Behind the Lines: Thanks to the reserves

The moment the bullets begin to fly, all the basic soldiering instincts instantly return.

reserve soldier praying  (photo credit: IDF)
reserve soldier praying
(photo credit: IDF)
It took 24 years - many believed it would never happen again - but once more, the reserves are riding to Israel's rescue. Thousands of men, summoned by midnight phone calls, drop everything and report for duty. No questions asked. They're fighting in Lebanon, lying in wait for the Syrians on the Golan and fulfilling the duties normally carried out by young regular soldiers on every border and hotspot. And, of course, they're getting killed in increasing numbers. For years, the IDF and the Finance Ministry have been saying that major cutbacks in the defense budget are inevitable, and that the reserve corps would be slashed the most. Future wars would be fought by strategic air and sea forces, hundreds of kilometers away from Israel's borders, and brief ground skirmishes would be carried out by highly mobile, rapid-reaction units. The days of the large and unwieldy reserve formations, with their costly emergency depots, annual training exercises and a heavy bill to pay for their lost income while in uniform, were over, a thing of the past. But visions of a New Middle East, with quiet borders and surgical long-range operations in distant lands, have turned out to be no more than a utopian fantasy. Fifteen years after Ehud Barak was appointed chief of staff and coined the phrase, "a small and clever army," we're still as far from realizing that view as we were on that dark Yom Kippur day in 1973 when an entire nation was mobilized to fight off the Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack. TODAY'S SITUATION shouldn't have come as a surprise. Israel had its wake-up call in 2002, when reservist brigades had to be called up to enable the IDF to invade Palestinian cities and crush the terror organizations in their nests. Operation Defensive Shield, the first decisive step toward ending the almost daily suicide bombings in Jerusalem, Netanya, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hadera and other cities, couldn't have been carried out without the reserves. But that wasn't enough: The downsizing program went ahead nevertheless, and finally it was Hassan Nasrallah who delivered the rude awakening. As one high-ranking officer said last week with a hint of satisfaction while visiting a reserve artillery battery getting ready to fire on Hizbullah targets, "There will have to be a whole rethink of military planning with regard to the reserves after this is over." One of the infantry brigades heavily involved in the fighting in Lebanon - with a large number of casualties already - hasn't had a full week of training for more than three years, despite being sent annually for regular duty in the West Bank. Another armored brigade - stationed now on the Golan Heights prepared for a Syrian attack - had its last active service in September 2004, and for close to a year has been "frozen," pending decommission. These brigades and others like them are now Israel's front-line units. Despite being the foundation of Israel's survival for five and a half decades, the reserves has never been glamorous. While a great deal of esprit de corps is fostered within the regular units - with distinctive berets and badges - reservist units have very little individual identity. Unlike regular soldiers and career officers who, off base, wear a "dress" uniform, reservists wear only the basic work clothes (madei bet). There's no insistence on reservists tucking their shirts in, sewing ranks on their sleeves, shaving meticulously or polishing their boots. More often than not, they cover their heads with baseball caps rather than regulation hats. Quite naturally, the local and foreign media and public are drawn more by the fabled regular units like the Golani or Paratroopers brigades. It's no wonder that the popular image of reservists is that of a bunch of guys resting in the shade, drinking endless cups of coffee and playing backgammon. This is an image many of them enjoy reinforcing. In fact many Israelis who never touch a cigarette at home become chain smokers when they're doing their reserve duty. But during a war, all this changes. The moment the bullets begin to fly, all the basic soldiering instincts instantly return. Even an overweight, nearly middle-aged guy is suddenly capable of jumping over rocks while schlepping a machine gun and belts of ammunition. HOW IS this transformation achieved? Sorry to say, it's no thanks to military planning. Many reservists are driven to despair - and leave their units before the usual retirement age - by the attitude the army often displays toward them. Humdrum missions, insufficient annual training, lousy living conditions and shoddy and often missing equipment regularly give them the feeling that the IDF is taking them for granted. Low turn-up rates for active duty, and high percentages of reservists getting medical exemptions over the last two decades, led the army to appoint a special chief reserves officer with the rank of brigadier - and to pay regular lip service to its veterans. But this doesn't mean much to eight grown men who have to spend three weeks in a cramped caravan with a broken-down air-conditioning unit in a sweltering Jordan Valley summer, while making do with dilapidated showers and toilets. For many, annual reserve duty means having to spend thousands of shekels of their own money on transportation (where buses are few and far between), on supplementing the humdrum military rations and even on their military equipment. One paratrooper unit even got together to order tailor-made combat vests, which they paid for themselves. At the same time, being out of regular life for a month a year can incur significant financial loss, especially for those running their own small businesses. Even over the last two weeks, when the reserves were being called up for war, some of these problems were still evident. One battalion found that most of the night-vision goggles in its emergency depot had been removed for the units already in Lebanon. In another base, a regimental sergeant major wouldn't allow hungry reservists into the dining hall until they made themselves more presentable. Even the massacre of 12 reservists at a gathering point next to Kfar Giladi by a Katyusha rocket can arguably be traced to this attitude. A regular unit would have been equipped with helmets and flak jackets and stationed next to concrete shelters upon entering Hizbullah range. But still, there was no outcry. Reservists carried on with their business. They made do with whatever equipment was available, using old foraging techniques to fill in the blanks. Turnout was almost total, including those from the North whose families remain under fire or who are living in temporary lodgings in the South. Conscientious objectors, whether left-wingers opposed to the bloodshed or right-wingers afraid of Ehud Olmert's realignment plan, were almost non-existent. One reservist who was let out due to his wife giving birth to their first daughter, upon hearing that his friends were fighting in Lebanon, began frantically trying to rejoin his paratrooper company. Writer and satirist Yonatan Geffen, the king of Israeli cynicism, once said: "I hate the state but love my company." To a large extent, this is the feeling that keeps the reserve units going. At the center of most companies is a nucleus of veterans, long past their release age of 40 (this age is regularly being changed downwards and upwards), who annually renew their volunteer papers and give the units a sense of tradition and camaraderie. Both the younger, more fit and better trained soldiers recently released from active service and the officers defer to these old-timers in the knowledge that they are the ones keeping the unit together. None of them receives or expects any gratitude. When they finally leave their units - some of them already the fathers of soldiers - at most, they receive a certificate and an ornamental key chain; and the company, with its own funds, organizes a barbecue on their last stint of reserves. What they have is the quiet satisfaction of knowing that for more than 30 years, they were the real backbone of Israel. A clever nation would do everything to preserve that.