JERUSALEM—“We have two flowers and one oleander. We need a thistle.” Listening to the Israeli military frequencies when I was an infantryman nearly two decades ago, it was (and still is) possible to hear sentences like these, the bewildering cousins of sentences familiar to anyone following America’s present-day wars. “Vegas is in a TIC,” says a U.S. infantryman in Afghanistan in Sebastian Junger’s book War. What does it all mean?
Anyone seeking to understand the world needs to understand soldiers, but the language of soldiers tends to be bizarre and opaque, an apt symbol for the impossibility of communicating their experiences to people safe at home. The language isn’t nonsense—it means something to the soldiers, of course, but it also has something to say about the army and society to which they belong, and about the shared experience of military service anywhere. The soldiers’ vernacular must provide words for things that civilians don’t need to describe, like grades of officers and kinds of weapons. But it has deeper purposes too.
I was drafted into the Israeli army in 1997, when I was 19, having moved to Israel from Canada a few years before. I served until 2000. In those years Israel controlled a strip of Lebanese land along the Israeli border and fought a long war there with guerrillas from Hezbollah—a war which involved IEDs, videotaped hit-and-run attacks, and the wearing down of a modern military by Muslim guerrillas operating in a failed state. It was thus a prologue of sorts to the kind of warfare Americans have seen in the 21st century. (I just spent a few years writing a book about it.) When I happened to land in this conflict after high school, I found a hazardous reality described not just with the usual acronyms and numbers—“APC,” “81 mm”—and with the energetic obscenities one would expect, but with a language that seemed drawn from a horticultural handbook.