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Lonely Soldier: The Memoir of an American in the Israeli Army
By Adam Harmon
On my occasional tours of reserve duty, I would gaze from my guard post at the night sky, brushing up on my astronomy and making sure a meteorite did not fall on our platoon. It's a thankless job, but someone has to do it. Yet it is not the stuff that publishable military memoirs are made of.
Chapter headings such as "Potatoes I have Peeled," "Boots I have Polished" (now there's a short chapter), "Things My Commanding Officers Have Called Me" (a somewhat longer chapter, sadly); well, they do not set a reader's pulse racing.
Ideally, you need to tell tales of struggle and achievement, of hardships overcome, of enemies fought and defeated, of character formed. And Adam Harmon, in Lonely Soldier (the too-literal translation of chayal boded) seems well placed to tell such a tale.
He was bitten by the Zionist bug as a teen. After completing his undergraduate studies in America, he left his family and moved to a kibbutz, joining the army only five months later at the end of 1990. After trying out for various elite units, he ended up in the paratroops, and most of the book is the story of his service there over the following 18 months, including undergoing punishing training and subsequent reserve duty.
He saw some action, ambushing terrorists and successfully capturing one as well. But Harmon's theme is simple: how an ordinary Jewish-American college kid rose to the physical and mental challenge of front-line service in the Israeli army and acquitted himself with honor.
He is entitled to be proud. The book, written in the present tense, is engagingly frank about his unequal battle with the Hebrew language and his doubts about making a success of his service. He captures well in simple language the day-to-day grind of training, and any IDF veteran is bound to be reminded of aspects of his time in the army, including things he would prefer to forget. If Harmon's drive to prove himself and to live up to the highest professional standards occasionally feels obsessive, it should be remembered that this is a real part of the military world.
Why, then, did I find Lonely Soldier a disappointment? One problem is that the focus is too much on Harmon alone. His fellow soldiers lead only brief, shadowy existences. They could have added depth to the book, and their stories given the reader insight into the society from which they came.
But Harmon was, quite literally, a "lonely soldier." His lack of Hebrew prevented his forming close relationships, and his very will to succeed may have given him blinkers. He is good at communicating his own story, but can give us nothing of theirs.
This leads to another problem: the entire book is written in a near total political vacuum. I assume that Harmon has opinions on the Israeli scene. But he ruthlessly suppresses them, save for the occasional unexceptional clich d remark ("In September 2000, news of a latest intifada chills me to the bone.").
He does comment, with sensitivity and fairness, on how he reconciles his army service with the demands of morality. But he never gives the reader the sense that he got under the skin of life here.
Ultimately, Harmon left the country after finding it impossible to make a living. This is no disgrace, of course; admirably, he even returned for a couple of spells of reserve duty during and after Operation Defensive Shield.
Perhaps he feels that because he no longer lives in Israel, he has no right to express his views. He apparently still represents an Israeli consulate in the United States at speaking engagements, and under these circumstances he may prefer to be discreet. But when he spends time after the army working as a security guard at a Jewish settlement in Silwan, he blandly remarks that he is "not here for political reasons" and is only concerned that his performance should be as professional as that of the other guards.
Most local readers, no matter what their opinions are, will feel let down. Haim Watzman's Company C, which I reviewed in these pages last year, illuminates Israeli army service far better. Watzman, well-settled here, enriched his account by making no secret of his own political and religious views, while letting his fellow soldiers speak for themselves.
Here and there Harmon misses a trick. He speaks of being addressed by a high-ranking officer called "Boogie," without making the obvious connection to the nickname of the previous chief-of staff, Moshe Ya'alon. Also, he writes of a grueling training session in the heat which was allowed to go ahead even though, thanks to some bureaucratic snafu, there were no water supplies available. Several soldiers ended up needing intravenous fluids, and the author should have pointed out that his officers were lucky not to be disciplined for their recklessness.
Lonely Soldier will probably find its intended audience among Diaspora Jews interested in an upbeat yet truthful account of what it is like to train for an elite IDF unit. The downside of army life is not concealed.
"If there's one thing I've learned," sighs Harmon, "it's that much of military life is spent waiting." Amen to that.
But I was surprised to read that his commanders "don't invade my personal space and scream insults at me." Someone was very lucky indeed.