Our daughter Merav completed an advanced communications course in the army last week that will allow her to move up in her IDF position. The one-month long program was held at a “closed” base (that’s one where you sleep there, do guard duty, and can’t leave unless given special permission) and was similar in style to basic training, particularly in one aspect: “distance.”
“Distance” refers to where a new recruit or trainee is forbidden to have any relationship with his or her commanders other than to obey orders. On their end, the commanders spend the month holding back any personal information about themselves and keep any outward emotions in check: Merav reports that there was no smiling, no touching, and no sharing of even a hint of what might make a particular commander a human being rather than a tough-as-nails, get-the-job-done superior.
Which is exactly what you’d expect from an army in order to instill discipline. But Israel is famously informal and this kind of “distance” seems out of character for a nation of future entrepreneurs and free thinkers.
That’s why “distance” in the IDF sometimes breaks down in a fabulous and formalized way, as Merav found out at the end of her course, when her commanders burst into the room where their student-soldiers had been gathered, but this time wearing civilian clothes and sporting a round of warm and very genuine smiles.
For the female commanders, they were allowed to let their hair fly loose from the strict ponytails the army insists upon at all other times. Jewelry and make-up were permitted too. The male commanders arrived in t-shirts and jeans. The entire gang of some 30 soldiers and their former overlords then partied into the night together, ordering pizzas, dancing and trading inside jokes.
A friend of ours who was an officer in the U.S. army for many years says that the situation there is entirely different. “There is always 100 percent separation between commissioned officers and enlisted men. That separation lasts forever. No soldier ever called me by my first name, nor would he want to do that. My private life was off limits to enlisted soldiers, and theirs was off limits to me.”
The circumstances may be different regarding Merav’s course, as her commanders were actually NCO’s (non-commissioned officers), which is what she is now too. But Merav reports from her army friends in other units that breaking “distance” occurs with full-fledged officers too.
Merav and the other soldiers in the course will now go off to their new positions, where they will in many cases be working side-by-side with their former classroom commanders. The pizza party was a blast, to be sure, but there’s still a lot of work to be done and the army is not generally characterized by the adjective “fun,” despite the game-like atmosphere of the “breaking distance” ceremony.
But for a few hours, a month of tough training received some much needed punctuation as the cadets and commanders got to let their hair down, literally.