Daniel Houten is in basic training to become an infantryman in the U.S. Army at Fort Benning, Ga. Nothing unusual about another 11 Bravo – except that he recently finished an 18-month tour with the Israeli Defence Forces. The heck with generals and colonels weighing each army’s pluses and minuses – let’s talk to someone who really knows the differences between two of the world’s finest fighting forces.
He may be singing to the choir here, but Private Houten, 20, says the U.S. Army has better food, boots and uniforms than the Israel army he left in June. “The food is better here,” he says. “Americans in general have better equipment, newer equipment.” And he says the Israeli army is a more relaxed, less disciplined outfit than his new employer.
“One of the biggest differences is the Israeli military is less focused on discipline – things are more relaxed over there,” Houten says. “Rank structure absolutely exists, but at the same time all enlisted ranks are more of less equal 90% of the time…when you’re on a base and you’re dealing with your commanders – up to a lieutenant, or even sometimes a captain – as long as you’re not in a frontline combat unit where everything is a little more rigid – there’s a good chance that within a few months you’re going to be addressing him on a first name basis.”
Such slack, he thinks, wouldn’t work in the U.S. Army. “The U.S. is a very different system,” Houten says, adding diplomatically: “Each system works better for the military that they are a part of.”
Israel, he adds, is a compact country where many soldiers know one another’s families or friends. “The mentality in Israel is that they’ve been fighting for their survival since day one,” he says. “Service is compulsory, so the average soldier by the end of his service is kind of ticking off the days on his calendar.”
The Israeli army’s smaller size makes it less institutional than the far larger U.S. Army. “With a small population like that, there’s a good chance that someone in your family is going to know someone on your base – and when everything’s less formal it sort of gives them a chance to connect in a certain way,” Houten says. “The disadvantages of having a system like that over here would be — because everyone doesn’t have a certain degree of familiarity outside of the military — I think it would just lead to insubordination. Because people would feel: well, I know this officer, and I can speak to him on a first-name basis so when he tells me to do something why should I listen to him?”
Houten doesn’t hesitate when asked who fields the world’s best army. “All in all, at the end of the day, it’s going to be the U.S.,” he says. “We have the technology, we have the size, and we have our Army values to live by.”
Like most 20-year old soldiers, Houten is familiar with the creature comforts valued by every grunt since Hannibal. Although there are exceptions, he likes the variety of the U.S. Army’s Meals-Ready-to-Eat. “In general, they’re pretty good,” he says. “In Israel, they have Manot Krav — a cardboard box, you get one per squad — and it’s a bunch of cans of tuna, a can of corn, they used to have something Loof, which is kind of like kosher Spam but now its all tuna – and you get a loaf of bread, a couple of vegetables and that’s it. You get really tired of tuna – really, really tired of tuna.”
He recalls his assignments at forward posts: “In general, it was tuna and bread, tuna and bread.”
Houten says he was impressed when he got his U.S. Army footwear. “The boots over there are kind of an older style,” he says. Although there are some newer models, “the boots I was issued when I was there were sort of like the older combat boots – you’re supposed to polish them and shine them and everything. That was something that stuck in my mind: the boots.”
His U.S. Army boots with their suede uppers don’t need such high maintenance. And they grab better: “My old Israeli boots had Brill soles, which were good, but they don’t have the traction that these Vibram ones do – I can already tell I’m going to have them for awhile – they’re tough.”
Houten laughs when asked which army has the cooler uniform. “All right – define cooler.” When told coolness is in the eyes of the wearer, he thinks for a moment. “The American uniform is kind of a little bit cooler – I’m not going to lie – it’s sort of a better material” he says. And the Israeli uniforms don’t sport a camouflage pattern, which means another layer is needed to blend in. “So if you’re operating in the desert, you need to have a second camo suit over that,” Houten says. “Which I think, personally, is a little bit ridiculous.”
Houten was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Brooklyn, N.Y. His father, John, is a neurosurgeon. “I thought about being a doctor like my dad,” he concedes, “but I always came back to being a soldier.” While in high school, his motivation waned, and he dropped out. He couldn’t get into the U.S. Army without a high school diploma or a General Equivalency Degree. He basically stumbled into the Israeli army when someone told him a Jew could serve without Israeli citizenship or a high-school diploma.
Housten toiled as an armored personnel carrier mechanic from December 2009 to June 2011. He came back home, and discovered that he missed military life, and that the Army National Guard had a program he could enter to earn his GED and resume his military career. “To be perfectly honest, I just don’t enjoy civilian life after having been in the military,” he says. “It seemed kind of pointless to me and I felt that my life didn’t have very much direction.”
Houten says he welcomed the chance to shift his military assignment, from APC mechanic in Israel to foot soldier in the U.S. “When I worked with my vehicles –- there’s always a chance of war over there, and if something breaks out suddenly, I know that if I’ve done my job correctly and promptly, that means that my friends in my unit who are going to be in those APCs are going to be safer,” he says. “So I enjoyed doing what I did very much, but at the same time, it’s always been my dream to sort of have my boots on the ground with a rifle in my hand. So I chose 11 Bravo” – the Army’s military occupational specialty code for the infantry.
He apparently wants to make up for lost time. “My personal plan is to go active Army,” he says. “In a perfect world, I’d go to airborne school right out of basic, and, after that, Ranger school.”
After all, Rangers — as they’re fond of saying — lead the way.