Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Commander Names

When we returned from our 10-day break after basic training, we all were wondering what would happen to the 'distance' between ourselves and the commanders. We were asking each other whether or not the squad commanders, the lowest level of commander, and the guy you refer to as "my commander," would open up and tell us about themselves, their lives, and all of that. Would they be like friends, we asked, because many of them are just obviously great guys and you can't help but want to talk to them as human beings. They are 19-year-old kids, after all.

My commander was fairly slow on revealing his last name (which we already knew anyway) and his family story, but the day we got back from our break he instituted a new policy. Let's say his name is Eitan.

"Anyone that calls me Commander Eitan, as we did in basic, is going to buy me a can of soda," he declared to us while in our room.

"Seriously," I asked?


Do you have any idea how hard it is to go from three months of getting in trouble if you don't say commander this or commander that, to all of a sudden getting in trouble for saying it? That's the hardest reversal of reinforcement ever! It turned out to be a crazy first few days, with many a funny incident that I can't really relate.

At the end of the first night, Eitan came to our room with an empty plastic bag, and left with about 10 cans. We all messed up so badly with the first new rule of advanced training that he decided to just make us all buy him one can each. It was really pretty fun.

Honestly though, I'm personally just not sure how all this 'breaking distance,' as it's called, is working. You see, all the squad commanders are still very much authorities, but they walk around being so much more close to us. This one lanky guy from a different platoon always talks to me about some current issue, and then this other guy always teaches me new close quarter combat strikes (chokes, hand twisting, karate chops, etc), and yet another wants to try his English on me - or rather make fun of American accents, I think.

But yeah, what's up with me and Eitan? He's such a great guy. He looks out for me and my rights as a lone soldier, makes sure I'm doing ok, and all that. I love him to death. Sometimes he just smiles at me, and that is one of the best feelings in the army, to know that you're human and looked at as a peer. But all of this is strange, because all of the closeness is always a one-sided initiation. The commanders initiate the personal connection, not the soldier.

What that means is that it's still a little strange, and maybe frowned upon for all I know, for a soldier to just go up to a commander and ask him what's up. "Hey, how you doing?," for example, is something that I only ask when I'm trying to push the buttons a little. I know who to do that with, and who not. I asked one of our new commanders that the other day, a meathead kind of guy, and he just looked at me blankly and walked away. I really just don't know our standing with these guys on an official level.

And maybe the entire point is that there is no official stance. Everything seems so up to the interpretation of the commanders at this point. Two commanders have said to me in private after yawning and rubbing their faces, "ugh, so exhausted," and that's fairly unheard of from a commander. Those little glimpses of imperfection are so encouraging. Even those guys get tired. I just wish they would be so personal and honest with us as a group, instead of those rare moments alone with them when they let down their guards (generally when you have guard duty together at 4am).

I'll keep you updated on all this, if you're interested. I am constantly pushing the boundary on this, so it's a fun part of my current life in the army. A sergeant of another platoon in my company (you're al in the same area all the time, by the way, so you interact occasionally) is a funny looking little guy, and so I like to just walk up to him and stare at him. I'll go up, look at him, and say something like, "Hey. Nice weather, yeah? How's your group doing? You need a real soldier like me to help them?"

He can't help but smile that goofy crooked smile of his. If I have to wake up at 5am, I'm gonna have some fun with it!


Aviv said...

Yep, they get to choose how friendly they want to be. If you do something wrong, though, they'll still have to give you mishpat - That gets a lot harder for everybody involved once distance is broken.

Anonymous said...

very interesting bro and hilarious! love you

Anonymous said...

It seems really weird to take orders from 19 year kids. I guess they don't behave like that. I wonder, how do you get to be a commander?

Israeli by Day said...

Getting to be a commander isn't too difficult. Really, you have three chances immediately after advanced training (ie - you could start to train to be a commander after 6 months in the army!) to go to the commanders' course.

You just have to get the greenlight from an officer, I think. Then you go for 4 months to a different base where you learn all types of stuff. It's not easy, but it's certainly not hard. Let's put it this way: the first month in my commander told me I should be a commander.

My Hebrew sucks.

Aviv said...

If the minority who loads bags of muddy sleeping bags in the rain don't become commanders, the country is left with the penguins huddling in the rain.

Don't let your Hebrew be an impediment to becoming a Mak or Mem-Mem if that's what you want to do.

Nooyawka said...

Whether you realize it or not, you are such a liberal. This bizness of finding fault and finding 'humanity' is such a liberal trap. You really should be careful.

Israeli by Day said...

nooyawka - not really sure what you're talking about...

But I like the offensiveness of it so go ahead and explain.

Nooyawka said...

This business about discovering his 'humanity' (faults, flaws etc) does you no good IMHO. It doesn't help you to know he had acne when he was 13, he never had a relationship with a woman past the third date, he farts when he eats beans, he cheats on his taxes, he's a mother raper etc etc etc

What you are trying to do is find his flaws. His flaws make him more 'human'.

But they also undermine your respect for him. They make you doubt him, second guess him, make you more than his equal perhaps his better.

And then in a combat situation when your mind should be clear to follow him, you'll be thinking about how he's so flawed you couldn't possibly follow him.

I deliberately used the word 'liberal' which I take from the US political context. I'm thinking for instance of Clinton. When he was accused of the Lewinsky thing, he shot back that all or just about all past Presidents had sexual flings too. In other words, they were 'human' too. They were no better than the rest of us and certainly no better or different from Clinton.

The problem with that way of thinking is that if it's true that Presidents and all other past Great Men also had sexual things and were no better than the rest of us, then forget idealism, forget admiration, forget any desire to be 'good' 'pure' 'better' 'a leader' 'a hero' any of those 'higher' things. If even the 'higher' figures are no better than the rest of us, there's no sense trying to be 'better'.

I find your interest in 'human' flaws interesting also because you are a frommer. Do you study Abraham Isaac Jacob David etc to find their flaws? Yes, we know they had flaws. We study them to find out how to rise above our flaws. We want to know how we can be better because they tried to be better. You know and I know they had flaws, big ones in some cases. But that's not how we look at them as people.

Why do you look at Commander X differently? When are you going to study how he rose above?

Israeli by Day said...

nooyawka - I enjoy your comments on my blog, but this one makes me doubt your sanity.

First of all, I'm not really a frummer, and I certaintly don't read Torah for character flaws.

Most importantly, when did I say I was looking for flaws in my commander? I said that its nice when they get personal with you, when they reveal their true selves. looking for a person to be real with you is hardly 'liberal.'

And I hardly think my situation has anything to do or is in any way rekated to bill clinton! Me seeing that my 19 year old commander is just a regular guy has no bearing on my desire to go to combat with him! There's a guy in my platoon who I despise, but I want that crazy son of a bitch next to me in battle!

Thanks for your comment, but I think you're off on this one.

Nooyawka said...

When you try to find out how 'human' he is (or other people are) do you try to find out what motivates them to be better, rise higher, do more difficult things, break records, be the first to..., or anything like that? F'rinstance, if I recall you wrote that one of your Commanders is Ethiopian (or some other non-mainstream group member). When you try to find out how 'human' he is, do you try to find out what motivates him to rise from a minor group position to a level of command over members of major groups? I don't recall reading that your exploration of 'humanity' has any connection with being better, rising above etc etc etc. Did I miss something?

Anonymous said...

It's very interesting to read about IDF commanders in basic, which seem to be the equivalent of drill sergeants/drill instructors in the US military. You've said they are young. I would say a drill sergeant in the US Army is a) a staff sergeant or above, and b) 25 or older. So assuming someone joins the Army at 18, that means he is in at least 7 years before he can train other recruits. No offense, but it seems like the American system would produce better-trained soldiers. I understand, however, that because the IDF works on a draft system, they may need to have younger trainers.

Israeli by Day said...

It's a matter of necessity. You're in for 3 years, and then you're out. The only way you stay in combat and do a day more than 3 years is to become an officer. Our NCO's were professional and smart and good leaders, however, and I don't think anyone could have done a better job than they did. They do not sleep during training, since they have meetings for hours into the night about each day's activities while we slept. They knew their equipment, knew the drills, knew the tactics, and knew how to treat us. I have always been blown away by what a 19 year old kid can do.

Doesn't the US Army make a big deal out of inspiring "ordinary people to do extraordinary things"?