Van Dammed

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If looks could kill

I’m not going to deny that there are some tough motherfuckers in the Israeli army. But once inside the institution itself, you’d have to look real hard to find them. Maybe this is the result of an elaborate ruse intended to inspire gross underestimation, though it probably has more to do with the fact most teenaged Israeli conscripts are pretty well cowed compared with American kids, who by the age of eighteen have (on average) done way more fucking, fighting, shoplifting, drug ingesting and all-around troublemaking than their middle eastern counterparts despite being (on average) a good fifty pounds heavier. Whereas stateside, stealing a car or beating a classmate to a bloody pulp can (in ever rarer instances, it is true) be a ticket to Fort Benning, in Israel, getting caught with a swiped laptop or a vile of ecstasy is taken as a sign not of potentially useful daring-do but of dangerous non-conformity, and those with juvenile rap-sheets are actually denied the option of military service. Ain’t that bass-friggin’-ackward?

On the day in 2006 when I officially became army property, a family friend drove me in his late-model Peugot and dropped me off outside the grounds of a 1967 Six-Day War battle site, Givat Hatakhmoshet (Ammunition Hill) that is now the location of a military museum. A group of fellow twenty-something male English-speakers and several Russians was milling around the entrance in the orbit of a middle-aged Tennessean and her distractingly pretty teenaged daughter, both of whom were handing out shiny new electric razors, tins of shoe polish, bags of Cheetos, candy bars and little squeeze-it juice boxes. These were hard-core Christian Zionists, permanent residents of Jerusalem and members of a far-right evangelical organization that doesn’t even expend its resources proselytizing, so eager are its members to hand out squeeze-it juice boxes to Israeli soldiers without the potential constraint of theological controversy. I guess they figure we can sort ourselves out when Jesus comes.

By and by, several female corporals, armed with clipboards, emerged from inside the gate and led us through a series of metal detectors and into a building where we were briefly interviewed one by one and each made to sign a sheaf of papers; then around back to a row of bleachers where we sat for an hour or so. The Russians, most of whom had recently graduated from high schools in Israel, talked amongst themselves in Russian. The Anglos, all recent arrivals in the nineteen-to-twenty seven year-old age range and mostly American but including a few Canadians and South Africans, introduced ourselves. Soon the corporals returned and led us into a movie theatre in the museum building, where we were treated to grainy footage of the 1967 Battle of Ammunition Hill. The gist of the piece’s narration (in Hebrew, Russian and English) seemed to be that it is good to die for one’s country. The whole angle of appeal seemed rather low-literacy, and I wondered, where was the more nuanced propaganda geared toward well-read bourgeois malcontents? I wasn’t sure I would be able to subsist in this army if my emotional needs weren’t going to be taken into more careful consideration.

Eventually we were herded onto a bus and taken to an army base where we spent the day in endless lines as we were processed: shorn, vaccinated, fingerprinted, made to sign more papers and issued dog-tags, military ID cards, boots, berets, class-A uniforms, C-bags and squeeze-it juice boxes.

Now, Israel is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, and although it often fails to behave like one when convenience trumps adherence, we were nonetheless issued little pocket-sized tagboard documents, to be kept on our persons at all times, enumerating the rights of POWs under those very agreements—–in French, for the apparently singular edification, amusement and rolling-paper needs of possible Hezbullah captors, who obviously are not a party to any covenant on the laws of war. Maybe the logic was that if we could get them laughing uncontrollably, this would buy us enough time to escape back over the Israeli border before they could slather the insides of our rectums with gasoline using soldering irons.

Every single new conscript on base that day was a recent arrival, either from a French or English speaking country, the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia or South America. The vaccination line alone contained an incredible spectrum of backgrounds and experienecs. Among the former Soviets it ranged from Mikhael, a hale and hearty, ethnic Russian former Uzbek-army sergeant from Tashkent, who wore a massive gold crucifix burrowed neatly among his many chest hairs at the apex of his V-neck tee, to Valerie, a spindly, doe-eyed Ukranian waif who looked as though conscription was the only thing standing between him and continuing to be breast-fed at home. At the behest of Mikhail he was being kicked around by some rough looking and very nearly toothless fellows whose body odor suggested they’d never been fed out of anything but tin-cans. In outhouses. Next to toxic waste dumps.

Among the Americans the spectrum ranged from Josh, a four-foot-seven east-coast bus-station rat runaway from a Nassau County trailer park whose regular intravenous heroin consumption went unnoticed by army authorities until many months later—after he had passed the physically grueling tryout and a significant portion of the training for a top-tier infantry commando—to Daniel, a half-Jewish Nicaraguan jeweler’s kid from Miami, who recited sentimental rap lyrics in Cholo drawl.

In short order a Russian had dubbed me “Van Damme” in self-satisfied obeisance to my apparently strong resemblance to the Belgian movie star. Indeed, a summer’s worth of construction work in the Tel Aviv suburbs had rendered me lean and chiseled. The word soon spread like wildfire and before we even boarded the buses for training camp I had become the object of intense scrutiny, with French, Russian and assorted other Doubting Thomases making the pilgrimage from all over the base to crowd around me and behold with their own eyes the Van Damme lookalike in their very midst, whose legend they’d heard imparted in myriad languages. Given that the preponderance of bootleg DVDs on offer in the open-air markets of Eastern Europe are in fact movies starring Jean Claude Van Damme, I was in no position to challenge my fellow conscripts’ expertise.

By that evening we found ourselves, after a three-hour bus ride, at the training base of the Israeli Army Education Corps for a three-month basic training regimen designed to improve our Hebrew. As boot camps go, this one was pretty light, basically the same minimal program that non-combat soldiers endure, with an added six-hours per-day of classroom instruction in Hebrew-as-a-second-language, taught by female corporals (and several male ones, all of whom either sported orthodontic headgear or evinced an ostentatious level of femininity). Despite the low physical intensity and my impending admission to the training program of a hardcore combat unit, this Hebrew language program would be the toughest three months of my service, because unlike elsewhere in the Israeli army the age range was mid-to-late twenties; because not most, but a good proportion of the former Soviets had seen either homelessness, prison time (relatively few of those, I have to admit), military service or assorted other hard knocks in their countries of origin; and because the base itself was a converted former prison. In short, I found myself in an actual prison with the dregs of the former Soviet Union—toughened petty criminals, urchins and proverbial red-headed step children, some of them sub-literate even in their own languages, all (ostensibly) being supervised by nineteen-year old female corporals (one of whom we nicknamed “sexual chipmunk” for her small stature, ample posterior, overbite, apple cheeks and big, sultry eyes) and orthopedically challenged male ones, selected not for toughness but because at home they spoke one of their charges’ first languages.

Wild shit quickly transpired.

Several of the former Soviets had been involved back home, whether formally or by proximity and mere diffusion, with the post-communist extreme right. Upon arrival, a couple of these guys quickly took to cheekily decorating the bathroom stalls with swastikas. The dozen-strong French/Belgian contingent, all of them dweebs from dunderheaded, religious Zionist households, soon caught one of them red-handed, cornered him in the very stall they’d caught him defacing and kicked the crap out of him.

The poor guy had to be airlifted to the hospital, but before the bird touched down word had gotten around to the Russians, a dozen of whom decided not to stand idly by while the honor of a fellow Ruski was violated with such brazenness by an incautious bunch of effete Frogs, who quickly found themselves on the receiving end of their own poorly-considered tactics in a battle royale straight out of Mortal Combat.

The following morning, two dozen of our fellows were either in the brig or the hospital and the rest of us were subjected to a stern lecture by a pot-bellied major who admonished us to never permit abuse of the memory of the Holocaust, and to never lift a hand against a fellow Israeli soldier—which sounded like a catch-22 considering the chain of events that aroused the officer’s concern.

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