I Want to Tell You about My Army

I want to tell you about the army. The IDF. There is something about the aura of this army. It is hard to explain, but there is something so elemental about it, which sets it apart from other armies.

Perhaps it is because of the heroic story of its birth, in Israel’s determined struggle to establish a state. From the seeds of the necessity for self defense against Arab marauders, which precipitated the birth of Hashomer, to the Jewish Agency’s Brigade to defend the Yishuv. Perhaps it is the legacy of its legendary forebears, like Trumpeldor, or the middle aged General, Yitzhak Sade. Made it is the night patrols trained by Wingate, taking farmers and creating a paramilitary ethos out of a people who never knew the meaning of bearing arms. Or, the humble beginnings of the Hagana, as part-time farmers and part-time soldiers.

Or the illogical audacity, to form and train an elite unit like the Palmach, with little or no resources, and with no military tradition or guide book to follow – and it became the fear of the fledgling country’s enemies.

Perhaps it is the stunning achievement of how this rag-tag force, which had no time to really prepare, went to war and overcame, against staggering odds, the fully equipped and hardened armies, trained by the armies of the most powerful empires in the world, armies with years of experience and tradition behind them. The most moving part of this history for me was ironically an account that ended in failure. When I read about the Battle of Latrun, of how men – and women, Holocaust survivors, and still emaciated from their ordeal – disembarked from the ships which smuggled them into the country, and went/were taken straight to the front lines given old, tired armored vehicles and tanks and sent in to battle against the Jordanian Army, which was trained by the British, I was in total awe. They could not even communicate, they knew no Hebrew, but they were catapulted into battle. And the amazing thing, is they *fought*, like there may not be a tomorrow. Many lost their lives, but none deserted. We lost that battle, but it was our side which came away with anonymous heroes, and so many of them.

Group of soldiers in battle near Latrun (Courtesy of zionistarchives.org.il).

And this is what has always been at the heart of the army, my army. The human spirit, which refused to be conquered. In the War of Independence, and again in the Yom Kippur War, we prevailed, not because of the strategic genius of our generals, or the flawless execution of military plans, but because of this grit, this determination and sacrifice in the knowledge that there is no-one else but us; the ability and ingenuity of the simple man, to improvise, to think outside the box and find a way. And this is what makes the IDF special. And I am proud to say that I was a part of that.

I spent two plus years as a regular and something close to twenty something months in the reserves, a month a year. What minuscule proportion of the sixty years of my life does this period constitute? Yet there were moments in those few months and indelible memories, which have done more to define who I am today than, the 25 years I have spent in my job, day after day, week after week. I remember wading into a minefield on the Lebanese border, with huge foam rubber “sandals” on my feet feeling like an absolute idiot, and that I was going to tear my crotch apart from having to walk so spread, in order to create a security perimeter and save a man who had his foot blown off by a landmine, half of said foot which lay on the side of the road, which I saw when I opened the door to the jeep. I remember standing on the side of a freezing cold mountain in Lebanon, watching the steam while I urinated, and thinking, “What the f&%k am I doing here? I didn’t come to Israel in order to die in this God forsaken, war-torn country”. I remember the shock of seeing the bodies of my friends and comrades ripped apart and fly in the air from a shell fired to the wrong coordinates in a training accident – and spending the next exhausting day traversing the country to attend funeral after funeral. And I remember the exquisite taste of fresh coffee, brewed on the exhaust pipe of a personnel carrier. And the camaraderie. Two years and change, in a life of almost 60, and the impact the army has had on my life, is incalculable.
I volunteered for the army at age 23. I started boot camp at 24. I knew it was going to be weird, when my NCO’s who told me what to do, were younger the age difference between me and the my Chanichim in my last year of Habonim Dror, prior to my Aliya. I learned things about myself in those six months that I never conceived.

The funny thing about the army, is when you are in it, you basically hate it and wish you were somewhere else. But at the same time, you wouldn’t actually choose not to be there. Except when I was in Lebanon. But then, my commitment to my soldiers and comrades was such that I would never have left them alone in that shit, no matter what. And when out of the army, whenever there is a crisis, your first reaction is to want to put the uniform back on and volunteer to do whatever is needed, to be a part of the national effort, to defend the people and the country. You think, “I have the skill set, put it to use”, even though you will hate every minute, doing what needs to be done. That’s the IDF. That’s what’s special about it.

I want to say something else about the army. The army is vitally central to the fabric of Israeli society. It is a necessity, which we cannot do without. And in Israel’s situation, where it is constantly in conflict, the willingness to serve, is a positive, admirable value. All our children serve in it, connecting each and every one of us. Every time we hear of a soldier being attacked, or the army “going in”, we think if our children are there, or children of people we know, and we worry. It’s a personal kind of worry, a worry even for people you don’t know, because you know it could easily be you. That’s what bonds us together and to the IDF.

However, we must be careful not to mistake nationalism with patriotism, and when the army as an institution is an absolute value, an end in and of itself, that is militarism. And when mixed with nationalism, it is a poison to society. That includes Israel. The difference is that service in the IDF is an existential necessity, to fulfill the goal of protecting us. However, to make the army the goal itself, as the “only” way to express one’s patriotism, is to place disproportionate value on the function of the army, and it is dangerous to our democracy.
One last thing: people who dedicate their lives to serve in the army, are extraordinary. They have a sense of service which runs deep in their veins. It is not a job, it is a calling, and it takes a special kind of character to dedicate one’s life to it. There is a sense of doing something meaningful, and important, because their service is. And for it, these people sacrifice time with their families. They lose hours spent with their children, seeing them grow. They miss babies’ first steps, and the magic of witnessing the moment of new discovery in their babies’ eyes. Instead, they taste the dust in their mouths and nostrils. They feel the sweat soaking their backs as they spend hours in heavy webbing. And they feel the weight of responsibility of our well-being on their shoulders, at all hours of day and night.
So, when a 28 year old spoiled brat, who never tasted the dust, or felt the sweat, or what it feels like to swallow your fear to keep it at bay, with endless hours of controlled panic and of adrenaline driving you forward in pursuit of a terrorist, or in a firefight, who ate gourmet take outs at night, while others sip water from a plastic water bottle sparingly, just to wet the lips and to save the water for later (who knows when he will really need it?), mocks and disrespects someone who has given all that for decades in a flippant, obscene tweet, trying to show how clever and witty he is, anyone who has served should repudiate him. And when his father, who was an officer, and knows what this kind of dedication, self-denial and sacrifice entails, and whose own brother made the ultimate sacrifice, fails to admonish his son for this travesty, and let’s this abomination continue out of political expedience, then you know the time has come for him to go.

“Who ate gourmet take outs at night, while others sip water from a plastic water bottle sparingly” (Courtesy Mahal-IDF-Volunteers,org)
About the Author
Paul Mirbach made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.
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