What's more masculine than a combat soldier wearing the patchouli mascot around his neck? From birth our boys are taught to be "men" – they shouldn't cry when they fall down or back down when their honor is challenged, and they must protect women and the weak.
The "ultimate" test of this manliness is war: They must be willing to kill people and risk their own lives for the country. As a means of motivating them to live up to these impossible expectations and become "men," soldiers are offered various incentives: Promotions, money, social status, and even sexual favors from young women. These rewards go only to those who have proven their commitment to the army's goals over a long period of time by showing a willingness to kill and risk their own lives.
But how do you motivate the "simple" soldiers in compulsory service who are waiting anxiously to get out of the hellish routine of training and being in constant danger? According to an article published on the IDF's official website, soldiers belonging to the Auxiliary Company in the Paratrooper Brigade's 202nd Battalion are given a "vial with a patchouli scent, which, according to tradition, contains fluid secreted from their girlfriends' bodies."
Talkbacks published in response to a report on the decision to ban the Auxiliary Company's traditional mascot illustrate just how significant a role the mascot has played in manipulating the soldiers into internalizing the "It is good to die for our country" ethos.
"I served for three years, including in Lebanon and the territories, then served an additional 12 years in the IDF reserves. I took part in Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin and in one of the Lebanon wars. I'm married with two children. I work like a mule and live like a dog. I wouldn't have survived one minute in the army without my buddies and the patchouli mascot. You wouldn't understand. Sometimes I don't even understand how these stupid little vials kept me sane in this hell. Infantrymen go through hell, so what does it matter if they have a vial around their neck, a copy of the Book of Psalms or a photo of grandma – take away their little ray of light, and all that will remain is darkness," one talkbacker wrote.
Another talkbacker who identified himself as a former fighter in the Auxiliary Company wrote, "People, you have to realize that this irrational thinking is what allows the combat solders to serve in such difficult conditions. Those who have never experienced it can't understand. This 'silly' mascot eases their suffering – so just let them have it. They don’t hurt anyone, and, for the most part, it's just a myth that they are filled with fluid secreted from a woman's body."
It is so sad that "irrational thinking" explains the willingness to serve in "such difficult conditions" and that "silly mascots" are offered as a means of overcoming physical and mental anguish. The significance of the connection between the patchouli vial and the "combat soldier's masculinity" is also chauvinistic: The use of the vial means that female sexuality helps in taming the men, as if to say that "if you succeed in putting fluid from a woman's vagina in a vial - you're a real man." The intimate relationship between equals, male and female, is replaced by a symbol of control over a woman's sexuality. This symbol serves as proof of the soldier's total masculinity and willingness to die and suffer without a logical reason. By debasing young women and making cynical use of the symbol of their sexuality, the army creates "warriors" who are willing to die for the country.
The army's lack of respect for female soldiers and women in general is exposed time and time again by its willingness to make exaggerated concessions at the expense of the female soldiers' honor in order to recruit the ultra-Orthodox. This lack of respect has been revealed on many other occasions, and the appointment of Major-General Orna Barbivai as head of the IDF Personnel Directorate has turned out to be nothing more than a 'fig leaf' for chauvinism in the army.
Professor Esther Herzog, a social anthropologist, teaches at Beit Berl College and Levinsky College. She is also the founder of the Women’s Parliament