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Pride, backaches, trauma: Some honesty about IDF combat service

The tendency to lionize combat service risks minimizing the physical, mental and professional toll that former soldiers bear for the rest of their lives
Israeli soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade take part in a training exercise where they practice how to fight door to door combat in inhabited areas in Tze'elim, southern Israel, July 10, 2014. (Flash90)
Israeli soldiers from the Paratroopers Brigade take part in a training exercise where they practice how to fight door to door combat in inhabited areas in Tze'elim, southern Israel, July 10, 2014. (Flash90)

Recently, a billboard in Herzliya caused a stir in Israeli public discourse. The sign, which was advertising a cyber competition, it included the phrase “the best to cyber.” Although a civilian initiative, the ad was an obvious play on the IDF phrase “the best to pilots [course]” (it sounds better in Hebrew), which has long lionized the Air Force. 

In a powerful rebuttal to the slogan, IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi pointed out the deeper fault lines that were exposed by this seemingly innocent campaign billboard. He emphasized that “the best are the combatants,” and that humorous or cynical knocks at this fact serve to undermine societal values and priorities. 

As a former combat soldier (and current reservist), jaded with over a decade of experience soldiering, I thought I’d “join the battle” and share my take. 

The truth is it’s complicated. 

First, let me consider the counterfactual, the alternative. The world of non-combatant military service is diverse. It ranges from cutting-edge intelligence officers to canteen operators and everything in between. Leaving aside those jobs that are truly undesirable and which lack personal fulfillment (a subjective assessment, but the kind of thing “you know when you see it”), there are plenty of positions that could be considered a “win-win.” This is because those in elite non-combat units (intelligence, cyber etc.) can serve their country in a meaningful way while gaining valuable professional skills that will serve them decades into the future. To be frank, even the paper-pushing secretaries in the Kirya acquire skills and experience that they can later market to employers on their CV. 

Let’s contrast this with combat service. 

Ten years later, the most important memory from my service that I encounter on a day-to-day basis is back pain. The second most important memory from my service is trauma from the combat operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

To be fair, there are many valuable lessons that can be learned in combat service. Things like perseverance, sacrifice, quick thinking, camaraderie in the face of adversity. These skills, however, are much more difficult (if not impossible) to quantify, both to a future employer and for their contribution to a modern workforce. To put it bluntly, these skills are not easily marketed, while working with computers is. Down the line this can mean a huge difference in terms of salary and quality of life, a difference I noticed when serving in government. In my position, I often encountered soldiers who were secretaries, and thought to myself with more than a tinge of jealousy about the work skills they were getting that would serve them throughout their career. Now of course, those skills can also be acquired later in life, but the leg-up in these situations is one I constantly encounter in my budding career. 

Furthermore, there is an argument to be made that positions like intelligence and cyber are on par with combat operations in terms of strategic value. For example, one of the most serious setbacks to Iran’s nuclear program in the 21st century was the Stuxnet virus, which reportedly damaged one-fifth of Iran’s centrifuges. IDF intelligence discovers threats and provides insight without which combat operations would be far less successful, such as discovering tunnels in Lebanon to destroying Hamas infrastructure in Gaza. 

This is not to say that I don’t understand the importance of serving in combat. As an only child, I pushed my parents for permission to serve in a combat unit if I could not find a meaningful non-combat job. As a motivated oleh, I was determined to give my all (literally) to Israel, and the idea of accepting a position that would not be personally fulfilling was unacceptable.

Ten years later, I remain proud of my service, as complicated and scarring (literally and figuratively) as it was. I am also deeply grateful for the sacrifice young boys and girls, forced to become men and women when they are handed a gun, perform every day. But I believe there is a tendency to lionize combat service and minimize its costs. Yet these costs exist, whether as opportunity costs of human capital and economic value or in the physical and mental toll that accompanies former soldiers for the rest of their lives. The IDF and the Ministry of Defense, in constant need of recruits, are quick to gloss over the less rosy elements – just ask Itzik Sadiyan, the PTSD sufferer who self-immolated outside a Defense Ministry office.

In a way, it reminds me of the campaigns to get people to move to Israel, and then years later new immigrants are often surprised by how very hard it can be to make a living and get by. That doesn’t mean don’t make aliyah or don’t serve in combat, just be honest and upfront about how difficult it can be. Challenges that are identified in time can be addressed, if not they can quickly become overwhelming.

As someone who has served in and suffered in combat and was proud to do so, all I ask is to treat the issue with the nuance and gravity it deserves. Life and death scenarios and the quality of living we all seek warrant much more serious discussions than slogans can provide.

About the Author
Originally from the United States, Natan came to Israel in 2010. He served in the IDF, and has worked in a variety of analytical positions, which is his attempt to contribute to the country that he loves. He has an insatiable curiosity, and he enjoys passionate but civil discourse. He is a devoted husband and father, and everything he does is for them. Follow him at @KohnNatan.
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