I've been chewing on this post for hours now, raving, like a smack fiend whose last fix was unimaginably long ago. Shortly you'll understand, but when I found out the news that prompted my desire to write this, I was determined to rush home and bang out a blog post filled with disbelief, frustration, and boiling, fiery, acidic rage. Red burning lava, black smoke curling from my ears, dripping fire from my eyes - full of fury and indignation. A post to capture a moment. The real life.
I did not rush home and write that story, however, or at least this story with that tone. I ate a big breakfast, took my time coming home, changed into comfortable civilian clothes, and played around on the computer. Watched a movie, even. It wasn't very good the first time I saw it, and the second time it was only mildly better. No problem, a movie is gold to a stressed soldier. After lounging like a king, but still feeling anxious and upset, I went for a 5k run. Jerusalem is tough, since it's all hills. Even an exhausting exercise hasn't helped, and I can't help but sigh and marvel at my luck. But the anger has subsided and ebbed into the cool numbness so familiar to those whose personal life is controlled by a removed, faceless, and immutable entity.
This morning we woke up at about 6am, and as usual were given half an hour to do our personal hygiene routine, clean the rooms, and have the morning gun check. Halfway through, however, my commander pulled me aside and told me that I was to put on my dress uniform and get ready to go home.
"What?" I asked.
"You're going home now until Wednesday, and then coming back Wednesday night to be on watch at the border," he mysteriously replied.
"I don't know, Egypt or Jordan."
This was highly strange, considering there are other, less intensive units than Golani that watch those two peaceful borders. I inquired if we were expecting a war or something, to which he replied negatively. It turns out that there is always a group there watching for smugglers, which is a huge problem especially on the Egyptian border where the fence is either a joke or non-existent. And why me? Because I'm qualified on a certain weapon system that can shoot flares. Apparently only this weapon system is used, which I think is dumb because there are a hell of a lot more people that can just use a laser to designate the target, and the police, with night vision, will see that beam bright and clear.
But all of that is moot. The army chooses what it chooses, and it probably has better reasons for its choices than some rookie immigrant big mouth.
Instantly after my commander told me that I'd be going home during the week and coming back on Wednesday, I had a terrible realization. You see, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday morning is plenty of time to work in the army. One could potentially imagine having that schedule and still getting to go home for the weekend. But I am infantry, and our life doesn't work out that nicely. No, no, I knew it would happen, and my commander confirmed it: I'll "close Shabbat" on this border base, alone. Everyone else goes home, except me.
Now, you might be thinking "Well, you got to go home for a few days during the week, so it all evens out." That almost is true, I grant you. However, closing this Shabbat will set me up for closing three Shabbats in a row. Just how the schedule works out. Not cool. In the army, and even in infantry, three Shabbats is punishment. If you mess up, you get three Shabbats straight stuck on base while everyone else goes home. I got three Shabbats because I'm weapons-hot.
But even that is not the reason I'm writing this blog. Most importantly, this post is not meant to complain about the army life. As a matter of fact, it's entirely the opposite. Even still, here's the real point of my frustration:
For the past month and a half I have been talking with a great and close friend of mine who currently lives in New York. Sara. She's bright, pretty, a wonderful friend who will do anything to help, always energetic, and she probably has the best sense of humor I've ever encountered in a girl. This friend is coming to the country for a week, and she's actually arriving the very same day I was supposed to get out for the weekend. It was meant to be awesome. Her family has the best meals, and I always get myself invited when she's around. I've been looking forward to her visit for well over a month. The schedule worked out great. I knew exactly which weekends I'd be on base, and which at home, and magically the dates lined up like clock work.
Until the army called on me, simply because of a weapon qualification I'd actually rather have nothing to do with! This incident, in my mind, as I sit here typing it, fresh with the dejection of missing such a close friend's visit, a friend I haven't seen for half a year and now won't see for at least another few months, is set to the backdrop of a speech given the night before, last night, by our battalion commander. In response to two incidents where soldiers from our company used their guns, both correctly I add, the brass wanted to go over our mission in al-Madina al-Muqaddasah. Brass wanted to make sure we knew our Rules of Engagement (ROE), morals and ethics of dealing with the local populations, and what the army and state expected of us in terms of personal and professional conduct.
At the same time, the battalion commander, a high ranking officer of course, took the chance to address recent demonstrations of protests by an infantry brigade in the IDF. Soldiers in the Shimshon and Nachshon Battalions of the Kfir Brigade have openly demonstrated against the army and state by holding up signs at a ceremony and during guard duty where reporters were found. In short, they are decrying suspected Israeli evacuations of settler posts within the West Bank. Just like in August 2005, when Avi Bieber refused orders to evacuate Israelis living in the Gaza Strip, these soldiers protested against the army, and the state, while in active service.
What our battalion commander said rang true for me last night, and this morning it all came around into crystal focus.
"You cannot pick and choose your orders and missions. When you are in active service, you must do as the army and state tell you to, not because you're not a human being, but because you are the army, and you are the arm of the state. When soldiers on the ground begin choosing which large-scale, government planned operations they will execute, that is the moment that the army begins to be torn apart. And more so for our country than any other country in the world, when our army begins to come apart like this, when it is destroyed and disintegrates and bulges from within, that is the moment when the state begins to come apart and disintegrate. When our army falls apart," he repeated, "our state will fall apart."
He went on to address those that really do have ideological objections to certain army decisions concerning Israeli residents in the West Bank. "It doesn't matter if you are an extreme right-winger, or extreme left, or middle-right, or middle-middle. You are soldiers in a mandatory army, and everyone here except for me and a handful of officers in the room are all in their mandatory three-year service. If the army gives you a mission that you disagree with, when the time comes to be released from the army, you can simply choose not to continue here. When you're released, you can say and do whatever you want. You simply don't make a career out of the army if you disagree with it. That's your only option as a soldier.
And moreover, even I as a career infantry officer, I have the same option as you. If our brigade commander were to call me up and say, 'Hey Ari, good morning. How's it going? Listen, by 11pm today you need to evacuate all the Israelis from that settlement next to your base,' well, you know what? That's my commanding officer, and he received that from someone else higher up. It's my job, no matter how much I might disagree with it. If you disagree, you have the right to be released at the end of your service, just like me. But in the meantime, you represent your state and your army, and the people rely on the army and state to be unified."
With his words ringing in my head, I sucked up my anger and disbelief after hearing that I'd miss Sara's visit and close Shabbat on some strange base, alone. A year ago I swore allegiance to the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces. I repeated, with electric adrenaline shooting through my veins, every inch of my body tingling:
I swear and commit to maintain loyalty to the State of Israel, to her laws, and authorities. To take upon myself without conditions and without reservations the responsibilities of the IDF. To obey all the commands and instructions given by the commanders and to dedicate all my strength and even to sacrifice my life for the defence of the homeland and the freedom of Israel.
The gods chose to give me, as we say in the army, כל הזין. Essentially, I'm being hosed. But I accept it! If it wasn't me, it'd be someone else getting the raw end of the deal, and I'd never want to pass on my own crap situation to someone else. I have given myself without reservation or qualification, and sometimes that oath isn't just pretty words repeated in important speeches. Sometimes it means you actually give without receiving, sacrifice without recognition; your word is occasionally tested. No matter how unhappy my lot, I will always strive to be the exemplar and paragon of that all-meaningful avowal.
And besides, there's always a silver lining - maybe I'll stop some smugglers bringing in poison targeting Israel's youth. But still, it would have been nice to have Thanksgiving with some Americans! Enjoy your weekend... I'm working.