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The Good Soldier

The Israeli Defence Forces is one of the toughest armies in the world. As a young man, Canadian writer Asa Boxer moved to Israel and was drafted, only to confront the true meaning of patriotism and sacrifice.

In 1993, I packed a rucksack and hopped on a flight to Israel to seek my fortune. It was the year of the Oslo Accord. I still recall the images: a trembly Arafat hesitating, then refusing to sign one of the pages at the last moment; Rabin’s reluctant handshake afterward; and, of course, Clinton’s beaming face overseeing the televised episode. For the next four years (which included Rabin’s assassination and Netanyahu’s rise to power), Israelis were able to focus on more than survival. It was a period of economic boom, despite the regular bus bombings in Jerusalem where I finally settled.

For a young man without a university education, work was easy to find—much easier than in Montreal where I grew up. I worked for a spell at Ben & Jerry’s, and later at a popular vegetarian restaurant owned by soft-spoken people from South Africa and France.  Still, it was an odd-job kind of life, and after four years of it I wanted to go back to school. When I learned in 1997 that the state would underwrite my tuition in exchange for official immigration, I became a citizen and enrolled as an undergraduate at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Within six months, as expected, I was conscripted by the Israel Defence Forces, known as the IDF.

The IDF was founded “to protect the inhabitants of Israel and to combat all forms of terrorism which threaten daily life.” It also plays an important role as a social galvanizer. All manner of foreigners, both Jews and Christians—Kurd, Ethiopian, French, English, Dutch, South African, South American, Australian, Russian, Persian, Moroccan, Armenian—mix in the army. They work together, suffer together and learn to look out for each other. Unlikely friendships are forged between citizens who are otherwise worlds apart socially, ethnically and economically. IDF service is seen positively, as a healthy getaway: some time off from family and obligations in order to “clean the head,” as Israelis say. Basic training, I was told, would push the limits of my physical and psychological stamina and make me a more resilient person.

All my friends in Jerusalem had already fulfilled their obligatory three years of service (females serve twenty-one months). The draft age in Israel is eighteen, and the combat zeal demonstrated by young recruits highlights the country’s pride in its armed forces. There’s even a term for this enthusiasm: moor’al, which literally means that a poison is running through the veins. At twenty-seven, however, I was too old and, frankly, too Canadian to see military service as a rite of passage. My sole concern was protecting my potential BA. Luckily, I was allowed to join an academic program for soldiers interested in pursuing higher education: two weeks in the reserve forces at the end of each academic year. After graduation, I would serve my full three years.

Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has depended on reservists for its protection: ordinary citizens who, at a moment’s notice, could drop everything and back up the IDF’s small core of full-time soldiers. The majority of Israeli men are in the reserves. Quick mobilization, triggered by an “Order 8” emergency summons, allows the standing army to swell to four times its size.

It’s no surprise, then, that the system has played a vital role in Israel’s three major wars: the invasion that followed the declaration of statehood in 1948, the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The Israeli army is to a great extent a “people’s army,” and in each case, as the country faced increasingly large Arab forces, thousands of regular citizens were called up to the front lines from their homes, their synagogues and even from abroad to help break the attack.

My Israeli friends, however, were baffled by my decision to sign on. Pride in being an IDF soldier flows from its necessity: there is no other choice, no alternative citizenship, nowhere to run. As a Canadian, on the other hand, I did have a choice. It was bad enough, as they never failed to remind me, that I’d left my comfortable life and moved to Israel. But the idea of a North American willingly entering military service seemed to them absurd.

I felt differently at the time. Being a Jew and being Israeli are two separate affairs. As a Canadian Jew, I never had to be especially political; but as an Israeli I had to know where I stood on all topics—“settlements,” “occupied territories,” “revenge killings.” If I was serious about becoming an Israeli, I reasoned, then I needed to share in one of the country’s core experiences. I was an immigrant trying to fit in. The country, I told myself, was built by immigrants. There was no reason why I couldn’t be part of that heritage.

At the end of my second year of studies, I was sent to Megiddo Prison, a militarized detention facility near Armageddon—the prophesied crossroads of the great battle between good and evil at the End of Days. For me, it was a crossroads of a different sort.

Most of the prisoners at Megiddo were accused of terrorist activities, which ranged from throwing stones at soldiers to trafficking in arms and bomb materials. The average age of the inmates was thirty-five, but some were still teenagers (the stone throwers, I assumed). One block was set aside for “political prisoners,” those being held solely for prisoner exchanges, peace-agreement releases and so forth. It was never made clear to me whether these people had actually done anything.

The prisoners lived in tents within fenced blocks.  Above the fences were guards in watchtowers. Beyond that were more fences with watchtowers. Then foot patrols. Then dogs within a set of fences. Beyond that, jeep patrols. We were not to talk to any of the prisoners or respond to them, nor provoke them or allow ourselves to be provoked.  International issues were at stake. Could we imagine a prison full of martyrs? This was the first time I heard tell of the seventy-two virgins that were promised to holy warriors in the afterlife.

On my first day, we were handed gas masks, assigned to our tents and summoned to a briefing. The prison commander was a religious man who found strength enough in his religion to walk unprotected and unarmed among the fenced inmates by whom he was affectionately called al-Majnun, “the Crazy One.”

Several years prior to our arrival, he explained, there had been a prison uprising. Before the riot was quelled with tear gas, the inmates had set fire to their tents. As a consequence, they suffered the winter (Israel’s rainy season) without proper shelter. They had also tunnelled, right below the soldier’s camp area, until the ground collapsed from the winter rains and they were discovered. Prisoners were now counted and inspected three times a day.

The Crazy One produced a batch of photos and passed them around. They were pictures of unfortunate soldiers who had been caught and tortured by the prisoners. “Those beasts will make an ashtray of your privates,” he said.

He then apologized for the poor conditions and ex-plained that the facility was a temporary one. Its lack of appropriate cells and spaces for handling potentially dangerous figures made life more difficult for soldiers as well as inmates. The politicians maintained that Megiddo was only to exist until a settlement was reached with the enemy. The Crazy One chuckled at that. He understood the paradox of the prison: it was built to be dismantled but would remain standing indefinitely.

I only served at Megiddo for two weeks, but a gruel-ling and ghoulish guard-duty cycle known as “four-eight”—meaning eight-hour shifts, followed by four-hour breaks—made them the most physically demanding two weeks of my life. Sleep deprivation set in after several days. Was it day or night? I began falling asleep mid-stride while pacing in front of my watch. After six days without proper rest, I began to get sick. Part of me understood that this was a result of poor basic training. (My platoon, full of academic no-hopers like me, received little physical training.) But ready or not, I was guarding a potentially lethal group of men. I made sure to take note of all possible places of cover. I considered what I might do if my rifle jammed. But I kept falling asleep. It was outrageous.

When I was offered another more dangerous task, I took it out of sheer exhaustion. I was to lead the inmates to the visiting area to meet with their wives and children. There is nothing more sobering than to stand within a few inches of a group of men who all want you dead, and then to lead these defeated men toward a meeting with their families. All eyes sized me up; eyes met my gaze, my uniform, my rifle.

The families were permitted to mill about unhampered by fences or dividers. They spoke quietly in Arabic, exuded normalcy. But nothing was normal. When they left their husbands, fathers and sons, those family members would go back to nightly curfews, border closures and daily, even hourly, violence. At the time, unemployment in the Palestinian territories was estimated at 37 percent (today it hovers at about 31 percent). Roughly half the population of Palestine is comprised of children under the age of eighteen, and with the average family running at seven to nine members, joblessness has meant a dramatic increase in poverty levels.

I didn’t understand what they were talking about, but it made me realize that these folk were fighting for their homes as much as we soldiers were. I was pleased, for a moment, by one visiting child’s look of curious admiration before he ran to his sister’s lap. Evidently, I looked tough. In the Middle East, image is often as important as reality.

But what would I do if I were challenged? I thought I was ready to fight—to kill, if need be. But who really knows until confronted with the situation? What would the Crazy One do in my position? He’d flick his weapon to automatic and fire at their feet. He gave us an example of a situation that was brought under control in this manner. A proper facility would have no doubt lessened my moral anguish; but even that would not have altered the basic prisoner-soldier psychology, which was tense, delicate and complex.

Back in Jerusalem, civilian life was not much better. At the time, the intellectual left, or the “doves,” were publishing many convincing articles in Haaretz about how military response to acts of terror was undermining all the headway and trust that had developed between Israel and its neighbours during the Oslo period. The right-wing “hawks” believed that restraint in the face of terror simply encouraged stronger, more efficient terror. They said that an Israeli retreat is never perceived as merciful—it is seen as weakness and celebrated as a victory. Whatever the political disagreements, however, all parties agreed that Israel would flounder without its military.

Living with a mortal enemy in your midst is dreadful. In almost every shop, department store and restaurant, your bags are searched and, often enough, your body is swiped with a metal detector. If you see an unattended bag, you report it immediately. A friend of mine forgot her luggage on a bus: when she returned, it had been exploded by a bomb squad. Any dark-skinned, Arab-looking person is suspect. Everyone has a story about the Palestinian no one suspected—that kind-hearted guy, that loyal employee, the smiling young man at the corner store—who one day went out and blew himself up, taking as many as he could with him. There’s an overwhelming sense that one simply cannot afford to trust anyone who could be recruited by your enemy. The Border Police, for instance, can be viciously brusque and insulting to the Palestinians. But however cruel it seems, in order to do their job effectively they have no choice but to believe that each passer-by may be a terrorist. It breeds paranoia on all sides.

Add to this, friends, students, colleagues and children who keep getting killed in narrowing circles toward yourself and your family, and you get an idea of what terror is like. Under such pressure, the psyche warps. The tension becomes such that you feel something must be done, and now. That’s another reason why Israelis go into the army with such gusto: doing so drives away some of the fear. When you get back, you will know how to handle the wounded, how to defend yourself and others and, if need be, how to kill.

The year following my tour of Megiddo, I completed my BA and was moved to an officer’s training facility on Mount Gilo, just outside of Jerusalem. With the violent outbreak of the second intifada, Mount Gilo—300 metres above Beit Jala, a belligerent, Fatah-controlled Palestinian village—stood as one of the hot centres of renewed conflict. Most Israelis now recognized the preceding period as a hudna, an Arabic term meaning “quietness” that is used to describe a false truce made for the purposes of reinforcement and better preparation. So much for the philosophy of doves. The hawks seemed to have won.

I was assigned a peaceful post in this hot zone as the man in charge of the Mount Gilo library. Since the roads were often closed due to combat, roadside bombs and sniper fire, the training facility was almost always empty. So I spent my time flipping through the catalogues of dead war heroes, and reading about young pioneers who came from the Eastern European shtetls to establish and defend a Jewish state. For them, freedom meant freedom from the regular slaughter of Jews, the rape of their women and the razing and pillaging of their villages: freedom, in other words, from the dreaded pogroms.

Today, the majority of Israel’s immigrants come from states of the former Soviet Union. So large are their numbers, the running joke is that the IDF has been absorbed by the former Red Army. The official language of the military is Hebrew, but a great deal of Russian is exchanged between soldiers. Their hard line on the Palestinian situation sets them apart as well. Polls published in the Israeli dailies in 2000, during the second intifada, stated that the majority of Israeli-Russian citizens were pro-Transfer, meaning they supported the idea of forcefully extracting the Palestinians by aircraft and dumping them somewhere else. These soldiers come from war-torn provinces, and those in their forties and fifties have often fought guerrilla wars in the past, so their stance toward terrorism is intolerant in the extreme.

When I’d had enough of reading about war and death, I’d hover briefly at the threshold to the operations room and eavesdrop on the communiqués sent back and forth from the soldiers in the field to the visibly exhausted commanding officers bent over their maps of the area. Snipers would call in saying, “I see a terrorist running into a local home. Permission to fire.” The response was always, “Permission denied. Your instructions are to fire only when fired upon!” “But sir,” went the response, “he’ll be taking cover with human shields before he fires.” “Permission denied! Your instructions are clear.”

This is the kind of behaviour Israelis cite whenever they talk about the IDF as “the most moral army in the world.” While it certainly raised the internal standards of the organization, it didn’t do much for frustrated snipers at the other end, who were lying in their entrenched niches for up to eighteen hours waiting for a clean shot.

Because the snipers didn’t fire until fired upon, the enemy was able to find excellent cover that later required heavier equipment like helicopter rounds. The operations room would tell the pilot to shoot, and his response, often enough, was “No! I haven’t a clear shot.” In the air, the pilot was his own commander; ultimately he or she was responsible for a successful mission or an international fiasco. In fact, the cooperation of Israeli soldiers can’t be taken entirely for granted. When Ariel Sharon sent troops back into Gaza in 2002, for instance, the soldiers were given an opportunity to challenge the PM. He held an informal outdoor meeting with a group of reservists—it was a televised affair—and fielded questions about the point, purpose and desirability of reentering this territory.

But that’s insofar as routine operations are concerned. On the ground, I’m not sure what a “moral” army is. Conscription, after all, will net you a fair number of thugs, bigots and fanatics. Add to this, the fact that from the soldier’s point of view, any drop in vigilance endangers the lives of their team and countrymen. Eye for an eye, kill or be killed: these are the rules of combat. I can’t see what use a finicky army would be to anyone.No one wants Hamlet for a general.

After weeks of being a jobnik, or pencil-pusher, I began to get an itchy trigger finger. Maybe it was listening to the constant machine-gun rounds, or watching a Viper helicopter or two thump into the fray, or peering at the night sky raging with tank shells and tracer bullets drawing red lines through the air. Something like a hormonal change washes over you in such an environment.

And I wasn’t the only one. Many of the military clerks and jobniks felt the same way, as if we’d all made the wrong choice opting out of combat. Private Hersh—a twenty-six-year-old American guy who had been assigned to Mount Gilo to help staff our new computer lab—had it bad. He started writing to the base commander, making a nuisance of himself to his superior officer: filing what he needed to file, calling whom he needed to call, adamantly demanding to be transferred to Gaza. Anywhere, he said, so long as he got to shoot Arabs. There was some giggling amongst the officers, but eventually they acquiesced and sent him to some front or another where (we heard) he immediately started a skirmish for which he was locked up in a military prison. I didn’t want to become a second Hersh. The IDF, I now understood, was the wrong place for me. I wanted out.

The easiest route to a full discharge was a bad psych profile. I had to be declared psychologically unfit for service. Those I knew who’d avoided the draft, or had subsequently gotten out, all recommended this approach. One guy told me that he got out after telling the psych-iatrist that he was wetting his bed. Others made it sound just as easy. So it was worth a try. I began to dress like a slob and became entirely unresponsive, almost catatonic. I must have done a good job, because it scared the bejesus out of everyone at my base.

A meeting was hastily set up with the military psychiatrist. I showed up looking dishevelled and mumbling barely coherent responses. The psychiatrist turned to me with a wide grin and asked if I wanted to shoot some big guns: “ratatatatat bang boom!” He gestured with his hands and forced a loud laugh. I was visibly unimpressed, so he stopped and admitted that once you’ve been sent to a psychiatrist, combat was no longer an option. He asked some routine questions about my symptoms and said, “Look, I can’t let you off on a psych discharge just yet. If you’re back in a week, I’ll cut you loose.”

I figured that dramatic weight loss would probably do the trick, so I went on a protein diet (lots of meat and eggs, no carbs). In a week’s time, gaunt and pale, I was sleeping at the military hospital awaiting my final appointment with the psychiatrist, who was unnerved at my transformation. The psychiatrist forced me to eat a piece of cake and drink some water in his presence, with the threat that if I didn’t, he’d hospitalize me. I ate and drank. He signed my walking papers.

My duplicity in this matter disturbed me (and still does). But to stay would have meant arriving at an intolerable compromise between free-thinking citizen and obedient soldier. I now sympathize with the growing trend of refuseniks—those officers who would rather go to a military prison than serve in the so-called “occupied territories.” And indeed, before going to Israel, I thought the Palestinians had no choice but to rise in constant revolt. Why wouldn’t Israel just leave them be? I now saw that the situation wasn’t that clear-cut. Learning to recognize the presence of an enemy was one thing, but dying as a result of that enemy’s agenda was another. That was the deal-breaker for me.

I booked an airplane ticket for Canada and went home. Having left Montreal to escape a life of boredom, I returned to it like a refugee.

Reprinted from #22, the Double Lives issue.

Asa Boxer's first book of poems, The Mechanical Bird (Signal, 2007) was awarded the CAA Poetry Prize. He lives in Montreal.