Raising boys to maintain armies

Linked to our presentation of Rela Mazali – Israel on January 4, 2006.

Rela Mazali writes (as personal view on bmj.com) – Raising boys to maintain armies: Jewish Israeli boys are made aware of their future role as warriors from early childhood. Their entire development is oriented towards it. Older men promise and threat simultaneously, “Wait and see, when you get to the army….” After scraping their knees little boys are told, “It’ll pass before the army,” while girls are told, “It’ll pass before the wedding.”

Such messages and the ritual aspect of military service are reinforced by the secrecy surrounding military matters. This establishes a privileged inner circle, to be joined only via army service.

As women’s military duty is fundamentally different from that of men in Israel, they are among those excluded from the privileged core. Men’s service defines masculinity as lethal strength. The boy soldier is given a gun, literally the power to kill. One man interviewed for a film that I worked on was bemused to sense a joy of the hunt during service. Another, whose son was serving his obligatory term, avoided moral debates as he feared deliberations might restrain the boy’s trigger finger and get him killed. He perceived military service as an inescapable choice between killing and getting killed.

So at an age when many Western youths experience an introspective phase Jewish Israeli boys undergo the harshest, most rigid of regimes. To endure it most of them probably have to shut out their sensitivity and stifle various feelings. Psychologist Hanoch Yerushalmi has termed this “personality reduction,” which, for some, “blocks an entire channel of communication: emotional expression and some of the emotional exposure related to mental health.”

A society which maintains an army regularly used in combat has to actively ensure the sufficient availability of soldiers. As it is unlikely that all recruits are born with a predisposition to risk their lives such a society must be relying on some form of pressure or coercion. I have pondered this topic as the mother of two sons obliged to serve in Israel’s army and as a feminist peace activist.

Societies which deploy combat troops employ a variety of coercive means to ensure their existence and desired size. Among other means these can range from forcefully abducting and conscripting to material penalties for non-servicemen.

The most immediate form of pressure is an acknowledged outside threat to a society’s existence. But given Israel’s military power it is not clear how real the threat continues to be. Even so, most Jewish Israelis still retain a firm belief in an ever present state of peril.

Recruiting practices indicate that societies (not individual families) hold people of enlistment age to be the most dispensable. The loss of young men is less costly than that of more experienced workers or of people supporting and raising families. This is obviously inadmissible and the opposite view is standardly intoned by officials mourning dead soldiers as the loss of “our very best.” But three years ago the commander of the United States marines decided to induct only uinmarried men (a decision later revoked) and a former aide to the defence minister explained that married servicemen were a much larger burden on the defence budget.

Young men and boys have spent most of their lives in authoritarian frameworks. Army service steps in as one more of these. Hanoch Yerushalmi says, “The army is an all encompassing framework, similar . . . for instance to prison. It takes total responsibility for the soldier . . . bearing directly upon dependency versus independency.” There is no tradition of high school students uniting to press for specific conditions. So they are especially suitable and susceptible candidates for recruitment.

But the parents who have to consent to endanger their sons’ lives must be motivated by the beliefs and myths of their society. It is the mythologised role of the warrior, which casts military service as an important rite of passage, an entry into adult male society, obscuring society’s view of its sons as relatively dispensable.

A boy who fails to serve is thought to be sentenced to submembership in Jewish Israeli society. Viewed in quasireligious terms, military duty becomes a necessary, inevitable phase. As such, it remains untouched by the decrease of external need and subject to the tyranny of myth. This is evidenced by the medical profession’s suppression of high incidence rates of post-traumatic stress disorder among troops during successive wars and by the failure of fluctuations in Israel’s defence budget to reflect either the outcome of wars or the signing of peace accords. Mainly, though, the tyranny of the myth is shown by the absence of any public debate about the continuing necessity for induction for all in Israel.

RELA MAZALI is a medical writer in Israel.

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