I was fortunate to serve in the Israeli Army and in the US army. My son served on a submarine in the US navy. This article is written from a personal point of view.
The job, the risks, the sacrifices, and the dedication to the mission are the same in both armies, yet there are quite few significant differences between the American and the Israeli soldier. Some of the differences are due to cultural differences between the American society and the Israeli society, others are due to the differences between the circumstances that each country is facing. One country is the strongest superpower ever existed, the other is a small country fighting for its survival in a region that is in a constant turmoil.
I met great people in both armies. I’m proud to be a veteran of both armies. When my son graduated from college and considered joining the US armed forces, I supported his decision. I recommend serving in either the Israeli army, or in the US armed forces. It is tough and dangerous, but you get to work with great people and get unbelievable experience in a short period of time. Some of my best life experiences were while serving in the Israeli and in the US armies.
One visible difference can be easily seen during memorial days for the fallen soldiers in each country: In Israel, where almost everyone served in the army and where everyone personally knows soldiers who were killed in action, the whole nation is mourning. The sadness and the pain is easily noticed. Stories about the fallen begin to appear in newspapers few days before the Israeli memorial day. TV channels dedicate significant portions of their broadcasting time to personal stories of soldiers and families who had casualties. Most Israelis participate in one or more memorial events. In America, where most people did not serve in the army and do not personally know soldiers who were killed in action, for many people, Memorial Day represents the beginning of the summer vacation season. It is part of a long weekend and people use it for outdoor activities and shopping. Formal Memorial Day ceremonies are mostly held on military posts, by government sponsored events, by US armed forces veteran organizations, and by family and friends who were directly affected. TV coverage is limited to the evening news and to cable channels with an audience who is interested in these topics. A person can go through a memorial day in America, not realizing what it stands for. It is impossible to live in Israel and not to be exposed to memorial day activities.
Things may have changed since I served in the armies in the 1970s and 1980s. However, at the time, my personal feeling was that American soldiers were not receiving the same level of respect that the Israeli soldiers are receiving from their countrymen. Perhaps because memories from the unpopular Vietnam War were still fresh, perhaps because there was no active conflict at the time, or perhaps because in America, the amount of money a person earns has an impact on his social standing in the society and the fact that soldiers salaries were low had something to do with it. In Israel, soldiers in combat unit are considered the top of the top. They are highly respected. Serving in an elite unit is more respected then graduating from a top university.
Although the US is the richest country in the world, American soldiers are not rich. They earn just enough to support themselves and their families. They volunteer to the military for many reasons; patriotism, adventure, steady income, career development, family tradition, or to get away from home. They see their service as a profession. A common discussion among American soldiers is about whether or not to re-enlist when the contract expires. Israeli soldiers are poorer. Their salary is equivalent to allowances given to teenagers as spending money. No one is expected to live off it. The Israeli soldier is heavily supported by his family. Israelis are drafted to the army after high school. Although the service is mandatory, many volunteer to combat units and are highly motivated to excel. Most of them leave the army when they complete their mandatory service. A common discussion among Israeli soldiers is how much time is left until they are discharged from service, and about their plans after the service.
The vast majority of Israeli soldiers are teenagers. The field commanders are in their early twenties. They serve relatively close to home, and spend most of their weekends and vacations at home with their high school friends and close family. Very few low ranking Israeli soldiers are married and have kids. Very few of them (including field officers) have a college education. I served in a combat unit in the Israeli army, yet, during the service, when I wasn’t in training or on a mission, I was home almost every weekend. Almost the entire army goes home for the weekend.
In contrast, many American soldiers are married and have families to support. Most of them are stationed in places which are geographically far from their hometowns (different states, different countries). Due to cost and distance, they do not get to see or visit their families more than once or twice a year. Almost all the officers are college graduates. When my son was in training in the US Navy Nuclear school in Charleston, South Carolina, we visited him once a month. It was a ten-hour drive from our home in the Miami area. When he was stationed in Upstate New York for ten months, we visited him once. It was a two days road trip in each direction. When he was stationed in the submarine naval base in Connecticut. He came to visit us once in a six months period. The distances make a difference in the social networks of the Israeli soldier compared to the American soldier: The Israeli soldier maintains his social connections with his hometown friends and family. The Israeli soldier is more likely to marry a person from his hometown than the American soldier who mostly socializes with soldiers on his post. Many American soldiers marry a person they meet during the service away from home.
The US armed forces consider the soldier’s immediate family (spouse and children) as part of the extended military family. The families have rights, access to military agencies, military housing, military hospitals, and access to their spouses’ commanders. The social life of the American soldier is usually with other soldiers and their families. Many of them live in the same neighborhoods. The families closely support each other when the soldiers are away from home for long periods of time either for training or missions. We lived in a military housing, on a military base in northern Virginia. Our neighbors were soldiers from the same unit. When we, the soldiers, were on a field exercise, my wife and the wives of other soldiers in the unit got together and helped each other raising the kids, shopping, getting around, etc.
We hardly earned any money in the American Army, but the military took such good care of the families that when my contract ended, my wife wanted me to stay. She felt secured and protected in the military. We lived on a large base that had a school, a bank, gas stations, shopping centers, and a hospital. There was no need to for us leave the base. The Israeli army is not set up this way, except for few, most Israeli spouses of military personnel live in either their hometowns, or in towns near the military base where their spouse serves. They use the same medical services, schools, and shopping centers as other Israelis. In other words, Many American soldiers’ families live on military bases in semi-close communities. They relocate from one community to another every 3-5 years as assignments are changed. They make friends quickly knowing that it is a temporary situation. Many of the American military families interact with the general society in shopping malls, entertainment venues, schools, or when visiting home. Israeli soldiers’ families are part of the local community in the town where they live in all aspects of life. They are not likely to relocate because of assignment changes. Many of their immediate neighbors are not serving in the military. However, the neighbors have been there before, or will be there eventually. Most American military families live in rental apartments/houses. Most Israeli military families live in their own apartments/houses.
A significant difference between the two armies is that in the US army, a person is first a citizen and then a soldier. In the Israeli army, a person is first a soldier and then a citizen. There is a difference between the two: The American soldier has a lot more rights and access to legal systems that ensure that his rights as a citizen are protected. The rights of the Israeli soldier are mostly administered by his chain of command that has a narrower and almost uniform view of the interpretation of the law. A good example of the difference between the two systems is that when American soldiers are dissatisfied, they write to their congressmen to intervene on their behalf. Israeli soldiers have less access to political figures at the top government level. Most American politicians were never in the armed forces and for that reason they apply the same judgment about what’s right and what’s wrong on a military base as they do for any American city. Israeli politicians, who most of them served in the army, understand and accept that military bases are different and tend to give the military commanders more flexibility.
American veterans are more organized and have more political power than Israeli veterans. They use this power to advance issues that are important to veterans, such as the GI bill, which allows every American soldier who put portion of his salary into a saving account to go college after the service. There is a large network of VA hospitals to treat American soldiers who were injured while in the service. I purchased my house with a VA loan, which allowed me to purchase it without paying upfront a down payment. Without the VA loan, I couldn’t have purchased the house. The US government guaranteed the loan. This made the purchase possible.
The Israeli veteran soldier also has benefits: Israeli injured soldiers are treated in Israeli hospitals and receive other benefits such as tax relief on purchases. The State of Israel heavily subsidizes college education for all people, especially for vetrans. I attended, free-of-charge, a college prep school for discharged soldiers. It prepared me for the entrance exams to the Technion. Israelis receive a tax break on the purchase of their first home (This used to be the case when I lived in Israel, I’m not sure if this is still the case today). There are some jobs in Israel that are only available to Israelis who served in the army, becuase of the security clearance requirments. Since Israel has such a large defense industry, many companies hire only vetrans.
When I served in the Israeli army, I was a soldier in Golani, the front line infantry brigade unit (see article Becoming a Golani Soldier). When I served in the US Army, I was in a field combat engineering support unit. Because of the different combat assignments of the two units, the training was completely different. In Golani, we trained for combat a lot more than in the US combat engineering unit. Another difference was that in Golani we trained with live ammunition, while in the US army we mostly trained with blanks. Surprisingly, I was in my best physical shape in the US army. In Golani, the emphasis was on long road marches while carrying heavy gear and storming rocky hills. The training had a cumulative effect on the body and led to injuries. In the US Army the mandatory physical training three mornings a week (no matter if it rained, snowed, or was freezing cold outside), kept us in a great physical shape; the 2 miles and the 40 push ups before breakfast, three times a week, was great for the body.
From conversations with soldiers in the Marines, I got the impression that their training was similar to the Golani training, but I can’t speak from personal experience. What I’ve heard from several US Army officers (in the mid 80’s) was that they received training in Israel, mostly in combat techniques that were developed by the Israeli army. One US Army officer told me how impressed he was with an Israeli general, who during a demonstration of how to build a floating bridge, the Israeli general got off his seat in the stands, rolled up his sleeves, and joined them in the bridge building exercise. He said that it was unlikely that American generals will do the same. (The US Army adapted the floating bridge building technology that the IDF’s developed after the Yom Kippur War. A technology based on the Soviet army model, which was deployed successfully against Israel to cross the Suez canal during the war.)
In general, American soldiers had a lot of respect for the IDF and they told me so on many occasions. One time, while filling up gas on a US military base, I overheard two young people speaking Hebrew. I was in a rush, so I didn’t engage in a conversation, but I was pretty sure that they were Israeli soldiers who were there for training purposes. My impression was that there was a lot of information sharing and joint training exercises between the two armies.
It is difficult to compare between the professional Israeli soldier and the professional American soldier. The main difference is that in the Israeli army the vast majority of the soldiers are serving their compulsory service and then discharged from the army. Even lower ranking officers and noncommissioned officers, who stay in the army for few more years, are basically drafted soldiers with extended terms. They get paid a little bit more, but have the same mentality, training exercises, and attitude as the drafted soldiers. In the American army there are many seargents who have been in the army for 10 years or more. Many of them have families. Very few Israeli seargents have been in the Israeli army more than 5 years. A small precentage of them are married with children. When I served in the US army, in the same unit with me, doing pretty much the same job, were soldiers who were in the army for ten years or more. Many of them were squad leaders and noncommissioned officers.There wasn’t a real difference between newer and older soldiers. In the Israeli army all the soldiers in my unit, including the platoon and company commanders were 23 years old or younger.
There is a very thin layer of professional soldiers in the Israeli army. Most of the professional soldiers are higher ranking officers, who are responsible for the larger units in the army. They are in-charge of battalions, brigades, and divisions. Some are specialists in fields that are important to the army, such as development of new weapon systems. There are also noncommissioned officers in the IDF, mostly in support roles, very few serve as regular soldiers in combat units. However, during battle, when the entire unit is engaged in combat. All IDF soldiers in combat units, whether they are drafted or professional soldiers, are on the front line fighting alongside each other and are exposed to the same risks and challenges. A recent example is the Golani brigade commander who was injured and was evacuated from the battlefield in Gaza during the 2014 Gaza war.
In training in the Israeli army
In training in the US army
During the service in the US Army, next to a replica of the WWII Fat Man nuclear bomb near Washington DC
- The Battle on Mount Hermon in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 – The courage of the Golani soldiers under fire
- Becoming a Golani Soldier