but when they do it is the perfect time to demonstrate toughness, and of course some machismo.

Thorns and rocks. Not entirely sure what to add here, except that only combat soldiers in the IDF can say for sure which plants in the desert have thorns and which do not. Oh, wait one moment, they all have thorns. Big thorns, small thorns, ones that really hurt, some are just annoying, thin ones, long ones, brown ones, green ones. There is no shortage. Of course avoiding the thorns just leads to encounters with jagged rocks, sometimes pebbles which feel like boulders, and sometimes boulders which you wish were pebbles.

The equalizer. Before I drafted I often heard about how the army was the great equalizer in Israeli society. For the most part, I would say that sentiment is correct. Obviously there is still a significant population that does not serve in the military (I’m looking at you Hareidim), but for those who do serve, the army is largely equal. It does not care that I am approaching my 28th birthday and am serving in a combat unit with boys who are eight or nine years my junior. We all must complete and pass the same obstacle course, we sleep in the same tents, eat the same food. It does not care that I have a university degree or that the guy next to me comes from a wealthy family, or that the guy next to him has serious financial difficulties. Yes, the army does aid lone soldiers, and soldiers who have significant needs external to the army, but the expectations remain the same. Military hierarchy demands that I follow orders of officers along with the rest of my platoon, even though I have read more books and articles on war and national security in my university classes.

Teamwork. There is a culture of helping one another as well as cheering each other on, or attempting to provide additional motivation. Since the requirements of training fall upon every soldier equally, we are constantly looking out for our buddies. When we are allowed to help, we help. When assisting is prohibited because of the individual nature of a specific challenge, we offer verbal encouragement. Although the words do not physically assist in getting somebody over the wall, they provide a chorus of support, literally everybody is rooting for each other. On our long marches, we push each other uphill, forming a long train whose only goal in that moment is to reach the top of the next rise in the terrain. Everybody is suffering, some more so than others, but it does not matter since it is happening together. We took our first steps together, and eventually we will finish together, so goes the mentality.

With the beginning having just ended, and the next phase just beginning, I think saving my additional thoughts and observations is probably wise. We have seen the tentative calendar for the coming months, and they promise to lead us in new directions with new untold challenges, and a host of new personal and collective experiences. Stay tuned.

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