I spent months in the Israeli army doing absolutely nothing
Shir Reuven, Haaretz, Jul 16 2016
The Second Lebanon War began the day I flew to Turkey with a girlfriend on her pre-army trip. Until that day, it had been an operation to bring back two kidnapped soldiers, but now Ehud Olmert had declared war. War. The word sounded so heavy, and its use overly exaggerated to describe the event. I’d met Olmert, at the time a senior minister in Ariel Sharon’s government, a year earlier at a restaurant in Abu Ghosh, outside Jayloomia. My grandmother said to me:
That’s Ehud Olmert over there.
Hey, Grandma, are you in love with him?
I bet you don’t have the guts to go over and have your picture taken with him.
What are you talking about?
And I walked over to ask if we could be photographed together. Olmert was pleasant, strong, and smelled like soap. A person like that can at the most run the bureaucracy of a war: meet with people wearing nicely ironed clothes, make decisions, sign documents with an expensive pen. Use of the word “war” is intended to evoke in people a Greek chorus of sentiments, like the words “home,” “sex” and “murder.”
Photo: Shula Cohen
The sentiments themselves were served up with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, out of a sense of obligation, like someone who has been compelled to host a person he doesn’t like and offers him his bed, but then puts the cheap sheets on it. For example, stickers with blue-and-white letters on them that read “We Will Win.” Of course we will win. The sticker’s text is just a pretense that there is a doubt. In a world in which there are no real wars, there are no defeats, either. There’s only the bureaucracy of defeat. If we lose people whom I do not know, someone will also have to draft reports that will at some time in the future lead to actions that I will never hear about. It all happened thousands of kilometers from the volcanoes that these big words constitute, words that lost their meaning from overuse during the course of the long summer.
In Turkey, the friend I was travelling with checked Ynet every night from the hotel lobby, and read aloud the news flashes to me. It embarrassed me, and I was happy that there weren’t any other Israeli guests in the hotel who could understand what she was doing. Whenever tall, thin Europeans looked at us, I pretended she was reading out something else: maybe the secrets of wretched people we knew and who had stayed behind, stuck in the land we’d come from. In actuality, she was saying that families from the center of the country were hosting families from the north, that hungry soldiers were looting grocery stores in order to survive, that there were intelligence and logistical screw-ups, that there wasn’t enough equipment and that whatever equipment there was had passed its do-not-use date and was unsuitable. I wanted to go to the hotel bar and have a few cocktails, so that an hour later we could kiss and say, “Wow, we are so drunk,” instead of “Wow, we are so lesbian.” After a few news flashes, I would say:
Enough, I couldn’t care less. You can’t believe how much I couldn’t care less. What does this have to do with me?
I was drafted six months later. The army sent me to be tested for all sorts of positions, and I took buses to cities where some distant relatives lived. After the testing, I’d stay with them until the last train. I hadn’t developed the instincts that would take me to interesting places, so I would do the same things at every destination, eat the same sandwich from the same cafe and sit by the same window on every train. Smiling female soldiers who interviewed me would say things like:
The IDF of after the war is a different IDF, and we are looking for quality people.
I knew whom they were looking for to fill their ugly jobs: boys who’d begun to shave too late, and girls who’d had the same haircut since kindergarten. Why ask how many units of math I’d studied for my matriculation, when it was possible to ask for a picture of me from when I was 5 years old. I could have responded to the questions they asked with sweet little lies, and let them dispatch me to fill those quality positions, but I didn’t want to. There isn’t anything “quality” that comes along with a sticky kitchenette filled with generic tea bags. When I went into the army, it was without any pre-assigned position. The assignment officer said:
You can choose to be either a bureau clerk or an intelligence observation soldier along the border fence.
What is a bureau clerk?
It’s a clerk, but for someone with a higher rank.
I said nothing. He asked:
You don’t want to know what an intelligence observation soldier does?
My cousin did that and she got an ingrown hair on her ass.
He said, wait a second. Half an hour later he came back, and said:
You’ve got good skills. I’m putting you in Intelligence. A quality position.
Two months later, I arrived at the Kirya, the sprawling IDF base in Tel Aviv. My time was no longer my own, so no one thought twice about wasting it. It wasn’t anything personal. I would spend hours sitting on a chair, waiting for an interview with the adjutant of the corps, and then, at 5:30 pm, she would stomp out of her office and walk straight into the elevator. Her clerk would ask me to return the following day. This went on for two weeks. At one point during this waiting game, the clerk explained to me that I was part of the injection of new personnel the Intelligence Corps was getting in the wake of the war. The IDF had been disappointed with what had happened that summer, and was now trying to smooth out all the bugs in the system. Meanwhile, all sorts of charmless officers began to engage in showy battles, taking on groups that could not or did not want to respond to them. Elazar Stern, head of the Human Resources Directorate, a fellow who looked like he was pickled in vinegar and was now granting interviews from inside a barrel in the delicatessen, would repeat ad nauseam:
I want to restore the army to its former glory, and restore the look of embarrassment to the faces of those who have shirked their responsibilities.
Illustration: Roei Regev
The new army chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, who resembled an exceedingly angry person in the shape of a perfect cube, declared that when he went to war, there wouldn’t be any question about who had won. Such aggressive declarations can only come from someone who has discovered that he is soft inside and is in a deep panic about it. He headed a rich and powerful organization that was acting like someone enrolled in a course on the art of persuasion, who is trying to display bogus self-confidence held together with rubber bands and paper clips. In the end, I was assigned to a certain unit. When I asked what my position would be, the officer said they would find something for me, that it was a quality place. Israel was founded less than a century ago and so it is constantly having to prove that it exists, that it is an equal among empires like those of China, England and Italy, countries for which there is bona fide evidence of their existence, and which even if they were to cease to exist would leave enough fossils in their wake, in the form of buildings or cuisine or language. The object of the IDF is not to defend against armed enemies seeking to invade the country, but to prove over and over again that Israel is real. An elegant way to accomplish that is to measure everything. If it is measurable, it exists. That is why the army defines the proper distance between earring and ear, defines the time it should takes to go to the bathroom and back, defines the position of a soldier’s hands when he approaches an officer. It is not petty; it saves every small detail from the amorphous forces that are liable to bring down the whole enterprise. Even adjectives have to be measured. “Quality” in the world outside of the Kirya is a positive word with a cheap aftertaste. A sofa upholstered in “quality” leather. When a thing is truly quality, there is no need for a word to describe it as such. Within the IDF, my commander was “quality.” In order to demonstrate that, he put a small picture of Pink Floyd on his office wall. We didn’t get along. Everyone around me worked on software that I didn’t understand, probed and examined things I couldn’t decipher, and acted as if they were preparing for some big thing, and I couldn’t understand what it was. I didn’t have a position or a desk or any tasks. I was like one of those young models who are paid $400 to drink at rich people’s parties. I was there to demonstrate by my presence how strong the Intelligence Corps was, so strong that it can allow itself an abundance that lacks any purpose. It has the logic of a rap-music clip: Look at the white tigress sitting there amid the piles of dollar bills, look at this sad soldier girl eating Pringles on an office chair. A few weeks later, I walked into the commander’s office and said:
I’m not doing anything, let me be reassigned.
We need personnel, find yourself something to do.
I waited for my position to somehow emerge from the routine that had developed, a means of passing the time from one side of eight am to the other side of 5:30 pm. A phalanx of military policemen stood outside the Kirya and demanded that I and the other soldiers accept the fact that we were organs in a larger body, and that we had to represent it with dignity. I decided to be the appendix: an atrophied organ that kills its host if it bursts apart. For a few months, this was my plan: I’d get off the train at 8 am, buy a half-kilo of croissants and eat them while standing in line to enter the base. Before lunch, I’d go to the canteen and buy a chocolate milk, a massive potato boureka and a chocolate bar. At lunch, every lunch, I’d eat at McDonalds and look over the Kirya from the window of the nearby Azrieli Mall, praying the Iranians would make good on their cute threats and launch a missile at us. I wanted to quote them with magic marker on a seat in the back of a bus. Iran: Israel is a country of cobwebs. Iran: We will destroy the IDF. Iran: Shahab missiles will wipe out the Kirya.
Photo: Nir Kafri
If they would just do it, I would call my firstborn daughter Shahab. I fantasized how everyone would be fleeing the shopping mall in panic, trying to put some distance between them and the fire that was liable to spread by way of the bridge, and I would stay to finish my McRoyal and gaze at the buildings as they turned black. I gained 13 kilos. Even though I had no job, my commander wanted me to behave as if I had one. If I sat in the hall reading a book, he would roll his eyes at me and say, testily: Shir, what are you doing? I’d say: Reading a book. He’d answer: Then stop reading and arrange these documents for me in chronological order. After the lunch break, he would cursorily scan them on his way out, and say: What’s this? Why did you do this? Shred them. I understood that he was much stronger than me and that all I could do was exploit his own power against him. Like in Judo. Quality people have their weak points. For instance, values that they are obliged to respect, relating to family, health, hunger. These are things that a quality person can’t be apathetic about, but that they also wouldn’t fake. This is the delicate balance on which these sorts of units rely. I couldn’t sit in the hallway and read a book without my commander pestering me, so I’d walk up to him every morning and say: I’m hungry. Or that there was a memorial service for my grandfather in another hour. Or that I had a stomach ache. He’d look annoyed, and say: Go to the infirmary. He didn’t have a choice. If he had insisted, if he’d told me to remain in the office and wait for it to pass, if he’d accuse me of lying, some clerk would come in and steal away his title. I would sit for hours on the infirmary’s filthy steel chairs, looking at fat television sets drilling their morning shows into my brain. I couldn’t believe that somewhere in Israel, there were people who got up in the morning, put on their clothes and sat in front of cameras to talk about things like childhood obesity or homeopathic remedies. After a few months, I walked into a meeting and my commander, all flushed and serious, said:
Someday I am going to get a phone call, and they are going to tell me that it happened.
I said to the person standing alongside me:
I love his poetry so much.
She didn’t respond. In early September, a minute before I was supposed to head home, they told everyone that we didn’t have authorization to leave. I went down to ask what happened. No one told me. I said to my commander: I’m going home, I have a memorial service. He said: No one’s leaving, these are orders from above. I went into a dark and empty room, turned on the air conditioner to 17 degrees, and went to sleep. Two weeks later, I read in a newspaper that according to foreign press reports, Israel had attacked nuclear facilities in Syria. Gabi Ashkenazi paid a visit to the unit. My commander saluted, resembling a pile of dough that thinks it’s a person. Gabi Ashkenazi saluted him back and let him lead him on a tour. All the soldiers had been told to sit by their computers and work as usual. I went into the officers’ room and played Freecell. My commander, with the chief of staff right behind him, passed by, glanced inside, saw me and quietly closed the door. When the tour was over, he called me into his office and said:
Shir, I am releasing you from here.
I said: Thank you very much. He started writing and every so often asked leading questions, such as: You are not content with your service here, right? And then he went back to his typing, pecking heavily and angrily at the keyboard. After a few minutes, he stopped and said:
How do I put it that I’m not content with you, either?
What do you mean, it isn’t in the songs of Pink Floyd?
He said nothing. I said:
Due to the fact that the lack of satisfaction was mutual.
He went back to typing, sent it off to the printer, and said:
Okay, take the letter to the adjutant’s office and they will reassign you. You should know I feel bad that we didn’t get along. You really were a quality soldier.