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Computer Geeks Make Bad Soldiers, Israeli Army Warns

An IDF study finds that the digital generation will struggle more getting along with fellow soldiers and commanding officers.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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IDF soldiers take a selfie with the seized weapons in Eilat, March 10 2014.
IDF soldiers take a selfie with the seized weapons in Eilat, March 10 2014.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

After every problematic incident, the Israel Defense Forces is confronted with a question: Were they surprised and why? (because it’s clear they were). The good news about the recent uproar surrounding David the Nahal Brigade soldier — a call on Facebook to soldiers to express support for the combat soldier who clashed with Palestinians in front of a camera in Hebron — is that this time the IDF was warned. A study by the IDF Behavioral Sciences Department, which was conducted in recent years and published in February, warned the army of the influence of the social media revolution on the behavior of members of the digital generation who are conscripted for compulsory military service.

An article summarizing the study, by the study’s author Maj. Reuven Malka, a clinical psychologist and former head of the officers’ testing department, is the first and most important in the latest issue of the IDF behavioral science journal Bein Hazirot. Malka examines the interpersonal skills, internalization of limits and acceptance authority, self exposure and addiction to online social media of the generation of young men and women that is about to be conscripted. The study examines all four characteristics; the article, which is short, focuses on the first two.

In the military system, relations between combat soldiers during training and operational activity, is of supreme importance, “and social solidarity is crucial for shaping the combat team and for the success of its activity, to the point where it is the basis for the existence and the consolidation of the fighting unit.” So it is worrying that the study finds: “Forming interpersonal relations online undermines the ability to develop social skills and form relations with those of equal status. Based on that approach, the more we advance on the time line, the lower the social and interpersonal level of the future candidate for military service compared to conscripts in the past. The more his contacts take place online at the expense of real relationships, the more he will experience difficulties in becoming integrated into the military framework, especially in light of the fact that military activity entails constant and real contact with others.”

There is an opposing view that lonely and introverted teens develop interpersonal and social skills in their online relationships, but the study tends to confirm the first assessment.

“On entering the army, the candidate for military service is liable to experience a loss of control. He is no longer in a situation of sitting in front of a computer screen, choosing whom to respond to and editing his words. As a soldier at the start of his career, he will spend all day with soldiers his own age, in complex and high-pressure situations. That will require him to be constantly attentive and tolerant, to exhibit restraint and to solve arguments wisely, in order to become integrated and to be part of the team — an assortment of skills that will be lacking in someone who has not experienced enough interpersonal relationships in the real world,” the study says.

It continues, “The dramatic transition from a virtual to a real framework is liable to shake people up and to cause a regression. Candidates with an introverted profile will experience great difficulty with military conscription and a change in their channel of social relations. The difficulty of dealing with a real and threatening social framework is liable to be experienced as a crisis.”

As for “internalizing limits and accepting authority,” the study mentions familiar insights regarding the change in young people’s relations with parents and teachers. The blow to the authoritative status of the older generation worsens when control of knowledge and technology is transferred to the younger generation, it says. In addition, the study notes, authorities — including commanders — are exposed on Facebook in a way that breaches the hierarchy.

“A conscript who during his youth and adolescence was not presented with limits and did not have any significant experience of relations with an authority figure is liable to find it very difficult when he is drafted (into the military framework, which emphasizes accepting authority and obeying orders),” the study says. “The starting point will be lower. The authority of the commander has clearer validity and status than the authority of parents and teachers. In situations of disobeying military orders or refusing to accept the authority of commanders, the military framework is strict and punitive. Nor can the soldier find an escape online from people of authority and clear boundaries. There is likely to be a harsh feeling of helplessness.”

The conclusion: “In light of everything we have said, it seems that the more we progress on the time line the more we can expect to see conscripts who find it difficult to integrate and to accept the authority of the commanders and the limits of the military framework. We can assume that the drastic transition they will experience is liable to be expressed in the graph of adjusting to the system and meeting its demands.”

The study calls on the chief of staff to set policy for the behavior of commanders with their soldiers on the social networks, while paying attention to the anticipated effect on relations between the commander and his subordinate, and on the commander’s authority. In light of the importance of the social media, the study asks, “Don’t the commanders have an obligation to be on [Facebook] in order to examine events and to keep track of their subordinates? There is need for a clear and consolidated policy regarding that, while it seems that the system is still wondering how to handle the virtual component of the soldier’s life.”

The warning is unequivocal: “There is no escaping the understanding that the more candidates for military service who were born into the revolution are standing at the army’s gates, the more difficult the encounter will be for them, in terms of quality and intensity.” In other words, the young people have changed and the army hasn’t.

In addition to pre-army preparatory academies and other preparations for conscription, the study recommends allowing greater use of smartphones “at times, in places and in units where its use is currently forbidden.” The reason: “In order to deal with the difficulty of severing oneself from the virtual space, and to bring elements of civilian life onto the base, the future soldier will bring a smartphone with him to the army. This device will be of great importance and will create a sense of security for the soldier, perhaps even as a substitute for various objects that the soldier used to bring from home in the past.”

The IDF phone revolution, a combination of iPhone and IDF, will, in the opinion of the Behavioral Sciences Department, justify “mapping” and “an estimate of difference” among various groups in the population. There is no explanation as to whether this is a reference to ethnic origin, socioeconomic class, volume of Internet use or an index composed of all the above.

Maj. Malka also suggests “further thinking about [the characteristics of] the officers and the commanders,” because there is no certainty that today’s officer is suited to commanding the future conscript. He also suggesting reflecting on what will motivate the soldier of tomorrow to become an officer.

The commander of the Meitav induction base responded in a short and reassuring article. “Today’s youth is better equipped with skills and abilities required for success,” wrote Col. Gil Ben Shaul. “He adjusts better and constitutes a key factor in the shaping of a stronger, more up-to-date, more technological army.” Ben Shaul agrees that there is a need for “forming a clear policy, communicating it and consistent enforcement of punishment for misbehavior as a basis for improving the image of the IDF online and as an essential component in constructing the new boundaries and the command distance necessary for the IDF, as a military system in the online era.”

Ben Shaul is not worried about the shock caused at the induction based by the edicts of digital starvation. There has always been and always will be difficulty in leaving the home environment and being absorbed into the army. The difficulty is handled through “preliminary coordination of expectations” and a “soft absorption process."

An Israeli soldier with a cell phone.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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