On Class War and Chickenhawk Politics, From Israel to America: Reader Response No. 2

"I would say that Israel provides great arguments for those who argue for a draft, or some form of national service, in America."

Background: My piece on "The Tragedy of the American Military" is here; the "Gary Hart Memo" is here; an extra reading list is here; and here is reader response No. 1.

Next we have No. 2: Scott Kirkpatrick, who grew up in America and is now a professor in the school of computer science and engineering at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes about my 40-year-old Washington Monthly article, "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?"

I read your article when it appeared [in 1975].  Have you read John Lithgow's description from 2-3 years ahead of you (from his book "Drama:  An Actor's Education")?  [JF answer: No.] He put his full set of dramatic skills plus a few months of starvation and filth-buildup into a psychological profile for which he was rejected. He didn't go down to the reception center with a Harvard busload—it seems to have been a more lonely process.  As a result, rather than drawing a social moral from the experience, he seems to have been deeply shamed by the whole thing, plus feeling that he misused his art.

My experience was closer to yours. Grad-school deferments, had to pass an exam one year, and I had aged out when I finished my Ph.D. and left Harvard for the Real World in 1969.

I live now in Israel ... Service is broadly interpreted, but it is definitely universal, starting at age 18 and followed by years of reserve obligations.

The class stratification is visible. Kids from good middle-class backgrounds know how to use awesome test scores to get into the most career-advancing and least life-threatening intelligence groups. The macho appeal of fighter training and commando groups draws pretty widely, even though the minimum enlistments there are for 6+ years. We have many new immigrants, who seem to get shuffled into the army more randomly.

A recent Ukrainian student of mine served on a bomb-disposal squad (Hurt Locker stuff with IEDs) that had several casualties in the course of his two active years. As one of your commenters has pointed out, Army service when there is shooting is a fertile ground for recruiting into the more fundamentalist religious groups.

Here the nationalist/Zionist/settler direction is the most troubling. But we are a country in which the military is broadly understood, both in its power and in its limitations. Still is is not clear that this shared knowledge is getting translated into a national consensus to go beyond a politics of preserving and expanding what we presently hold.  

I asked my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, who has written a book about his own service in the Israeli security forces, what he thought about the trends Kirkpatrick had noted. Here is his reply.

A number of observations on this:

1. Service in Israel is still, relative to everywhere else I can think of off the top of my head, universal, with some notable exceptions: Palestinian-Israelis are exempt from service, and the ultra-Orthodox still rarely serve.

2. Some of the changes your correspondent is writing about are due to the different needs of the IDF today. Unit 8200, which is Israel's NSA equivalent in many ways, has a huge need for big, trained brains. These big, trained brains are going to be found at Israel's best high schools. I know of some kids who would rather have gone to combat units, but the army didn't give them a choice.

3. On the other hand, for the obvious reason that graduates of 8200 are largely responsible for Israel's tech boom, very smart kids who want to go build start-up nation (or to make the commute between Silicon Valley and Tel Aviv) know that the education they receive in 8200, and the products they devise, could help make them successful and rich. (One caveat to all of this is that some of the best best kids, especially those with perfect eyesight, are funneled to pilot training.)

4. Your commenter is right when he suggests that the national-religious camp is providing a disproportionate number of recruits to combat units (infantry units mainly), and he's right to suggest that this has political consequences. The settlements have replaced the kibbutzim as a main feeder to the junior officer corps, though kibbutz kids still go to combat units in sizable numbers, as best as I know.

5. The broader point he makes re: the national consensus on politics is interesting—the generals are usually more dovish than the typical Likud politician, and we've seen, again and again over the years, retired generals (as well as chiefs of the intelligence services) advocating for compromise positions of the sort we don't associate with the current government. What we haven't seen yet is an army general staff dominated by religious officers from the settlements (or, really, religious officers at all.)  This may be coming if current trends continue, at which point things become (from my perspective) particularly troubling—if a democratically elected government one day orders the chief of general staff to forcibly evacuate settlements, what will happen if one of those settlements happens to be his home? More broadly, how would the junior officers who would be leading such a forced evacuation react if they were ordered to evict their parents? Theoretical questions for now, but fraught. (On the other hand, the army, in Gaza, did what it was ordered to do in 2005, forcibly evacuating 8,000 Jewish settlers.)

6. On the broadest point, there is still a more or less high desire on the part of the majority of high school males across the political and religious spectrum to serve in combat units—most of Israel is still geared to venerate the combat soldier. This veneration crosses many lines, and you'll still find plenty of self-identified left-wing young men in combat units. (For instance, the left-wing novelist David Grossman's son was a tank commander who died in Lebanon in 2006—a story I wrote about several years ago in The Atlantic.) But the army's needs are changing, and parts of the culture are changing—certainly there are pockets of Tel Aviv, and other upper-income, culturally liberal areas, where army service holds much less attraction than it used to, and of course there are 18-year-olds who try to avoid service (and there are always a certain number of declared conscientious objectors as well.)  

Still, I would say that Israel provides great arguments for those who argue for a draft, or some form of national service, in America. To a greater extent than any other institution, the army mixes kids from different socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds (and even confessional backgrounds —the number of Druze and Bedouin in the army is high, and some Arab Christians are now volunteering for service.) And of course, the universal draft means that the army leadership, and the political echelon above it, must be sensitive to the feelings and fears and wishes of a nation of Jewish mothers.

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Additional in-house note: In my article I say that Seth Moulton, who will soon take office as a freshman Democratic representative from Massachusetts, "enlisted" in the Marine Corps after graduating from Harvard in 2001. In fact he was commissioned as a Marine Corps officer. I understand the difference and am sorry for the careless mis-phrasing.