Memoir of a Soldier
On February 5, 1985, I got up, left my home, went to the Compulsory Service Center on Rashi Street in Jerusalem, said goodbye to my parents, boarded the rickety old bus going to the Military Absorption Station and turned into a soldier.
Exactly seventeen years later, I find myself in a head to head confrontation with the army, while the public at large is jeering and mocking me from the sidelines. Right-wingers see me as a traitor who is dodging the holy war that's just around the corner. The political center shakes a finger at me self-righteously and lectures me about undermining democracy and politicizing the army. And the left? The square, establishment, "moderate" left that only yesterday was courting my vote now turns its back on me as well. Everyone blabbers about what is and what is not legitimate, exposing in the process the depth of their ignorance of political theory and their inability to distinguish a real democracy from a third world regime in the style of Juan Peron.
Almost no one asks the main question: why would a regular guy get up one morning in the middle of life, work, the kids and decide he's not playing the game anymore? And how come he is not alone but there are fifty... I beg your pardon, a hundred... beg your pardon again, now almost two hundred regular, run of the mill guys like him who've done the same thing?
Our parents' generation lets out a sigh: we've embarrassed them yet again. But isn't it all your fault? What did you raise us on? Universal ethics and universal justice, on the one hand: peace, liberty and equality to all. And on the other hand: "the Arabs want to throw us into the sea," "They are all crafty and primitive. You can't trust them." On the one hand, the songs of John Lennon, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bob Marely, Pink Floyd. Songs of peace and love and against militarism and war.
On the other hand, songs about a sweetheart riding the tank after sunset in the field: "The tank is yours and you are ours."[Allusions to popular Israeli songs - AK]. I was raised on two value systems: one was the ethical code and the other the tribal code, and I naively believed that the two could coexist.
This is the way I was when I was drafted. Not enthusiastic, but as if embarking on a sacred mission of courage and sacrifice for the benefit of society. But when, instead of a sacred mission, a 19 year old finds himself performing the sacrilege of violating human beings' dignity and freedom, he doesn't dare ask - even himself - if it's OK or not. He simply acts like everyone else and tries to blend in.
You get used to it in a hurry, and many even learn to like it. Where else can you go out on patrol - that is, walk the streets like a king, harass and humiliate pedestrians to your heart's content, and get into mischief with your buddies - and at the same time feel like a big hero defending your country? The Gaza Exploits became heroic tales, a source of pride for Giv'ati, then a relatively new brigade suffering from low self-esteem.
For a long time, I could not relate to the whole "heroism" thing. But when, as a sergeant, I found myself in charge, something cracked inside me. Without thinking, I turned into the perfect occupation enforcer. I settled accounts with "upstarts" who didn't show enough respect. I tore up the personal documents of men my father's age. I hit, harassed, served as a bad example - all in the city of Kalkilia, barely three miles from grandma and grandpa's home-sweet-home. No. I was no "aberration." I was exactly the norm.
Having completed my compulsory service, I was discharged, and then the first Intifada began (how many more await us?) Ofer, a comrade in arms who remained in the service has become a hero: the hero of the second Giv'ati trial. He commanded a company that dragged a detained Palestinian demonstrator into a dark orange grove and beat him to death. As the verdict stated, Ofer was found to have been the leader in charge of the whole business. He spent two months in jail and was demoted - I think that was the most severe sentence given an Israeli soldier through the entire first Intifada, in which about a thousand Palestinians were killed. Ofer's battalion commander testified that there was an order from the higher echelons to use beatings as a legitimate method of punishment, thereby implicating himself. On the other hand, Efi Itam, the brigade commander, who had been seen beating Arabs on numerous occasions, denied that he ever gave such an order and consequently was never indicted. Today he lectures us on moral conduct on his way to a new life in politics. (In the current Intifada, incidentally, the vast majority of incidents involving Palestinian deaths are not even investigated. No one even bothers.)
And in the meantime, I was becoming more of a civilian. A copy of The Yellow Wind [a book on life in the Occupied Territories by the Israeli writer David Grossman, available in English -AK], which had just come out, crossed my path. I read it, and suddenly it hit me. I finally understood what I had done over there. What I had been over there.
I began to see that they had cheated me: They raised me to believe there was someone up there taking care of things. Someone who knows stuff that is beyond me, the little guy. And that even if sometimes politicians let us down, the "military echelon" is always on guard, day and night, keeping us safe, each and every one of their decisions the result of sacred necessity. Yes, they cheated us, the soldiers of the Intifadas, exactly as they had cheated the generation that was beaten to a pulp in the War of Attrition and in the Yom Kippur War, exactly as they had cheated the generation that sank deep into the Lebanese mud during the Lebanon invasions. And our parents' generation continues to be silent.
Worse still, I understood that I was raised on two contradictory value systems. I think most people discover even at an earlier age they must choose between two value systems: an abstract, demanding one that is no fun at all and that is very difficult to verify, and another which calls to you from every corner - det,ermining who, is up and w,ho is down, who is king and who - pariah, who is one of us and who is our enemy. Contrary to basic common sense, I picked the first. Because in this country the cost-effective analysis comparing one system to another is so lopsided, I can't blame those who choose the second.
I picked the first road, and found myself volunteering in a small, smoke-filled office in East Jerusalem, digging up files about deaths, brutality, bureaucratic viciousness or simply daily harassments. I felt I was atoning, to some extent, for my actions during my days with the Giv'ati brigade. But it also felt as if I was trying to empty the ocean out with a teaspoon.
Out of the blue, I was called up for the very first time for reserve duty in the Occupied Territories. Hysterically, I contacted my company commander. He calmed me down: We will be staying at an outpost overlooking the Jordan River. No contacts with the local population are expected. And that indeed was what I did, but some of my friends provided security for the Damia Bridge terminal [where Palestinians cross from Jordan to Israel and vice versa - AK]. This was in the days preceding the Gulf War and a large number of Palestinian refugees were flowing from Kuwait to the Occupied Territories (from the frying pan into the fire). The reserve soldiers - mostly right wingers - cringed when they saw the female conscripts stationed in the terminal happily ripping open down-comforters and babies' coats to make sure they didn't contain explosives. I too cringed when I heard their stories, but I was also hopeful: reserve soldiers are human after all, whatever their political views.
Such hopes were dashed three years later, when I spent three weeks with a celebrated reconnaissance company in the confiscated ruins of a villa at the outskirts of the Abasans. This is where it became clear to me that the same humane reserve soldier could also be an ugly, wretched macho undergoing a total regression back to his days as a young conscript. Already on the bus ride to the Gaza strip, the soldiers were competing with each other: whose "heroic" tales of murderous beatings during the Intifada were better (in case you missed this point: the beatings were literally murderous: beating to death). Going on patrol duty with these guys once was all that I could take. I went up to the placement officer and requested to be given guard duty only. Placement officers like people like me: most soldiers can't tolerate staying inside the base longer than a couple of hours.
Thus began the nausea and shame routine, a routine that lasted three tours of reserve duty in the Occupied Territories: 1993, 1995, and 1997. The "pale-gray" refusal routine. For several weeks at a time I would turn into a hidden "prisoner of conscience," guarding an outpost or a godforsaken transmitter on top of some mountain, a recluse. I was ashamed to tell most of my friends why I chose to serve this way. I didn't have the energy to hear them get on my case for being such a "wishy-washy" softy. I was also ashamed of myself: This was the easy way out. In short, I was ashamed all over. I did "save my own soul." I was not directly engaged in wrongdoing - only made it possible for others to do so while I kept guard. Why didn't I refuse outright? I don't know. It was partly the pressure, to conform, ,partly the po,litical process that gave us a glimmer of hope that the whole occupation business would be over soon. More than anything, it was my curiosity to see actually what was going on over there.
And precisely because I knew so well, first hand, from years of experience what was going on over there, what reality was like over there, I had no trouble seeing, through the fog of war and the curtain of lies, what has been taking place over there since the very first days of the second Intifada. For years, the army had been feeding on lines like "We were too nice in the first Intifada," and "If we had only killed a hundred in the very first days, everything would have been different." Now the army was given license to do things its way. I knew full well that [former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak was giving the army free hand, and that [current Chief of Staff] Shaul Mofaz was taking full advantage of this to maximize the bloodshed.
By then, I had two little kids, boys, and I knew from experience that no one - not a single person in the entire world - will ever make sure that my sons won't have to serve in the Occupied Territories when they reach 18. No one, that is, except me. And no one but me will have to look them in the eye when they're all grown up and tell them where dad was when all that happened. It was clear to me: this time I was not going.
Initially, this was a quiet decision, still a little shy, something like "I am just a bit weird, can't go and can't talk about it too much either." But as time went by, as the level of insanity, hatred, and incitement kept rising, as the generals were turning the Israeli Defense Forces into a terror organization, the decision was turning into an outcry: "If you can't see that this is one big crime leading us to the brink of annihilation, then something is terribly wrong with you!"
And then I discovered that I was not alone. Like discovering life on another planet.
The truth is that I understand why everyone is mad at us. We spoiled the neat little order of things. The holy Status Quo states that the Right holds the exclusive rights to celebrate the blood and ask for more. The role of the Left, on the other hand, is to wail while sitting in their armchairs sipping wine and waiting for the Messiah to come and with a single wave of his magic wand make the Right disappear along with the settlers, the Arabs, the weather, and the entire Middle East. That's how the world is supposed to work. So why are you causing such a disturbance?
Woe to you, dear establishment left! You haven't been paying attention! That Messiah has been here already. He waved his magic wand, saw things aren't that simple, was abandoned in the midst of battle, lost altitude, and finally was assassinated, with the rest of us (yes, me too) watching from the comfort of our armchairs. Forget it. A messiah doesn't come around twice! There is no such thing as a free lunch.
Don't you really see what we are doing; why it is that we stepped out of line?, Don't you get the difference between a low-key, person,al refusal and an organized, public one? (And make no mistake about it; the private refusal is the easier choice.) You really don't get it? So let me spell it out for you.
First we declare our commitment to the first value system. The one that is elusive, abstract, and not profitable. We believe that there is no room for the tribal code. The tribal code simply camouflages idolatry, an idolatry of a type we should not cooperate with. Those who let such a form of idol worship take over will end up as burnt offerings themselves.
Second we (as well as some other groups who are even more despised and harassed) are putting our bodies on the line, in the attempt to prevent the next war. The most unnecessary, most idiotic, cruel and immoral war in the history of Israel.
We are the Chinese young man standing in front of the tank. And you? If you are nowhere to be seen, you are probably inside the tank, advising the driver.
Asaf Oron is a reserve officer in the Israeli Army