Soldiers

One of the things I remember vividly from years spent traveling in Europe (Eastern and Western) in the 1980s was the prevalence of soldiers everywhere I went.

The machine guns carried by police in France and Italy certainly caught me by surprise (especially after a stint in England where bobbies still relied on their billy clubs).  But it was large numbers of men (really boys) in uniform clogging up the trains I took from one city to another that was most jarring.

After all, despite America’s superpower status (rivaled back then by the Soviet Union), my interaction with military personnel at home had been quite limited.  A few friends joined the National Guard after high school, and occasionally a Dad who worked on a nearby Air Force base would show up at a Boy Scout meeting in fatigues.   But even today, the sight of large numbers of military personnel (like a line of soldiers getting off an airplane) seems so unusual that non-soldiers seeing such an “event” feel the need to act as if something extraordinary is happening (often by breaking into applause).

If my own experience raising members of the next generation is any indication, the connection between the people who defend the nation and those of us they defend has only grown more distant and abstract since the Cold War ended.  That airport applause is meant to show that the sacrifices others are making on our behalf is appreciated, but that appreciation is as much for the professional soldier giving us the space to “get on with our lives” in ways that don’t require us to strap on a weapon and go into battle ourselves.

The gap between what the soldier sacrifices to defend us (including killing and dying) and what we sacrifice to be defended (paying taxes and “supporting the troops”) is similar to the one a person might experience when contemplating an object they purchased (be it a house, a boat or a toy) vs. one they made with their own hands.  In fact, much of modern anxiety (at least in the West) likely stems from the disconnect between the things we enjoy (comfort, entertainment, freedom) and what we have actually created or sacrificed to possess those treasures.

I bring this up in the context of a point I’ve made before about why Israel seems so unusual, even to those of us dedicated to that nation and her people.  Some of that unusualness is the lack of a soldier-citizen distinction we experience at home, represented by men and women in uniform everywhere in Israel, an armed citizenry, and ubiquitous machine guns. But I would also highlight that the average Israeli you run into can list things they, their parents and grandparents did to actually create and build a nation – something few of us can do beyond listing a “Greatest Generation” relative who might have fought in World War II.

If happiness derives from purpose, this might explain why Israelis are among the happiest people on earth, despite living under constant threats ranging from random knifing to complete annihilation.  In recent posts, I’ve alluded to Israel’s early days when the nation was founded, exiles became citizens and the nation triumphed in war after war with far larger deadly rivals – all without the patronage of a superpower.

Some might attribute this spectacular success to God or Jewish genius.  But examples of other nations (such as South Korea) picking themselves up and transforming through commitment and will demonstrates that a citizenry with a sense of purpose and mission can do stunning things, beyond even what can be accomplished by much larger nations with far more resources whose citizens act as if they inherited vs. built their society.

Getting back to our old friend BDS, I suppose it’s possible that getting a few B-list celebrities to cancel gigs in Israel or getting a West Coast food coop to stop selling Israeli bouillon cubes will completely demoralize a people whose sense of shared purpose allowed them to build a country, resurrect a language and culture, rescue men and women who survived genocide, helped citizens achieve meaningful lives, and emerge victorious through nearly a century of armed conflict.  It doesn’t seem like a good bet to me, but if any BDSers out there want to commit another decade or three to the effort: knock yourself out.

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