Civilian Soldiers

Kevin Sites in Israel:

Just a month ago, 29-year-old Amit Sharan was working as a software engineer in Tel Aviv. Now he is on Israel’s northern border, commanding a battery of six M-109 mobile artillery units firing 155mm rounds into southern Lebanon nearly ’round the clock.

“It was really hard,” he says of shifting from civilian to soldier in such a short period of time. “You’re living your life, then all of a sudden you’re at war.”

Israeli reserve units are the very definition of civilian soldiers, reporting for service looking very much like they simply came off the streets and changed into their uniforms — which was likely the case for many in this conflict.

Unlike the regular army, which has uniform and grooming standards, reserve soldiers, by law, can’t be forced to cut their hair or conform too much. Some report for duty in dreadlocks, others in ball caps; some wear Jewish yarmulkes under their helmets.

Captain Sharan’s Battery B unit is made up of such soldiers — men like Max Lieberman, an immigrant from Uzbekistan, whose regular job entails hanging from rappelling ropes on high rise buildings as a window washer. Now, clad in a red bandana and a black and white camouflage t-shirt, he runs 155mm rounds and charges to the loader in one of the mobile artillery units.

Omer Gazit, 30, runs a tire business and is scheduled to get married in two weeks. But at the moment he’s in charge of one of the Battery B guns currently firing volleys of high explosive shells into south Lebanon. He says the wedding will go forward as planned since it would take more than a war to stop the 350 guests already invited from coming. He’s only concerned that some of his family, also called up to serve in the military, may not be able to make it.

One of the things I really like about Sites’ work online is that, like Anthony Shadid and Rick Atkinson in Iraq, he just goes someplace and gives you people’s voices, people’s stories, individual histories and personal anecdotes and all the stuff, for lack of a better word, that allows you to look inside somebody’s head for a while.

Watching CNN last night, hoping against hope they’d cut out the war porn and cut to Connecticut, I was struck anew by just how much of their coverage is noise: guys standing in front of stuff bellowing about proxies and types of rockets and strategic this-and-that. Maybe all that stuff has its place, in a single map or graphic or list. But in a story, I want to know who’s fighting, and why it’s important to them to fight. I want to hear from the people actually in the thick of it, not from former IDF analysts or terrorism “experts” and certainly not from the anchors themselves.

I want to know what motivates someone in this conflict, what makes them put down the window-washing equipment and pick up a gun. So shut up, Paula Zahn, and get out of the way of the story.