I enlisted in February 1985 and volunteered to "Givati" - a newly-forming infantry regiment. My decision had no specific reason; I was just being naive. What I didn't know (and would never have known, unless I bumped a few years later into a former commander who told me about it) is that I was also a guinea pig. These were the waning days of the first Lebanon War, and motivation to volunteer to combat units, especially infantry, was low - just as the IDF decides to add a complete new regiment. What to do? So they put together a company from middle-class "mommy's boys" like me, and kids whom they often don't bother to draft at all: school drop-outs and kids in trouble with the law.
We had an interesting basic training. For example, one guy used to yank the lead projectiles out of bullets, replace them with cigarette filters, and shoot the result at hapless "mommy's boys". He was a pretty good shot. At bottom line, the experiment failed. That company finished its
15-month-long combat training, with only 20 fighters - less than the official quota of a single platoon. Most soldiers dripped away sooner or later - "mommy's boys" using daddy's connections, and the others by making discipline problems. Those who continued took pride in their few months at the Jebaliya Refugee Camp in Gaza - where they spent a couple of months tormenting local residents in late 1985. Lucky for me, I was transferred out of this company during basic training, landing in an elite regimental unit.
In the new unit the guys were more serious about being soldiers, but the platoon commander was a psycho. After sleepless weeks of battle training, he would invent pretexts to punish us and strand us all in base (in the IDF, infantry units typically go home at least every other weekend; it actually saves the army money).
After a while, the officer "zoomed in" on three victims - one too
"crafty", one too "pimpy" and one too "nerdy" for his taste. He tormented them methodically. Shortly after basic training was over, we rebelled and obtained a talk with the unit commander. We could tell he sympathized with us; he asked for patience. We needed a lot of patience. The psycho was kicked out only near the end of our 15 months. Long before that, the "nerdy" victim - he was really a good kid, just a bit too gentle - was mentally broken, tried to go AWOL, was punished and kicked out of the platoon.
Passover 1986. A large drill in the Negev desert. We are the veteran platoon, with a new, sane officer. A night convoy without headlights. The company receives three ancient rigs - one with a canopy, one with no canopy but with roll-over hoops, and one with nothing on top. Our platoon gets a driver known as unruly and problematic. Everyone falls asleep as usual, but I have light sleep. I hear the driver complain "I'm tired! Must rest!", and our officer tells him to shut up and keep driving. Then I fell asleep, and so did the officer.
We woke up in mid-air. It turns out the driver fell asleep too. The truck fell into a ravine. Lucky for us, we rode in the truck with roll-over hoops, but no canopy, and we wore helmets and battle gear. We flew off the truck, and it rolled right over us and down the steep slope. No one was killed. No one was crushed under the truck. The officer was hospitalized for a week because of internal injuries.
The military police came to take testimonies in the driver's trial. I was asked if I heard the driver ask to stop (as apparently he claimed he did). No, I didn't hear anything, I said. (Why should I support a non-combat pimp-type jerk, and get our wounded officer in trouble?)
During my service I met many officers, some crazy like our first
commander, some good. The higher one climbs the ranks, the more difficult it is to find good officers. One exception was Arik K., the Colonel assigned with the task of setting "Givati" up. I still remember how in late 1986, as we were getting ready to command a batch of new recruits, he begged us not to forget that they are human beings first and foremost. We all nodded emphatically, and a few weeks later were already competing who will torment his soldiers more.
Yes, we received new recruits (I returned from the elite unit to a battalion, in order to contribute as a commander; again, this naivette). One of them received defective boots. The procedure is simple: you indict the soldier for the damage, he is acquitted, and new boots are issued. During a whole year in which I was the kid's platoon sergeant, he was indicted for the boots every couple of months - but the new boots had never materialized. He passed his combat training in white sneakers.
In mid-1987 Arik, the superb regiment commander, completed his role. Unfortunately, in the end he got entangled in an affair with an enlisted female officer under his command (he was 40+ and married). In his place arrived a born-again Orthodox Jew with vicious eyes: Effi Fein, who was later known as Efraim Eitam - a politician and cabinet minister. Just before he became our commander, IDF's Chief of Staff decided to cancel the rder that forcing all soldiers to walk with berets on their heads, and reverted to the older rule of allowing to keep them on the shoulder (during the "beret-on-head" times, a combat soldier in my regiment got canned for two weeks in jail after getting caught by MP's with his beret on the shoulder).
Mr. Fein, the new regiment commander, begged to differ from the Chief of Staff: "in my regiment, soldiers will continue with berets-on-head." He set up a regimental police, which raided junctions where soldiers were catching rides home on Friday afternoon, and yanked back to base anyone without a beret on their heads.
That summer the platoon commander with whom I worked, a buddy from our training days, was the instigator-in-chief in a mass brawl between our company and the veteran company. I and a few other idiots tried to separate the two mobs, but everyone else - including our company's deputy commander - joined the fun. My friend was kicked out and I became an acting platoon commander overnight. What happened to my friend? Was he put in jail? Setting half the battalion at each other's throats is a bit worse than beret-on-shoulder, no?
Well, "no" seems to be the answer. My friend was transferred to a
do-nothing job in regiment headquarters, where he became the favorite of none other than Colonel Fein. A few months later, just as I was nearing the end of my 3 years and taking my terminal leave, he returned to our battalion, as an acting company commander. Which company? The same one he had set up the fight with, the veteran company. They made a Soulha (Arab reconciliation ceremony) and began a new life together. And what a life it was.
Just then, the First Intifada broke out. My friend and several of his new soldiers soon became the defendants at "The Second Givati Trial": they took a Palestinian rioter to an orchard, and beat him to death. During the trial, they argued that beating as a form of punishment was an order from above, in the spirit of (Security Minister) Rabin's pronouncement as the Intifada started - "to break arms and legs". I believe them, but the Court did not. The battalion commander actually confirmed their claim - and was indicted himself. The regiment commander Effi Fein, who had reportedly set personal example of brutality during those days, denied ever giving such an order - and the Court believed him. Yes Sir!
As I said, I was already out of regular army service when this stuff happened. How lucky. When I went on my terminal leave, the battalion was still in the Negev, by the road in the middle of nowhere. The supply situation was terrible: on the day I left, there wasn't even bread in the battalion kitchen. I caught an early-morning ride with a truck from the neighboring anti-aircraft base, a truck off to its daily round: bringing fresh rolls to the anti-aircraft officers and lifers, from a bakery in Beer Sheva.
Enough. I could have added dozens of stories, or even more interesting ones from my 15 active years in the IDF reserve - about a Colonel who came to sleep with us one night by the Damia Bridge on the Jordan River, and confessed his desire to run across the bridge and stick a bullet in the head of the Jordanian commander; about a combat reserve unit that spends one month every two years away from wife and family, pouring concrete and building fences - because the Combat Engineering Corps doesn't want to give up its precious reserve-day quota; about a base on the northern border where non-combat soldiers spent their days defenseless, 10 meters from a Hizbullah forward base - and we the reservists serve as a
butt-cover; and so on, and so forth. But you get the idea, and anyone else who's been in the IDF can tell you similar stories.
Yes, some people meet the love of their life in the military, or make their best friends there. During combat, there is valor on the ground. And one thing's for sure: you really learn how to entertain yourself even in bad times. But generally speaking, the real, private IDF is a variation on the "Catch 22" theme: a hollow experience, stupid to the point of
absurdity and beyond, callous to human life, brutal, mentally
destabilizing, humiliating and corrupting.
On one hand is the IDF, "The People's Army", and on the other hand our own private IDF - a place when you get jailed for beret-on-shoulder, but your commanders teach you how to steal from fellow units, and stealing from new recruits is a national sport; a place where you learn to commit crimes much worse than theft, without batting an eye. A place where a good friend of yours had been tormented and broken, and your sister had been sexually exploited. A place where someone in your family had miraculously escaped meaningless death - or God forbid, actually died. A place where the true enemy, the one who may eventually kill you or "only" take your sanity away - is the chain of command above you.
When the Second Intifada broke out in late 2000, I reached the point of refusal. Long before that, I already knew that what our Generals and Colonels' call "Israel's Security", is usually the opposite of Israel's true security. All the pundits, politicians and living-room heroes could yell at me all they want: I saw these officers in action time and again, I suffered the consequences, and I know exactly who I'm dealing with. (People who can create and maintain for 15 years the Orwellian fantasy known as "The South Lebanon Security Strip" - where I spent a couple of months in 1986 - are a walking public menace.)
My character, my social background, and the sense of responsibility which landed on my shoulders upon becoming a parent - all these led me towards open, public refusal and risking arrest (did anyone say "naive"?) Others cannot do it. Maybe they are not aware enough; maybe they still believe the TV and the newspapers and everything their preschool teacher told them about "The People's Army". Maybe they don't make the connection between all this and their own private IDF. And maybe they are just less naive. So every man reaches his own private solution.
True, some people are complete jerks, and would shirk any duty, anytime and anywhere. There are also complete idealists, who'd rather spend two years in jail than enlist. Most Israelis are somewhere in the middle. Most Israelis have stopped going to the reserves, most Israelis sigh in relief when their son lands a non-combat job in a base close to home, most Israelis don't raise an eyebrow anymore when their cousin gets a
mental-clause waiver instead of enlisting. Because quietly, away from the pontifications in the media, most Israelis know what they are dealing with.
The question is not why there are more "evaders" nowadays. The question is how come a complete nation, generation after generation, agrees to sacrifice its children to that Moloch as a default, without conditions. And perhaps, at last, this consent is beginning to crack.
Truth be told: away from the limelight, in the underprivileged
neighborhoods and townships, the consent was always rather limited. Throughout the years, many kids from Israel's social periphery hadn't bothered to enlist, or disappeared shortly after that: if the State screws them in general anyway, why should they let it screw them personally for 3 years as well? The IDF usually gave up on these boys, or settled for an easy service. Now, this cynical lucidity is perhaps seeping into the middle class - IDF's major supplier of cannon-fodder.
No, refusal and evasion are not the same thing; but they are two sides of the same coin, two symptoms of the same disease. And the disease is called The IDF: a Military that owns a State. Two states, actually: Israel and the Occupied Territories. The IDF experience described here is not necessarily worse than in other armies. What sets the IDF apart is that it has two nations - Israelis and Palestinians - stuck inside its little pocket. A military is like a watchdog, for good or bad. What were are witnessing in and around Israel in the last generation or two, is what happens when you let the watchdog run the house.
So it's time to seriously discuss this. I know, it's scary: what will replace the IDF at the core of our national identity? Especially now, that Israelis are so divided and afraid? But I have a feeling, that until we face the problem - until we take the IDF, that overgrown Golem, and put it back in its natural role and size - until then, we shall have neither peace nor security.
And believe me: if we do it, the IDF will be better off too.
By Assaf Oron