How a cartoon helped heal a Lebanon veteran
When Israel invaded its northern neighbour in 1982, I was a raw IDF recruit. Memories of conflict have haunted him ever since, but a new animated film has helped me come to terms with my past
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A scene from Waltz with Bashir, which tells the story of the 1982 Lebanon war;
Lebanon 1982 was "my" war. Mine in the sense that a slave says "my master", or a hostage says "my kidnapper". Mine in that it has, more than anything else - my wife, my children, my move to the UK from my native United States - defined the last 24 years of my life. Mine.
Truth is, I should not have been there. I was not brought up to be a combat infantryman in Israel. I was barely aware of my Judaism as a child - I was raised as a Unitarian because my parents had, for very valid reasons, assimilated. I was too late to be a hippie but had pretended, and done more than my share of anti-Vietnam war protesting. My mom was a peace activist.
In my junior year abroad - the US equivalent of the gap year- I travelled widely in Europe and was intrigued by the stories I'd heard about volunteering on a kibbutz. There I found a tribe - a group of young kibbutzniks and olim who formed a unique mishpacha. I wanted - needed - to be part of it. But despite the fact that none of the group was driven by a desire to fight or kill, I recognised that to truly be a member, I had to experience the army; it was the badge of commitment that differentiated the transient who could otherwise never truly be a real family member.
So in January 1982, I started basic training with a Nachal combat infantry unit. Six months later I was deep inside in Lebanon, almost in sight of Damascus.
Objectively, I had a "good" war. I didn't get wounded. Of the men I knew who were badly wounded or killed, none was a close friend. Everyone I shot at was shooting at me, and tens of our soldiers were also shooting at them - I don't feel guilty about their deaths. I know for sure only that I killed two dogs - one by accident. And I witnessed no atrocities and committed none.
Despite this, among the endless hours of boredom, exhaustion, and infinite anxiety, there were moments to fill my nightmares for years. Some are from experiences that understandably cause trauma - the nauseating smell of burnt, decaying corpses; the bullet that struck woodwork inches from my head; the moment I almost killed an innocent child. Edited by the cinematographer that is memory, these are the scenes from war movies - sound and fury, fear and madness.
But other memories that have haunted my nights are of far more mundane experiences - waiting, talking, listening, all the while howling to be left alone. They are the moments that proved to me that I was physically, mentally, and emotionally incapable of being the man - the mensch - I thought I should be.
Before the army, I was a winner. Using my intelligence and tongue, I had become a success. I had strength, courage, compassion and conviction. But the army - the war - stripped away the patina of self-esteem. I was a loser; weak, self-centered, rendered useless through anxiety and depression. Not a coward - I was never afraid of combat - but not a man. Not a kibbutznik. Not my father.
On January 19 1984, I finished my service and was released from the IDF. Ten days later my father died. I left Israel. I've never been back.
Recently my wife asked me to dredge up a memory. "Where were you," she asked, "during the Sabra and Shatila massacre?" Answering proved very difficult - I had to dig deep to find even a vague recollection. Not, I might say, because I had suppressed memories about it. Only because for me - for most of us - the night of the massacre of Palestinian refugees was just another night in Lebanon.
I asked my wife what inspired her to ask the question. She told me about Waltz with Bashir, a new animated film in which Israeli director Ari Folman - who fought in "my" war - records his own journey from a state of complete mental blockage - he couldn't remember anything about his war experience - to the horror of recalling whether or not he was present at the Sabra and Shatila camps.
My wife encouraged me to see the film. Dragged me, more like. I didn't want to go - hell, I was mortified. It felt sacrilegious, a desecration. Some idiot had made a film - a cartoon - of "my" war? But if I wasn't afraid of discovering a blocked memory of blood on my hands, why was I so angry, so anxious, so terrified? Just as the lights in the cinema dimmed, I admitted to myself that I was afraid of having the faded, sepia-toned fragments of my memories brought back into mind in glaring, fluorescent cartoon colour.
And there were scenes that caused me visceral pain, with memories intermingling with the images on the screen. I was made to remember the wild firing and confusion, the tanks crushing parked cars in the narrow streets of Beirut, the crowds of onlookers watching fire fights as if they were some form of entertainment.
Most of all I remembered the orchard patrols, and the "RPG kids". In the film, a child does fire an RPG - a rocket-propelled grenade - and is killed by the soldiers. In my war, the black, fist-sized object the child threw at our armoured vehicle was a plum rather than a hand grenade, and although I pulled the trigger on my machine gun aimed at his chest, I stopped a few ounces short of the pressure required to release the hammer and fire. Watching that scene did cause me to gasp in pain. The memory came back in vivid Technicolour. I was right to have been afraid.
Since I saw Waltz with Bashir, I've been thinking hard about my wife's question. But "where was I that night?" has lead to "How can I escape my shame?"
I think I can now answer the first question. I think the night of Sabra and Shatila, my unit and I were in a farmhouse south of Beirut being punished for hours on end because some idiot had fallen asleep on sentry duty. I first heard about the "battle" a couple of days later. I met a friend who told me about it - he had been in Beirut that night, though not near the camps. He was happy. As far as he - and thus we - knew, a large number of PLO fighters had been killed by the Christian militias. It was a military success. "Great," we thought, "more of this and we'll get out of this insanity."
It was weeks before I heard and then accepted even part of the real story. And it wasn't until we were well out of Lebanon - both in time and distance - that we added it to our looter's swag-bag of shame.
Shame. Suddenly I have a word for my feelings about the war; a word that names the beast. I left Lebanon - Israel - drowned in my own shame.
My wife is an English woman I met while I was in the army and with whom I have lived for 24 years. She has a lot of family in Israel. I've met them - over here. But no matter what the occasion - births, deaths, barmitzvahs, weddings - I've never been back. At first I found excuses - work commitments, concerns over my residency status, even fears I might have to serve reserve duty. But in the last decade or so, my wife has given up asking me. She knows that, for whatever reason, I just won't - can't - go back. Now I know why. I have a name for it. Now I can fight it. It's time to go back to Israel.
Despite the differences between my experience of the massacres and that of Folman, it was my war on the screen in Waltz with Bashir. But it was also his, and that of the people he portrayed. Not my war, but our war. And suddenly, almost miraculously, I am not alone.
I've never met Ari Folman. But if I ever do, I know I will see something in his eyes that is in mine too. And I know that the only thing I could say to him is "thank you".
Waltz with Bashir was screened at the UK Jewish Film Festival. It goes on release next Friday