Two and a half years ago, shortly after I had started writing this diary, I devoted an entry to our youngest son's induction into the paratroop corps his graduation from basic training. It was a moving event, yet one about which I felt a good deal of ambivalence. Last week, he completed his service, and began his pre-discharge leave; in a few weeks, he will return to his base to sign out and return his gun and uniform.
Lev was lucky that his unit was always sort of on the periphery, so that he was never placed in a battle situation, never had to go door to door in a refugee camp looking for terror suspects. He was lucky that he never served under an officer who was not a man of conscience and compassion. He was lucky to develop in his service a network of good friends, kids with values like his even though they came from a wide spectrum of backgrounds, ethnic, religious and socio-economic.
He learned a few things, some of the useful, some of them not: He learned how to use all kinds of weapons systems and communications equipment. He got a truck-drivers license, to be able to operate a Humvee. He learned how to sleep anywhere, any time, in any position. He learned that no matter how civil and respectful he tried to be when manning a checkpoint, the very nature of the situation was humiliating to the Palestinians passing through. He learned the limits of his own physical endurance, and the satisfaction of pushing them. He learned how to be the kind of leader who struggles with his human responsibility for his charges like the Russian immigrant recruit who day after day refused to shower, embarrassed to be seen to be uncircumcised. He learned the etiquette of funerals and shivah visits. He learned to figure out which ridiculous rules can be broken and which cannot. He learned to sit and do nothing for days on end. He learned to speak a language made up almost entirely of acronyms, which seems to be understood by everyone else in the country except his parents. He learned that even in the hierarchical and rigid and often dehumanizing environment of the army, one can continue to be oneself and there is something very satisfying about doing so.
On balance, then, I guess the army was a pretty good adventure for him. The amount of harm he did to others and that was done to him was minimal, and the amount of challenge and growth and learning was significant. There were times when we all deluded ourselves into seeing the whole thing as summer camp (with live ammunition). I don't know how he or we would have responded if that bubble had burst. Indeed, there were times when he was frustrated to be on the sidelines with all his ambivalence and even cynicism about what the army had to do, he felt a mixture of guilt and envy toward the kids in units that did participate in more "operations." But I think that the few such experiences he did have were enough for him.
What is mind-boggling is the realization that this little adventure took up three full years of his life. Three years. Enough time to earn a BA in Israel. And now, of course, there will be the decompression experience a few months of odd jobs and excursions and wondering what to do next, followed, probably, by some kind of major journey to another continent and only then, at the age of 22-3, starting to think of a career direction and the college admission process.
What somewhat dampens the euphoria of discharge, when we allow ourselves to think about it, is that as a veteran of a combat unit, Lev will be called up to do active reserve duty a month a year for another twenty years or so and then, he won't be a kid at summer camp, but a student, a professional, a family man, for whom the army will be not an adventure, but a wrenching disruption of life.
Isn't it interesting how we have romanticized the army as a fulfillment of the Zionist dream: "the Jewish emergence from powerlessness." What if we had dreamed differently? Or is our fate, ironically, not under our own control after all?