Dissonant Soldier

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April 14, 2010

Standing in the Desert

It is a familiar scene for Israeli army reservists. One unit waits at an entrance to a barracks while another unit finishes a month’s service by exiting another entrance. When the all-clear signal is given, the new replacement unit floods into the now-empty barracks.

I was near the front of the pack this time, chose a decent-looking room, and tossed my duffel onto the bed. As usual, the room had two beds. Now came the delicate part.

As the unit streamed past in the barracks hallway, one had to find a likely-looking partner. A good number of regulars arrived already teamed with a partner, and they took a room together. You had to choose from the rest as they hustled into the barracks. It was going to be a month-long marriage, so you had to make a quick decision.

Religious guys were out. There were too many cultural problems if, like me, you did not observe Shabbat or listened to Tina Turner in soprano heat.

A short, wiry fellow came down the hallway and I looked him over. He looked reasonable. “Want a place?” I asked, standing in the doorway and feeling like an Amsterdam whore soliciting traffic. He looked me over too and I must have seemed alright. “Beseder. Okay.” he answered and came in. More soldiers continued to pile down the hallway, filling the remaining rooms quickly.

“I’m Omri,” he said as he put his duffel on the other bed.

“I’m Joe. What do you do in ezrachi – civilian life?”

“I’m an ambulance driver in Tel Aviv. What do you do?”

“I’m a student.”


“University of California at Santa Cruz.” At this point in life I was doing a very rapid catch-up BA as an adult, something that could be done more quickly and with less fuss than at an Israeli university. But I also had commitments in Israel. During this patch of IDF reserve duty I was actually enrolled full-time at UC Santa Cruz in an overload of independent study courses. I brought my books along with me for the month of reserve duty.

“Are you really a student in California?” Omri asked while arranging his kit on the bed for inspection.

“Yes, really.”

Whack! Omri threw his helmet at the wall and shouted “I always get the crazy ones!!!”

I stood mortified. “Ma asiti likah? What did I do to you?” I asked.

“You were in California. Was studying hard work?”


“Was there a beach? Was there beer? Were there blondes?”


“And now here you are standing in the middle of the desert dressed in green. Of course you’re crazy!”

“I’m beginning to see your point,” I admitted ruefully.

“If I had what you had, a company of tanks wouldn’t be able to take it away from me!”

I understood him completely.

Paranoia Unarmed

Omri decided that although I was a misguided fool, maybe I wasn’t so bad after all. We became friends. Omri was a sweet Yemenite guy who did not have an easy time of it in Tel Aviv. He had been discharged from active duty about five years before, had no money for a down payment on an apartment, got lousy pay, and sometimes had to sleep in the ambulance station, for months at a time, because he could not afford Tel Aviv rents. Despite working 18 hours a day.

We fell into the night and day rhythm of patrol duty. My mind went blank as we rolled along borders and fences. The cold of desert nights grew bitter after sundown. We were issued hermonit - insulated one-piece suits for night patrols. Omri looked very cool in his suit. He liked his month as a soldier. It added respect to his life, a quality he felt missing.

A lack of respect was not my issue. I have a sense of paranoia when putting on a uniform. I think people want to kill me. One can rationalize that lots of people want to kill Jews with or without a uniform, so what difference does another set of clothes make? But a uniform frames you as an official target. Putting on a uniform involves acceptance that you are a target. I never accepted becoming a target. Hence my good-humored paranoia.

I had requested a delay of an earlier reserve duty deployment for work reasons. That was only part of the story. The deployment was to Gaza, and I avoided occupation duties. On that occasion, the unit took a casualty when a reservist chose to arrive by private car, took a wrong turn into a Palestinian refugee camp, and ran into a donkey cart. A couple of shabab (youths) blocked the camp exit so that he could not reverse out. Then a crowd pulled the reservist from his car and stoned him to death. Several years later, Palestinian forces made an officer of the bloody-minded, quick thinker who organized the stoning.

Most reserve infantry are more peaceful than Quakers. Few outsiders realize this. Reserve infantry know the bloody details of what happens when there is a fight, and realize that their own bodies are at immediate risk. Reservists just want to go home whole.

Because people want to kill me, it does not follow that I want to kill them. Still, while I am deeply peaceful, I am not a pacifist. So, at the beginning of reserve service I split the difference, removed the firing pin from my M16, and put it in my pocket. That way the weapon could pass inspection. But no one would dream that any sane soldier would disable their own weapon by pulling the firing pin.

This was my conscientious compromise: I carried a useless weapon.

Until one night matters changed. Omri and I had first evening shift duty together. As we walked up to the jeep yard our sergeant shouted and waved at us to run.

“Get down to marker 400 as fast as you can! There are infiltrators coming over the border! Muhammed (one of the Bedouin warrant officers) is hitting them from the flank! I just heard ‘Esh!’ (fire!) over the radio! Block any infiltrators from coming through the fence! I’m sending reinforcements as fast as I can!”

Omri ran for the jeep moaning aloud “Why is it always me who gets this shit? Why is it always me?”

I ran thinking to myself “Kabinemat! I’m headed towards a firefight and my rifle’s firing pin is in my pocket! Kabinemat! What’ll I do?” I could not pull out the firing pin and begin stripping my rifle in the jeep. Already at a far edge of nervousness in the driver’s seat, Omri would go apeshit if he saw that.

I decided if anything happened, I would grab the Belgian MAG light machine gun mounted on the jeep and use that. We bounced at high speed towards the marker. Nothing was happening, no reinforcements, the alarm died away. We followed the radio traffic.

Three teenage Egyptians – economic refugees – tried to come through the border, and had no clue about the electronic defenses they triggered. Muhammed fired one shot over their heads and they stopped immediately. They were just looking for work.

Later that evening, I stripped my rifle and reinserted the firing pin. If I were going to carry a weapon, it was silliness to carry only the useless form of a weapon. My ethical unease was hollow self-privileging conscience and, worse, unethical, since Omri relied on me to protect him while driving.

Dissonance of Dissidence

Such dissonant moments revealed most to me in the army. They mapped the distance between reality and personal beliefs. Wearing an army uniform both relocated you along that continuum, and changed how others viewed you.

Once, during a stint of reserve duty on the Arava border facing Jordan, another reservist, I went out for morning patrol in a jeep with another reservist – a high school chemistry teacher from Beersheva. After a couple hours we stopped in a small wadi fifty meters from the border, radioed in our position, and took a break. My partner pulled out the coffee equipment that the kitchen packed for each patrol, and made a small fire.

As he was boiling Turkish coffee and I sat in the jeep reading Yediot Ahronot, we looked up at a noise in the distance. A line of five large white safari tour jeeps was driving slowly down the wadi. They were filled with German-looking tourists.

We watched silently as they pulled up within 30-40 meters of us and dozens of tourists began clicking cameras at this ‘native scene’ of two soldiers taking a rest break. My partner continued making coffee in silence; I buried myself in the newspaper. The lead driver on the safari tour gazed off behind his sunglasses, as if not wanting to apologize for this ridiculous intrusion. He had to make a living, after all.

After 2-3 minutes of taking photographs, they moved slowly southwards in the canyon. My partner brought me coffee, and made his only comment: “Can you believe there are people in this world who are actually willing to pay for jeep rides in the desert?” I laughed.

Army duty and long desert patrols were not entertainment or a consumable experience. Our reality was that we wanted to be elsewhere. We were only temporary natives, soldiers who did not want uniforms, the desert, or any terrain but the familiar.

Whenever I came home from reserve duty, whether from the Arava or the Golan, I stopped first at a good coffee house. I wanted a cafe hafuch, and a piece of streudel. I sought the reassurance of another gentler culture to help make the transition into my own home.

One Friday afternoon, I arrived home early, left my rifle, and walked quickly to the Experimental School in downtown Jerusalem in order to pick up my son. Just outside school, I encountered Alona, a woman from our Zichronot neighborhood.

She said “Good that you are getting into Purim already (it was the season), but don’t let them see you in that uniform. You could get into trouble.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s illegal to wear a uniform if you are not in the army.”

“Alona, I am in the army. I just came from duty and am here to pick up Davidi.”

“You are in the army?! Lo lehamin! I don’t believe it! I really thought this was your Purim costume.”

Sometimes I did not believe it either. The dissonance overwhelmed me.

This is the third and final article in a series about serving in the IDF. The first two installments are We Are All Journalists and Eid.

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