Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Visitor from the Army

Here's a story that would have been inconceivable a generation ago. Yesterday evening we got a phone call from Raveh, Achikam's Sargeant, who expressed his interest in coming to visit us today. Okay, we said, rather amused.

This afternoon he arrived. A handsome young man, bedecked with slightly more pins and insignia than usual - apparently this is his version of full regalia. He was obviously rather uncomfortable, which is not surprising given the situation. For the past few weeks he has been part of the team that has been grilling our son and making life hard for him; a significant part of this effort is the drilling into his head of the crucial and vast chasm between basic trainees, who are expected to do what they are told and only what they are told, and their commanders - of whom Raveh is one. Achikam and his fellow rookies are not permitted even to address Raveh and his colleagues in normal language, they must always shout the Hebrew equivalent of "YES SIR!" when spoken to, and infractions that would be laughable in any other context are followed by unpleasant punishment. Now here he was, sitting in our living room, telling and asking about Achikam. We could easily be his parents, too.

So what was it all about? Apparently, it is important to the army that the civilian parents of its soldiers feel confident that their children are in trustworthy hands. In order to achieve this the army must indeed be trustworthy, but also advertise the fact, and set up mechanisms of ensuring both the fact and lines of communication about it. So Raveh spent the entire day traveling around the country meeting parents of his squad to tell them about what their sons are going through, what the plan for the coming months is, but also to look for problems at home that could distract his soldiers from concentrating on their training. He even told that in a few cases the army will be sending special officers to see what additional support the soldiers might need.

Especially interesting to me was the requirement the army obviously has even of its lowest ranking commanders, that they be able to deal with such a task. Raveh's training is mostly as a tank commander, not a social worker, yet here he was, doing an aspect of the job that no amount of tank drills could prepare him for.

At one point I made a crack about the relations of rookies and sergeants. He already knew that I myself had had his job many years ago, and that we were not being antagonistic - not towards him, not towards the army - yet he felt defensive, and needed to reassure that the staff and the rookies really are all on the same side. This is of course fundamentally true, but perhaps not quite so obvious either to the rookies or even to their commanders - yet Raveh was telling that it was clear to the commanders, and even, he seemed to be saying, to the soldiers themselves. "We do it differently now", he told me, directly relating to experiences he assumed I must have had.

There is a much larger story here, but I'll wait to gather additional data before outlining it.

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