Memoir of a Malingerer
“Why are you trying to get out of the army?” she asked, as we washed dishes in the military mess hall. It was the winter of 2001, and she was a young soldier, on base for a training course. She looked good in a uniform, neat and sensible. I looked terrible: my uniform was Too Big, though it was better than the other official size, Too Small. My shirt, which reached halfway to my knees, was shoved into my billowing pants, which would have collapsed if not for the belt. Rubber insoles and two pairs of socks almost made my boots fit, so the blistering only gave me a mild limp. During basic training my whole body had been covered with a rash; I was allergic either to the uniform or to the cheap detergent used by the on-base laundry.
“Why am I trying to get
out? It's not like I volunteered, I was forced to be here,” I said,
“and I don't want to help the army shoot rockets into Palestinian refugee camps or
whatever idiocy they're up to this week.”
She looked up from the food-encrusted pot she was scrubbing and stared at me. “My brother's against the Occupation, he's as left wing as they get, but he's in Gaza serving in a combat unit. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
How could I argue with that? Her brother was a perfect conscript, subordinating his personal beliefs to a greater cause, the Zionist dream of a Jewish state.
The State of Israel is both Zionist and democratic, inherently contradictory ideals: a nation united by ethnicity, language and land versus the natural rights of individual human beings. Most Israeli citizens are indeed Jewish, but a large minority are Arab. The contradiction is even more acute outside the borders of Israel, in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, where Israel's Jewish military rules millions of Palestinian Arabs. Whatever their opinion of the Occupation, most Israeli Jews are Zionists. They believe Israel must remain a Jewish state with a Jewish army, a bulwark against Palestinian terrorism and Israel's hostile Arab neighbors.
At age seventeen I had my first contact with the military: I was summoned to an initial screening at the Bakum, a military base that processes new recruits. The base was covered with asphalt, concrete, barbed wire and dirt, which turned to mud when it rained. The buildings were ugly concrete blocks and flimsy metal shacks that had seen better decades. Everything, inside and out, was painted in shades of khaki, gray and rust. At the Bakum I was examined by a doctor: he listened to my heartbeat, poked my testicles, and pronounced me fit to serve my mandatory three year service. He gave me a physical profile of 97, the highest possible value; urban legend has it that the extra three points are taken off for circumcision. The lowest value is 21, leading to a medical discharge. A profile of 97 meant I would be assigned combat duty, known in Israel as kravi.
As a kravi soldier I would have been required, as other Israeli soldiers have, to demolish homes, evict families, delay ambulances at checkpoints, threaten to shoot civilians for violating curfews. I didn't believe these actions protected Israel from Palestinian terrorists. So I took the easy way out: I signed up for the Academic Reserve. I would go to college as a civilian, studying computer science, then serve in the army as a programmer for six years.
In the summer of 1999, after my first year in college, I went through a month of unstrenuous basic training for non-combatants. I hated every minute of it, the half-hearted brainwashing and the petty sadism. The following year, bored and unmotivated, I dropped out of college and started a software company. Sooner or later the Academic Reserve office would notice I'd stopped taking classes, and I would be drafted into a kravi unit. My mother suggested I write a letter to the army – via a distant relative who worked for the Department of Defense – explaining my qualifications as a programmer and requesting my skills be put to use. Perhaps I could reach an accommodation allowing me to work on my company in my spare time.
I was summoned to a number of interviews in the following months, but none of them went well. I thoughtlessly wrecked my chances at getting a security clearance, telling an interviewer my political views meant I couldn't be trusted with classified material. My final interview was different: I actually liked the soldiers I met. They were intelligent and sympathetic and I was sure I'd enjoy working with them, but I left the interview feeling miserable. I reached not so much a decision as a self-diagnosis: I could never be a soldier, I could not give up my right and duty to make my own decisions. After coming up with a plan for getting out of the army, I notified the Academic Reserve I was dropping out of the program. They sent me a draft date, a few weeks hence.
On a warm winter morning in 2001 I dutifully reported to the Bakum. A tall soldier, armed with an M-16 and a sneer, escorted me across the base to a small shack. New recruits sat listlessly on benches outside, waiting for interviews with the placement officer, who would decide where we would serve in the army. “You may only speak when spoken to,” the soldier told us. “Always end sentences with 'Sir,' and never forget the dignity and power of the officer you are about to face.”
Soon I was ushered into the
shack. It was furnished with a table, two or three folding chairs and
a nondescript officer. After briefly glancing at my file the officer
told me that, due to my high physical profile, I would be assigned to
a kravi unit.
“I want to see the Kaban, the Mental Health Officer,” I said, rather pathetically. “I don't feel I can serve in the army.”
“You have the right to see the Kaban, but it's not going to do you any good. You're going to a combat unit, like it or not,” replied the officer.
The officer scribbled a note for the Kaban and stapled it closed, then told me to report to the Bakum's transit unit. Along the way I loosened the staples on the note, and read: “I recommend the soldier be excused from combat duty,” contradicting what he'd said moments earlier. His duplicity amused me: did he really expect me not to open the note?
My plan was simple, though vague in details: convince a Mental Health Officer, Ktzin Briut Nefesh or Kaban for short, to give me a medical discharge, known colloquially as a “profile 21.” Claiming something was wrong with me seemed likely to work better than criticizing the army. The military is one of Israel's most respected institutions, at least amongst the Jewish majority. Generals can expect to retire to a leadership position in one of the Zionist political parties or to lucrative opportunities in the business world. Much of Israel's high tech industry was founded by graduates of the army's prestigious technology units. Conscripts who avoid military service are strongly stigmatized, especially those with a profile 21, though in recent years it has become increasingly common.
In-between interviews I
spent the following weeks at the transit unit, a small expanse of
fenced-in asphalt with a little shade and a couple of small shacks.
We were misfits and malingerers, the sick and the mislaid, waiting
for our day of judgment in a bureaucratic limbo. Every evening we
were sent home, standing in line to receive passes that let us leave
the base for the night. Israel is a small country, about the size of
New Jersey. Even soldiers on extended combat tours can expect to go
home every three or four weeks.
The sergeant in charge of the unit had sunglasses that never came off and an ego three sizes too big. He farmed us out to other units as menial labor: we cleaned bathrooms, washed dishes and dragged boxes. The first time I was rounded up the sergeant also corralled a big cheerful Russian, one of many Jews who immigrated to Israel after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Vhat you mean?” he told the sergeant, “I not speak Hebrew.”
“Go with him, go, work.”
“Not understand! Vhat you mean?”
Eventually the sergeant found someone to translate. We were given bleach, latex gloves and a mop, and ordered to clean the bathrooms in a building across the base. Once we were out of earshot the Russian cursed the sergeant in fluent Hebrew. We cleaned the bathrooms, then converted the gloves into water bombs, hurling them against abandoned buildings. A week later the Russian left the unit, happily waving a document: his profile 21.
Those of us waiting for interviews with the Kaban passed the time telling tales of our glorious predecessors: “So this guy brings a matchbox full of ants to the interview with the Kaban. He walks in, opens the matchbox, and starts shouting at the ants: 'Why don't you love me anymore?' Got a profile 21 the same day.”
After days of waiting I
finally met the head of the Mental Health unit, a sour-faced woman in
her forties. The interview took all of ten minutes, mostly taken up
by a check-list:
“Have you ever had psychological counseling? Attempted suicide? Do you suffer from alcoholism? Have you had any trouble with the police? Do you abuse drugs?”
“No,” I was forced to answer, regretting my wasted youth.
“There's nothing wrong with you,” said the Kaban, “you just don't want to be here. I'm going to ask the placement officer to exempt you from combat duty, but that's all I'm willing to do.”
The fundamental problem with my plan was becoming clear: I was perfectly sane.
When I returned to the
transit unit I was depressed to the point of paralysis. I sat on the
asphalt staring into space, trying to figure out what I was going to
do, how I was going to escape. I could refuse to decamp, but I would
end up spending weeks or months in jail. I desperately hoped it
wouldn't come to that, though I had always known jail might be my
last resort. Lost in my thoughts, I didn't notice the sergeant was
gathering victims for a work assignment. I couldn't deal with it, I
just wanted to be left alone.
“What did you just say?”
“I can't do this right now, can't you get someone else?”
The sergeant grinned menacingly. “Are you refusing orders?”
“Refusing orders, eh? You're going on trial!”
The sergeant gleefully
rushed off to arrange the details. Ten minutes later he returned and
hurried me along to an improvised courthouse: an officer in a tent,
seated behind a folding desk. The officer began to interrogate
“It says here in your file that you've refused orders on two previous occasions. Is that correct?” My file said nothing of the sort.
“No, sir, I've never refused orders before. I was depressed, sir. I had an interview with the Kaban, and she didn't pay any attention to what I had to say.”
“Nonsense! If you have any problems you ought to go to your commander, that's what he's here for.”
I glanced sideways at my sergeant: he seemed eager to hear my punishment. “Yes, sir.”
“Since this is a first offense I'm only going to sentence you to one day in prison, but you had better not do this again. Refusing orders is a very serious matter.”
The sergeant escorted me around the corner to the Bakum prison, visibly disappointed my sentence wasn't harsher. The prison was a small compound, two cement buildings surrounded by barbed wire and a tall fence, distinguished from other base enclaves only by the strength of its metal gate. We arrived to the sounds of a loud bureaucratic spat. A pair of military policemen were trying to hand over a draft-evading Russian they'd arrested at Ben-Gurion Airport. The prison guard was stalling: the MPs hadn't provided the appropriate paperwork. The negotiation process was encumbered by the prisoner's inability to speak Hebrew. After enough arguing and cursing to satisfy all but the prisoner's sense of honor, an agreement was reached and the prisoner handed over.
The guard turned his
attention to me. “What's he in for?”
The sergeant smirked. “Bastard refused to work.”
“Lazy bastard, eh? We'll soon fix that.”
The guard escorted me through the gate, then through a second gate that only opened once the first gate had been locked behind us. The guard retrieved a small bag and began bellowing. “You will place your hands behind your back up by your shoulders, chin up. You will address me as 'sir' at all times. This is my prison and you will do as I tell you: God can't hear, the Commander in Chief ain't here. Youwillremovewatchesmoneybeltcellphonejeweleryshoelaces and deposit them in this bag to be returned on your release.” The guard paused to take a breath. “Haven't you forgotten something? Take off your watch!”
Beltless, I was forced to hold up my collapsing pants, so the guard fastened them with a bit of string, too short to be used in a suicide attempt.
The guard had me run around the yard for a few minutes, then gave me a chance to use the restroom. It seemed like days and weeks had passed since I'd last emptied my bladder. Realization dawned in that short moment of blissful ease, banishing my dark depression. This was theater, and I was both audience and actor. Every scene was calculated to keep me off balance, from the threatening doggerel about God to the list of items to be removed, deliberately spoken too fast. Now that I saw the props and the scaffolding, I no longer thought of myself as a prisoner; I merely acted like one.
The guard escorted me to my cell, locking the heavy metal door behind him as he left. The cell was roomy, with bare cement floors, two double bunk beds and a barred paneless window. The stuffed mattresses on the beds were stained and lacked sheets. A soldier was sitting on one of the beds, back hunched in misery. “A friend of mine who works at the supply depot was helping me acquire a few pairs of socks,” he told me, “and we got caught. Bastards gave me thirty days in prison for stealing.”
Half an hour later a guard
unlocked our cells; we were going to the Bakum infirmary for a
medical checkup. The guard led the way and we prisoners followed, a
martial parade clomping along in laceless boots: a draft evader, a
malingerer and a petty thief. A soldier we passed waved at our guard:
“Hey, haven't seen you for a while, how's it going?”
“Eh, could be better. I'm stuck inside this shithole prison, can't go out, and then they want me to stay seven days and only go home for two.”
I was glad that unlike my guard I was only locked up for a day. I wondered why he stayed in the army. Was he fulfilling his patriotic duty by guarding the likes of us? We continued on our way, trudging through puddles and mud.
The infirmary's waiting area was full, as always. Most soldiers are between eighteen and twenty one years old, a robustly healthy age group, yet many soldiers on the base suffered from ill health. A soldier with a headache could spend a couple of hours watching TV in the waiting room before the doctor or nurse gave him an aspirin. Since we prisoners weren't actually sick we waited quite a while, passing the time watching telenovellas, soap operas and a daytime talk show. One of the guests on the talk show was an astrologer. She predicted Ehud Barak would be re-elected as Prime Minister in the upcoming election. The show was a rerun, the elections were months in the past and Barak had lost to Ariel Sharon. Barak put the final nails in the coffin of the Oslo peace accords, with the the enthusiastic help of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. Sharon was the architect of much of the Jewish settlement in the Occupied Territories. During the invasion of Lebanon he'd instigated in the early '80s he had infamously failed to prevent a massacre of Palestinian refugees by Israel's militia allies. Because of the ongoing Palestinian violence, both candidates, former generals, promised to invite the other candidate's party to join their coalition if they won. I hadn't bothered to vote in this election battle between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. A couple of hours after our arrival we had our medical exam: a quick poke, and temperature and blood pressure measurements. The nurse certified that we were unlikely to drop dead in the near future.
When we returned from the infirmary the other two prisoners were sent on to a prison base; I was the only one to stay the night. One of the guards ordered me to collect the garbage mixed in with the prison yard's gravel. I got down on my knees and scrabbled across the yard, searching for the elusive bits of debris hidden among the small pebbles. I worked hard, if only to pass the time. The sky darkened with gathering clouds and the sun's descent, and soon it began to rain. One of the guards brought me an umbrella and I continued my task. The guards stood under an awning, watching my industry with bemused expressions. They must have felt sorry for me: one of the guards brought me a hot cup of tea. An hour later it was time for dinner. My meal was the same as the guards', good simple food: bread, cheese and fresh vegetables. When I was done I was told to clean the kitchen and wash the guards' dishes.
After dinner one of the guards, his beard pony-tailed with non-regulation rubber bands, escorted me to the bathroom so I could shower, then led me back to my cell. Along the way he quizzed me about my taste in music. My cell's barred window was open to the elements, but coastal Israel never gets cold in the winter. It was noise that kept me awake: the guards were throwing a party, and the music was loud and wonderful, sounds from someplace freer than our prison.
Are you ready,
Eddie, ready to rock-and-roll?
Are you ready, Eddie, to give me some of your soul?
In the morning I was ordered to clean up after the party. Balloons, crushed snack food and discarded soda bottles were scattered across the barracks. A guard was sprawled across one of the bunk beds, sleeping in his uniform, waking briefly as I swept the room. After breakfast I was ordered to rake leaves off the small patch of grass at the edge of the prison. When I was done the guard gave me a travel pass so I could return home for the weekend. I walked out of the prison, out of the Bakum and drove my car home.
A few days later I met
another placement officer, in the same ugly little shack as my first
interview. A massive sergeant silently stood behind the officer.
“The Kaban has exempted you from combat duty,” declared the officer, “so I will be sending you on to another placement officer. Do you have any questions?”
“I would like to go see the Kaban again, sir. I don't think she gave me a fair hearing, she didn't listen to me at all.”
The officer drew himself up. “I don't care what you think; you are going to be a soldier. Period. En lo yakhol, yesh lo rozeh - there's no 'I can't', there's only 'I don't want to.' And I say you damn well can.”
“I can't become a soldier.”
“You will be a soldier.”
“You will be a soldier!”
Our repetitious iterations continued, ever louder and more emphatic. Eventually the sergeant stepped behind my chair and politely pulled it back. “This interview,” he said, “is over.” The soldiers waiting outside stared at me as I left, curious about the escaped loudness of the argument.
Bureaucratic division of
labor decreed I meet a placement officer from another division the
next day. He didn't seem to like what he read in my file.
“You caused a disturbance in your previous interview, you refused orders, you don't care your friends are in kravi... maybe I should just give you a discharge on grounds of unsuitability.”
“That would be okay with me, sir,” I replied, hope creeping into my voice. Unsuitability discharges are usually given to criminals.
The officer leapt from his chair. “I'm astounded you'd be willing to leave the army in such a disgraceful manner. Maybe there really is something wrong with you. I'm going to send you back to the Kaban, but believe me, they won't be letting you out.”
The next morning I began to feel sick, nearly collapsing halfway to the Bakum infirmary. When I finally got there I was rushed to the head of the line, burning with fever. The doctor sent me home for a week to recover.
For my next interview with the Kaban I was ordered to bring in one of my parents. Only weeks earlier I had been mature enough for combat duty, but now I had reverted to childhood. My mother met with the Kaban a few days later, doing her best to argue on my behalf. At the same time I was interviewed by a psychiatrist, an unhappy looking civilian with a thick Russian accent. The interview lasted five inconsequential minutes, at the end of which he told me was going to reduce my profile to 56. 56 wasn't 21, but at least my profile was going down. My mother met the psychiatrist after I did. “He didn't know what to do with you,” she told me, “since you're obviously not psychotic or schizophrenic. He said you can appeal to the medical committee that needs to approve his decision, so maybe you can meet another psychiatrist.”
My father had served in the West Bank during the first Palestinian uprising, and didn't much like the army. Schooled in the ways of the military bureaucracy, he volunteered to write a letter on my behalf. He listed a number of incidents in my childhood highlighting my problems with authority: from second grade where I read books hidden under my desk instead of listening in class, to high school where I'd almost gotten into a fight with a guard who'd unfairly refused to let me leave school grounds. My father asked that the psychiatrist consider this history of problems, indication of my inability to conform to military discipline. The next day I met the medical committee. My appeal was immediately accepted, since my father's letter was new evidence the psychiatrist hadn't seen. The committee sent me back to the Mental Health unit to get a new diagnosis.
A second psychiatrist
interviewed me a few days later, a cheerful paunchy man dressed in
civilian clothes. My interview was late in the afternoon; a chance
glance at his notebook showed that day's entry had three or four
“21s” scribbled in. The psychiatrist read my father's letter and
then went through the same questions I'd answered in all my
interviews: why didn't I want to serve? What about my friends in
kravi, didn't their service make me feel guilty?
“You're an intelligent young man, you must know there's a reason we have an army. We're threatened on all sides by hostile countries, we're under attack by Palestinian terrorists and suicide bombers. Don't you want to protect your country?”
The psychiatrist was friendlier than previous interviewers, and I became less guarded. “That's the thing,” I replied, “I don't believe that the military is making us any safer. The Palestinians have a right to live freely too, and curfews and mass arrests and bombings are just going to make the violence worse. So it's not just that I find being a soldier unbearable, I also don't feel being a soldier is something worth doing. I'd be giving up my moral independence, cause that's what following orders means, and I don't trust the people giving the orders.”
The psychiatrist snorted. “So you're saying all our elected leaders and experienced generals just happen to be wrong and you just happen to be right. Don't you see how arrogant that is? I've read this letter your father wrote, and your parents obviously spoiled you. You got used to getting your own way, and now you think you're the center of the universe, that you're better than other people. Your political opinions are just expressions of your self-centered personality.”
“Even if you're right and my politics are a result of my personality, that isn't going to change what I believe in.”
“Serving in the army for a few months would be very good for you,” said the psychiatrist. “You'd learn self-discipline and how to follow orders. But since you'd probably just end up in prison again, I'm going to give you a profile of 21: a mental health discharge due to a Narcissistic Personality disorder. Is that OK with you?”
I nodded. I still have the form with the diagnosis he wrote out. As I left his office I read it over and over, a magical incantation that would lead me to freedom. The next day I met the medical committee, and they approved the psychiatrist's decision. I returned my uniforms, filled out some forms and left the Bakum a civilian, in jeans and a t-shirt. I was free.
Narcissus was cursed by the gods for his arrogance and vanity in spurning the nymph Echo. Entranced by his reflection in Echo's pond, he fell in love with himself. Unwilling to leave the pond, he wasted away to his death. I admit to arrogance: I will not place nations or gods above the human beings who created them. I admit to vanity: I will not wear uniforms that do not fit. Occasionally I even glance approvingly at my own reflection. But at least I see myself in the mirror, not someone else, not a soldier.