Oct 20, 2008

When I Was a Soldier

Valerie Zenatti, When I Was a Soldier: A Memoir, 2007, Bloomsbury USA.

In Israel when you turn 18 you enter the Israeli Defense Forces even if you are a woman.* Although Valerie immigrated with her family from France to Israel when she was 12, like her friends she will enter the IDF where she will serve for two years. Once she arrives at her basic training base she realizes that nothing has prepared her for the regimented and difficult life of the defense forces. And she must still deal with her life on the outside, knowing that she won't always be in the military.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this book is the interplay between society's and the military's expectations when it comes to the women serving in the IDF. Valerie and her friends have always known that they would enter the military upon graduation [unless they were Orthodox Jews or got married]. This is something which the average American female will not experience. Even though most males in this country are required to register for the draft upon their eighteenth birthday, there has not actually been a draft since Vietnam. So chances are they have not had that experience, unless they are planning to enter the military after high school graduation. As the book progresses we see the strain that Valerie undergoes as she attempts to reconcile the civilian aspects of her personality with the emerging military aspects of it. She experiences a thrill at becoming a member of the radar team who track pilots from neighboring Arab countries, listening in to them over the frequencies all day and learning practically every inch of her country and the ones that surround it.

Valerie comes to find herself at odds, she is proud of her service in the IDF but she is also counting the days until her release. She serves her adopted nation of Israel and yet yearns to return to France someday. An especially poignant scene centers around a bus trip back to the base which takes her through Gaza where the bus is stoned by Palestinians. Instead of being angry and indignant, Valerie is afraid and lets the reader know she understands why the Palestinians are angry at Israel. At one point in the book, she and many other soldiers question the purpose of the patriotic materials that make up part of their training. Some soldiers even debate the validity of Israel's occupation of Palestine with their superiors.

Although much has changed in that corner of the world since Zenatti wrote this book, at its very heart the unusual situation of a teenage girl serving in the military will be a draw for teens who want to see what it is like to live in a country where such service is required.

*You are not required to serve if you are a married woman, prohibited by your religion from serving, or have a physical or psychological reason which prevents you serving. Men serve three years and women two. (IDF)

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