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Confessional Memoir cum Insight - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
July 22nd, 2003
02:18 am

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Confessional Memoir cum Insight
This entry may surprise most of you, especially those of you who know me in person. It is entirely inconsistent with my journal's nature. Whee!

Background: I was recruited to the IDF at the age of 19 (had my birthday during basic training). For various reasons, I was fairly oblivious of how the army works. At the time, I had not yet read the essential Catch-22, nor was I one of those teenagers who chum with soldiers and recite unit numbers and weapon calibers. I knew the order of the ranks, and I knew of a few air force bases, due to my uncle's being a fighter pilot and later a senior officer in the IAF. That was about it.

Now, the army was an obvious, a given. From a tender age, I knew that after elementary school comes junior high school, then high school, then the three-year military service, then university. Yes, I don't think I realized that some people don't attend university, ever, before some time in junior high.

To make a short story long, I was quite naive about the army, but with a basic cooperative attitude, despite my natural stubbornness and my conflicts with authority in my school years, and despite the best efforts of Tal C. and gaal, both close friends who did the army thing before me, who tried to teach me the bitter lessons of their experience.

Memoir: So there I am in basic training, a "fresh", confused, innocent soldier, intent on playing by the rules and doing the right thing: I wake up on time, I don't fall asleep during guard duty, I don't abandon my M-16 rifle, I don't cheat on the push-ups count, etc.

Now, our platoon sergeant was a classic type: big, brawny, flaming red hair, fierce expression, low, booming voice, all intensity and fire. He seemed to me an ultimate soldier, especially contrasted to me: I was (and still am) out of shape, with terrible feet (at basic training, I was still unaware of my raving case of flat feet, and could not stand for more than fifteen minutes, or run more than 400 meters before my feet would bail, even before I'd lose my breath), and a shy disposition (yes, I was shy once. A few of you may even remember that). This appearance lost all its magic a few months afterwards, when I became a commander myself, but that came later; during basic training, I was in awe (not scared, but impressed and awed) of our platoon sergeant.

I did very well in the shooting range. So well, in fact, that the sergeant inquired if I shoot regularly at civilian shooting ranges, and when I told him I had never held a gun in my life until last week, he was quite surprised, and commended me. He suggested that I may qualify for a sharpshooter course, and I smilingly told him I'm going to the Intelligence Corps, no matter what. (I was selected by an Intelligence Corps unit involving computer security, due to certain uncommon skills I had, and this took precedence over more mundane military stations, such as artillery or armor units.) But I was pleased to have pleased the sergeant.

One day, after returning from the shooting range, the sergeant delivered a lesson on taking the M-16 rifle apart and putting it back together. He explained the procedure very carefully, dwelling on the confusing bits, and demonstrated once. Then he got us to try it on our own. As is common in basic training, this feat was timed, i.e. it was required of us to complete the taking apart in no more than N seconds (forty it was, perhaps). It was tough, handling the parts for the first time, and struggling to remember their correct placement at your feet, for easy re-assembly. I did it, on time, with a few seconds to spare. I was tense, but ready to put it back together. He glared at one soldier who did not finish the task on time, and then gave him a hint, which helped him get it right. Then he asked if we're ready to put it back together. We nodded. He gave us forty-five seconds. I picked up the parts and began working as fast as I could. In my anxious haste to do it quickly, I fell into the pitfall he described in advance, putting one of the parts together in the wrong direction. I was too stressed to notice, and panicked when a later stage did not work -- the parts did not fit due to that mistake -- but I was unable to see that and just fumbled with the parts nervously, desperately trying to fit them and not getting what I was doing wrong. There was at least one other soldier with the same problem in our group. The time was running out, I realized I'm stuck and am not going to make it, but simply couldn't think of a solution that could disentangle the mess. The time ran out. Most of the soldiers were ready, their rifles assembled and placed on the mat with the muzzle pointing straight to the sky, silent and tense; and the only noises to be heard, magnified tenfold, were the sounds of steel against steel as I kept squeezing and banging the parts together, while everyone looked on, and the sergeant glared right at me.

The sensation was awful. It all seems ridiculous now, of course, but it was a huge sense of failure, embarrassment, and despair at the time. Had the sergeant given me a hint, it would have turned out okay, eventually. But instead, he began a powerful sermon on how we're lousy soldiers not worthy of the IDF. Classic sergeant repertoire, I know; but I didn't know that at the time. And coupled with my sense of failure and shame, it worked its magic, and I was broken. I simply fell apart. The sergeant stood up and made the group run out to stand at attention on some line, and I was naturally excluded from the command, as half of my personal weapon was still in parts at my feet, and I can't possibly leave it like that. Off they ran, then, and as he began walking toward them, he muttered over his shoulder "I see your commander approaching, maybe he can make a soldier out of you." He walked away.

I felt hot tears of shame forming in my eyes. I'm emotional, but I don't cry much. But at that moment, I could not contain it, and those burning tears, not of fear but of shame and guilt, ran down my cheeks, as I crouched there with my useless weapon in pieces, and saw my commander, who heard the sergeant's comment, coming up to me. The commander did the right thing: he coolly said "Asaf, take out the [whatever], take off the [thingy], now turn it over, now put it back on the [whatever], now put it into the [whatsitsname], there." The tears kept running, now amplified by the shame of shedding tears in front of the sergeant and my commander. Through them, trembling, I followed the instructions, and there it was: the weapon was whole again. Then my commander said: "we're going into classroom X, you have three minutes to compose yourself and get there, not a second more." And he turned and walked away.

I was deflated and completely defeated. The only thing I could think of at that moment was "I can't be a soldier, I can't do the soldier thing. I must get out of here." I thought of home. I stood up, slung my weapon on my back, and started walking. To my surprise, my feet did not take the direction of my tent (presumably step one in bailing out), but that of classroom X. I drew encouragement from that, stopped, pulled out the weapon-cleaning cloth that I had just used as a mat for the fine parts of the gun, grease smears and all, and wiped my face with it. I sniffed. I shuddered. I took a few deep breaths. And thinking "this will never work", I started striding toward classroom X.

From that moment on, I dealt with the rest of basic training rather well, and suffered no more anxiety or panic attacks. Both my sergeant and my commander had the tact not to mention the incident afterwards.

Insight: That was a critical and influential incident in my life thenceforth. After a month or so at the gates of the Intelligence Corps, I was kicked out back to the general assignment dept. (having gained the friendship of the wondrous cinamon), and was assigned to the Education Corps as a squad commander for "special population segments" and youth instructor. This involved a course that put my basic training to shame in terms of physical and mental demands; it also involved my being trained to command others and act as a leader. This seemed completely ludicrous to me at the time -- I? Command people? I, get people to do as I say? -- and I protested that I was erroneously sent there and must be reassigned. The course commander cleverly talked me into giving it a shot, and to my utter astonishment, it turned out that I can project enough charisma and assertive attitude to lead a squad of soldiers, and even, imagine that, a group of spoiled high school kids or a group of juvenile delinquents, and get results from them.

In fact, very shortly after beginning my actual command work, I came to be known as the toughest squad commander around. Tough, mind you, not as in scary, evil, or terrible, but as in stern, serious, committed, demanding, etc. I quickly became a model of a disciplined commander who gets results from his (often completely undisciplined) soldiers, and my performance was often a cut above the rest of the commanders in the platoon. The insight is that I now realize, or at least suddenly find it highly likely, that that incident from my basic training was a prime motivator in my approach to the challenge of leadership and command, and was powerful enough to transform my character and behavior drastically, to the point that I emerged from the army "a new person", according to several people who knew me before and after, including some friends, my mother, and me. I think that the need, or drive, to absolutely do the Right Thing, to achieve and maintain flawless execution of certain tasks, derives largely from the powerful experience and memory of my basic training sergeant and his fateful behavior during the weapon incident, as if proving (to myself? to "them"?) that one can be a perfect platoon sergeant, that the standard "tough" behavior expected of commanders and sergeants in training situations doesn't contradict compassion, support, understanding, and even forgiveness toward soldiers (all in good moose, of course).

In fact, I think it may be at least one foundation of my malignant perfectionism, which plagues me to this day. My dominant imperative to do the right thing, to be correct, to never suffer such shame again.

Alright, this is dime psychology. But, seriously: I never made this connection before; in fact, I was deeply repressing that incident and very rarely thought of it. I certainly never connected it to my own behavior as squad commander and later as platoon sergeant, oddly enough. I never tried to inquire into my motivation for excellence and perfection in those roles, or beyond them. I wonder.

Anyhow, it seems good to write it all down, and as long as it's written, it seems bold, surprising and moosely to just post it. Bet you're surprised! :)

addendum: as a squad commander, I was specifically trained to teach all about using an M-16 rifle. I got to know its parts so well I could recite them in my sleep. One of the lessons I delivered on a regular basis was the taking-apart-and-putting-back-together lesson. After a while, I could take the weapon apart in under ten seconds. Ah, sweet irony.

Current Mood: accomplished

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From:veryty
Date:July 21st, 2003 04:46 pm (UTC)
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As you know, upon my reading ...the sergeant delivered a lesson on taking the M-16 rifle apart... I rushed off to add another line in ICQ, how serendipitously just today, trawling the dico, I happened upon the EN verb "to fieldstrip"...

Then I went back and read the rest nonstop.
Well, I'll need to write something similar about my own motivations for striving for excellence in execution - but in my case it's practically pathological. No tears, but my cheeks burn in shame. And I can't promise that what I'll write will have much merit...but you know this is a matter on my mind.

I now know more about you than ever before. I am impressed, by what you've done, and the regard with which you reflect upon it, the conclusions you draw. And more...

Towards the end of the reading, what was most prominent in my mind and towards writing this Comment:
DAMN, but you write (= express yrself) GREAT in English!!!
I feel like The Traveler [?] in the presence of Wesley Crusher. Or something, but that's what suggests itself at, what is it now, 02:47...
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From:ijon
Date:July 27th, 2003 11:10 am (UTC)

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*blush*
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From:shunra
Date:July 21st, 2003 05:38 pm (UTC)

Having only met you after said incident...

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...I can say is that I've only known you as a clearly-marked leader of humans (and I've said that to you, much to your embarrassment, rather frequently). I do not know that breaking your spirit was required for making you be that way - it is my experience that it is not. I would trace other, less positive parts of you to that scene. I consider shaming people into action to be a manifestation of direct evil, which aligns with what armies are supposed to achieve.

Be that as it may, that event is part of what makes you you, it is a scar you'll always carry, and you'll never know how your face would have looked without it.

As to leading, your way is better: compassion, support, understanding, and toughness complement each other. People who are led that way can be counted on for core loyalty, because they follow through pride, not fear or shame.
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From:ijon
Date:July 27th, 2003 11:29 am (UTC)
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Hi! You are welcome here. :)
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From:emblemparade
Date:July 22nd, 2003 12:02 am (UTC)
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Hey, I also had my 19th birthday during basic training. It also happened to be on Yom Kippur (every 19 years the calendars collide) and I smoked my first cigarette. I was on guard duty.

Anyway, I think your experience is far more common than you think, Assaf. I had fairly brutal (psychologically) basic training in the artillery corps. We had a lot of very tough cookies there, and the commanders were handling us, often justifiably, more like prison inmates than soldiers. The point is, everybody broke down. 48 hours into the training (which lasted 9 weeks) I got to see many people, all grown men, cry. I later found out that many of the methods used by our commanders were considered by then illegal in the IDF.

We all changed. We all had our spirit broken there at some point. The army is supposed to train an unwilling bunch of men into machines that follow orders, and it succeeds.

I never cried (I never do) but I clearly remember the breaking point. It was the heat. I just felt myself baking in the desert sun, I couldn't talk to anybody (there was never a second to do anything then follow the inane orders we were given) and all I got from my commanders was constant derision (there were NEVER compliments, for anybody. It's amazing how powerful this crude method works, even after just 48 hours.) So, I faked hyperventilation, and got to go to the air-conditioned med clinic and get a frozen IV. It was the first time in the while that I had time to think things through, and, like you, I fell tremendous shame. But... unlike you, my shame was temporary, and this is the point of my whole post here. You see, I realized, suddenly, that shame was exactly what I was supposed to feel, it was what we were all feeling all the time. And so I won. I continued the daily drudge of following orders, but I stopped treating the ordeal as a personal test. My new test was getting out of it without becoming a robot, without even the slightest hint of robotness. I'm not sure I succeeded -- those singular moments of shame go very deep, as you testify.

I had another "breaking" point that probably signifies the real change. Like you, I also suffer from flat fleet, and toward the end of basic training I was in excruciating pain from just standing up. So, during our final march I was just fucking sick of it all, and I told my commander that I wanted to quit and get on the jeep. He asked me if I was sure, and suddenly it struck me that I wasn't. I decided to continue. But, remember, by this time I had won. It was not shame that pushed me on, but sheer determination to see it through, and live through the physical and mental experience. I was thinking, worse case I faint, best case I learn something about my limits. It was entirely for my own sake, and had nothing to do with what anybody thought about me. And this was what I took away from basic training, and what people know me for these days: I confront immense challenges entirely on my own. I lock myself in them. The army, perhaps perversely, stole my sense of camaraderie. I feel that my experience is not unique. Sure, soldiers learn a lot about working together, but, somehow, they seem to me the loneliest people in the world.
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From:ijon
Date:July 27th, 2003 11:37 am (UTC)
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I had not been aware of the residue of that shame. I locked away the memory of that incident, and as soon as a couple of months afterwards, during my training in the Education Corps, I was already displaying that perfectionism and utter commitment without connecting it to basic training. But yes, I guess I did (and do) carry it with me all that time.

I gained much camaraderie in the army, and learned a whole lot about people, especially the sort of people with whom I had had virtually no contact until then. But I think I can relate to your impression of soldiers as very lonely people.

Thanks for taking the time to share this.
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From:goliard
Date:July 22nd, 2003 04:05 am (UTC)
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All this has got me thinking about how my own army experience has shaped me. - This is where you go, "WHAT army experience?"

I never went to the IDF - unlike you, I was very reluctant to enlist from the start, and managed to get myself exempted. I've never really regretted it, but at times (like now, reading this) I wonder whether military service might not have actually done me some good. Although on the whole I hate the idea of a system whose purpose is taming people to fit uniform Procrustean roles - still, I wonder if I wouldn't have come out a stronger person. (The usual Hebrew word for this is "mexushal". It makes me think of someone wearing unremoveable chain mail.) Maybe going through the kind of experience you describe would have left me with more self-discipline, initiative, charisma? I suppose so - if I'd survived three years of it, that is - but at what price? I'll never know, and I think if I was faced with the same choice again today I'd do the same as I did then.

Anyway, I found your story very interesting, and I wish it wasn't "entirely inconsistent with your journal's nature".
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From:cinamon
Date:July 22nd, 2003 05:51 am (UTC)
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I found your story very interesting, and I wish it wasn't "entirely inconsistent with your journal's nature".

I second that :)
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From:wildernesscat
Date:July 22nd, 2003 11:25 am (UTC)
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Yes, people who haven't been in the IDF don't know what it's like: the way that it transforms boys into men, the way it shows you just how much you're capable of. In the army I, too, did a couple of things that I thought were impossible at the time. Sure felt good afterwards :)
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From:domitian
Date:July 23rd, 2003 11:18 pm (UTC)
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I don't think that's true. I spent three years (and a few months in the professional army) in the West Bank, with plenty of opportunities to show me 'just how much I'm capable of'. But looking back on it now, and comparing myself to someone my own age who is already finishing his MA by now, it all looks like an utter waste of time. Not to mention three years spent on a very bad cause.

There are other ways of building your abilities that don't involve becoming a brainwashed robot for three years. Looking at people in Europe or the States, I don't feel I, or any of my Israeli friends, are superior to them in anything merely for having gone through a military experience. And since that experience involved, for most of us, maltreatment of Palestinians who never personally did us wrong in their lives, I even think we need to be ashamed.
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From:wildernesscat
Date:July 23rd, 2003 11:37 pm (UTC)
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I'm sorry you feel that way about the IDF. My experience in the army didn't involve any mistreatment of anyone. I think it gave me lots of tools to face the "real world out there", and of course a tremendous working experience in my field (computer programming).
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From:domitian
Date:July 24th, 2003 02:06 pm (UTC)
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I don't think it's quite proper to discuss the IDF as if it is primarily there to build our characters, a stage we need to go through in order to prepare ourselves for life. More than anything else the IDF is an instrument of government policy. The IDF has a single Chief of Staff; It has a single purpose; It is a mechanism, and we were all part of it. Sure, you only wrote a program wherever they do those things. But that program served part of the army's larger purpose, which for most of the past ten years involved senseless repression of anyone not Jewish.

Besides, I think that the best way to obtain 'tools to face the world out there' would be to simply face it. Sure beats serving in an organisation whose head is mainly famous for the cold-blooded killing of a political leader whose wife and kids watched the whole scene.

Of course I'm smart to talk; I served more than three years without squeaking. But then maybe I can excuse myself and say those were different times.
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From:wildernesscat
Date:July 24th, 2003 11:15 pm (UTC)
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If I minded the "big picture" as much as you do, I'd probably refuse to serve, as some people do these day. I was content in what I was doing, learned a lot, met lots of fascinating people, went to lots of new places, made some intimate acquaintances, and had the time of my life. Your mileage may vary.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:July 26th, 2003 07:59 am (UTC)

I totally agree, and had the same insight.

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A feeling of disappointing your commander and "not being a good soldier" during Basic training + having a command duty yourself (later on, of course) = almost complete character transformation, for the better.
I too am a diffrent person thanks my military service, and I think that being Kravi intensify it even more.
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From:ijon
Date:July 27th, 2003 10:53 am (UTC)

Re: I totally agree, and had the same insight.

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Thanks. I would be better able to appreciate your response if you revealed your identity, though.
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From:passacaglio
Date:July 27th, 2003 12:16 pm (UTC)

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There's much point to this.
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