Army, prison, and male behavior towards women

I begin my opinion piece with the statement that there is never an excuse or rationale for physical, emotional, financial, or any other abuse of women or men for that matter. But, the phenomenon exists and it exists among us.

I was having a conversation with someone the other day who said “I would never want to be a woman in Israel”…Well, that peaked my curiosity so I asked him if he meant being a woman in general or specifically an Israeli woman. He responded emphatically, “an Israeli woman”.

In his opinion, Israeli men (mostly teens and young adults) treat woman in this country poorly. He stated strongly “We are the worst country in the world for young woman to live in”. I was quite taken aback by his words. Maybe as a man growing up in a religious environment, I am not fully aware of the gendered reality of our general society but on the other hand, I have been around the block my share of times. I have seen and been part of our society’s multicultural tapestry, have had much exposure to various religions and cultural norms, and have friends from all different walks of life. I never would have expressed this sentiment so vehemently, so all encompassing. Yet, he continued our conversation with stories we both knew- sharing what some men have done to women in Israel, questioning if these horrific stories could label Israeli society as terrible, as to be the “worst” in the world. Whether I agreed or disagreed (considering the facts of world violence to women), it got me thinking why would this even be said.

Being that this issue is reported often concerning young male adults (from teens to ages 20s-30s), my degree in the Psychological Sciences including criminology behooved me to try to theorize what could be the source of this behavior. I wanted to be optimistic, to say there are no bad people, just bad environments. Personality, family background, and habit development aside, I pondered what could be an additional trigger for these young men to act in such a barbaric way. In my work alongside soldiers, both during my mandatory service as well as in my civilian life, I began to formulate a thought. I bring it before you, the reader, to open up a discussion and test its relevancy.

Army rules and prison rules and their methods of enforcement are quite similar. Now don’t misunderstand me- there is here a stretched comparison of apples to oranges, and I am not implying that a soldier is a prisoner. After all, soldiers are dedicated to protect us as well as keep the peace in the country, while prisoners are usually the perpetrators of harm in some form, causing disturbance in the country. One is seen as guided by law and a hero, the other being someone who did not uphold the law and is feared. Yet, stick with me here, hear me out.

“Get off the bus you maggots, you’re nothing; you’re the scum of the earth! I am going to make you wish you were never born”.  Both in the army and in prison your first encounter is with someone is charge, usually yelling, who could be a drill sergeant or officer in the army, where in prison it may be with a warden or governor, superintendent.  Their behavior nevertheless towards their wards is often similar though going by a different name. With yelling and screaming a form of common communication while being moved from place to place, both soldiers and prisoners  are stripped of their clothes, given a crew cut, denied personal belongings [all part of one’s identity], and eventually are formed into one homogeneous group where everyone looks exactly like everyone else, with no differences based on intentions, background, value system, etc. Soldier- well, “You are now the property of the army, now”- No one is unique, colorful, no- the me is replaced by the we…

Now before I go on, I know this may sound exaggerated, the start of a horror movie, but believe me- many an eighteen year old kid experiences their entry in the army just like this. Try to look at it from their perspective (with a sociological eye). Basic training- All day you are denied any individual decision- making whether it be when and what you eat; where, how, and how much you sleep; when, how , and who you talk to and who you don’t. You are retaught everything you thought you knew from scratch and if you don’t comply, there is a unique, sometimes degrading punishment for every infraction. Everyone wears the same clothes and is entitled to the same equal rights- some more equal than others. You are given an hour for personal time with your entire platoon. You get to make quick calls once a day with no privacy available with everyone being everywhere into everyone’s business. Cultural immersion like this can certainly cause cultural shock. Of course this can differ in the army depending on the person’s personality, support system, if the soldier is in a combat unit or not, what stage of army service, rank, etc.…

But isn’t this all true in a prison setting as well? The prison environment takes a person and neutralizes their uniqueness. Replacing individualism is the work done within the prison wall’s confinement. Inmates become government property. Everything needs approval, with many overseers, rules, roles, all budgeted. With barely any connection to the civilian world, everyone knows who you are by the uniform you are wearing, the orange suit of the inmate. In the army, this regimented life is part of a process to prepare soldiers to cope automatically in war times, and have inborn instincts with planned responses to avoid “choking up” at the wrong moment. Maybe this also helps an inmate cope with being locked up- routines, rules, set responses- avoiding mistakes. Discipline.

So consider this: With no control over one’s life and a constant feeling of being a nothing, worthless, a human robot expected to not think but follow orders, with no personal space, or a safe space, what does this “training” do to a person’s headspace?  . …and here’s a scary thought, in place of parents or teachers  who are supposed to guide, teach, and empower- instilling values, role models are for one – fellow inmates or prison offices and for the other, a pre-pubescent 19 year old officer. Could all this bring a soldier, similar to those who are incarcerated, to exhibit inappropriate/aggressive behaviors when he is on leave? Let me state clearly, I am in no way rationalizing or excusing such behavior, I am merely postulating what might trigger such behavior.

Once soldiers get home, their focus is to unwind. They want to feel in control again. Some display acting out behavior in order to do something… anything that is not permitted to them on day to day basis in the army. It’s like a coming out party for some, when they are on leave and take off that uniform. They become transformed into someone else. Sadly for some of them, their search for power and control may display itself in their behavior towards young women they meet. It has been documented that prisoners, as well, when on furlough or released, can oft times display this type of behavior as well. Of course, this is not seen in all, but enough for society to notice and wonder, why?

Could these feelings of loss of power, identity, control- be one of the triggers of the antisocial, aggressive, violent behavior we read about in the newspaper- in soldiers on leave or discharge? It is my opinion that this could be part of the story, worthy of attention and research by the army, worthy of investing in programs for socialization of soldiers concerning acceptable behavior out of the army and regimented behavior in the army. Teaching that balance, while assessing for those who have difficulty keeping that balance.

Now considering how many young men in Israel get drafted and go through the system called the IDF, I think there should be some thought given to this theory. For many young soldiers, their time in the army is their first time with young women in a “professional setting”, sharing close quarters, attempting to cope with the sexual tension underlying their regimented army life. The army, unfortunately, has had its share of sexual harassment cases, reported sexual abuse/ rape, abuses of power and rank, for both men and women. As a past combat soldier, currently in reserves, working with soldiers on a day to day basis, rarely if any have I heard of such a training offered to the soldie

It’s not random that the word “discharged” is used for both the army and prison. If there is an investment in courses to help prisoners learn how to be a civilians again, what is acceptable behavior and what is not,  maybe there is a place to do the same for those who are defending this country. If we don’t start offering frameworks for life lessons to these young impressionable adults at such a crucial stage in their life, then our young military personnel may take on the challenges of those who find themselves behind prison walls.

About the Author
Ari Wruble has a BA from Ariel University in behavioral sciences and is a certified life coach. He is a full-time advisor and advocate (Hasbara) for Lone Soldiers, Lone Bnot Sheirut and olim families regarding national service at The Michael Levin Base. Ari loves to find the time to write things as he sees them.