One reason the American military has resisted calls to reinstate a draft is that conscription often forces armies to deal with soldiers who not only don’t want to be there and aren’t committed to the cause but can be unfit for duty. While the Abu Ghraib affair shows that even volunteers can be unfit, for the most part it’s the men and women who choose to defend their country and are committed to the skills and discipline of military life that contemporary commanders prefer to have on the front.
With over 300 million citizens America can afford to rely on a volunteer army. With seven million citizens and hostile borders, Israel can’t. And that’s how it ends up with soldiers like Eden Abergil, who has admitted to being "thoughtless" in not only take smiling pictures of herself with blindfolded Palestinian prisoners but to then posting them on Facebook. It’s unclear how the photos and the comments beneath them became public.
For a country as obsessed with its worldwide image as Israel, one that tweeted every detail of its relief mission to Haiti, the age of cell-phone cameras, Facebook and YouTube are going to pose a challenge to any effort to minimize the impact of unfit soldiers like Abergil.
But after 60 years as a military-dominated society, Israel is facing a more serious problem of ennui in the ranks. In his excellent new book, "Walking Israel," NBC news Israel correspondent Martin Fletcher speaks to Yuval Eilan, who runs an army preparation course for teens in Herzliya that’s meant to toughen them, mentally and physically, so they can get into elite units.
Eilan says the motivation to get into the glorified paratrooper, commando and SEAL units used to be noble and patriotic, but today has become about more about leveraging the service into a better post-army career. The number of people he sees striving for those units, for whatever reason, is on the decline as parents urge their kids to find non-combat jobs in intelligence or computers. "They got tired," Eilan told Fletcher. "It’s all been going on too long."
Fletcher adds that "a growing number of parents deliver a message to their kids, indirectly, that army service is not as important as it once was, that they should do what’s required of them and get on with their life." It’s not clear if Abergil was bored with her job detaining Palestinians or actually hates them, although Ha’aretz reported that she had also written on her Facebook page that she "would gladly kill Arabs."
What can the army do about that kind of soldier? If there is psychological profiling of recruits at intake, it’s not likely that even intense scrutiny of a teenage soldier’s maturity can predict how they will act when they are in real military circumstances until it happens. "Three months of basic training is supposed to toughen up the body of the most coddled momma’s boy," writes Fletcher. "But it doesn’t always prepare them emotionally for what they will face. While Israeli combat soldiers may achieve high status, a high number are also screwed up."
This leads to the argument that an occupation not only dehumanizes the occupied but the occupier, and then to the argument over the occupation itself, which is not my point here.
In the last few weeks the IDF’s image and its slogan of "Purity of Arms" has taken some hits, first with the indictment of several soldiers on serious charges of misconduct during Operation Cast Lead, then with You Tube videos showing soldiers trying to have a good time, singing and dancing and potentially derelict while on patrol. They all remind us that these soldiers, if they lived in America, would be managing their social and academic lives rather than going heavily armed into delicate situations. It is the nature of any army that despite all the wisdom of the officers, great power is still in the hands of the inexperienced.
Answering social media on its own terms, the IDF spokesman Barak Raz, went on YouTube to decry Aberil’s conduct, citing the army’s code of conduct.
Abergil, who lives in Asdod and was released from the army in 2008, in turn went on the defensive Tuesday, telling Israeli army radio she didn’t see what all the fuss was about and correctly saying that comparisons to the far more disgraceful Abu Ghraib toturers are absurd.
"There was no statement in the photos about violence, about disrespect, about anything that would hurt that person. I just had my picture taken with someone in the background," said Abergil, who said the photos were taken at a base on the border of Gaza where suspicious Palestinians trying to cross into Israel are detained for questioning. "When I understood that so many people were hurt by those pictures, I removed them." But its clear from her playful exchange of comments with a friend, wondering if the prisoner depicted has a Facebook account, that her intention both in taking and posting the photos was mockery.
Most likely, the army will begin to crack down on soldiers’ use and possession of cameras while on active duty. On the hasbara front, Israel might also remind people why most Palestinians are arrested and detained in the first place. There is a direct relation between the strength of crackdowns at West Bank and Gaza crossings and the level of violence. Israel routinely eases crossings for Muslim holidays and when times are peaceful and clamps down hard after attacks. The reduced number of homicide bombings in recent years is surely the result of the security barrier, not greater pacifism, and so the IDF and border police are forced on a daily basis to investigate and counter weapons smuggling and attempts to kill Jews, rival factions or informers.
While we’re at it, let’s remind those who are properly indignant about this affair to be equally properly indignant about the treatment of IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit, a prisoner of Hamas. Since his captors won’t allow the International Red Cross to visit him and assess his condition, and no one has posed with him on Facebook, we can only imagine the kind of daily horrors he has been subjected to. In all likelihood, Abergil’s prisoners have gone home by now. Gilad Shalit just entered his fourth year of captivity.