Friday, 3 September 2010

The Few, The Proud, The Chosen

The first week at United States Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, our instructor platoon commander pulled me aside and asked whether I needed kosher meals. “Good evening, Sir. This candidate does not want the Platoon Commander to go out of his way for this candidate, Sir,” I stammered, standing at stiff attention, still tentative with my candidate-speak. “I don’t care what you want, Candidate. I’m just trying to find out if kosher meals are what you need.”

I wasn’t going to tell the captain that I grew up with a cut-and-paste Upper West Side–style Judaism, with friends who described themselves as “4-F peacenik yids.” Nor did I tell him that I kept kosher at my dad’s—on 96th and Columbus—but not at my mom’s—on 96th and Broadway. That I never ate swine, sometimes ate shellfish, occasionally filtered my tap water to rid it of treyf crustaceans, and am still an on-again-off-again vegetarian. I wasn’t about to tell the captain about my mishigas with Judaism. On the question of kosher meals, I believe I settled for a motivated (loud) and noncommittal, “Aye, Sir, good evening, Sir,” about-faced, and double-timed back to formation.

A few weeks later, I did take advantage of the generous mood of religious accommodation and feared I was becoming the perfidious Sheldon Grossbart from Philip Roth’s “Defender of the Faith,” who feigns orthodox observance to win special favor at Army boot camp in 1945. Once a week, our drill instructors marched us into a series of rooms for “Prayer and Praise.” More than 200 funneled into the largest room, reserved for a generic Christian liturgy. A dozen chose the room for Mormons. A few made their way to the “no preference” room, and one, me, settled into a chair in a tiny office storage room set aside especially for the occasion of a religious outlier. Our class of almost 300 candidates started with three Jews. Two of them didn’t make it more than a few weeks, so I was alone when the chaplain came in to drop off a Tupperware box of materials labeled “For Jewish Personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States.” I flipped through a siddur and tried to remember what a good Jew would be doing on a Tuesday evening. But quickly I reverted to the only thing a Marine officer candidate knows how to do when left to sit in a room quietly, free from the screams of the gunnery sergeants. I slept, cheek mashed into the table, hands splayed out in front of me on the books and kippot and tallitot.

I woke to the sound of the door flying open and a sergeant instructor’s query. “Is this part of your rituals, Jacobson?” Sleeping, as a matter of discipline, is strictly forbidden except during authorized hours, yet the instructor wasn’t yelling as he usually would for such an infraction. I knew I was out of his jurisdiction, safe, for the rest of the hour anyway, in my office-room embassy. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the Sabbathis a cathedral in time instead of space. Instead of a cathedral, that Tuesday evening shabbes hour was a fortified redoubt in time. Fridays and Saturdays we trained.

In that office room—in a Marine Corps building, in a Marine Corps camp, on a Marine Corps base—I was isolated from my fellow Marine candidates. It was my first experience with privacy since entering the Marines, and I didn’t much care for it. It was as if I were AWOL and a civilian again. After that first night alone, nine short of a minyan, I chose to spend the rest of my Tuesdays alternating between the large Christian auditorium service and the “no preference” room.

The chaplain made his rounds at those Tuesday-night sessions, offering a prayer or that scarcest of boot-camp treatments—a smile and a kind word. Because there were no Muslim candidates, he had an unopened box of extra Korans. Still fantasizing that there would be time to read at Officer Candidate School, I asked for a copy and stowed it in my footlocker. One afternoon, after finding contraband in a candidate’s locker—an old mealy apple smuggled from the chow hall—the sergeant instructors ordered an inspection. We 50 men stood at parade rest with our backs to the squad bay as the sergeants rifled through our trash, which is high Marine for “gear,” which is Military for “belongings.”

“Jacobson? JACOBSON, are you frickin Muslim, Jacobson?”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“Are you a daggone frickin Muslim?”

“No, Gunnery Sergeant.”
“Then why do you have this Koran in your foot locker?”

“This candidate was interested in reading it, Gunnery Sergeant.”

“Are you frickin stupid, boy? You must be frickin stupid. Do I frickin care what frickin interests you?”

“NO, Gunnery Sergeant.” After inspection, I found my Koran sitting alone in my footlocker, unharmed. The sergeant instructors had meticulously strewn everything else we owned in all directions. It took hours—of our designated sleep time, of course—to get everything back in its place.


A year and a half later, I began my service in Iraq as an infantry platoon commander, arriving with my unit in early September. For Kol Nidre, the military helicoptered all the interested Jews in Anbar Province to Al Asad Air Base to form a minyan. Saddam Hussein had built the complex for his Air Force MiGs, alienating many Anbar Sunnis who believe it’s holy ground. Within the base’s barbed-wire perimeter is a small oasis pool and palm grove said by many local Bedouin to have been a rest and water stop for Abraham on his way through the desert to Canaan. Now under American control, the oasis is still off-limits to the populace.

Walking into the prefab chapel, surrounded by blast walls and barriers, I noticed a sign advertising “Jewish Movie Night” at Al Asad. I didn’t need to see the movie. I was already in a Mel Brooks scene: from the as-yet-unreleased History of the World Part II. There were about 15 of us there for the service: a few airmen, sailors, civilian contractors, half a dozen soldiers, and a couple of Marines. The Kol Nidre service itself was unremarkable, which I think was only proper, since Jews have been saying Kol Nidre uninterrupted, by the waters of Babylon, for at least the past 1,500 years. That American Jews in Iraq now outnumber Iraqi Jews is one of the tragedies of this war. By last count, the Jews of Iraq, cloistered in a few Baghdad apartments, did not have sufficient numbers to form a minyan.
I spent Yom Kippur itself out on patrol in an oasis of Syro-Arabian desert. I managed to forgo my Meals Ready-to-Eat for the day, which wasn’t hard given the nature of MREs. But I broke the fast early, drinking chai with some Bedouin, because I couldn’t refuse the hospitality and because it’s delicious. God knows mission has priority.
I had learned in the weeks before Yom Kippur that the Bedouin themselves often don’t fast for Ramadan, because, so far as I could tell, the desert doesn’t permit such luxuries. That night, the time of Ne’ilah, the concluding service of the holiday, like many other nights, we set up camp out in the desert, our humvees in a tight perimeter. Some Marines stood watch, posted with night-vision optics up in the turrets, others catching some sleep between their vehicles before the next patrol. I walked the lines for a couple of hours, chatted with the lance corporal on radio duty, and unrolled my sleeping bag for some rest.


My history in the Marines is a story of missed Fridays, and Saturdays, and holier days. For a Marine, the private sphere is so attenuated, and his public duties so large and ritualistically compelling, that religious observance becomes both more difficult and less desirable. Marines trade much of what goes by the name of individuality, or identity, for esprit. They love their rituals. And that includes the ritual hatred of the sometimes priggish sense of military propriety. The favorite straw man is the impeccably starched good-to-go march-in-step high-and-tight squared-away salty Sergeant Major straight out of central casting, who single-mindedly enforces the uniform standards and the archetype of the clean shave. This parody of the Sergeant Major is always ready with some canned false-motto: “How we doing Devil Dogs? Bunch a heart breakers and life takers. Are we motivated? Are we dedicated? Are we true to the colors? Oorah? Well let me hear it from your semper fi-aphragm!” We groan, but we love it. Even the OFP Marine—on his Own Frickin Program—needs the customs and courtesies to define himself against. The unit’s rituals largely take the place of hard-to-accommodate religious customs. As an officer and platoon commander, I cannot imagine denying a Marine something so precious as the right to wear a kippah or other religious garb, but I also haven’t heard of a Marine ever wanting to. The chain of command rarely makes religious accommodations, because they are rarely requested.

In the early 1980s, a rabbi turned Air Force clinical psychologist did request accommodation and was famously denied. When Dr. Simcha Goldman’s superior officer at the March Air Force Base clinic instructed him not to wear a kippah with his uniform, he refused to comply and sued, claiming violation of his right to free exercise of religion. In Goldman v. Weinberger, the Supreme Court rejected his claim, following the hands-off tradition of deference to professional military judgment. Justice Brennan, in dissent, attacked the Court’s deference for being “absolute” and “uncritical.” He insisted that, at a minimum, the military must provide a rational explanation for burdening a serviceman’s free-exercise rights. But explanations, like wars, are not always rational.

For better or worse, real or imagined, the military is one of the few organizations that still attracts people looking for an alternative to the “world of clerks and teachers, of co-education and zo-ophily, of ‘consumer’s leagues’ and ‘associated charities,’ of industrialism unlimited, and feminism unabashed,” as William James describes it in his short essay “The Moral Equivalent of War.” Martialism is one such attempt at escape from that purblind bourgeois life. Observant Judaism is another. Infantrymen are looking for a place where they can indulge in anachronisms: love of glory, pugnacity, intrepidity, severity, order, discipline, deprivation, devotion, exertion, hardihood, risk, sharpness, precipitousness, contempt for life (whether one’s own or another’s), conscription, the blood tax, honor, and, above all, duty and self-forgetfulness. In this context, Dr. Goldman’s language of rights, of self-seeking—though never wrong—jars on duty-tuned military ears. The old virtues—honor, courage, commitment—can’t always be communicated in court.

As the Goldman case worked its way through the judicial system, Congress ordered the secretary of defense to form a study group, which led to the military’s new “neat and conservative” standard for the wearing of kippot and religious paraphernalia more generally. The DoD’s “Accommodation of Religious Practices Within the Military Services” seeks to systematize the standard. The revised 2009 edition stipulates that “a Jewish yarmulke may be worn with the uniform” unless “prohibited by paragraph 5 or 7 of this enclosure.” A complete ban on wearing visible religious apparel is authorized when requests for accommodation will have “an adverse impact on mission accomplishment, military readiness, unit cohesion, standards, or discipline.”

Accommodation is almost always possible, but it also almost always has some consequence for unit cohesion and the maintenance of discipline. The willingness to tolerate such an effect is at the discretion of the chain of command, exactly as it was before the accommodation directive and Goldman v. Weinberger. Accommodation may be the default, but that default is a veneer behind which, as before, the commander’s sense of readiness, cohesion, discipline, morale, and that catch-all, “military necessity,” trumps all. Couched in the DoD directive’s techno-bureaucratese is the possibility for the classic rejection of accommodation in favor of pugnacity, intrepidity, severity, deprivation, devotion, exertion, hardihood, sharpness, precipitousness, contempt for life, conscription, self-forgetfulness, and the blood tax.

Service and support-oriented units of the military, like Dr. Goldman’s psychology clinic, are caught between worlds. On the one hand, they preserve at least the semblance of military decorum. Yet many enter these outfits as they would enter any trade, to learn a skill and earn a paycheck. This mixing of motives, martial and civil, is what leads to breakdowns of understanding in the classic form of Goldman v. Weinberger. A rabbi turned clinical psychologist joins the Air Force to pay for school. Hilarity ensues.

In combat-oriented units of the military, where religious exemptions are both less possible and less desired, mix-ups are less frequent. The Marine Corps should only be so accommodating. A sweeping selflessness, more akin to self-denial—or harder and broader, denial of the self—is the cardinal Marine virtue. It took me a long time to learn. Subordinate the self or risk insubordination. A Marine is a Marine first, and only secondly and peripherally a Buddhist or Jewish or Christian Marine. We want to be large, to contain multitudes, but we cannot be all things at all times. The pledge of semper fidelis precludes most observances, except perhaps a pared-down sola fide Protestantism. If the Marine Corps wanted you to have another religion, it would have issued you one. With a catechism that centers on the rifle, there is little room for other deities. The new credo: every Marine a rifleman. At boot camp and OCS, after lights out, recruits come to attention in their racks and recite their idolatrous creed:

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.

Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than any enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will...

My rifle is human, even as I am human, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, its accessories, its sights, and its barrel. I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other.

Before God I swear this creed. My rifle and I are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life. So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy, but Peace.

The trinity is changed. Father and Son become God and Rifle. It’s hokey but vital. A Marine’s weapon is by necessity the center of his new life, a life mostly inconsistent with the demands of halacha and Shema.

I’m not observant by civilian standards, but my small displays of Judaism are glaring. In the Marine Corps, after all, when you hear someone shout “JEW,” you can be sure he’s calling to a subordinate using the acronym for “Junior Enlisted Warrior.” My bunkmate and fellow fire-team member at the Infantry Officer Course had attended the Citadel and never met a Jew before. He moderated his light Christ-killer jibing with no small admixture of esteem for the IDF and curiosity about my religion. He is still a great friend. Jibing, like chewing tobacco, is a pastime in the Marine Corps. It is often caustic, mostly lighthearted, and always equal opportunity. Once, one of the corporals in my platoon wanted to get his squad excused from a particularly unpleasant duty and asked: “Sir, Don’t you remember what it was like when your people were in bondage? Why won’t you be our Moses?”

Before we left for Iraq, my platoon made the transition in training from conventional combined arms operations to more of a counterinsurgency—prior to that, hearts and minds meant “put two in the heart and one in the mind.” The Marines decided I needed a nom de guerre, something strong, akin to “Lawrence of Arabia.” They nixed Jacobson of Anbar Province and Hill 456 Sam. And I rejected Jewtenant Jacobson. As it turned out, some Iraqis came to know me as Mulazim ibn Yakub, literally, Lieutenant Son of Jacob, and later as Mulazim Yusef, Lieutenant Joseph, truly the Son of Jacob. Though they knew I was Jewish, they taught me the Iraqi girl’s rhyming catchphrase for finding a husband: “Lo mulazim, lo malazim”—-Either a lieutenant, or no one. When we returned home from Iraq, my commanding officer sat us down for a talk after an alleged incident of discrimination in another section of the battalion. “I treat you all as equals,” he said. “Equally worthless.”

After my noncommittal “Aye, Sir, good evening, Sir” with the captain at OCS, I’m glad the kosher food never materialized. What would I need it for? The standard Meal Ready-to-Eat is engineered to have just the right balance of nutrients to keep a Marine in the fight: vacuum-sealed pouches of carbohydrates, fatty acids, vitamins, minerals, and Tabasco. And eating those things, leaning against your pack, tired, dirty, hot, soaked, and bullshitting with fellow Marines is a daily sacrament. I still stay away from the MREs that contain pig, like “Pork Rib, Boneless, Imitation” with “natural flavor, smoke flavor, grill flavor,” though the man who named it is a genius of prosody (his other lyrical masterpieces: “Chicken Breast Strips, with Rib Meat, Chopped and Formed, with Chunky Salsa,” and the Spartan “Spaghetti with Meat and Sauce”). I always trade my cheese spread w/bacon for the regular cheese-spread packet and do my best to convert the ubiquitous “Boxed Nasty” into something I can eat: open and remove ham from ham-and-cheese sandwich; attempt to prevent cheese from peeling off with ham; replace ham with Fritos; mustard to taste. Eat. Drink the Kool-Aid.

To retain too much of one’s public religiosity, such as requesting kosher food, seems almost extravagant. How much ritual does a man need? At my graduation from the Infantry Officer Course, we each recited a quotation that is important to our lives. After a series of motivating Marine-isms and vigorous passages from Chesty Puller and Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow lieutenant stood and broke the formula with a line from the New Testament, to the accompaniment of confused looks in the crowd. For those who have a religion other than being a Marine, and many do, they mostly keep it to themselves, literally keep it in under their shirts. I was shirtless in the field one day, and a fellow lieutenant saw my dog tags up close for the first time. Religious Preference: Jewish. “I didn’t know you were Jewish, Jacobson. It’s good that it says it here. That way when you’re captured, al-Qaeda will know to arrange for kosher meals.”

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