Drafting out of necessity, Israeli military gains in diversity
Stars and Stripes
TEL AVIV, Israel — Deep in the rocky Negev Desert, the young privates roll around in the dust, taking clumsy aim at their targets.
It’s close to 100 degrees, and the newly drafted troops are getting a crash course in soldiering. They’re learning how to clean and accurately fire their weapons, pass room inspections and follow orders barked out by intimidating drill instructors. Just a few months earlier, they were in high school. Now, they’re in boot camp, rising at 4 a.m. each day to learn the ways of the Israeli Defense Forces.
“You sort of go into shock,” said Pvt. Guy Primak, several weeks into basic training in the desert. “But we know it’s for a higher purpose and that there is a meaning. It’s very clear why we’re doing this.”
Added Pvt. Afrik Shema: “I have to do my best here. It’s our families that we are defending.”
In the U.S., the draft was abolished at the end of the Vietnam War, but in Israel everyone must serve in the military — three years for men and two for women. The reasons are obvious: Whether it is contending with militias like Hamas on its western flank or Hezbollah in the north or being on guard against other threats looming in the greater Middle East, military service is seen as a fundamental part of Israeli life.
Analysts say Israel’s military enjoys overwhelming conventional and nuclear superiority against any combination of neighboring states. They say Isreal has about 175,000 troops on active duty and nearly 450,000 in reserve. In contrast, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia is estimated to number about 10,000 fighters.
Yet conflict is the norm for Israel, which has fought more than a dozen small wars and conflicts since it was established in 1948. Over the years it has battled forces from Egypt in the south, Syria in the contested Golan Heights and more recently militants operating out of Lebanon and Gaza, where Israel’s most recent offensive was waged in 2012.
“In the U.S. military, you can always pull out of the mission if it doesn’t go well,” said Yair Costeff, 18, a private who was just a few weeks into boot camp when interviewed last month. “We don’t have that option here.”
With the draft a fact of Israeli life, compulsory service also brings together every strata of society.
For all the benefits of the professional, all-volunteer U.S. force, the elimination of the draft has turned military service into something experienced by only about 1 percent of Americans. The majority of troops come from the south and more rural parts of the country such as the mountainous west. U.S. bases also tend to be concentrated in these regions.
Some people, including retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, have flirted with the idea that it would benefit the country to return to the draft. Such a move would ensure a larger portion of the population was invested in the decision-making that results in fighting wars now shouldered by a tiny fraction of the population.
While there is no shortage of well-educated U.S. troops, another possible drawback of an all-volunteer force is that few people from America’s most elite academic institutions ever consider a career in the military. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, during a 2010 commencement speech at Duke University, lamented that a broader cross-section of Americans, including those at elite universities, didn’t elect to serve.
“There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend,” Gates warned at the time.
While there is no indication that a draft will ever again become part of U.S. military life, in Israel, the IDF reaps the benefits of a system that ensures that everyone — from future farmers and garbage collectors to rocket scientists — serves in the military.
“I literally have soldiers who are going to go on to be brain surgeons,” said the commander of a special forces unit operating along Israel’s border with Gaza.
“I think the people here are very eclectic,” said the officer, who also holds a law degree. “Some are rich. Some are poor. I admire these two edges.”
As the tactics of warfare change, the demand for intellectual firepower and technologically gifted soldiers is higher than ever within the IDF. A draft gives the IDF the advantage of tapping into a wide range of talents, most notably in the area of cyber and technology, officials said.
“Young people very much want to serve here,” said Col. Boaz Kavina, commander of the combat technologies section of the IDF’s cyber directorate.
The IDF’s technology branch spends a lot of time working with high schools, talking with principals, teachers and students. From sponsoring special academic programs to guiding technologically gifted draftees into the cyberunit, the relationship ensures the military can capitalize on the talents of those drafted while also providing real-world experience to troops who will later head off to university.
In some cases, the soldiers might return to the IDF for a professional military career. If not, many who serve in the IDF’s technology branch go into research positions inside Israel’s booming defense industry, Kavina said.
In the Negev Desert, Capt. Ran Kushnir, who was overseeing the training of a new batch of armored unit recruits, said most draftees adapt to the military life, but the first weeks are hard on the teenagers. Soon these troops will likely be dispatched to one of Israel’s tense border areas.
For now, their day usually starts at 4 a.m. and ends around midnight at the austere training center in the desert. It’s a regimented life, much like U.S. basic training: loudly barked orders, surprise inspections, long hours in the field, daylong ruck marches and classroom instruction.
“In the beginning, some cry,” Kushnir said. “Everybody has their breaking point in the first weeks, but now you can see them getting used to it.”
Pvt. Noah Diller-Schatz, a U.S. and Israeli citizen who recently graduated high school in the U.S., said he came back to Israel because he still has family in the country. With the potential for rocket strikes and violence at any moment, to serve means to defend them, he said.
“You have a different perspective here,” Diller-Schatz said.