In New Profile’s Hebrew publication, “When difficulty becomes a risk,” we present statistics, information, and personal stories about various aspects of the failure to integrate in the military and its negative consequences. In addition to describing the general difficulties involved in military service, the report focuses on specific populations which are at a greater risk for negative consequences of military service. A summary of the report’s finding is below:
Perpetuating inequality and lack of social mobility
The military reproduces, to a large extent, the structure of general society, which is characterized by unequal distribution of power and prestige among different groups. Despite the ethos of the all-equal “people’s army,” factors such as origin, gender, status, and religion perpetuate a marginal position of youth during military service. Since military role and status are considered in the criteria for success in civil life, such roles continue to influence the individual even after military service. Soldiers with “white collar” positions (i.e intelligence and computers) usually come from upper-middle class families, from big cities, kibbutzes or moshavs, and from more prestigious high schools. Soldiers in “blue collar” positions (drivers, storekeepers, cooks) are usually Mizrahi (Arab-Jews), of Ethiopian origin, of former USSR origin, from the periphery, and many have graduated from ‘less prestigious’ vocational high schools. This tracking is done by the military classification system, which is characterized by cultural deviance and hurts many youth whose skills and characters don’t match the formula defined by the military for equality. Even the head of the military human resources department reached the conclusion that this system of classification discriminates against youth of certain populations–including the ultraorthodox and those of Ethiopian origin. However, the military continues to use such a system anyway.
Maltreatment, humiliation, and inappropriate treatment
The military is characterized by a rigid and aggressive hierarchical culture, with defined power relations which give great authority to commanders vis-a-vis their subordinates. Often, this authority is being exploited, resulting in cases of maltreatment and humiliation. Many soldiers are left helpless in this weakening situation, and naturally they cannot just get up and leave. Some of them, though, find the force to submit a complaint. Each year some 7,000 written complaints are being submitted to the The Commissioner for Soldiers’ Complaints in the Ministry of Defense, of which some 60% are found to be justified. In addition, the commissioner receives some 20,000 phone calls annually. Many of these complaints describe violence, maltreatment, and humiliation.
Sexual assaults and assaults based on gender and sexual orientation
The military environment is male, agressive, and sexist. A culture and environment of sexual harassment is common and legitimate, and is reflected for example in songs or T-shirts conveying a perception of women as sexual objects. The hierarchical, dominating structure, in which those holding power are mostly men, contributes to the high frequency of sexual harrasment and even assault. The hierarchical and macho military culture which prevails dictates a perception according to which fighters are necessarily heterosexual males. In such an environment, soldiers from the LGBTQ+ community often face negative conduct and experience distress.
Poverty, desertion, imprisonment, and dropout
The rate of imprisonment in the military is much higher than that of the civil court system. Often, soldiers are put in jail due to relatively light offenses, while judgment and punishment are done by commanders and not by a military court. Most of the regular service soldiers in military prisons are defined as deserving special conditions in their service, due to severe economic hardship, and most of them belong to a low socio-economic class. A considerable portion of those soldiers were indeed imprisoned due to offenses related to their economic situation: some 40% due to desertion and some 20% due to going AWOL- offenses mostly committed by soldiers who escaped the military in order to work and support their families. This way, the army severely punishes soldiers by negating their freedom, due to their attempt to support the livelihood of their families.
Starting military service is a sharp transition for youth: during adolescence they move to a rigid, hierarchical military structure with strict rules. They are required to give away their independence and cope with the new situation while they are far from their family and social support networks. Some mental problems tend to erupt during late adolescence, and the stressful and demanding military environment might speed up their eruption or serve as a trigger which may not have been expressed in a different environment. Some of the soldiers are exposed during their service to traumatic events, including risks to their lives or damage to themselves or to others, and as a result develop anxiety disorders or post-traumatic symptoms. The difficulties mentioned above might result in psychological distress as well: manning a dull position with a low status, suffering abuse by commanders, sexual assault, imprisonment, and more.
The difficulties of coping with a strict and stressful military environment, without the usual support networks, lack of response for request for help or avoiding such a request might result in extreme cases of suicidal attempts. In some of the recent years, suicide was the leading cause of death amongst Israeli Military soldiers, and more soldiers were killed via suicide than by accidents, illness, or military attacks. In the last decade, a soldier commits suicide once every 3.5 weeks, on average.
For more information see When difficulty becomes a risk – the consequences of military service on soldiers