Nothing like a novel by a young recruit to tell you the truths about an army, as in, say, From Here to Eternity and The Naked and the Dead. In this case it's a book called The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, by Shani Boianjiu, a young female veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. And though it may not be the first of its kind — Moshe Dayan's daughter Yael published some fiction about the Israeli army decades ago — Boianjiu's debut novel has some virtues all its own, and some flaws.
One of the virtues comes in the form of the appealing main characters — three friends, Yael, Avishag and Lea — who are drafted at the same time, girls from an outlying Israeli village who are desperately bored and monumentally horny, for whom military service does not seem very appealing. Whatever! In uniform they remain just as bored and sexually on the make. And more so.
They make the most of their tours of duty by, among other things, dissing dark-skinned Jewish immigrants in their barracks, fantasizing about Arab laborers who cross through the checkpoints they guard, and creating an international disturbance by climbing their guard towers, stripping off their uniforms and lying out in plain view of the Egyptian soldiers armed with binoculars manning guard posts just over the border. Or, as one young woman rifle instructor does, helping to improve the aim of a young male soldier and then dragging him off to seduce him in the sand dunes near the rifle range.
The novel is initially just as seductive. Boianjiu works in simple, direct prose, with which she gives us the frustrations and annoyances of military service — as when the recruits have to leave the female dorm early in the morning to head for a checkpoint. "The ride," complains a 19-year-old girl called Lea, "was usually all the torture that is inherent in movement. Breaths and moans and the webs of sleepy eyes of all just jumbled. I was yanked from slumber and immediately boarded the bulletproof green van, with its miniature barred windows and thick metal skin. My head bobbed and smashed and hurt as the van glided along the territories we occupied. When the movement halted, all I arrived at was men, a line of men, all these men, waiting for me, raging through stillness ... "
Next thing you know, Lea's having these fantasies about one of the Arab laborers who happens to cross most of the time she's at her early-morning post. And then that same laborer stabs a male officer, and Lea goes into a kind of fugue state, worrying in front of a mirror that her breasts are too large.
Exhibitionism, sexual fantasies, slack attitudes toward regulations — not much war here in these pages, just small doses of bad behavior on both sides of the line, and nearly 350 pages of frank and episodic scenes about female life in the IDF, which by midway through the book begin to lose their charm.
The frankness in the novel is refreshing, the episodic nature of its progress I found wanting. "We were girls," Yael tells us, about two-thirds of the way through the book, "I know we were just girls. We did what we did in the army, and then it was over ...'
Alas, all too true.