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Why Were Those IDF Recruits Dancing With Their Guns? One Word: Facebook

The IDF’s veteran commanders fear that easier access to Internet and softer treatment of new recruits create lax fighters

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Israeli female soldiers of the Karakal Battalion with their faces painted in camouflage photograph themselves before a graduation march in the northern part of the Negev desert, on March 13, 2013. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

As is often the case in Israel, the solution to the trauma of being cut off from social media during basic training has evolved from the ground up. Junior officers, faced with growing complaints from pampered new recruits, devised a “soft power” treatment in the first months of basic training. This, I should add, is relative: Infantry service remains a hard task. But gradually, most of the senior officers have accepted the new rules of engagement with their charges. Soft power often means praise instead of humiliation from sergeants and captains. Physical abuse has all but disappeared, while verbal abuse isn’t as widespread as before. The army also grudgingly allowed soldiers some Facebook access during recess.

Many times during my reporting, I listened to arguments between rookies and their commanders, as the soldiers pleaded for precious Internet time through their smartphones. Just like my 15-year-old—or the female soldiers—the male Nahal recruits were keen to present their new image to their friends and family members at home. Showing off new muscles or a combat vest supplied some compensation for the harsh everyday conditions at the training camp, far away in the Negev desert.

Yet it was also evident that the junior commanders were still struggling with the meaning of these new, evolving, ethics. In one similar paratrooper unit, the company commander had forbidden his sergeants to accept friendship requests from their soldiers on Facebook. Smartphones also quickly became the Yiddishe Mama’s most useful weapon, since every parent now has the company commander’s phone number: Very often, when captains punish soldiers by revoking their weekend leave, they will receive a phone call from the soldiers’ mothers, trying to negotiate a lighter punishment for their sons. You shouldn’t be too surprised to learn that Israeli mothers frequently succeed in their efforts.

Some of the IDF’s veteran commanders are worried by the outcome of all these changes. They fear that the new rules and softer treatment—though popular among new recruits and their parents—do not create tough fighters. “Do you know what the most popular youth movement in Israel is?” one brigade commander asked me. Instead of a verbal answer, he moved his finger from left to right, imitating the motion used to open an iPhone screen. Another officer admitted that training in his brigade only became effective on Monday evenings, when the soldiers’ smartphones on the field began to suffer from low batteries. Some officers claim that the new soldiers might be less inclined to battle the extremist members of such organizations as Hamas or Hezbollah, but I’m not sure if this would in fact turn out to be true, or even determinative. After all, Hamas members have smartphones and twitter accounts, too.

The IDF is also concerned about the possible damage social networks and mobile phones might cause to information security. It is assumed that during the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hezbollah managed to get hold of confidential information by eavesdropping on Israeli officers who were carelessly discussing delicate matters on their mobile phones. Since then, it seems that Israel’s enemies have learned quite a lot by snooping on soldiers’ Facebook pages. Huge posters in army bases warn soldiers from such consequences. “You and Hassan Nasrallah share 25 friends on Facebook,” claims a popular one. Recently, my colleague Gili Cohen reported in Haaretz that the army was working on a new directive regulating social network use by soldiers, prohibiting use altogether in some confidential units. Two reasons were given: fears for information security and, as one could have guessed, those naughty pictures.

However, sometimes the information commissars get a bit carried away. As Cohen also reported, another poster they distributed, trying to limit the use of civilian disk-on-keys in military computers, shows a glass of milk next to a hamburger with the caption “Some things just don’t go together”—as if breaking the laws of kashrut was one step away from giving away secrets to the enemy.

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Why Were Those IDF Recruits Dancing With Their Guns? One Word: Facebook

The IDF’s veteran commanders fear that easier access to Internet and softer treatment of new recruits create lax fighters

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