Different kind of dodging
Israeli elites pick top units, shun field units that badly need capable troops
The worrying data released by the IDF following the latest round of recruitment dealt with only one type of draft dodging: "Dodging with the legislator's permission," which allows about one quarter of Jewish and Druze youth who reached the age of enlistment to evade military service.
The vast majority of these people are yeshiva students whose numbers grow from one round of recruitment to another (they comprised 11 percent of the latest one.) The high birthrate among the strictly Orthodox population, the shift of national-religious youth to the strictly Orthodox camp, and the political clout of Orthodox parties are the main reason why the IDF suffers a shortage of infantry soldiers. How simple and how outrageous.
Yet this isn't new, and it's not the whole story. There are at least two more types of dodging: First, there is the phenomenon of "grey dodging." Secondly, members of the social elite run to the various special forces units, whose numbers have increased disproportionally in the IDF.
Both these types of dodging undermine the IDF's ability to man its infantry forces with skilled fighters and fitting commanders, who in the future will be able to take up the posts of high-quality, experienced regiment and brigade commanders.
This "grey dodging" is undertaken by youth who are fit for combat service but direct themselves to non-combat units or secure an early release from the army. Most of them would avoid the army service entirely if they could, but they don't do it because they do not wish to be tainted by a social and employment-related stigma.
Yes, for your information, Lieutenant-General Ashkenazi, most secular youth still view their military service as something valuable and those who did not wear a uniform stick out, and not in a good way. They also know that if they fail to enlist, their chances to secure good jobs in the private and public sector will diminish. Therefore, they do enlist, but along with their parents do everything in order to avoid combat service.
Those who walk around the vicinity of the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv during the day will easily notice the wide-scale phenomenon of concealed unemployment. The IDF is aware of this phenomenon, and a senior officer at the Human Resources Directorate admitted that the manpower standards at Home Front headquarters have been inflated way beyond functional needs.
Yet in order to balance this picture, the IDF points to data that show volunteer figures to elite combat units are still very high and dropped by only a few percent from last year.
This is the general trend in the past decade. Between 60 to 70 percent of all those who enlist asked to serve in a combat unit. This is a nice yet misleading figure. First of all, because the number of those enlisting for field units would have been much higher had the IDF properly addressed the grey dodging phenomena.
Moreover, the IDF has not yet presented the percentage of those joining the armored, artillery, and engineering corps. Those numbers are low to the point of concern. Field units, and particularly the "less sexy" ones, mostly draw immigrants, residents of the periphery, and populations in distress whose parents do not have the right connections and who are not familiar with the needed shticks in order to convince army assessors or doctors at the recruitment office to lower their military profile.
Some of them also view combat service as an opportunity to integrate into Israeli society and as a means of social mobility, yet the dropout rate of those troops is high and reaches about 17 percent of every recruitment round. Not all those who drop out are dodgers, yet some of them at least could have made it to the end of the service term had the IDF been less quick to release them.
The flow of highly motivated and capable youth to elite units is another factor that is depleting the manpower ranks at regular IDF field units. Many of those who complete their special forces services in the post of low-ranking commanders could have become high-quality and experienced formation commanders had they served in regular regiments and brigades.
They would have learned from personal experience how a regiment and brigade should move ahead of contact with the enemy and what kind of problems they can expect to encounter while acting in large formations. They would also better understand the charged relationship between young fighters and veterans.
The absence of such senior commanders, who rose through the ranks of regular field units, was certainly felt in the Second Lebanon War. The commanders of some of the brigades and divisions that participated in the war, as well as some of the major-generals who commanded them, were former members of elite units. They are excellent people who could have been good generals, yet their "military DNA" is directed at low-intensity warfare in small teams.
Therefore, they failed in battles where a regiment or brigade commander who rose through Golani or the armored corps would have succeeded. Pushing elite unit commanders to senior field unit posts has only proven itself in the territories, where low-intensity warfare is taking place. In war, it's another story.
One can understand and appreciate youth who along with their parents make superhuman efforts in order to be accepted into elite units such as Sayeret Matkal, Shaldag, Maglan, and other top units. Serving in these units requires a great physical and mental effort, but it doesn't wear out soldiers the way manning West Bank roadblocks does.
Working in small, intimate teams where each fighter has value, as well as the glory associated with such units, are a worthy reward. Moreover, the parents know that the risk to their sons in bold yet well-planned operations is much smaller than the risk faced by a fighter in a regular regiment that during wartime is tasked with charging fortified targets.
It is no wonder that dozens of the members of Israel's social elites compete for each open spot in elite units, with some of those units growing as large as regiments and even bigger. Yet as a result, those same elite members are missing in infantry, armored corps, and engineering units, and particularly as commanders. This isn't draft dodging, but it is certainly a case of making a selfish choice over the army's needs.
The IDF can regulate the high-quality manpower and deploy it in the right places, while also investing pre-enlistment efforts at schools in order to make clear how important field units are.
The IDF and defense minister can also minimize the "grey dodging" if they find the courage to do so, set more stringent criteria for release from field unit service, and stand up to the pressure exerted by parents and politicians. All they need is to want to do this, and to do it decisively.