I recently bumped into a mild-mannered, bookish paratrooper I know. He had come home to Jerusalem for a short weekend after spending two weeks in Gaza. I didn’t know what to expect when I asked him what he thought of the war.
I thought I might hear him echo my own thoughts, and say that he was shocked and upset by the havoc wreaked by Israel. Instead, he responded roughly as follows: We had to show Hamas that we’re not suckers, we had to show them that we won’t hesitate to beat the hell out of them if they provoke us. We’re not, by military means, going to end Hamas rule in Gaza or stop them from smuggling in rockets — but we had to invade, and we had to be tough.
And I was happy to hear that.
Many of my fellow critics of the war would have reacted differently. They lament that Israeli soldiers have lost their moral compass and are shocked that we have soldiers who were willing participants in the carnage that we just saw in Gaza.
I take another view. Soldiers like this one are the kind that Israel needs — willing, even eager, to use their strength against our enemies, but realistic about what they and their army can achieve.
Soldiers in the field do not make policy. They do not decide when to go to war, what the war’s aims should be, what tactics should be used, or when and under what circumstances hostilities should cease. Rather, they are charged with fighting the war that their political leaders decide to pursue, according to the strategy that the army’s command devises. Of course, soldiers are bound by law and honor to refuse to obey orders that are manifestly immoral and illegal, orders that, as Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in a landmark case in the 1950s, have a “black flag flying over them.” Within those constraints, however, soldiers must give the best fight that they can.
A soldier is trained to use his personal strength and the weapons at his disposal to battle the enemy. Whatever his political views and his moral values, these are the means he has to protect himself and his comrades, and to accomplish his mission. So we should not be surprised at his readiness to use bullets, mortars and shells to cause death and destruction of a kind that may appall observers on the sidelines. Diplomacy is not part of the soldier’s kit, and hesitation, for a fighter, is a peril rather than a virtue.
Consequently, when an Israeli soldier sees Gaza’s rulers launching rockets against his country’s cities, his immediate reaction is to want to hit back. And when a comrade of his languishes in enemy captivity, every good soldier will want to fight to free him.
But the training a good soldier receives also makes him aware of the limits of force, and of his own vulnerability. When he charges up a hill at an enemy position in training maneuvers, he can’t help thinking about what would happen if the enemy were real, and what might happen if the enemy snuck up from behind, and what might happen to him if his commander, or his platoon medic, or his friend next to him, is felled. He can be thoroughly trained and fight as hard as he can, but he knows that the outcome is always in doubt, and that many may die without achieving the mission. He does not want to die, or see his friends die, especially if in dying they accomplish little or nothing.
The paratrooper I spoke to saw the war from the only perspective he could properly see it — that of a fighter who wanted to fight back when he saw his fellow Israelis being rocketed, and who entered enemy territory and spent a fortnight in a small sector where he could see only the threats in his immediate vicinity. We should be thankful that he was eager to fight, and thankful that in his eagerness he did not lose sight of the limitations of violence.
“The pride of young men is their strength and the glory of old men is their gray hair,” King Solomon said. I think the Gaza war went on far longer than needed, killing more people and causing more destruction than its goals and achievements warranted. Some weapons — like phosphorus shells — seem to have been used in forbidden ways. But my anger and frustration is directed at the men and women with the gray hairs — that is, those with the experience, wisdom and ability to see the big picture. There’s no contradiction between that and being grateful and proud of the soldiers who fought at the front.
Haim Watzman is the author of “A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007) and “Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel”( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). He blogs at southjerusalem.com.