Getting off of the bus at night was probably the biggest shock. I was herded into our first formation, and basically ran formations in time for an hour or two. I was introduced to our actual commanders, who proceded to yell at and threaten us for a good hour straight before we even put our bags down. Only after I put some stuff down did I begin to take in my surroundings.
The base I’m at is called Machaneh Shmonim. It’s an old, old base- a relic from the British occupation. I sleep in yellowed, torn tents at least 30 years old, all clearly demarcated by a US ARMY stamp. The whole place looks a little run down, with frayed roads and barbed wire fences littered with clothes and shoes. But it’s set in an absolutely beautiful area on the hillside town of Pardes-Chana, which overlooks Ceasaria. The air is clean and the view is spectacular. The base is full of Eucalyptus trees and on break I often find myself marveling at just how beautiful it is. I’m not on break often, but when I am it’s helpful to sit back and come back to myself a bit.
My Tironut (hebrew for basic training), is only one month and under the classification of .02. This denotes the weapons training and is the lowest a man in the army can do. This means that the basic they shipped me off to is for General army staff. This is a good sign that I’m on the right path to the journalism unit, but as I’ve learned in the army, nothing is certain until it’s signed in blood (like I did at the Bakoum). I don’t meet with the placement officer until the end of training, so that’s when I’ll know for sure. I’ve already put in a request with my commanders that if I don’t get it for some reason, I want to be transferred to combat, which I’m pretty sure won’t be a problem. They love throwing guys in combat.
Life in general here isn’t bad at all. I may be jumping the gun a bit (I get one tomorrow), but so far basic has been easy. My platoon has turned out to be pretty special, and I already have friends here. The commanders, while dicks, are somewhat good at what they do. And getting by here really isn’t all that difficult once you learn the rules of the game. But there are some downsides.
The food is terrible. Like exceptionally awful. I actually prefer the Manot Krav (combat rations) they hand out over the food they serve. Breakfast is usually cheese from a bag served with “fresh” cut vegetables, hard boiled eggs, and maybe a yogurt if you’re lucky. Dinner is the same except sub the hard boiled eggs with some “pasta.”
The weather is also incredibly bizarre. Most of the day it’s a beautiful 70+ degrees- sunny and warm, with plenty of very cool shade. There’s always a brisk breeze and it actually feels like fall sometimes. The problem comes at night. It’s fucking freezing. It drops down to like 30 or 40 every night and since we sleep in tents you feel every degree. I’ve found a system, I sleep in thermal pants and a thermal shirt, under more pants and a sweater, under a coat, in a sleeping bag. I still can’t get up in the mornings. It doesn’t warm up until 8am or so and since we wake up 3am-5am it’s cold as balls. Crawling out of my clown cocoon is the hardest part of the day.
On the other hand, sleep has been better than expected. We are guaranteed 6 hours a night and surprisingly enough, actually get it. Apparently the “Army Moms” have been putting up a huge fight with the government complaining about the treatment their precious babykins get from the army. The result is that the tales of the old IDF- coming back with scars and having commanders shoot at your feet- are pretty much gone and replaced by a commanding staff handicapped by how they can punish/abuse soldiers. Granted I’m only seeing .02 basic, but I’ve heard similar things about combat training.
But even with the 6 hours, the sleep is erratic at best. The place screws with your head a little bit. Between the cold and the fact that your in a tent with 10 other guys who all have their own bizarre sleeping habits makes getting solid sleep difficult. Also, I’ve been having bizarre half-awake dreams thinking I’m on alert, or should be in formation.
In general though, following orders is not so bad. It’s really like a big timed game of simon says with guns. You just have to learn to say the right thing at the right time to the right person with the right tone and you got it. Time is the big thing here though, you’re literally always on the clock. For you to do anything (and I mean anything) they have to “open you time.” What that means is they sync your watches and expect you to show up somewhere at a certain time. You get time to eat, to walk, to rest, to piss, to sleep, to anything. It’s never enough and very weird at first, but you get used to it.
After a while you start to see the commanders’ training a little bit, and you start to recognize it for what it is: an elaborate piece of theatre. The entire base is almost like a well rehearsed play. Every commander, soldier, new recruit plays his individual role. No matter how insignificant that role may feel sometimes, it is important. And if someone doesn’t do their part right, it sticks out like a sore thumb. There are rehearsed lines, and the better the commander is, the more it feels genuine and honest. There are always rules and guidelines, but the deeper you fall into it the less visible they become. They construct this odd atmosphere that somehow makes you fall into being a soldier.
It’s kind of amazing actually. I’m probably in the oldest 1% of the entire base. Who would have though you could take a bunch of 18-19 year olds, give them guns and a vague set of rules and end up with an army base and soldiers. Sometimes the commanders break and laugh a little and have to control themselves, which reminds you that their still kids. You always expect that the next level up you’ll finally see someone pulling the strings but it’s just not like that. It’s kids all the way up the hierarchy, each just a little bit older (like a few months) with a very slightly broader role of responsibilities.
The commanders do keep an odd distance from us though. It’s as if the worst thing in the world that could happen would be for us to be friendly with them. I suppose I understand it, but to be honest it bothers me a lot. But they do their job well (for the most part), and I really never begrudge them doing their work. I just think you can treat someone like a human being at the same time.
The commanders seem to have their own language of yelling at you. Stock phrases like “Open your watches” “Stand like you should” “What does it look like to you?” “Raise your tone!” There is also all the stereotypical punishments like push-ups, running, and being grounded at the base. They call the physical punishments Caders, a hebrew acronym for “learning through the legs.” You march, you shout, you salute. It’s all beaten into you with a rough tone and some Caders thrown in. The commanders kind of all live in this weird little movie stereotype of the army. From what I understand from everyone else, the army stops being like this after basic.
The bottom line is it’s necessary. Most of the kids flat out don’t want to be there and don’t understand what the army is or their place in it. This might be something specific to my level of tironut, since almost all of people who are here go into jobnick (daily work) units. Combat ends up being a little different, people are far more dedicated there. A lot of the people I’ve met tend to resent the army service, and view it not as an experience or a rite of passage but as a 3 year prison sentence that must be served before they can get on with their lives.
That being said it’s amazing to see the kind of change they go through in a single week. After one week you see some of the nonsense start to stop. Soldiers give less lip, they actually start being on time, wearing the uniform properly, screaming back the orders like they should.
When I first got here, I felt like the only asshole giving 100%. It wasn’t hard, and it didn’t really bother me since it was my choice to be there so I just did it. It didn’t really alienate me from the other kids either. Most of them find me to be a mystery. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “Why the fuck are you here?” Luckily that’s translated into people trying harder to get to know me. It’s made the whole experience much better. I was really worried after leaving all the Brits and Americans at the Bakoum that I wouldn’t have friends. But as it turns out, I’m making just as many friends now. My Hebrew is working out and I can actually feel it improving, getting more idiomatic. I’m also finally learning some curses.
All in all I have to say I kind of like it here. We’ll see after the month is up, but this kind renews my desire for combat. The worst part is that all the mental melodrama has to continue for another week.