What does national service do to a person, to their soul?
Growing up in a nation rocked by anti-Vietnam war protests — and reading the great American WWII novels of Kurt Vonnegut and others who cataloged just how senseless and traumatizing war can be — I came to think of military service as corrosive to the soul.
In the wake of the assault on the US Capitol, I am left to wonder what Ashli Babbitt’s 14 years of military service did to her mind and mental health. Did it play a part in leading her to become so radicalized and so alienated from the American governmental system that she was willing to travel across the country to break into the sanctum of the US democratic system that is the Capitol building, and to be part of a mob trying to violently break into the Speaker’s Lobby where lawmakers were inside — an act in which she lost her life to a Capitol policeman’s bullet?
The younger me would have assumed her military service was responsible, but since moving to Israel in 2014 and having children of my own, I’ve come to think differently about what military service is — so much so that one of my greatest hopes for them is that they will serve in the IDF one day.
It’s not that IDF service — especially if it comes in an actual shooting war — can’t be traumatic. But that’s clearly not what it is for most Israelis.
“It’s not about you,” superstar Israeli actress Gal Gadot said of her IDF service in an interview with Glamour in 2016 shortly before the Wonder Woman movie came out. “You give your freedom away. You learn discipline and respect.”
The ‘giving your freedom away’ probably grates on some American ears, but I think Gadot probably meant it in a most positive way — that you get to be part of something larger than yourself, to serve as part of a larger purpose. And then after a year or two — Gadot served two years, becoming a combat fitness instructor — it is over for most Israelis. You go on with your life. You’re allowed to pursue your own goals (although typically for males with regular interruptions for reserve service).
Often the post-army life goals include career ones jump-started by the training the soldier received in the army. In this way, the IDF functions almost like an American community college or as a work internship. It can help people get ahead.
But, based on a haunting New York Times profile of her, military service, including several tours overseas, did not help Ashli Babbitt get ahead. Her non-military jobs were in security — a field that is typically not exactly highly paid in America. Afterwards, she went into business for herself and some family members with a pool supply company, but that effort had serious financial challenges, according to the Times article.
Whatever was happening in her financial life, she clearly became very angry in her political one. In a disturbing video you can find on this New York Post page, she rants in a loud, rage-filled voice about “migrant caravans” and Democratic politicians. I felt afraid watching it.
Of course I don’t know for sure what happened to her to bring her to this rageful place. But I’m left with a lot of questions about America — and specifically about things that America can learn from Israel, all things that have to do with the relationship between the individual and the state.
The first has to do with giving back to the state that the person lives in, specifically through national service. Maybe it’s time for America to start spreading the responsibility more evenly in the way Israel does. Maybe the model of an all-volunteer army forces the US military to work too hard to convince people like Babbitt to reenlist for more years of service and more overseas deployments.
The second has to do with the state giving back to the individual. Israel is hardly the only world country that, unlike the United States, has universal healthcare, but the excellence of the Israeli system is prominently on display right now as it leads the world in the percentage of its population it’s been able to vaccinate against Covid-19.
This success has not come because things are easy here. Israel has an extremely contentious and splintered democracy with deep challenges, especially the challenge of having two very large communities — Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews — where many people doubt the state has their best interests at heart. But those doubts do not extend nearly as deeply to the medical system. Even when the ultra-Orthodox, for example, resist public health measures like social distancing, they still expect the state to provide basic care, especially medical care, for them. The average American has no such expectation and corona crisis has vividly illustrated the limits of that approach.
My final suggestion is about the nature of democracy itself. I grew up nearly worshipping the US democratic system and its Constitution as originally framed. But these four years of Trump, of Republican legislative obstructionism in the Senate and, now, this terrible desecration of the Capitol in which Babbitt lost her life point out the weaknesses of the design.
In the most recent episode of Slate’s Money podcast, host Felix Salmon was asked how other nations he has studied have been able to recover from democracy being hijacked by authoritarian leaders. “Just often they come back with a new constitution,” said Salmon. “America is by far the oldest presidential democracy in the world. Presidential democracies, by their nature, are fragile because no one really knows where the power lies.”
Israel, like most world democracies, has a parliamentary system. As someone raised in the American presidential democratic system, I sadly have to admit that I find parliamentary democracy — with its riot of multiple parties intensely scrambling to form coalitions — to be deeply confusing. But maybe it is better. With “parliamentary systems, you get more sort of short term chaos,” said Salmon. But “you get more long term stability. And the US Constitution is very old, very creaky, very fragile.”
I don’t claim to know how we can get to updating the US Constitution. But I know I am haunted by Babbitt’s words — the angry images of her speaking them — and the story of her life, including its tragic end. Israel is far from a perfect country with a perfect democracy. But Israel — especially from its example of how a deeply divided country can nonetheless find a way for the state to effectively function and maintain some kind of relationship with even the most alienated populations — may have something to teach America. I hope America is listening.