Speak their language: a war story about learning radical empathy
Updated: May 8, 2021
When I was 20 years old, I was serving in the Israeli Defense Forces. I spent the majority of my service in the relatively peaceful north of Israel, managing HR for half a brigade of reserve soldiers.
And then a war broke out. Explosive rockets seemingly rained from the sky. We were running for the bomb shelter what felt like every 20 minutes, and were glued to the news with an intense dread. That’s where they announced the names of the casualties.
I’d just spent nearly 3 years in the womb of the military: we cared deeply about protecting our country, we wore our olive-green uniforms in pride, we trained and trained harder and cleaned our weapons and trained some more. The army was my life, and serving my country was my purpose.
My battalion of reserve soldiers was the first of them all to get the emergency call for service. They were notified at 22:00 that they were required to show up for duty at 8:00 the next morning. The army reserves are civilians who long ago completed their active-duty military service, and are kept as backup in case the military needs additional manpower. I just knew my battalion would show up with the same profound patriotism I was feeling to defend our people.
And I was very wrong. “Go kick yourself,” or a less appropriate version of that, was essentially the response when I called them in. This battalion of 400 or so reserve soldiers were all men, mostly in their late 20’s and 30’s. They had wives, they had kids, and they had careers. My patriotic preaching, or pleading, was pretty much a joke to them. It went something like this:
Lieutenant Golan (me): “Sir, this call is to give you notice that you are required to present yourself at the North Nazareth army base tomorrow at 8:00. We will reimburse your travel upon receiving…”
Reserve soldier (civilian): [laughs and hangs up phone]
20-year-old female officer: “Mister, this is serious. There is a war going on! You must come to fight for your country! The people of Israel are counting on you, sir,”
30-something-year-old civilian: “Listen, girly, I’m not showing up, okay? Why don’t you just write that down in your little checklist or whatever and stop wasting your time calling me.” [wife or girlfriend scolds in the background, Is that them again? Tell them you’re not going anywhere and they can go kick themselves.]
20-year-old girl: “Look, there’s nothing I can do, okay? It’s the law. If you don’t show up at 8:00 tomorrow you’ll be breaking the law!”
30-something-year-old man: [kid screaming in the background] “How old are you, little girl? Do you know that I’m old enough to be your father? Don’t tell me what to do. And do not call my house and threaten me.”
It wasn’t going over well. They just weren’t getting it.
Still, I felt the weight of my responsibility: my job was to bring my battalion of civilian-soldiers to duty. This was essentially all I had trained for for the last 926 or so dusty long days and sleep-deprived nights. But after a couple of dozen phone calls, I began to feel despair. I stopped talking about patriotism. I stopped telling them that they were heroes. I stopped saying that they needed to follow the law. Instead, I told them the same truth, but this time, in their language. It went something like this:
Me: “Hey man, I’m so sorry to be calling you so late. I hope I didn’t wake up your kids.
Him: “It’s ok, the baby’s in the other room, we put her in the bomb-sheltered room just in case. Luckily those walls are so thick she doesn’t wake up when the phone rings. Anyway, what’s this about? Why are you calling so late?”
Me: “Look, I’m not calling with good news. You know what’s going on out there - you’re a smart guy…”
Him: “Girl, don’t do this to me. I can’t leave my wife alone in this situation with our 5-month-old.”
Me: [listening and genuinely empathizing, and using much more slang than I was used to at the time] “Man, I cannot imagine. That sounds like a kicking nightmare, having a 5-month-old baby girl in this crazy time. Bro, I wish I could get ya out of this, I really do. I wish I could make this all go away and find a way for you to stay at home with your wife and baby girl. But I can’t. They’re ordering the whole battalion in.”
Him: “You don’t understand. My wife is just getting over the flu. The corner store where I work almost got bombed the other day. I can’t come in, not right now. Call me another time and I’m there.”
Me: “Listen, I’m gonna tell it to ya straight: I wish I could just wink at ya’ and tell you that no-one will notice if you don’t show up, but I can’t. And the truth is not showing up is the worst thing you can do for your wife and baby because you’ll be marked AWOL, and that is really the worst. Technically you’re supposed to be here by 8:00 but just get here when you can. See what’s up, I’ll be here too. We’ll see what we can do when you get here - but you just gotta show up. If you change your mind, you can always leave. Leaving isn’t as bad as a no-show. If you’re marked AWOL it’s the worst, it really is. It goes straight into the police system, and that’s the real trouble. There’s not passing go, no collecting $200 - it’s straight to jail from there for who-knows-how-long, and there’s nothing I can do at that point to help you out. Man, I don’t want to see that happen to ya. Just show up. Start with showing up for one day.”
Nearly the whole battalion showed up. Some of them didn’t, and some of them left (illegally) shortly after arriving. But the vast majority stayed. When they arrived, they came looking for me, because I was their insider that knew about their wives and their babies and the corner store where they worked. I understood, and moreover, empathized with, their most personal problems.
We now had a common enemy (in addition to terrorism), the AWOL marker. Once they were in uniform, surrounded by their friends and battalion-mates and people that shared their pain, they felt a little differently about their service. It seemed that suddenly they wanted to be part of something bigger than them.
In some ways, I see omnivores like that battalion. They don’t want to hear about my patriotism, my beliefs, and where I’m coming from. They aren’t troubled by the things I’ve been thinking about for the last 926 days, and they definitely don’t want me telling them what to do; they’ve never even met me. They may praise the good intent: “Good for you for all the work to protect animals and the environment and all that good stuff,” they might say, but what does that have to do with me? They have wives and husbands and young children and parents that are aging and a cocker spaniel that’s scratching at the door to be let out. They have to make dinner that everyone will eat, that isn’t too much work and won't make a big mess, that is nourishing, and won’t break the bank. So, as much as they may respect someone having a cause, they live in a very real reality with a family to feed, thank you very much.
Which is why, like with the battalion of reserve soldiers, we are choosing to radically empathize with omnivores so that we can speak to them in their language. Some of them will brush off our message. Some of them will adopt it for a period of time and ultimately desert it. But many of them will make a change and will eat even just a little less meat, and they’ll be doing it of their own volition.