24 August 2010 18:40
During a training drill at the Mala Urban Warfare Training Center (UWTC), participating soldiers work to overcome language barriers, and mutually appreciate each other through culture differences
Noa Horowitz, "Bamahane"
Under the blazing sun, the sergeant's call is heard in the middle of the desert. At the sound of his call, ten tall soldiers with impressively broad shoulders appear suddenly in their camouflage uniforms and stand in formation. After a short briefing, their commander stands in front of them at a distance of one meter exactly, and yells at the top of his lungs: "Am I clear? Go!"
The so-not-Israeli soldiers arrived in the Holy Land about a month ago, as part of their training in the US Marines. Two weeks ago, they headed south for the highlight of their visit: a conclusion exercise with the trainees of the "Flying Lion" Battalion Commander Course. Under the midday heat in the training facilities of the Ze'elim base, they begin sprinting, and suiting up quickly in military vests, acting as if they were preparing for a bold operation in Afghanistan and not for a training exercise in Israel that would start, at best, in another six hours.
Despite the fact that an all-nighter trek awaits them that evening, followed by another full day of training at the Urban Warfare Training Center (UWTC), oddly, everyone seems to be happy. The Israelis are pleased with the novel American attraction that fell on them so suddenly—these Americans seem very eager and spirited to partake in the Mala UWTC training drill.
We are the champions of charade
It is noon now. A shuttle bus drops off groups of soldiers at the meeting point – a place in the desert that seems completely random, except for the presence of a few hastily assembled black tents and water containers. While the commanders are running an on-and-off training drill, interrupted by the extreme heat, the soldiers prepare equipment for that night's exercise. The American soldiers are repeatedly called on to stand in line or in formation in front of their new commander, and they listen to him, expressionless.
"They are really disciplined", says Corporal Oren Gordan, one of the "Flying Lion" soldiers. "We were talking to them when a commander with the rank of sergeant arrived. They then asked us in a whisper if he was going to be one of our commanding sergeants and got really scared. They also don't use their commander's first name but call him 'Sir'".
Corporal Shay Cohen also noted the polite manners of the American soldiers: "If they bump into your shoulder by accident, they apologize profusely! They seem to apologize for everything!"
Lance Corporal Sean Leonardo reflects for a moment on the cultural differences between the Israeli and American soldiers, trying to understand where these differences come from. "I think it's because your army service is compulsory," he says, "everyone gets drafted, so of course they have to be easier on you because otherwise no one would want to be here."
Corporal Roland Sander believes Israeli soldiers to be disciplined as well. "They told me that in Krav Maga lessons, the discipline is crazy and they have to sit there without moving," he says, "if you sweat, you can't wipe the sweat off. It really reminded me of our basic training, so I think the level of disciplinare is very similar."
In addition to admiring their discipline and politeness, the Israeli soldiers look longingly at the meals the Americans receive at the base—the Stars and Stripes soldiers receive meals which flew with the soldiers all the way from the United States. The Israelis can't take their eyes off of this food that is packed in sealed silver plastic bags. "They have pasta with tomato sauce inside the bag and tasty crackers, and gum at the bottom", says Corporal Gal Azilay. "They also have warm hamburgers" says Cohen, referring to the wonderful invention the Marines brought with them - a substance that warms itself when it is in contact with water and makes it possible to eat a hot meal in the field. "What, how does it become warm?" asks somebody who stands next to them, amazed. "It is something special, it is steaming, man" says Cohen enthusiastically.
The American soldiers, however, have had a hard time enjoying Israeli food.
"I brought one of them Loof (canned meat), and he looked at me like it was dog food," said Cohen. "But I brought another Marine fried Loof and he actually liked it and ate until it was finished in order to kill time before the beginning of the drill."
The American soldiers are learning Hebrew (the repertoire including: Booba (doll), Mechabel (terrorist), Ma nishma (what's up?)), and soldiers from both armies barter over items (a flashlight for a hat, a pocket knife for a weapon shoulder strap or dog-tag covering). The Marines explain that military equipment with any sort of Hebrew writing on it is of high value, like receiving a souvenir from a foreign country. And how are they able to communicate using the broken English of Israeli soldiers?
"We are champions at charades," the Israeli soldiers explain.
While mingling, the Marines tell the Israelis stories of their tours in Jerusalem and in Tel Aviv and how they got to see different sides of the Holy Land.
"From afar, it sounds like the security problems are spread over such a large landscape but when you get to Tel Aviv, everything's put into perspective. In general, Israel is so pretty. Except for this place—it looks like a sandbox. But everywhere else is."
Stop! Don't go
During the total darkness of the desert night, the "Flying Lion" Battalion begins to move towards the training grounds which resemble a Palestinian village. The Marines are currently split into two platoons, which are under the command of Israeli Company Commanders. "It was my decision, as well as the decision of the American Platoon Commander to complicate the training and be able to see if we could successfully work together," said the Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. Oren Gil.
After a nine kilometer night voyage by foot, the combat soldiers reach the outskirts of the city just as the sun is rising. They run in groups up a steep incline, crossing the only hurdle separating them from the city and surround one of the neighborhoods in the "city".
In perfect sync, they break into the first houses just as the sky begins to be lit up by fireworks mimicking mortars and bombs. The troops begin to advance in the streets, soon coming in contact with the secret ambush of staged enemy forces. The sounds of shooting rings out throughout the streets, and while the Israeli troops wearing the olive green fatigues drown out the sound of shooting with cries of "Fire! Fire! Fire!," the Americans in their camouflage fatigues do not verbally react to the gunshot sounds.
However, the Marines do not stay quiet for long. During their mock attack on the "terrorists", they let out a string of swears: "Shoot that s----!" exclaims one of their officers, "Get f------ down, you are visible!"
The Americans also take their fake injuries seriously. While the Israelis that are "injured" shuffle to the nearby mosque for "medical treatment", the Marines act their injuries out apocalyptically. They fall back dramatically, and wait for at least three other soldiers to drag them through the sand, while continuing to stay in character of being nearly fatally wounded.
The language barrier quickly raised the body count. An Israeli soldier acting as an enemy takes advantage of this and shouts at his comrades, speaking in biblical Hebrew: "Cantor, for he cannot see, throw a grenade at him." The grenade quickly rolls along a central path, and one of the companies is forced to take cover in a courtyard that connects the two builds. Sadly, the commander running the drill notifies them that they have seven dead in the adjacent building and if they advance they will lose more men.
An IDF liaison officer, who speaks English and acts as a go-between the two armies, passes on the order, but the Israeli Company Commander standing on second floor of a house overlooking the courtyard speculates that he too must update the Platoon Commander of the Marines. "Don't go from this place!" he shouted excitedly in English. The Platoon Commander nods but the Company Commander wants to reinforce his point. "Stop! Don't Go!" The Marine responds to calm him down, "I'm not going anywhere, I know the plan, let me worry about my own men," with a slightly annoyed tone.
After the liaison officer intervenes, the crisis is solved, and the entire force is called to gather behind a protected area. The courtyard empties and a moment before the commander enters the hideout, he mutters something over his radio. "I don't know who the enemy is," he admits, "And I don't know who all these crazy people wandering around here are."
Pretty cool, right?
The present drill is part of a broader cooperation effort between the IDF and the U.S. Army- a cooperation that has been strengthened in recent years. "There's one other country in the world that is our ally, and that is the U.S.A," explains the head of the foreign training branch of the Ground Forces, Lt. Col. Tal Lazros. "All cooperation that has to do with imparting shared knowledge is accepted as a blessing. When the Marines, a widely esteemed unit, request that we assist them in a drill, we are happy to train with them side by side."
"It went great," declares Battalion Commander of "the Flying Lion" towards the end of the drill. "In the end, one of the most important things is to note the synergy and timing between the three companies, and the biggest fear we had was that the Marines wouldn't be able to understand us. So from this perspective, it was a very big success."
The exercise was structured in collaboration with the U.S. Army, and the decision to train in an urban area like the Mala UWTC was always assumed. "Today almost all drills occur in urban environments," explains Lazros. "This is the norm, because this is the main problem facing most armies in the world. Once you were the only country fighting in urban environments and the rest of the world generally did not, but today there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for example, and there are a lot of lessons we can learn from each other."
The Commander of the Marines in Europe, Brig. Gen Paul Brier, does not hide his enthusiasm about the Mala UWTC. "This facility is excellently built," he said. "We are used to using the facilities in California and it's great to try new facilities. Our techniques are similar, but we are learning new ways to do things."
The Mala training exercise ended with a helicopter evacuation. Four injured are carried on portable stretchers from the mosque where the injured had gathered, into a helicopter that took off after a matter of seconds. After the dust cloud cleared, it was declared that the city has been reclaimed. IDF Units have done this hundreds of times, but for the Americans, it is exciting. "The exercises here are really impressive," comments Sander. "Everything we learned here today opened my eyes. The way you clear houses is different and a lot more logical than the way we do it. Everything you do is completely different from what I'm used to."
"We came to drill and also to learn your style," adds Leonardo. "Marines are thought to be pretty cool, right? But everyone thinks you're more so. And it's true. When we train they say to us: 'Listen to what the Israelis have to say, because this is their reality every day.' And we respect you for that.