A Year of Living Dangerously: An Insider's Account of the Changing Face of the Israeli Army

How does the IDF still lure an impressive number of young men into combat units; and how does it keep them away from their smartphones? Amos Harel spent a year with a company in the Nahal Brigade and saw an army that’s totally different from the IDF of two or three decades ago.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

January 2012. The new recruits of the 931st Battalion of the Nahal Brigade, who were called up in November 2011, embark on their first week of fieldcraft. This is the first lengthy stay of the members of Company B − who have been in uniform slightly more than a month − under the skies and outside the paramilitary infantry brigade’s basic-training base at Tel Arad. The soldiers will be drilled today on what they learned in the past month. The squad that gets the highest grade in all areas will leave for the next Shabbat furlough on Thursday, a day before the others. A different skill is tested at each station: combat in an open area, camouflage, first aid, military ethics.

The company’s deputy commander, Lt. Ben Keret, drills a squad from the Second Platoon. The soldiers have to crawl 25 meters across the desert sand, with weapon, helmet and protective vest, and then crawl the same distance back. The squad’s time is determined by the arrival of the last soldier. The recruits who show up first have to run back and crawl again to the finish line, while assisting the final soldiers. The lesson is simple: All the soldiers in the squad are dependent on one another. A chain is no stronger than its weakest link. Banal as it may sound, the army wants to get that lesson across to its recruits at the outset.

Keret urges them on like a cheerleader. It’s still winter and the desert heat at midday is relatively tolerable, certainly in comparison to what the soldiers will encounter later on, but the crawling demands an intense effort. Despite the kneepads they wear, the legs of the recruits in Squad C are repeatedly bruised. Sweat rolls down their faces. Keret goes over to the soldiers who are lagging behind: “Move it, tigers! Remember: Pain passes, pride is perpetual.”

His briefing to the soldiers before the drill also sounded like a cross between lines from a Hollywood movie and a dressing-room talk by a basketball coach at halftime. “This drill tests friendship and comradeship. Think that your friend is caught under fire. If you don’t crawl to him and pull him out, he will die,” Keret harangues the new recruits.

Second Lt. Ilak Sahalo, the commander of Squad B, speaks briefly with his soldiers. “How was it?” “Terrific, sir,” is the standard reply. “It was absolutely excellent,” the platoon commander says. “You are a leading squad. Keep it up.”

At the end of the drill, Keret gathers his soldiers for a summing-up session. They stand around him; the positive atmosphere is palpable.

“If anyone here feels he didn’t give 150 percent of himself, he should do some soul-searching with himself and his buddies,” the deputy company commander says. He seems quite pleased with what he saw. “This drill simulates a battle. Fighters are not tested in the evening, on a base where there are showers and there’s food in the mess hall. Our true home in the infantry is in the field. That’s where you’ll spend your service. That is our natural state: dirty, close to the ground, connected to the soil.”

The compliments fly thick and fast for those of the November 2011 call-up: Every soldier is a star, every officer a poet.

This is probably the most dramatic change in combat basic training in recent years, compared to what the older brothers of these soldiers, and certainly their fathers, went through one or two or three decades ago. The food is still lousy, the cold at night is unbearable, the weariness is oppressive, the boredom is overwhelming, and time continues to slither by in slow motion. But the attitude: The attitude toward the new recruits is completely different.

Apart from the sheer difficulty they experience, the most vivid memory
retained by past graduates of basic training in the Israel Defense Forces is the humiliation. For months, it was hammered into them by their commanding officers, that if those officers have anything to do with it, the recruits will never get to wear the green, red or brown beret of their respective corps. Your spinelessness, your inexplicable and embarrassing softness, they were told, are a disgrace to the
brigade’s glorious history.

“I was scolded right through basic training,” says Maj. Yossi Penso,
currently the commander of the new-recruits track at the Nahal base ‏(though he started his own military career in the

Golani Brigade‏). “The whole time my commanding officers told me, ‘Look at yourself. What are you − a paratrooper?’”

Those times are gone, apparently for good. “The approach today is to help them, not to break them,” Penso explains.

The treatment of the new recruits may still be tough, but is almost always mitigated by a dimension of praise, of positive feedback for effort and excellence. The act of putting someone down, for its own sake, which was once a sacrosanct principle in training, is no longer done. In most combat units, humiliation and hazing are now almost marginal phenomena. “There’s no alternative, this is the only way to hitch the current generation to army service,” everyone from sergeant to brigade commander tells you, half apologetically.

Paternal advice

About a month later, the families of the new Nahal soldiers are invited to a parents’ day at the Tel Arad base. The parents of the soldiers in Company B crowd into the camp’s auditorium. The base commander, Lt. Col. Yisrael Schumer, addresses them. Schumer has been in his position for half a year. He has done his entire service in the Nahal Brigade, and this is his second posting as a battalion commander. The logic is clear: The senior commander on the base, which at peak periods accommodates more than 1,000 soldiers, has to be an older, experienced officer. And if he is also a parent himself, so much the better. That is Schumer’s opening line: “My name is Yisrael. I’m 34 and the father of three children.”

The immediate effect is to create a relaxed atmosphere in the hall. A few mothers smile. The message is clear without having to be spelled out: This basic training is being run by a responsible adult, one who is a father himself and knows how much effort and concern the parents invested in their children before placing them in his hands. Unlike other officers, who spoke with the parents before him, Schumer chooses to call the new recruits “boys,” almost drawing an analogy between his children and the children of the parents in the auditorium. We are all parents, so let’s get through this story together.

The base commander also glides skillfully across the next set of obstacles. He admits to specific shortcomings that some of the parents have pointed out, explains the reasons for them and promises to set things right. But his professional performance would not be complete without the next part.

“I’m glad you’re all here,” he tells the parents. “I don’t see combat service as something that is self-evident these days. I want you to know: We are receiving your children with great reverence. We are not taking unnecessary risks, we are not rushing ahead too fast, we are increasing the difficulty gradually. During the training period the boys’ lives are the highest consideration. That is the spirit of the army and certainly the spirit of the brigade.

“They undergo tough times here,” Schumer continues. “We don’t coddle them. In the end, they have to be able to defend the State of Israel, if called upon, and I am committed to giving them all the tools for doing that. I hope there will not be a war, but we all want them to be prepared in case one breaks out. I want to thank you for instilling values in your boys,” Schumer concludes. “It’s impossible to be here, in these conditions, without strong support from home.”

The audience responds with applause. Thirty or even 20 years ago, who ever heard the commander of a basic-training camp speak with parents in this way?

Fly-on-the-wall view

For almost a year, I made regular visits to the company of new recruits from the Nahal Brigade, spanning their entire training track: the first night of basic training, the platoon and company drills and treks, the swearing-in ceremony, the educational courses, the advanced training and, finally, during a few months of service in Hebron. The result is a new book ‏(“The New Face of the Israel Defense Forces,” Kinneret Zmora-Bitan; Hebrew‏), in which I try to capture this moment in the IDF’s combat constellation.

It’s a singular moment, reflecting the blending together of several trends that have been simmering over a relatively low flame in recent years. With the new Netanyahu government having declared, for the first time, a willingness to address the question of the inequality of the draft and to make an effort to call up a considerable number of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students for meaningful service − it is especially pertinent to take a look at the army from the bottom up. A fly-on-the-wall view definitely offers new insights.

Lt. Col. Schumer’s speech of thanks to the parents, and the praises heaped by the junior officers on the new recruits in the drill, demonstrate the depth of the transformation that has been wrought in the training of IDF combat soldiers in the past decade. In both cases, these are ground-level reactions to an evolving reality whose existence neither the army’s top brass nor Israeli society is eager to acknowledge. Officially, most of those in IDF combat units are not considered volunteers per se. That status is reserved for service in an elite unit ‏(pilots course, naval officers course, the Sayeret Matkal reconnaissance unit, the naval commandos and the Paratroops‏). But that is only the official situation. In practice, Schumer is right: Nowadays, a soldier who does not want to serve in a combat unit will find a way to evade that, even if the way out entails paying a personal price.

There are multiple paths by which to avoid the combat route. You can try to lower your medical profile before being drafted, possibly by inflating health problems, or avail yourself of the opinion of a psychologist, to the effect that “this kid is not ripe for combat service.” Economic or family difficulties might also induce the army to be considerate and exempt a young man from combat service.

A way out is also available during the basic training period. The days when new recruits in the Armored Corps, for example, were told that, “The only way out of here is with your dog tag in your mouth” − that is, dead − are history. These days, make enough of a fuss and you’re out. The system isn’t able to devote the time required to cope with a new recruit who has set his mind on freeing himself from the combat yoke. Repeated refusals of orders, frequent disciplinary infractions, quarrels with others in the unit and with officers, the use of violence, sometimes even spending time in a military prison − that kind of behavior will make it clear to the system that in terms of cost-effectiveness, the effort that will be demanded by that particular new recruit will not be worth it. The commanding officers are, of course, perfectly aware of this. And every last new recruit soon figures this out.

The quite lenient attitude toward the dropouts is in part a response to a societal reality of which the army’s top brass is fully aware, even if it will not say so explicitly. In today’s Israel, it is no longer taboo to avoid combat service ‏(nor is evasion of service altogether, in the eyes of some groups‏). A not-inconsiderable portion of Israeli society is living in a Western European bubble – people who feel that only bad luck has situated their country in the Middle East.

In this approach, the country’s security situation is often ignored, in a type of repression that allows young people to disregard the implications of reality for the country’s needs and to look for a comfortable mode of army service. This is one of the reasons that the old Israeli mainstream, which is composed, if one is to make a sweeping generalization, mainly of the veteran, established population groups living in the center of the country, is no longer sending its children to front-line units on the same scale it once did. Nor is it possible to go on ignoring the elephant in the room: the non-service of the ultra-Orthodox. Haredi yeshiva students, who account for some 13 percent of the male population that was eligible for call-up in November 2011, were simply not drafted, as the state deferred their service on the grounds that “Torah study is their main occupation.”

Over the years, this tangled state of affairs generated a double standard. Israel’s political leadership, society and, like them, the IDF high command − all pledge fealty to the veteran model of “the people’s army,” according to which everyone is drafted and everyone bears the burden of service, each person according to his ability. In the real world, this model is now breathing its last. It is not yet clear whether the new government will succeed in introducing and enforcing a new model in its place, which will make possible a partial call-up of Haredi yeshiva students. Already today, 26.1 percent of the men and 41.8 percent of the women of any given call-up are not drafted. In these circumstances, to demand from a secular or national-religious young man to push himself to the limit and enlist in a combat unit is to deliberately close one’s eyes to everything that is happening in other segments of the society.

In practice then, a young man who opts for combat service is volunteering, even if the state does not categorize it like that. The process now underway in the regular army is a replay of the developments of more than a decade ago in the reserves: Only those who really want to, continue to bear the burden.

The truly impressive statistic is actually the high percentage of those who opt for combat service from within the pool of young people who are still obliged to serve. The rate is high despite the difficulties entailed in serving as a fighter, despite the clear risks, despite the poor conditions and, of course, despite the unfair treatment of the combat recruits in comparison to their peers who do not bear the burden. At least in part, it appears that the motivation of the young people who choose combat service reflects a cogent understanding of Israel’s security situation after the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, and in light of the instability in the Arab world. Another reason is the sophisticated mechanism of persuasion and encouragement to serve − which at least in part borders on brainwashing − exerted by the state on high-school students via the school system, the army, the local authorities and private organizations that offer preparatory courses for IDF service.

Still, the high numbers are amazing, given the fact that until he is drafted, the life of the average Israeli youth is very much like that of most of his peers in Europe or the United States, who are exempt from compulsory military service. The transition from the comforts of one’s room at home, the computer and the smartphone to a tent exposed to the sun and the winds of an arid desert is no small thing. In many senses, it is a more extreme transition than was required of those drafted into basic training in an IDF combat unit two or three decades ago. It’s not just a question of living conditions: When young people enter the army, they are cut off by coercion from their multi-channel technology-dependent surroundings − Internet, social networks, the array of television stations − in which they are accustomed to spending much of their time.

‘Technological attention disorder’

The new recruits of the past few years are the first generation of fighters to suffer from what might be called “technological attention disorder.” The effort by the soldiers to get special dispensation to not be detached from the digital world − more especially because many use smartphones as an immediate and convenient mode of contact with the old surroundings − spawns an endless round of negotiations with the commanding officers. Every time the soldiers leave the base for the field they want to know when they will be given access to their mobile phones. “I want to know what’s happening on Facebook,” is a frequently heard remark.

In part, this has to do with a passion for documentation. As basic training progresses, the soldiers become more aware of the change that is occurring in their physical appearance, until they assume the behavior and external presence of combat soldiers. There’s a natural desire to show this off to family and friends, not least as a type of compensation for choosing the conditions of life in the field. The eagerness of most of the soldiers in Company B to have their picture taken by Pavel Wolberg, the photographer who accompanied me, sometimes brought to mind 14-year-old girls, who take their own picture in a mall or a cafe with their mobile phone and post the photo on the Web even before they have arrived home from the outing.

The junior officers are also feeling their way when it comes to the interface between the real and virtual worlds. A sign of the times: The company commanders in basic training emphasize to the junior officers that they must not accede to Facebook requests from new recruits to be friends. “Our training in the brigade starts to get serious around Monday evening,” the commander of an infantry brigade notes. “That’s the stage at which the batteries of the phones of the soldiers in the field start to get low.”

“Do you know what the most popular youth movement in Israel is?” former Golani Brigade commander Ofek Buchris asks. Answering his own question, he moves his finger from left to right, imitating the motion that’s used to open a screen on a smartphone.

The army is seeking to accommodate itself to the changed circumstances of the new recruits, and wants to facilitate the transition and bridge the disparities between civilian and army life. In the first stages of the training process, the officers also have to take into account other changes. For most of the soldiers, basic training is their first experience with tough disciplinary demands in a world in which both their parents at home and their teachers in school have a hard time exercising authority over adolescents. In this situation, and given the goal of the commanding officers − maximum training for combat troops with minimum dropouts along the way − the fighting units are compelled to improvise solutions. In most cases, the arrangements spring from below, from the level of the squad or platoon commander, and only in retrospect are approved by their superiors.

As noted, the scale of the hazing and humiliations has fallen off greatly in the updated version of basic training. Concomitantly, commanding officers are more strictly supervised, and an approach of “hana’a hiyuvit” ‏(literally, positive ignition − learning by means of incentives‏) has been introduced. In the past, the rigid approach in basic training was accompanied by the fog of battle: The new recruit remained in a permanent condition of uncertainty, unable to foresee what his next challenges would be. That, too, has changed. The training process today is planned down to the last detail, and most of the details are made known to the soldiers in advance. The words of far-reaching praise and thanks to the parents, like the calculated rewards to the recruits, are part of the approach that the IDF is gradually developing. Without such an approach, the system might have already collapsed.

The next war

Following the conclusion of one of the stages in basic training, Company B has a meeting with the company commander, Capt. Or Caspi, after which the soldiers will head home on their first long furlough. The completion of every stage is cause for a ceremony, at which the officers hand out certificates of excellence. More than 10 of the company’s 120 soldiers are cited for professionalism and for assisting their comrades; similar certificates are distributed every month or so. At the ceremony every soldier cited runs to the company commander to receive his certificate and is applauded by his buddies. Such events tend to recall the conclusion of a judo course at a local community center.

Second Lt. Naor Bublil, the commander of the company’s First Platoon, is not pleased about this: “It’s an idiotic ceremony, dumb and unnecessary. I don’t understand it.” Today’s young soldiers, he says, “are a generation of crybabies. There are good soldiers here, but there is no belligerence, and what I am looking for is belligerence. Because, in a true test, under fire, that’s what will be decisive. At the moment, I don’t see anyone in the platoon who will get up from behind the boulder and charge. They’re spoiled. Grumbling and complaining all the time. The soldiers are too connected with what’s going on outside and not connected to what’s going on around them on the base. A lot of people are in for surprises in the next war.”

Bublil changes his mind for the better, regarding some of the soldiers at least, in the later stages of the training process and in particular during the stint in Hebron. But his views demand attention: The army, as a large hierarchical system, tends to declaim a single doctrine and to justify it. The transition to an approach toward basic training that rewards, even embraces, fledgling combat troops is based on solid reasoning. The IDF has adjusted itself to the less rigid atmosphere in Israeli society, has significantly diminished hazing and abuse, and has succeeded in reducing the proportion of dropouts from combat training.

But armies excel in their ability to tell themselves feel-good stories. Is the insistence of brigade and battalion commanders that training and drills are now being conducted at an incalculably higher level than in the past not just a self-satisfied pat on the back? Isn’t the present approach liable to blow up in the face of the IDF ‏(and in our own faces‏) in the next war, as Bublil claimed in the heat of the argument? And could it be that the handling of soldiers in combat units is coming at the expense of the toughness that will be required the next time Israel finds itself in a fight?

In his concentrated offensive, 2nd Lt. Bublil put his finger on the most important point of all. Because, with all due respect to its contribution to multiculturalism in Israeli society, to teaching Hebrew and converting new immigrants to Judaism, the truly important task of the IDF − the only one, really − is to defend the country, and more precisely, to prepare its soldiers to win the war. The years in which this goal was achieved by means of the hazing and the systematic put-downs of its soldiers are gone forever, because Israeli society is no longer capable of stomaching that behavior. The question is whether the opposite approach also achieves the desired result − without which the army is of no value.

A series of conversations I held with the senior officer corps in field units did not produce an unequivocal answer to this question. The officers are aware of the dilemma and are wrestling with it, but do not appear to have resolved it. To counterbalance the improved attitude toward the new recruits, the IDF is emphasizing the simultaneous improvement in the training processes, which are more orderly and more supervised, and from which the soldiers emerge with far broader professional know-how than their predecessors did a few decades ago.

“We all found the positive rewards ridiculous at first,” says Brig. Gen. Amir Abulafia, a former Nahal Brigade commander. “I took balancing elements from the approach. To give no punishment at all is exaggerated, but in a talk with the company you also take note of the good soldiers, not only those who screwed up that week.”

A member of the General Staff said in this context: “I do not accept the argument that soldiers were toughened up more in the past. When I was a cadet in an officers course, I slept two hours a night and had my butt busted for no rhyme or reason. I did not have high combat fitness and I did not have better operational understanding. The toughening-up is now channeled in the direction of combat fitness.”

Abulafia admits that, “At the start of basic training we still coddle them, but when the soldiers get to the battalion, after seven months in the army, we are a lot less sentimental, and the level of the demands rises significantly. On the border with the Gaza Strip they will undergo four days without sleep, and discover that the rations don’t always arrive and that sometimes you only get leave after 21 days, because the company has an overload of missions. All in all, they withstand it very well.”

In a conversation for the book, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz told me that he accepts the assumption that in recent years, the IDF’s combat troops have gradually become volunteers in fact, if not in name. “In the long run, I agree: A soldier who does not want to be a fighter in a combat unit will probably manage to get out of the unit. Our big success is being registered precisely in places like the Artillery and Armored Corps, where esprit de corps is developed in soldiers who originally did not even want to serve in those units. Within just a few months, people move from a situation of not having wanted to enter the unit, to a situation in which they don’t want to leave it.”

Gantz says he is not worried about the possibility that the softer approach in the initial training stages produces soldiers who are less tough. “I am actually impressed by their steadfastness,” he says. “The professional training of combat soldiers today is better than it was when I was in the Paratroops. The entry into the process, in basic training, is a bit slow. But by the time they reach the battalion, they are ready. In battalion exercises, the infantry soldiers walk 120 kilometers a week carrying a heavy load, without complaining.”

The weakened authority of parents and teachers plays a part in what the commanding officers accept as a basic fact: Today’s young draftees are different from previous generations. A senior IDF officer who specializes in mental health provides expert confirmation for these impressions. It is saliently the case, he says, that the personality of today’s draftee is less mature than was the case with new recruits a decade ago: “Nowadays, when we talk about the end of the maturation process, for many young people it doesn’t happen until about the age of 30, after the trip abroad, after they complete their education and begin to consolidate themselves professionally. Then comes the period of providing for yourself and the end of the good times. Detachment from parents and establishing a family of your own now happens far later than it used to.

“In the 1950s,” he continues, “the age of 18 was the upper bar for the end of the maturation process. These days, the maturation process starts earlier, but ends much later. Personal maturity means the ability to delay gratification and to keep doing so for the long haul. Today’s adolescents are less mature. Everything is convenient and accessible for them. And all the systems that are supposed to set limits for them − parents, teachers − are in a state of crisis. Organized frameworks are crumbling. Many families are dysfunctional, and schools find it hard to enforce rules.” For the army, the officer says, “this is a catastrophe. The switch, the transition to a combat unit, becomes far more difficult.”

The old values

As the year goes by, the visits to the company deepen my acquaintance with it and strengthen the good impression I have formed of the junior-officer level, in the combat units in general, and in the Nahal Brigade in particular. It’s hard not to be impressed by the commanders and in particular by the person at their head, company commander Caspi − by his intelligence, his judgment, the leadership skills he displays, his ability to communicate equally with soldiers and parents, irrespective of age, background or status. He is under considerable pressure from the outset of the training process. He has to manage a company of 187 officers and soldiers, almost twice the size of a company of new recruits in the IDF two decades ago − a huge span of control for a lad of just over 23.

Caspi’s day-to-day work in the company involves dealing endlessly with hundreds of details, many of which are related to personal problems of the new recruits. When he’s asked whether he isn’t fed up with feeling like a service-conditions noncom, he vehemently rejects the notion.

“It’s not crap. It’s the whole fun of this job. The everyday here, in the training period, is not war, it’s people,” he says. “It’s the education, at least in Nahal. That’s why I took this post. You see that you are having an influence on the new recruits. With one conversation, you can boost a soldier’s morale. It might be a softer approach than in the past; I have no basis for comparison. We don’t let the soldiers off easy, we demand that they give their all, but we are human beings, too.”

Despite the doubts that have been mentioned, it is impossible to deny that the military machine is continuing to rumble along. The well-oiled mechanism places at the Nahal Brigade’s disposal combat soldiers who have come a long way since that first night of basic training, when I caught my first glimpse of them.

There’s something else that needs to be said about the combat units, even if it means that I will be suspected of being an old-fashioned militarist: The IDF, certainly at the junior field levels, still takes seriously the declaration ‏(coined by David Ben-Gurion‏): “Every Jewish mother should know that she has placed her sons’ fate in the hands of commanders who are worthy of the task.” These young and perhaps innocent officers and commanders generally act more fairly and decently than the society they were sent to defend.

Naturally, large quantities of stupidity, illogical behavior and sometimes nastiness can be found in the army. But many times you find in the IDF elements of what was once preeningly referred to as “good old Eretz Israel.” At the field level, anyway, this is an organization that, over and above the rhetoric, still attaches importance to rather outmoded values, such as mutual surety, cohesiveness, honesty and credibility, and a readiness to sacrifice yourself for something bigger than you. At times, in my visits to the company, the thought came to me that I would be grateful to encounter the same level of integrity, commitment and reliability in Israel’s civil society, too.

Basic training.Credit: Pavel Wohlberg
Nahal on the move. Young officers and commanders generally act more fairly and decently than the society they were sent to defend.Credit: Pavel Wohlberg
A break in the field. In most combat units, humiliation and hazing are now marginal phenomena.Credit: Pavel Wohl

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