Asaf Bartov (ijon) wrote,
Asaf Bartov

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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.
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