Dirty Uniforms and Red Pantaloons

Since coming to Israel to live, it is fascinating to notice the soldiers who are educated in a different military system than the one that I am a veteran of.  However, there are some constants that never change and are the components of any successful military organization in any country and any age in history.

In 1984, I and a buddy of mine took leave from Germany and flew to Israel.  For both of us, it was our first time.  We spent a shabbat on a kibbutz.  I was amazed at the dedication of the Nachal troops who had just conducted a patrol and had come back dirty from head to toe.  They were cleaning their Galil assault rifles before they cleaned themselves.  Suddenly, I realized that they were not so different from us.  Just like us, they cleaned their weapons first thing upon returning from the field.  They were soldiers just like us.  Good soldiers everywhere share a good habit, that is, discipline.

Let’s fast forward events to late 2018.  I was on the bus on a busy Sunday.  Anyone who has lived in Israel for awhile knows that on Sunday, the buses are packed with servicemen and women coming back from their weekend passes with their families.  Unlike the US Army where I did not return home for two years, Israel is a small country and it is easy for people to go home.

That was not the only thing that sunk into my observant eyes that morning.  I saw four paratroopers resplendent in neat uniforms.  What shocked me was that their Tavor assault rifles were dirty, visibly so even from a few feet away.  As a former US Army enlisted man and officer, I know what the implications of that are.  That is a lack of discipline.  By the way soldiers, don’t try that with an M-16 or an M-4.  These ladies are high maintenance and will let you down without that special tender loving care and are not as forgiving as their cousin the Tavor (at least that is the reputation).

I am not the only person who has noticed it.  The difference is, he has noticed it twice, once after the disastrous 2006 Second Lebanon War and upon his leaving duty near the end of 2018.  That was the retiring Ombudsman of the Israeli Army, Major General Yitzhak Brick.  He pronounced that the Israeli armed forces were not ready for war.

General Brick piled a lot of that responsibility upon what he called the culture of the military here.  In lay terms, that is a lack of discipline.  The tragic thing that he noted was that the culture had not changed since 2006.  Two veterans of the 2006 Lebanon War that I have talked to agree with that completely.  Both veterans, one a tanker and the other an infantryman described the disjointed advances and withdrawal from that tragic conflict.

For you guys who have not been in the military, this is how the culture thing breaks down.  It functions all the way up and down the chain of command.  Disciplined leaders inspire disciplined behavior from their subordinates and enforce that discipline (if allowed).  This does not have to involve corporal punishment.

However, infractions such as not cleaning a weapon or not respecting and obeying orders can’t be tolerated in any military because it can get people killed.  Soldiers need to do their job competently and completely when they are ordered to because it necessary for victory.  War is a hard taskmaster and a screw up often means a deadly execution for a soldier.  Soldiers not adhering to discipline must be punished and leaders not enforcing that discipline need to be relieved.

The other thing I have noticed is that Israeli soldiers are wearing the same uniforms they wore 35 years ago when I first saw them.   When I entered the US Army in 1982, it was phasing out the old olive drab  fatigues for the new Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) which came in woodland and desert patterns.  BDUs were resistant to infrared heat signatures.  It took another couple of decades for the US Armed Forces to be issued the current multiple camoflage scheme you now see.  The new uniforms are resistant to not just infrared, but also radar detection systems.

Why the Israeli military is only one of a few in the world to retain old uniforms is anyone’s guess.  I have only seen one article from last year broaching the subject.  Written by a US Army veteran of later times than I, he noted that multiple camouflage uniforms were just then (June, 2018) being tested with paratroop units.

I hate to be the naysayer, but I would suggest that the Israeli Army gets its act in gear.  Iran, Lebanon and Hezbollah all have these uniforms.  Additionally, Hezbollah and Iran both have recent combat experience in the killing fields of Syria.  Frankly, I don’t think the forays into Gaza and the West Bank and border skirmishes are fair appraisals of the Army capabilities.  However, realize that we face a combat tested enemy in Hezbollah that is surely the most deadly enemy around.  We need every advantage we can get.

Meanwhile, we might as well be running off to combat in red pantaloons like the French Army did in 1914.  Somehow, I just don’t understand the lack of priority for protecting our troops with something as simple as the right clothing. Trust me, the shekels are worth it.

About the Author
Akiva ben Avraham is a former community college adjunct, US Army intelligence analyst and officer, and a caregiver.