- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2010



By Joel Chasnoff

Free Press, $25, 269 pages

Reviewed by Gary Anderson

In the early 1980s, I had a Marine Corps assignment that called upon me to work closely with Israel. My Israeli counterpart was a young paratroop major who was the Israelis’ assistant military attache. He was an-up-and-comer, having led the 1st Company into Beirut in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon; he recently retired as one of the highest-ranking generals in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

At the time, he was concerned about the future of the IDF. He thought the recent influx of Sephardic Jews coming in from Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa was diluting the qualitative advantage of IDF. In his view, the newcomers were bringing in cultural values that had traditionally made Arab soldiers inferior to the Israeli fighting man. He believed those values placed too much emphasis on self-interest and prevented the male bonding that made the IDF a cohesive force. He also was concerned that an increasing number of young Israelis were avoiding the draft.

A few years later, as a United Nations observer in Lebanon, I had a chance to view the IDF in combat on a daily basis, and I began to think he was on to something. In retrospect, compared to today’s professional American soldiers, the Israeli conscripts looked pretty bad.

Joel Chasnoff’s “The 188th Crybaby Brigade” would give the impression that my friend’s evaluation was not all that far off the mark. Mr. Chasnoff was a religious upper-middle-class Jewish kid from Chicago who had grown up idolizing the vaunted IDF and its exploits, such as the Six-Day War and the Entebbe raid. On boyhood visits to Israel, he felt guilty about not doing something to defend the newly re-established Jewish homeland.

Eventually, he took a break from a struggling career as a stand-up comic in the late 1990s to do a stint in the Israeli army. A word of explanation here: American Jews can hold dual citizenship and serve in the IDF if they choose. What he found in basic training and in subsequent service with the occupation forces in southern Lebanon was a far cry from the legendary fighting force of his boyhood dreams.

In the Marine Corps, we had a saying regarding military education: “It is only a lot of reading if you do it.” Mr. Chasnoff finds that Israeli military training is tough, but only if you participate. He finds to his disgust that almost any medical excuse will allow his fellow recruits to malinger. He explains that this is the result of a reform after a 1997 helicopter accident in Lebanon that killed 74 soldiers because of pilot negligence. The resulting wave of concern for the safety of the nation’s soldiers caused measures that Mr. Chasnoff considers to be an overreaction that has diluted the quality of training.

Some of Mr. Chasnoff’s recollections in his memoir are hilarious, and the whole book has a situation-comedy-like narrative that makes training in the IDF sound like a combination of “F-Troop” and “McHale’s Navy.” He is particularly contemptuous of his Sephardic and Russian immigrant platoon mates who turn malingering into an art form; in this, he reaches the same conclusions that my Israeli officer friend did 15 years before the author’s experience. In the end, the skinny, non-athletic kid from Chicago ends up the platoon honor man at graduation. Although proud of his accomplishment, Mr. Chasnoff is chagrined at the lack of competition.

The author’s active duty climaxes in a three-month tour of occupation duty in South Lebanon’s security zone, culminating in a firefight with a local dog who is mistaken for a Hezbollah guerrilla. Mr. Chasnoff, a tank gunner, is forced to expend an expensive missile on the dog after clearly identifying it as such. Then, his commander orders an artillery barrage to “make sure” the offending animal is eliminated as a threat to Israel. Although comic, this incident is a forerunner to the errors that would mark the IDF’s 2006 war in Lebanon.

The book is entertaining, but those interested in national security should read it. If the Israelis ever get in over their heads in a conflict, their problem will become ours. Israelis consider universal military service to be the “school of the nation.” However, Mr. Chasnoff’s experience and the debacle of 2006 lead one to ask if the Israelis might want to consider an all-volunteer force with mandatory national service confined to more peaceful pursuits.

Gary Anderson is a former Marine Corps officer who recently served a year in Iraq with the State Department on a provincial reconstruction team.

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