The untimely death of Assaf Ramon has brought to the surface a very interesting debate that has actually been going on for years in Israel. Ramon was the son of Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut who died in the Colombia disaster. The minute the story broke, people started saying: “His mother should never have signed the papers”.
So, what exactly are these papers? In Israel, any 18 year old who has a relative who was killed in combat must get at least one parent to sign a consent form to join and serve in a combat unit. Otherwise he’ll be what Israelis call a “jobnik” – a derogatory term for any kind of service that isn’t in the field.
The battle over the service of “bereaved sons” is being waged across the media spectrum, and it’s quite amazing to see the wide array of views on the topic. The parents, of course, have a natural tendency to keep their child safe, but also to fulfill their every wish. While the army has to deal with pressure from both the family and from the soldier to be.
When I was 18, I faced a similar dilemma. My status as an only child meant I was in the same position as a bereaved son. I needed that signature. And boy, did I want to be combat. I was so gung-ho on being in the paratroopers, I probably would have had a red beret tatooed on my yet-to-be-so-hairy chest. I was such a patriot, I had a picture of Ehud Barak taped on one of my closet doors, when he was in full military attire as then-chief of staff (but don’t get me started on what I think about him now). Die for my country? Sure. No question.
But the folks had a different idea. They weren’t going to sign. This was probably one of the most defining moments in my relationship with my parents. I felt they were making decisions that weren’t their’s to make anymore, now that I was 18. In the end, we reached a sort of compromise, with my parents agreeing to let me serve in the Navy. No infantry for me.
For this post, I recently asked my mother to tell me how she felt back then in 1991, and here’s what she wrote:
“When, as parents of an only child, we were given the right to allow or prevent you from being “Kravi” (combat), we, without any hesitation, signed for your service in the Navy. We signed but we restricted you to serve in what we believed was the lesser of all evils. Your survival was paramount to us, but not because you were an only child, and we thought our lives would end if something happened to you. We just wanted to insure, in any way we could, that you would emerge from those three years unharmed, at least physically. For your sake, we wanted YOU to live.
“Also, in our view, there are other definitions of who is a bereaved parent. I was (am) a parent who (thank G-d) never lost a child. But I did lose my mother when I was eight years old. For me, that was enough bereavement for a lifetime. I didn’t want any more.
“Those were the reasons for our decisions.”
First of all, Mom, thank God you didn’t know the places that missile boat took me. If you knew, you’d probably need a couple of large shots of some of my nice single malt (thanks again, Mom).
But on a more serious note, as the father of a small girl (and another one on the way), I understand why my parents acted as they did. I also understood when I was 18, but I think I understand better now. Did they make the right decision? Yes. And no. Yes, it was their duty as parents to make that call. And no, I still believe it wasn’t their right to make it.
But I will say this: If I were in their shoes, I would probably act the same way.
There have been calls to consecrate in law a ban on conscripting bereaved sons into combat units. True, this would take the burden off the parents’ shoulders. And the young men might just look at it as a given, and accept the “job” in the office. Although, I’m not sure if the High Court of Justice could uphold such a law if a swarm of 18 years olds took legal action, arguing that their rights were being infringed upon.
I don’t believe there should be such a law. I think the state, and its citizens, must understand that if you let an 18 year old vote in an election, and more importantly hold a rifle and teach him how to take the life of an enemy, you no longer have the right to prevent him from making life changing choices. They must understand that soldiers die in conflicts, and that people the same age also die in car accidents and from illness. Their lives are no less important. You don’t see anyone trying to ban 18 year olds from getting their driving licenses, do you?
There’s a reason why countries all over the world take 18 year old men into military service. Because physically we’re a man, and mentally we’re still a bit of a boy. We can climb any mountain, we still get a kick out of playing cowboys and Indians, and we’re easily brainwashed. That’s what I was back then. Brainwashed. Since then I’ve learned to hate my country as much as I love it. And I love it a lot. Loads.
Die for it? Hmmm… not so sure any more…