Lane Emmons, The Roots Editor (lemmons@wwc)
“The army is not a simple thing. It’s strange to me that I have a gun and I know how to use it.”
The abrupt physicality of the soldier startles me, though this person is not a stranger. Brown hair, blue eyes, and a smile that has not changed since the day it first appeared. The only vibrant color appears in the crayon yellow of the flowers that crown the soldier’s dusty hair. These are things I recognize, but the following are things that are new. The soldier’s diet of rice and white bread, the weight of an M-16 constantly pulling on the neck and shoulders, the white noise of the clanking dog tags, the army greens and tans of the uniform washing out any hint of nationality; her skin becoming the desert sand.
It is mandatory for every non-Arab Israeli citizen over 18 years of age to serve in the Israeli military. The exceptions to this law pertain to religious, physical, or psychological issues. The soldiers are teenagers who have two choices: join the army, or move to another country.
“I just felt so at home here, and so alive. Everything is so much more intense, for better and for worse. There couldn’t be a more different place from where I grew up.” Rachel Baker* moved from Ontario to Israel with the intention of joining the army. It is an integral part of life in the country, and the national mentality of loyalty and protection resonates through the culture. “If I am going to call this place home, and everyone else who calls it home does their part to protect it, then I want to as well.”
In the summer of 2006, Rachel, myself, and about eight others, found ourselves in Alaska on the side of a mountain. Like everything else in Alaska, the mountain was huge, our packs were huge, and our bodies were very, very small. Switchback after switchback we tromped like an army of 18-year-old ants, not quite as strong, but just as determined. And then my Achilles tore. I stopped, sat, and breathed. The tears dropped off of my face like mud. Rolls of white tape wrapped the throbbing ankle, and the weight was lifted off of my back. “I’ll carry your things,” she said. The memory is now silhouettes against the burned green of the mountain face and the irreplaceable blueness of the sky. I can see the massive shoulders of our instructor hunched over my foot. I remember his shaking hands. I remember Rachel’s eyes trying not to show her fear. I remember watching the muscles in her legs bulge more than they should under the extra 80 pounds of weight. She laughed as the boulder on her back swayed as she tried to find her new center of gravity. To Rachel, this act was not a favor. It was the only choice she had to ensure the entire company made it to the top of the ridge.
Rachel is the most reliable pen pal I have ever had. In between our summers together, she would write me extensive letters as if they were just pieces of an extended conversation. She would tell me about her in life in Toronto, her friends, her school, the parties she attended. Sometimes she would mention her eating disorder, but only in regards to her becoming healthier, never the backslides. We were also, and still are, friends on Facebook. It is now years later, and seeing the photographs of Rachel in Israel, clad in her army tans, bare a striking resemblance to those photos from our high school days. The same attempt to squeeze as many people into one photo as possible, the same young faces, the same smiles. However, I cannot help but notice the canyon-deep sleep lines under their eyes.
There was one particularly miserable day during basic training. The soldiers were told to crawl to the summit of a nearby mountain. Elbows and toes to the ground. When the soldiers made it to the top, they turned around and started crawling with those who had not yet made it. “Eventually we all made it, and we stood in a chet (U-shaped formation) at the top, and the view was incredible. We could see our base, I could see the kibbutz where I used to live, we could see the city of Be’er Sheva, we could see endless sand and scrub and hills and fields. We had earned that view, and we had earned that breeze. At that moment, it clicked for me where I was and why.” I wonder if she felt that way on the summits we have shared. I wonder if the satisfaction is greater when it is your elbows, not your heels, bleeding.
It is hard for me to imagine this person as anything other than the small, exuberant, force of nature who could bring mountains to their knees with a single smile. The girl, who despite high altitudes, freezing rain, and mosquitoes the size of birds, would sing. Maybe she is still that person. Maybe she will remain that person for the rest of her life. Maybe the M-16 is a bold accessory and the dog tags a beauty mark. There are only certain things we will know about each other. I will never know why Rachel wants to be a commander in the Israeli Air Force. I will never understand the Israeli Military’s “Code of Conduct” and how soldiers are trained to see their enemies as human and not as other soldiers. “Soldiers here aren’t trained to be machines. We are always reminded that everyone in the army is a human being before they are a soldier, and a soldier before they are a commander. So they try and train us, more than anything else, to be good people.” But maybe my understanding is irrelevant. Maybe it is Rachel’s innate doing that separates her from any other 20 year-old, any other Canadian, any other friend.
*names have been changed.