An American's Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel

By Haim Watzman. Farrar Straus Giroux. 387 pp. $26

One recent Yom Kippur, during the early stages of the second Palestinian intifada, I returned home from synagogue to find my phone ringing. The Israeli army was calling on the holiest day of the Jewish year, telling me I had two hours to pack my bag and report to a nearby base. Soon a Black Hawk helicopter was whisking me from Jerusalem to the West Bank city of Nablus, the scene of the heaviest fighting. I arrived in the middle of a cross fire, bullets hissing everywhere, with one of them lodging in the Kevlar helmet of the commander who landed with me. Later that night, as I crouched in a trench and watched as tracer bullets streamed overhead, I felt no fear, only weariness. I'd been a soldier, off and on, for more than 20 years. My son was serving in a commando unit that was operating just down the road in Jenin, and we often shared uniforms. My single thought was, "I'm entirely too old for this stuff."

Similar sentiments are shared by many Israeli men who, after serving compulsory Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) stints that claim at least three years of their youth, can spend more than two decades on active reserve duty, known as miluim. For as much as a month every year, they leave their comfortable homes and jobs to live in tents or bunkers, to train hard or patrol the country's frontiers. Occasionally, they also fight wars. Many of Israel's most impressive military victories -- from the capture of East Jerusalem in 1967 to the crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973 -- were achieved by reservists.

Although Arabs, ultra-Orthodox Jews and most Jewish women are exempt, the reservists represent a broad swath of Israeli society. They are religious and secular, Likudniks and Laborites, new immigrants and the descendants of Zionist pioneers, gay and straight, factory workers and scientists. They hail from countries as diverse as France and Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and Yemen. Some even come from the United States. One of those Americans, Haim Watzman, has now described his experiences in the IDF reserves in a compellingly written and earnestly rendered memoir, Company C.

Born into a liberal, middle-class and highly assimilated American Jewish family, Watzman was a teenager in the late 1970s when he embarked on the spiritual search that led him to Orthodox Judaism, Zionism and, finally, to Israel. He was into his twenties before he was drafted, which cut his service (spent in the infantry) in half. Once discharged, he was quickly assigned to a reserve unit known as Company C. Annually for the next 15 years, Watzman, a journalist and translator in civilian life, joined with other reservists in trudging through grueling maneuvers and fulfilling front-line assignments in Lebanon, the Golan Heights and, later, the West Bank.

Throughout that time, Company C saw little action, and Watzman, as the company's clerk, witnessed even less. The author nevertheless compensates for the lack of combat scenes with vivid portraits of army life -- the blockheaded commanders, the inadequate clothing and food, the endless grousing. "It was always winter," he writes. "It was always cold and wet, and we seemed to have been here all our lives." But reserve service also has its rewards -- the machismo of bearing large-caliber weapons, the satisfaction of serving one's country and the addictive proximity of death. Most gratifying, though, is the sense of camaraderie. Watzman superbly describes the intense personal bonding among the men in his unit, an intimacy unmatched even by their closest civilian friendships, but which dissipates the moment they return their rifles and head home.

Such experiences are common to all soldiers, be they Israelis, Americans or Arabs. Yet Israeli reservists are unique in one basic way. Reserve-duty exemptions are easily obtained and the remuneration is minimal, so the mostly voluntary reserve forces derive their motivation and strength from ideology -- and ideologies in Israel vary radically. Watzman -- a self-described leftist who attended a peace rally at the height of a wave of Palestinian suicide bombings, detests the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and champions the creation of a Palestinian state -- shared his foxhole with extreme rightists who wanted to eradicate Israel's enemies and fanatical post-Zionists who questioned Israel's right to exist. "My faith in peace with the Palestinians," he confesses, "had come to resemble my faith in God -- both seemed a necessary, fundamental truth that didn't fit easily into the real world, something to be aspired to but also wrestled with."

And wrestle he did, for when not compiling duty rosters, Watzman was grappling with the contradictions of his identity as a religious Jew who favored evacuating settlements, a Peace Now supporter who insisted on serving in the occupied territories and a loving family man who willingly left that family for weeks each year to patrol places from which he might not have returned.

In spite of these brutal dilemmas and his many trying tours of duty, Watzman emerged with his convictions largely intact. He can still affirm that a "man who refuses to enter a morally ambiguous situation out of fear that he might make the wrong decision is not pure. He is cowardly." Though he has spent most of his life in Israel, he remains somewhat of an outsider. "Root," he explains, is the sign-off word on IDF radios -- the Hebrew equivalent of "roger" -- without realizing that the word is really the Hebrew pronunciation of "Ruth," a reference to a mythic female soldier from Israel's 1948-49 war for independence. And he translates Mount Dov, Israel's outpost on the Lebanon border, as "Bear Mountain," though the hill is named not for an animal but for Capt. Dov Rodberg, killed in action there in 1970. Nevertheless, Watzman has been profoundly transformed. From a pampered, clumsy and rather shallow American, he has been forged into a seasoned and highly efficient soldier who must struggle with painful moral issues even as he fights.

At the end of his time with Company C, Watzman contracted a horrific illness that left him partially deaf and minus his toes. Though now well into his forties, he still tries to report for reserve duty. I know the feeling. I, too, dread receiving the standardized letter announcing my retirement from the army -- removing me not only from the ranks of youth but from the front lines of this contentious and passionate country. Reading Company C was like reading my own story -- I did wonder whether non-Israeli readers would similarly identify with it -- but it is more than that. It is a story of one man's struggle between duty and faith, conscience and commitment -- a story of contemporary Israel. *

Michael B. Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East."