Folding Their Tents

Will army tents soon be a thing of the past? The IDF is starting to phase them out, but not everyone is happy to see them go

"We lay in a puddle that had formed inside the tent, all the blankets were soaked with water and mud, sleeping bags, our clothes, combat vests, weapons. I heard bustling in adjacent tents: 'Man, have you even woken up? We're lying in water!' Why is he insisting on telling me the news, to dissipate the illusion of home that I had finally managed to find under these tent flaps?"

Yehoshua Kenaz's wet, freezing soldiers, the heroes of his 1986 novel "Infiltration" ("Hitganvut Yehidim" ) leave the tent and refuse to return to it, in a kind of platoon rebellion. This is the strongest image Israelis have of an army tent. Both image and reality have led the Israel Defense Forces to decide in the past year to reduce the use of tents whenever there is a suitable alternative.

IDF tent
Alon Ron

Lieut. Col. Daniel Rod of the Technology and Logistics Directorate is leading the move. "In the summer, it's like being in a boiling pot. It's impossible to be in them," he says.

In the years to come, the large camp tents now used as permanent housing will be slowly replaced by various types of light structures: from concrete housing units to dwellings of wood and plaster to the ultimate IDF oxymoron - a concrete tent - a rigid structure that is placed on the foundation of the old tent, and which has the same shape. The IDF has already begun to dismantle the permanent tents used by reserve soldiers. "I assume that this [stems from] conclusions drawn from the Second Lebanon War and the desire to improve reservists' conditions," says Rod.

The disadvantages of the tent are not difficult to enumerate: the cold, the heat, the rain that penetrates, the fact that it's hard to lock, the wear and tear on the canvas and the danger in case of attack (the most unforgettable incident being the "Night of the Gliders" in 1987, when one terrorist managed to kill five soldiers who were sleeping in a tent ).

But among infantry soldiers and commanders, there are actually some who are nostalgic about the army tent made of poles, pegs and canvas. Among the various types of temporary housing common in Israel, the tent is perhaps second in popularity only to the zimmer (bed-and-breakfast ) with a Jacuzzi.

Ideal for the infantry

A tent is the most open type of housing, both with respect to its external surroundings and its internal space. In a tent, soldiers live alongside one another with no partition, corner in which to hide, or even a small closet to conceal personal items. There is nothing individual in a tent; everything is collective - the cold, the heat and the dust. That's exactly what makes it ideal housing for an infantryman. At least that is the opinion of the deputy commander of Brigade 17, Maj. Gen. Gil Forer .

In the 14 years since he joined the army, Forer has spent a considerable portion of his time in tents. "I like the tent because you see open space. If you roll up the flaps you can look out at everything. You live the ground. As an infantryman, it's good that you're not permanently attached to the ground; you can take your home with you and you live in the environment from morning to night. The commanders also control their soldiers better, because they can see them better."

But what is most important, in Forer's opinion, is that forging team spirit among the soldiers is more effective in a tent than in rigid structures - the absence of corners, the large space and even the trivial fact that there are no electrical outlets in IDF tents, so the soldiers can't charge their cell phones in them.

"Suddenly you see that the soldiers start talking to each another, because they have nothing to do. That's something we've already forgotten with the cell phone and Facebook," says Forer.

"There's no such atmosphere in a room - 10 people who sit with one another all the time," says Forer's subordinate, Capt. Shaul Telker, a company commander in the brigade. Forer's group of soldiers in the squad commanders' course agree that the pleasure of returning to an air-conditioned room at the end of an exhausting summer exercise is almost canceled out by the soldiers' shock when they leave the air-conditioning to return to training.

"When you go down to the field you get a kind of blast," says one of the soldiers. "But in war you'll be in a tent, without an air conditioner, so maybe it's better to get used to it now." Another considerable advantage is the ventilation, which very efficiently gets rid of the smell of sweaty feet after training exercises.

The soldiers of the Paratroops and Golani brigades already benefit from tentless basic training and training camps, whereas in the Givati and Nahal brigades, tents are still a central component of soldiers' lives. Paratroopers take pride in the fact that even during field exercises they hardly ever use the small, portable scout tents, but make do with digging a hole in the ground.

Under Forer's command at the infantry base, they all meet after about a year in the army - those who have lived until now in a concrete building and those who have already become accustomed to the flapping of canvas. Ten to 12 soldiers live in a tent that is simple and basic: two center poles holding up a double layer of fabric, with flaps that are stretched to the ground with ropes. The floor is poured concrete. The beds and the floor under them are private territory. Under each bed is an empty ammunition crate that serves as a closet. The beds leave almost no public space in the tent, except for a security square drawn in color around a clumsy diesel fuel heater. In order to cross the tent you have to maneuver among the beds, the shoes and the towels hanging out to dry. In the air is a smell unique to army tents, a mixture of dust and old sun-baked fabrics.

As tents are dismantled in one unit, at another base in the country's center, an experiment is under way with the tent of the future - the solar tent. This is a hybrid structure, with a rigid ceiling over which are spread sheets that absorb the sun's rays. The sheets provide the tent with its energy needs for lighting and charging telephones and laptops.