An Israeli soldier who falls into enemy hands can undoubtedly expect a harrowing ordeal at the hands of his captors. Intimidation, degradation, and torture are likely scenarios in captivity.
These are also things he may actually experience at the hands of his own military, as part of a top-secret IDF training program which aims to prepare elite commandos for the possibility of capture and imprisonment.
Details of the program were revealed Friday by Hadashot news, which interviewed several soldiers who underwent its difficult trials.
The two-week-long course is held near the end of training programs for some of the army’s top units: Naval commandos, Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) and Shaldag (the elite Air Force commando unit). Pilots too undergo the process.
Cadets are held in prison-like conditions, and suffer intense interrogations, threats, and real violence by their trainers. Soldiers described a distressing experience in which they often believed their instructors had truly lost control.
As preparation for the program, soldiers are shown instructional films and are told to expect difficult days ahead. They also meet people who experienced captivity.
The next stage is a “kidnapping” of the cadets that usually takes place at night, Z., a former trainer, told the TV station. The purpose is to shock the soldiers from the onset. Trainees speak of intense physical and emotional hardship, in which they are questioned, slapped, whipped, and subjected to demeaning activities.
“I started crying but it didn’t help me,” one soldier told Hadashot. “When I angered them, they put me up against a wall and started whipping my back. If you shout that it hurts, they hit you harder. In time you learn that you should shut up.”
Instructors attempt to extract information that the cadets know they cannot divulge.
“An interrogator stands before me and tells me ‘I know who you are. I know what you’re planning to do. Your friends have already told me everything,'” a former trainee said. “They laid me down on a table and bound my hands. One interrogator held me down and the other whipped my feet.”
In another test seemingly taken straight out of ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?,’ instructors blast the soldiers with electronic Arabic music and force them to dance till they drop.
“There were moments where I began crying and said, ‘Stop! End it already! I can’t take it anymore!'” a soldier recalled. “‘My legs can’t take it anymore, I can’t dance.’ I don’t think I’ve never gone through anything harder in my life.”
To ensure the experience is not too scarring, a psychologist accompanies the soldiers through the program.
“The prisoner training prepares the combatant for an eventuality of failure,” Lt. Col. Yotam Dagan, a former army psychologist, explained. “It’s an entirely different challenge from what he’s been trained for and accustomed to up to that moment.” The soldier, he said, must confront a situation “where the cards are stacked against him, in which he must survive, function, and most of all return home safe.”
Dagan said that while trainees may sometimes feel that the simulation has passed into actually perilous territory, that too is part of the plan.
“Sometimes there are situations that are seen as loss of control [on the part of instructors], so that it is difficult enough, and so that there is a true challenge,” he said.
“At the end of the course, the soldier should feel he’s learned something about how to cope. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll feel he must never fall captive.”
At the end of the program, some of the soldiers begin to cry, so relieved are they that it is finally over.
“Nobody knows what’s going on, and then you hear the zip ties being cut from your hands and you hear that the unit commander has arrived,” one of the soldiers said.
While happy it is over, the soldiers are also left knowing that the next time they find themselves in such a scenario, it will likely be outside Israel’s borders. Having gone through the rigorous training, though, the goal is that they will also be all the more ready for it.