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The IDF and the Twenty-Something Malaise

January 5, 2011

During one of my college summers, I went to Israel on a Birthright trip.  There is a lot I can say (and probably will say over the next few months of posts) about this experience, but for this post the focus will be on a discussion of Israel’s military force.  Israel is one of 32 countries around the world that, as of 2010, practice mandatory conscription, and one of 15 countries that conscript women as well as men.  The result of this universal conscription is that all citizens between the ages of 18 to 21 if male, and 18 to 20 if female, experience what it means to be a soldier.  (Okay, so not completely true, if you are an ultra-Orthodox Jew, you can be exempted from service.  This loophole is actually a becoming an increasingly polarized issue in Israel today).

When I was in Israel, six Israeli soldiers were placed with our group for the duration of our trip, ostensibly for our protection as well as to allow us to get to know people our own age in Israel.  There were two aspects of this I noted and was surprised by: first, how quickly I, an American, got used to and comfortable with being surrounded by loaded guns held by teenagers, and second, how, for lack of a better word – normal, average, like us –  all the soldiers seemed.  Let me explain.

In America, like most countries, military service is voluntary.  Thus, for a person to choose to be in the military, it reveals something about who they are, whether that is a penchant for guns, a true belief in supporting American foreign policy or simply a need to have the military pay for college.  The point is, choosing to be in the military is a decision that a minority of citizens make, and this means that there is a stereotype of what kind of people join the military.  For instance, in films, soldiers are portrayed as highly masculine; smart, but not intellectual; tough, and not particularly in touch with their emotions.

Thus, what immediately struck me in Israel, that due to a lack of choice (In Israel, the army joins you!) you had all types of people in the army, including individuals who you would never see as part of the armed forces in the US.  It was as normal a path as college (more so as approximately 88% of Israelis serve, and only 27.5% of Americans complete college) and that was reflected not just in the personalities of the soldiers I met, but also in the type of jobs that the army supplied personnel for.

For instance, Zaki, fun-loving and goofy, was serving out his last year of military service by being a talk show host on Israel National Radio.  He gave us a tour of the building that he aired from and let us gabble into a few mikes that weren’t being used.  The station looked very similar to the one I visited in DC for NPR, except that instead of being manned by middle-aged, erudite looking men and women dressed all in black, it was completely run and controlled by kids in military fatigues.

Rotem, on the other hand, pointed out the purple braid running down the shoulders of her uniform and told us that it signified that she was an army social worker.  She had never seen combat, though she had served in the Golan Heights on the Lebanese border for a while.   Ayelet, a slight girl who grew up in America and voluntarily returned to Israel so she could enlist in the Israeli army, was a drill instructor for first year soldiers.  Lola was trained in hand to hand combat and lived with her mom on the weekends when off duty.  Guy played guitar off-key; he must have had an additional military designation, but what I remember best was his playing of ‘Time of Your Life” by Green Day.  Nofar was a quiet, nerdy soldier who carried her gun with more care than the rest of the soldiers, never letting it hang loosely when she hugged people or ran around.  It was their very normalcy, in combination with the admittedly cool job that Zaki handled with such panache that made me critically re-examine my beliefs about a draft.

These soldiers believed, at age 18-21, that they had power.  They felt a sense of efficacy.  They had jobs that affected the world around them and people treated them with respect.  They were some of the most optimistic people I’ve met, and I do think that is in part because they knew that they had the ability to affect change, not only survive in the adult “real” world but be an important part of it.

Compare that to the way American early twenty-somethings feel after they leave college, or after high school, if higher education is not their goal.  Increasingly, there is something that has been termed “the quarter life crisis” or “the price of privilege” or what I like to call ‘the twenty-something malaise.’  Young Americans, particularly upper-middle class ones, are having a growing dissociation between who they are and what they are doing in life.  They feel buffeted by the world around them, and feel as unable to change their circumstances as a child would be (what they not-so-secretly fear to still be).  In short, American youth lack optimism about their own abilities, and become paralyzed, especially if they have the perfectionist, materialist and success-driven mindset of a type A, New Englander personality.  Add the terrible economy into the mix (an economy that is driving up unemployment among the young at higher rates than with the general adult population) and you get a perfect storm of alienated and depressed talented young people who blog instead of labor to find a better job. (I know, I know, here’s to the ladies who lunch – everybody laugh).

Back to the soldiers.  Not only do they have a task and a job that is structured (and thus a stepping stone between childhood and adulthood, much like how college provides structure), they have a job that is meaningful and important.  Unlike college students who work to improve their own human capital, Israeli soldiers are developing a personal skill set while also interacting and being part of their nation’s economy.  They therefore develop the notion that yes, they can affect change, and no, they are not reliant on their parents to survive (they have power in and of their own decisions).  Being in the army teaches a sense of pragmatism about their place in the world such that when they stop being in the service and attend university or get a job, the experience of fending for themselves is not a Herculean task of psychologically epic proportions.  It’s just what you do.

There is a dark side to youth having so much power as well, of course.  The recent news article in the Washington Post about the unarmed 24 year-old Palestinian that was shot at the West Bank border can be seen as an example of that.  The Palestinian was killed when a nearby soldier panicked and mistook a bottle in his hand as a weapon.  It is possible that had the soldier not been so young when she was given that gun and heavily instilled doctrine that Israel is surrounded by enemies, that the story would have ended differently.  The bottle of water might have stayed just a bottle of water.

So, to conclude,  would I have wanted to be drafted?  Hell no, I don’t respond well to authority and don’t look good in camouflage.  But still, it is hard to deny, especially in the face of an increasingly depressed and lost generation of middle to upper class American twenty-somethings, that the power and confidence the Israeli army experience afforded its younger citizens is an intriguing, if impossible, solution to the current malaise of being young and real-world inexperienced in bad economy.

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