Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Geeks with Guns

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Geeks with Guns

Article excerpt

Geeks with Guns The 188th Crybaby Brigade: A Skinny Jewish Kid from Chicago Fights Hezbollah BY JOEL CHASNOFF FREE PRESS, 288 PAGES, $25

In The 188th Crybaby Brigade, Joel Chasnoff recalls the year in the mid-1990s he spent in the Israeli army, serving in the armored corps. In between tales of his mother's illness and his girlfriend's growing frustration, he takes an irreverent look at the reality of the Israeli military, at differences between Jews in America and Jews in Israel, and at the paradoxes of Israeli identity. Even before I read it, I knew this book would make me feel nostalgic for my own not-sogood old days: the time when I - an overweight, prematurely balding kid from Michigan - became a toughguy Israeli soldier.

So I gobbled up 188th Crybaby in one night, recalling the same vomiting on my commander's boots at the end of an excruciating march; the same hallucinating - out of sheer physical and mental exhaustion-while on guard duty at the ammunitions bunker; the same parading around the city on my first weekend leave, in my spanking new uniform, like God's gift to masculinity; the same wondering whether we actually would train in between all the cleaning and mess duty.

And yet, looking back with twenty years of perspective, I have become much less enthusiastic and somewhat more jaded. The army keeps calling me back for annual stints of reserve duty, but today I have four jobs, five kids, and a bigger gut than I did as a teenager. Fortunately, my officers are a pretty understanding bunch, my excuses get better and better, and I don't serve much anymore. I may not be a great soldier, but part of me continues to love and appreciate everything that the army has done for me.

Chasnoff was not only a better soldier than I, but also a better observer of things. His wry humor and spot-on remarks about the day-today idiocy of the military provide a glimpse at a side of Israel that, under normal circumstances, outsiders don't see. (He does get some of the slang wrong, though: Yes, mooral describes an overly zealous soldier, but the word derives not from the Hebrew ra'al, "poison," but from the English, "morale." Not to be pedantic or anything.)

Military heroism is in short supply, but Chasnoff weaves almost seamlessly between the sad moments of confused loneliness and the vulgar humor that develops in the unit. On one page Chasnoff comforts a fellow soldier mourning his unborn child, whom his girlfriend had aborted; on the next page he threads a kitchen hose through his fly so it looks as if he is "urinating with the force of a water cannon." On one page his military unit, as part of its training, visits the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem; on the next page he explains how to use a tank's searchlight to make a grilled-cheese sandwich without blowing anything up.

In short, Chasnoff tells the only good joke that has ever been told about the military: the one in which you juxtapose the muscle-bound machismo of the action-filled army, the horrors of war, and the fear of death with the banal inefficiency and pointlessness of so much actual military life. It may not be a new joke, but it is still funny: It's what made M*A*S*H one of the greatest television productions of all time.

But 188th Crybaby differs in that M*A*S*H went on the air in 1972 in large part to undermine America's presence in Vietnam, while Chasnoff writes with a love for Israel and an appreciation of its impossibly complex military situation. …

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