Friday, June 18, 2004

Brothers and Others in Arms

Danny Kaplan, a post-doctoral fellow at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, argues in his ground-breaking work Brothers and Others in Arms: The Making of Love and War in Israeli Combat Units (NY: Harrington Park Press, 2002) that Jewish gay and lesbian communities in Israel have been less likely to create gay and lesbian subcultures that resist social norms than gay and lesbian communities in most Western societies:
Many gay subcultures in Western societies offer an image of resistance to surrounding societal norms. The American gay and lesbian community has often inclined to cultural, societal, economic, and geographical segregation. In contrast, the overall picture that gay Israelis seem to portray is one of compliance with mainstream Zionist culture. There may be various reasons for this situation: the strongly knit ties within Israeli society, the small size of the country and society, and the importance of familial values within Jewish tradition. But, unquestionably, the actual participation of the majority of gay and lesbian youth in the military increases this trend toward conformity. (p. 162)
Through his interviews with gay and bisexual soldiers in a wide range of combat units in the Israeli military, Kaplan convincingly makes the case that the centrality of Jewish Israeli gay men's military experience shapes the development of their sexual identity "in a much more structured and institutionalized manner" than in many Western industrial societies:
For Israeli men in general, military service follows earlier Jewish initiation rite[s] such as the brit milah and bar mitzvah in symbolically shaping a collective form of masculine identity. . . .The acquisition of gay identity in Western societies is often viewed as a private, personal process lacking socially acknowledged developmental markers. Even for the minority of gay men who serve in their respective armies, the diverse circumstances of their service -- often as a partial career and at various periods in life -- may defy any attempt to ascribe to it a cultural-collective meaning. In contrast, the involvement of most gay Israeli men in the military within this cultural context of a Zionist rite of passage, shapes the development of their identity in a more clearly defined manner, and in a sense turns it into a ritualized, anticipated, and acknowledged process. (Kaplan, pp. 162-163)
Kaplan, however, "specifically sought for men who were actually assigned to warrior roles and completed their service in combat units," as he "wanted to focus on processes of identity formation and identification among individuals who had adjusted to the military" (p. 123). Therefore, it is reasonable to hypothesize that, since war fighters who actually serve in combat zones are a minority in a highly complex bureaucracy that a modern military is, if Kaplan or other researchers widen the scope of research and include perspectives of Israeli gay men who either served in non-combat roles, went AWOL, sought deferments, or even tried to acquire the status of conscientious objector, the process of identity formation of Jewish Israeli gay men may turn out to be much more variegated than Brothers and Others in Arms suggests.

For instance, take the opinion of Eshel Herzog, a gay Israeli conscientious objector:
Eshel Herzog was 18 when he first served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). One job during his three-and-a-half year stint was guarding a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. When he recalled the experience today, he thought of himself as a prison guard ruling over the many Palestinians who lived around the settlement.

"The thousands of Palestinians who lived in the nearby area, they couldn’t go to work, they couldn’t get medical treatment," Herzog said. "The whole West Bank and Gaza are some sort of big prison."

Israeli men and women, with some exceptions, are required to serve in the military and then report for service in the reserve army each year after until they are 45. Herzog, now 23, refused to perform his reserve duty late last year and he was locked up in a military prison.

"It was supposed to be 28 days," he said just after being released from prison. "It came out a little bit less than 25 days."

Herzog is part of a small, but vocal movement of Israelis who either refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza or will not serve at all.

Being gay has everything to do with his action.

“I guess, as a minority, because I am an oppressed minority, I am struggling towards getting human rights,” he said prior to his prison term. “My politics says that minorities should feel connected with any struggle against oppression. I cannot see myself as a gay contributing to oppression against other minorities including women, Palestinians, transgenders, whatever.”

He also feels that Jews, given the abuses they have suffered for centuries, should not abuse others.

"Every Jew should feel responsibility of the oppression he is being part of," Herzog said. "As an oppressed minority we should feel also a connection in our hearts... It’s not only a logical connection, it’s an emotional connection." . . .

There are also soldiers with political objections to the current military efforts who come to a private accommodation with their commanding officers, for instance, by serving only within the borders of Israel that existed before the June 1967 war.

"I think you have to differentiate between public and private refusal," said Danny Kaplan, author of Brothers and Others in Arms: The Making of Love and War in Israeli Combat Units. He interviewed 90 IDF soldiers in combat units, including 22 gay ones, for his book.

"I’m sure that there are many more who do it on an unofficial level," Kaplan said. "There are many ways you can come to an agreement with your commander and I’m sure that many people do that. . . .The phenomenon that I am seeing now in the media is really people who want to stress and make a statement of their political agenda. The political aspect of refusing to serve is very extreme." (Duncan Osborne, "A Refusenik’s Own Story," Gay City News 2.3, January 17-23, 2003)
While I would like to see more research on Jewish Israeli gay soldiers who actively or passively resist the occupation and how they make sense of their resistance to the occupation in terms of their sexual identity and vice versa, I also believe that Kaplan's work should be on the reading list of anyone who is interested in how the military serves to construct hegemonic masculinity and how some gay men try to assimilate into it. To take just one example, Brothers and Others in Arms offers a keen insight into sexualization of combat:
Stripped of any cultural meaning, the enemy itself could not be appealing as a target. To become a target, it must be sexualized. . . .It is this very eroticization of enemy targets that triggers the objectification process to begin with. As with anonymous sex in the darkroom, the anonymous enemy is the best object choice for military sexual targeting.

At times, the attempt to manage this anonymous-sex fighting machine and restrict its operation to the designated enemy falls short. One very extreme example is an instance where the image of mehablim [literally, "saboteurs" -- a general term for terrorists, guerilla soldiers, or any Arab groups or individuals that operate against Israeli targets] -- in this case, Palestinian enemy men -- merges with another image of subordination, that of actual homosexual intercourse. It seems that the sexual-targeting drive of masculitary soldier could not resist such a temptation. This is one way to understand Shaul's account of one of the brutalities he experienced in the Lebanon War. During the siege on PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) forces in Beirut, he was stationed next to a post where Israeli snipers observed PLO activity in city houses. Suddenly, something unusual appeared in the sniper's binoculars:
One of them said to me, "Come here; I want you to see something." I looked, and I saw two mehablim, one fucking the other in the ass; it was pretty funny. Like real animals. The sniper said to me, "And now look." He aims, and puts a bullet right into the forehead of the one that was being fucked. Holy shit, did the other one freak out! All of a sudden his partner died on him. It was nasty. We were fucking cruel. Cruelty -- but this was war. Human life didn't matter much in a case like this, because this human could pick up his gun and fire at you or your buddies at any moment.
It is striking that even in this encounter it is the passive partner who gets the bullet in his ass, while the active partner remains unscathed.

What is more, notice how Shaul himself partly identified with the brutal action, perceiving the enemy men as beasts, and justifying what he saw in the name of war. He sustained this combat sexual act even though it was directed not only against the enemy but also against the idea of homosexual activity, a growing part in Shaul's own identity. (Kaplan, p. 193-4)
This is perhaps the most extreme example from the book, but the episode vividly illustrates that, though Jewish Israeli gay men may successfully negotiate the minefield of military sexuality that is simultaneously homoerotic and homophobic while grappling with their own coming out, serving in a combat unit is likely to force them to kill a part of their gay soul along with Palestinian men who become their sexualized targets.

What is ironic is that, even while their identification with the Zionist nation as an imagined community, the military as an organization, and the hegemonic masculinity prized by both compels them to repudiate Palestinians in particular and subordinate Arabs and all other non-Jews in the Middle East in general, a term that derives from Arabic -- sachbak -- is now central to their vocabulary of camaraderie and sociability:
As part of the canonical place that friendship and male bonding holds in the Zionist ethos, the Yiddish-derived term hevreman became an archetype for the male Sabra [the term that derives from the Arabic name for a prickly pear, used to refer to an Israeli-born Jew, signifying a person who is rough and prickly on the outside and yet rich and tender within, with a connotation of the hegemonic Ashkenazi status] and his contemporary IDF soldier counterpart. Close in meaning to the American concept of a cool guy, it reflects the idea of helping out friends by leading cool activities, which may border on mischief. A current modification of this sociability is the term sachbak, derived from the Arab word for friend. In contrast to the hevreman, sachbak has a slightly demeaning overtone of being overly sociable at the expense of professional and organizational requirements. This blatant sociability has many forms. . . .[Hillel] recounted how it soon developed into intensive physical contact, acted out by the whole group:
We had this ritual called "goal" (literally, as in soccer, scoring the goal). Someone who simply feels like it comes along and shouts "goal, goal, goal!" And he goes and leaps on top of another guy who was sleeping in the tent, and then everybody gets on top of him. Turkish heap, that's what the Jerusalem boys would call it. . . . It was hilarious, it became so fashionable, you'd pass by any tent in one of the artillery battalions, no matter what your home unit was, alas, you go in the tent with everyone else and jump on the guy.
(Kaplan, pp. 171-172)
While Kaplan himself does not dwell on the vocabulary of Israeli male bonding here, it is revealing that the very names -- sabra, sachbak, and the "Turkish" heap -- of male bonding in what is distinctly Israeli national culture (as opposed to diverse Jewish cultures in diaspora) are rooted in the images of the Middle East. Some appropriations -- like sabra -- point to the settler nation's attempt to "go native," i.e., to claim the native roots in Palestine figuratively, rather than religiously. It's akin to the American appropriations of cultures of indigenous peoples, e.g., dressing like the Mohawks at the Boston Tea Party and giving Indian names such as Apache, Kiowa, Comanche, and Blackhawk to military hardware. Others suggest that intense physical contact between men that threatens to go out of control is signified by the names that connote the eroticized enemy whose love the IDF teaches its soldiers to renounce and on whom the IDF has its soldiers project sexual mischief.

Given such ambivalent appropriations of the cultural bodies of "enemies," not just dispossessions of their land, water, and other natural resources, it is no wonder that "[m]ost Muslims and Christians of the Palestinian Arab minority within Israel are excluded from service altogether" (Kaplan, p. 117).

In recent years, mainstream gay rights organizations -- especially the Human Rights Campaign -- in the United States have focused upon achieving the equal right to military service as well as marriage above all else. GLBT activists on the left, however, need to think about how to struggle against homophobia, which motivates the state to deny GLBT individuals the rights to marriage and military service, without turning queer communities into just another reserve of docile bodies to be conscripted into defense of the empire -- perhaps as soldiers of the occupation like gay men and lesbians in the IDF. This is an especially important question. Pace the Pentagon's repeated denial, the continuing occupation of Iraq will require more troops:
The main lesson that the ruling class seems to have drawn from the war so far is that a much larger military force is needed to maintain the occupation. According to Business Week (April 26, 2004), "the U.S. hold on Iraq remains weak. Staying on track will require two things: more troops to maintain security, supplemented by a craftier political strategy." In the words of Bruce Nussbaum, Business Week’s editorial page editor,
There is a denial [in Washington] that the military strategy going into Iraq, the Rumsfeld Doctrine, is a failure. The best hope left of establishing a stable Iraqi democracy is to replace that doctrine, which emphasizes small, light, and fast military operations, with its rival, the Powell Doctrine, devised by then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. The Powell Doctrine calls for overwhelming force shaped by very clear political goals and a specific exit strategy, two things lacking today in Iraq. The failure of the Rumsfeld Doctrine in Iraq is all too clear —- too few boots on the ground, too little legitimacy for America and its handpicked Governing Council, too many shifting goals, and no clear exit strategy. The result in recent weeks has been a cycle of kidnappings, ambushes, counterstrikes, death, and destruction that increasingly echoes the disaster in Vietnam. . . . What is to be done now? A return to the Powell Doctrine would accomplish a number of key goals. Significantly higher troop levels would crush, finally, Baathist resistance and provide more security to Iraqis. . . . The realpolitik of the Powell Doctrine would also force Washington to limit its goals and make its exit strategy clear.
Such a reversion to the Powell Doctrine would mean a massive escalation of the military force in Iraq. The United States currently has 135,000 troops in Iraq and more than 150,000 in the entire Iraqi theatre of operations, which includes Kuwait and other neighboring countries. Other coalition forces, about half of which are British, have contributed another 25,000 troops to the occupation. Nevertheless, Business Week writes that "analysts, such as Rand Corp. peacekeeping expert and former State Dept. special envoy James Dobbins say that as many as 400,000 troops are needed to match the peacekeeping clout used in other volatile countries. The 250,000 Iraqis the U.S. hopes to have in uniform will help, but the security services’ recent refusal to fight fellow Iraqis shows they aren’t up to the task —- and won’t be for at least a year." This translates into a demand for stepped-up deployment of U.S. soldiers. Where are all of these additional troops to come from? Initially, according to Business Week, this can be accomplished by rotating back units that have already done service in Iraq. Later on some other solution to the lack of "military manpower" must be found.

Other establishment outlets agree that a major escalation is called for. The New York Times (April 25, 2004) said, "This is not the moment for retreat and it certainly is not the moment for half measures." Many more troops than present administration plans call for are needed according to that publication:
Sending more troops will cause further pain to an already strained military and it means acknowledging that units now being rotated home should be sent back to Iraq. But there seems to be no other choice. Much of the current trouble could have been avoided if Mr. Rumsfeld had not been so determined to disprove the doctrine named for his rival, Secretary of State Colin Powell, which posits that force, if it is to be used at all, should be overwhelming....The United States should have had a much larger military force ready to actually occupy Iraq and restore order.
The momentum of the occupation thus points to a substantial escalation of U.S. force levels in Iraq at least in the short-term. (Editors, "Is Iraq Another 'Vietnam'?" Monthly Review 56.2, June 2004)
If the Democratic Party recaptures the White House in November, I predict that the next administration will cleverly exploit the rhetoric of gay rights and women's rights to bolster military recruitment and even to begin the draft gradually. Do activists know how to counter military recruitment and prevent the resumption of the draft, when they are offered by the liberal wing of the power elite as the best ways to fully integrate gay men and lesbians in society on equal terms with straight men and women, without giving power to the conservative wing of the same power elite who would rather not make any more concessions to queers? Investigating the experiences of gay men and lesbians in the IDF, which has become far more tolerant of gay men and lesbians than the US military, may give us an opportunity to learn from negative examples that we should avoid.

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