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Saturday, January 26, 2013

In The Military

On Thursday, the Pentagon lifted its 1994 ban on women in combat. Presumably, the model the U.S. has studied for integrating women into combat is the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), which enjoys the reputation of exhibiting more gender equality than any army in the world, even though Israeli women rarely fight wars. And though Israeli woman serve as fighter pilots, infantry officers, naval captains and Humvee drivers, only 3 percent serve in combat roles. 

The Pentagon news and the Israeli example brought me back to my own military service in Israel five decades ago. 

In my yet unpublished memoir I recognize one of the happiest days of my life to be the day I left my military base for the last time. After a two-year mandatory service, checkered with numerous infractions and courts martial, I was honorably discharged from the army. I remember the great sense of liberation I felt as I walked for the last time from the barrack that was mine toward my base’s checkpoint. As I was leaving my base behind, I walked slowly and deliberately, taking great pleasure in each stride, for each step I took on the base’s main road on my way out brought me closer to freedom, my invisible shackles melting into thin air. 

I was wasted in the army, not because it did not recognize my talents. The issue was less about me than it was about the status of women of my time in the military, and about the exercise of authority, a game one had to understand and know how to play not only to succeed in the military, but to endure it.

I fit in, socially. But little did I know that it would be in the military where my own heart, that which sought wisdom and meaning and fulfillment, would clash with the structure of authority; clash, but not crash. It took tragedy, only three years after my military service ended, for me deal with power and authority the correct way.  

In spite of its grueling nature, basic training was the only good experience I had in the army. On sandy hills I learned target-shooting with my heavy, Czech-made M-16, that shook my whole body with each shot; to throw hand-grenades; to shoot an Uzi; to crawl with a heavy kit-bag filled with military gear and hide in ditches; to watch for the enemy on my left, the enemy on my right, and camouflage; to build tents, peel potatoes, wash aluminum pots ten times my size, dust my barrack, shine my boots, and press my uniform to perfection. But in the end, basic training did not mean much, since in my time women in the military, officers including, filled administrative positions only, with many lower rank female soldiers wasting their talents, often serving coffee to their male superiors and doing other mundane chores. 

On my first night’s watch duty, I was standing alone, guarding an empty spot that had but a small lone bench. The night was pitch black; the air sweet; the silence piercing. All I could see were the shining stars; all I could hear was the faded sound of barking dogs in the distance. Mutely, I was humming familiar songs in my mind so I would stop thinking about how scared I was. Suddenly I heard gun shots from somewhere afar. Fearful, I dropped my gun and ran as fast as I could, an act punishable with a jail term if caught. I do not recall where I ran to. But when all was quiet, I went back to my spot and completed my task. It made little sense to stand there alone, as did most of my military service. 

The Army did not need many of us - females who came out of high school with no skills, but it used us nonetheless, and we did not speak out. I did, in my own insignificant, yet costly way.

To my satisfaction, research and studies about the same issues I confronted appeared decades later with the maturity of the Israeli feminist movement in general and the field of women’s studies in Israeli academia in particular.

Two weeks ago my Israeli great niece Naama successfully graduated her officer's course. I would like to believe that she'll find more meaning in her service than I found in mine. 


1 comment:

  1. A wry and moving snapahot of your army experience. Thanks for this perspective,