Life in the Israeli reserve Army - duty can be fun

The helmeted sergeant scanned the sea in the dawn light through binoculars from atop a sand cliff on Israel's Mediterranean coast.

''Scandal to weatherman,'' he said into the radio in the back of his machine-gun mounted jeep. ''No boat. Just some driftwood. Someone's having nightmares again.''

Sgt. Abraham Levinson, a 46-year-old kibbutz member doing his annual reserve duty, was checking out a reported sighting of a possible terrorist craft last month. Although he had never been on coastal patrol before, he has been taking one month out per year for the reserves ever since he completed his compulsory military service 25 years ago. Ahead of him is another decade of service.

''You get used to it,'' he says back at the base. ''It's only the first day that throws me every time--getting out of your civilian clothes and wondering what you're going to be doing. Then you just roll with it.''

Virtually every Israeli male up to the age of 55 abandons his normal pursuits every year to don a uniform--the last five years in the civil guard. Despite the psychological wrench and inconvenience involved, despite the often tough physical conditions, and despite Israelis' outspoken nature, there is remarkably little griping about the annual call-up.

Although this sense of national responsibility underlies the average Israeli's readiness to do miluim, as reserve duty is called, there are social and psychological aspects that make it tolerable--and in some ways even welcome.

''Let's face it, this is an escape,'' said a clerk in a barracks discussion. ''No boss, no wife, no kids. For a few weeks I can stop thinking and stop worrying. It's a mental vacation I don't get when I go away with the family.''

Another element is a barracks-room camaraderie that the outside world does not normally offer mature men caught up in the grind of daily life. Men who have served in the same unit for years greet each other raucously each time the unit assembles and catch up on one another's private lives. There is no place in Israel where humor is more prolific than a reservists' barracks.

There is also a macho element that reservists are loath to admit to. Charging up a hill in a live fire exercise, manning a border outpost at night or swinging a tank into formation keeps an architect or merchant in touch with a part of himself he had almost forgotten.

The lack of spit and polish, and easy discipline make miluim easier to take. Officers and enlisted men call each other by first name, but orders, even if given in conversational tone, have the same force as in more conventional armies.

For all its un-Prussian nature, the reserve force is Israel's main battle arm. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Israel's standing Army consists of some 160,000 men with 400,000 reservists capable of being mobilized into units in 24 hours.

Although mobilization orders are normally delivered by mail or courier, code words designating various units are broadcast in times of emergency, the men heading for prefixed assembly points.

An important social byproduct of reserve duty is the counterbalance it provides to the often sharp ethnic differences in civilian life between Ashkenazi Jews from Western countries and Sephardic Jews from Arab countries. Sharing a long night of sentry duty or solemn preparations for an attack exercise strengthens the sense of common destiny in a way that civilian life rarely affords.

The egalitarian nature of miluim also reduces the impact of status differences with factory owners and laborers, farmers and stockbrokers, middle-aged and young serving alongside each other. Women, who are drafted into the Army, normally serve only one stint of reserve duty after discharge, leaving them free to raise a family.

The brown envelope containing the annual invitation to miluim is inevitably greeted with a wince by the reservist. When he returns home, however, glad to have it all behind him, his harried wife who has been running the house and tending the kids in his absence not infrequently sighs that she could do now with a month's miluim herself.

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