A Strong Nation in Arms is Led by Teenagers

by Daniel E. Tatar darthtatar@juno.com

From the view on the bus, one can see masses of full-uniformed soldiers, carrying M-16s on their shoulders, walking among Israeli civilians in the street markets. It is Friday afternoon -- Shabbat in Israel -- and many soldiers have come home from active duty to be with their families. They hitchhike from their various undisclosed locations across Israel to get there; Picking them up is a common Tzedakah (daily charity) from the citizens. Among the Israeli civilians, the soldiers are honored by all, revered by the majority, and noticed by everyone in a market full of shoppers.

The Israeli youth see these soldiers with large guns and, as all young children do, envision themselves in a Rambo-esque situation, where they are the lone victor at the end of a violent and bloody battle. They envy their nation's protectors, and anticipate their mandatory duty in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). "I also wanted to be in the army [when I was younger]. Many young Israelis think of it as...glory...like Bruce Willis in Die Hard: Yippee Ki Yay, Mother F---er!" exclaimed Gal Mayzels, an 18-year-old Israeli who began his military service in late November. But as we get older, we see that it is more real. Many people die every week. Israel's mandatory military draft at the age of eighteen serves the purpose of maintaining a strong and tactical army, but it robs the Israeli teenagers of the spontaneity and joy of youth.

Gal's initial desire was to be a member of the Israeli Air Force, the most prestigious area of the Israeli military. But because of his unsatisfactory results on the last day of a week-long test, Gal was not accepted in to this elite division (the ratio of volunteers to every available place in the most prestigious of combat units is reported to be 10:1 [Cohen 245]). Instead, he was accepted to serve in a commando unit, specializing in top secret missions against their bordering enemy countries, specifically Lebanon.

The origination of the IDF, referred to as Tzahal by the Israelis, began in 1947, when a people's army was collected to defend themselves and their land. Initially called the Hagannah, this army was made up of the adult male farmers that cultivated what was then called Palestine. The UN General Assembly adopted its resolution on the partition of Palestine in late November, giving Israel its own land and political standing. The Palestinian's initial intentions were to frustrate the UN partition resolution and prevent establishment and consolidation of the Jewish state. When the Israelis won this war of independence, the Palestinians focused on preventing Israeli occupancy and control over "the territories": the West Bank (Gaza Strip), and the Golan Heights. These territories remain the focal point of much debate and the cause for much violence, including the assassination of Israel's late Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. Both sides feel a military threat if the other holds control over the Golan Heights, whose altitude is strategically advantageous. It is for this reason that the fighting has continued throughout ongoing peace negotiations. Thus, the need for an army that is always ready has become a necessity to ensure daily existence.

Cease-fire agreements have been broken repeatedly by both sides. The fighting has continued for years, killing many, that it almost seems like one ongoing war. The Six-Day War (against the Palestinians), the high holiday Yom Kippur War (against the Syrians), and the Persian Gulf War (against Iraq) held Israel as one of, if not the main, target. And Israels attacks on Syrias Hizbollah camp in the Beka'a valley, as well as their more recent secret missions that have succeeded in killing Lebanese and Syrian officials, create better warfare and tactics, but not peace. It is this rigorous military training and structure, created by the need to always be alert and ready to fight, that has allowed the Tzahal to attain "the status of a national hallmark; it has also contributed substantively to Israel's image as a nation in arms" (Cohen 237). With all these attributes and reputation, it appears even more unreal that the soldiers are drafted as 18-year-old teenagers, fulfilling a several-year term.

Despite Israeli families' personal opinions against their young children fighting in one of the most intensive and extensive on-going battles in history, tradition makes it difficult to greatly disagree with the IDF's necessary purpose. These young soldiers are honored and respected for the task they are given to blindly continue an almost half-century old battle. What only aggravates the situation is that this society is not very conducive to open expression of emotions. Israelis are appropriately nicknamed "Sabras," after the cactus fruit, as they have tough exteriors, but are soft on the inside. A trio of psychology professors from Bar-Ilan University in Israel best described how this characteristic plays such a key role in the civil-military integration. Through research, they discovered that the more overconfident and bold a young soldier was, the easier it was for them to commit to what they were doing. This "hardiness has also been shown to be associated with the choice of coping strategies for dealing with stressful events" (Florian, Mikulincer, and Taubman 687). According to Israeli ideologies, to die for ones country is the highest honor one can be bestowed. As many youth believe, Gal thought that if he had to serve in the Tzahal, he might as well give all of himself to it and feel honorable. So hardiness overwhelmed this teenager: fear was masked by a strong desire to take on an active role in defending his country.

As Gal's enlistment date approached, however, fear began to break down this tough barrier he had created. "Within two days last week in Lebanon -- where I will be fighting -- nine soldiers were killed." Gal is torn between honor and fear, the state of Israels name or his own. Death is becoming more of a reality for this teenager. The decisions and actions that need to be executed are difficult even for an experienced adult, let alone an 18-year-old. Additionally, as a result of the many wars, these youth have all been exposed to violence and death for years. "Everyone knows someone who has died," Gal admitted. His friend, Erez Baruch, who entered the army in late October, added, "Most of us are named after someone who died in a war in Israel."

Death, and fear of not living, flood these youth's minds as they try to divert their thoughts from this lingering fate. "I want to take a trip to America and Europe and China...for a full year...when I am out of the army," Gal stated. But when questioned if he was scared of going in to the army in less than one week, he responded, "I have to go [in to the army]. I don't decide. Getting scared about it isn't going to make it better, so I don't. It is this emotional suppression that serves as the foundation for Israeli society, making this transition even more difficult for everyone.

Although almost all of the Israeli citizens served with honor in the army at one time, the IDF and Israeli citizens have had conflicting views on many current issues. It is based on both sides' needs and objectives. Many political groups among the citizens, from liberal to conservative, have spoken out for years, mostly on the peace negotiations. All groups are concerned about control over the Golan Heights, and many speak out adamantly. Because the IDF promotes and encourages civil-military integration (in which the soldiers are interspersed among the civilians frequently throughout the state) to improve relations, these public disagreements over foreign and domestic issues create more tension and less dedication to the army. As a result, the IDF is eliminating many of their older reserve officers* and recruiting the younger ones for longer periods of time.

"I will only be in the Tzahal for maybe three years," Erez explained. He has asthma, and is therefore considered unfit to fight in the army. Instead, he will serve his three years in a branch of communication, correspondence, or other business job in the army. There are many specific physical and mental requirements that put added pressures on these youth. Gal's acceptance in to the special commando unit included an IQ test on top of the other standard requirements. "All soldiers must be very fit...mentally and physically," Gal insisted. "If they are not, the men will work with the women [who traditionally do not fight]....I will be in the Tzahal for at least three years [because I'm in a special unit]." The IDF's intentions are to grab these young boys and keep them for as long as they are fully dedicated. As part of the social-military integration, most soldiers are allowed to come home for a weekend every two or three weeks. However, on the honor of their country, they are not allowed to disclose much information to their loved ones or other friends that might be on leave at the same time. These frequent visits can become very disturbing, as their young child ages well beyond his years. When Gal returns home, the conversation is very limited and the family finds themselves more disconnected from their youth. They can only empathize from their own experience in the army, as they can only hear certain edited selections of Gal's activities.

Daniel Argentar, an American counselor who chaperones a high school- aged trip to Israel every summer, said that he always warns his American campers of the change they dont see yet: "[Your Israeli friends] will go in to the Tzahal, and you will remember them the way they were when you were with them: fun, a certain level of expressed compassion and love....But when you see them in three or four years, they will be different...They will seem much older and serious."

Their less serious, more carefree, dependent childhood has mostly unwillingly been replaced with the hounding voice of an officer, the eyes of a cold sharpshooter, the mind of a tactical warrior, and the core of a true Sabra. They are fighting for their country's honor for the reward of glory. Their feelings don't matter, as they don't have a choice in their mandatory service. These young soldiers are mere military cogs, the ever-changing tools of warfare that keep what Israel has claimed for almost half a decade.

One week before Gal is to leave for the army, Gal receives a call from the Tzahal informing him that he should report one week later at 7:00 in the morning. No further explanation was given. "They tell me very little. I do not know why I am to go one week later, but that is fine. This will be the latest, though....They do not tell any of us much. I am just to do what they say....I think I will be in the army for three years. It will be at least three, but they have not told me exactly how long."

In many ways, Gal is the same small child that used to admire the soldiers in the street on Shabbat. And in many other ways, he is no longer a child, but a premature adult, commanded to fight at a young age in a legacy of war too uncontrolled and carried out for him to ever understand.

FOOTNOTE: Currently, the IDF requires all males to report for Reserve duty one month per year until they are 55-years-old. Due to the public discord, however, they are considering decreasing the age limit to keep their troops younger and more in favor of their purpose.


Argentar, Daniel. Personal interview. 15 Aug 94.

Baruch, Erez. Personal interview. Ongoing between 10 July 94 to 15 Aug 94.

Cohen, Stuart A. "The Israel Defense Forces (IDF): From a 'People's Army' to a 'Professional Military' -- Causes and Implications." Armed Forces & Society 21.2 (1995) 237-254.

Florian, Victor, Mario Mikulincer, and Orit Taubman. "Does Hardiness Contribute to Mental Health During a Stressful Real-Life Situation? The Roles of Appraisal and Coping." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 68.4 (1995): 687-95.

Mayzels, Gal. Personal interviews. Ongoing between 10 July 94 and 27 Nov 95.

Daniel Tatar is a student.