Two days ago, terrorists succeeded in a surprise attack against Israel. They breached the barriers at the Gaza Strip and pored in droves all over southern Israel, and infiltrated many towns and kibbutzim. They opened fire and killed hundreds of Israeli civilians and soldiers, and kidnapped dozens of women, men, and children, bringing them to Gaza as hostages.
For two days, I have been unable to make sense of anything. I have not been able to communicate with anyone, though I expect that some relatives and people who know me expect me to weigh in on these events. In separate periods of time I have lived in two of the towns that were infiltrated. I have seen images of destruction and Israeli bodies lying on the ground in one of these towns.
How am I supposed to weigh in on this? What am I supposed to talk about? Who would even comprehend my frustration when I say, "I wasn't there."
Days Of Daze, Part One: Shock
Sometimes you don't know how you are affected by a traumatic event until some time after the event. Sometimes it's years later, when something - a sound, a smell, a news report - triggers a return to a really stressful episode in your history, and that's when being there and being here, both at the same time - it's not the stuff of comedy...
I think I said that wrong. There is no 'being here.' There is just 'being there' and 'not being there.' Semantics. The results are the same, no matter how you say it. Shell-shock, P.T.S.D. - all it means to the victim is they walk around in a daze, the brain not fully-functioning in the immediate reality.
Men who have fought in wars and who have gone home on leave or have been discharged early know this. They can never find peace or sleep well in the comfort and safety of their home while their other 'family' is still on the battlefields, facing the noise, the terrors, and the horrors of war. Many, if not all the men and women who have fought in wars continue to carry invisible scars the rest of their lives, and they know it.
Yom Kippur 1983
In Israel, everybody has been affected by war. In 1983, I was in a neighborhood synagogue for Yom Kippur services. I was friends with everybody in that synagogue, and even knew most of them by name. And they knew me, too. On Rosh Hashanah they had let me blow the final shofar blast on their long, long Yemenite-style shofar. The average age of the men in that synagogue was mid to late thirties, I would guess.
At the end of the holiday, just before sunset, the men in that synagogue created the most rousing, emotional, and loud closing (nehila) ceremony I have ever seen or been a part of. As they stood, heads tilted back, faces pointed up, and chanted ever so louder and louder and louder, you could almost see their prayers rising like mist up into the air. I have no idea what compelled the next thoughts in my head.
As the end of the Yom Kippur holiday drew nearer, I glanced around the room and suddenly it dawned on me. Exactly ten years before just about every one of these men had had their Yom Kippur prayers cut short by a coordinated surprise attack by neighboring countries on Israel. Shocked by the news, the men got their boots and got into trucks that brought them to their army units for what came to be known as the Yom Kippur War. In 1983, everybody in Israel who was over 15 years old had memories of that day, and the many long days that followed. It was not a common topic for conversation, but when the topic ever did come up, so did the daze in which people recalled those events.
Operation Thunderball: Assault and Rescue in Israel
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Lebanon - The Shock And The Daze
I was in the regular army when the Lebanon War began. I had a job in a psychologist's office on a training base. On the morning of the first day of the war, nearly half the base, including the psychologist, formed a convoy and went up to southern Lebanon. The psychologist and a couple other staff officers had their own vehicle. My orders were to stay on base and take care of things in the office. That lasted maybe ten days for me.
I would sit around in the office from about 7:00 AM to 5:00 pm and then hitch rides home to Ofaqim. Early every morning I would get on a bus from Ofaqim to Ashquelon, getting off at a junction close to my base. Every morning I saw the same few people board the same bus on their way to their jobs. And every morning at 6:00 AM, the bus driver turned up the volume on the radio, everybody went silent as they heard "beep beep beep bee-eep, this is the news."
Every morning the news from Lebanon softened the workers on that bus. Along with news of progress came casualty reports. The workers on the bus were silent as they would hear, "two soldiers killed," "one soldier killed," "three soldiers killed," "five wounded, no fatalities," every morning at 6:00 AM. The workers spoke little and stared ahead, sharing the collective pain of all of Israel at our collective loss. It's a small country and even one death is a sobering blow to the collective heart of the nation.
One morning, I got on the bus, as usual. The workers boarded the bus, as usual. They had their usual morning chatter, then one of the men curled his legs and laid his head down to take a nap. At 6:00 AM we heard, "beep beep beep bee-eep, this is the news. Yesterday twenty-three soldiers lost their lives in three separate battles in Lebanon." The news continued while on the bus there was a three-second pause. Very suddenly, the napping worker jumped up and exclaimed in shock and anguish, "TWENTY-THREE Soldiers?!"
No one made a sound after that. The people on the bus stared straight ahead as they fought tears welling up in their eyes. No one would have blamed anyone had they broken down completely (as I witnessed a shocked sergeant do later that day), but nobody did. We rode the bus in silence. I got off at the junction in silence. I hitched a ride to the base in silence. It was as if everyone was in shock, but carried on regardless. I walked past my office and went to my commanding officer and I told him I needed to join my old unit. He told me to get a rifle, we saluted (sloppily, as such formalities were never observed in these staff offices), and off I went to the only place my soldier's mind would let me go. I went north to a rendezvous point of my old unit, in a half daze.
While writing this story may be seen as a psychological mechanism for personal catharsis or self-discovery, I actually want to convey a message about Israel. Israel is a small country in territory and population. At the time I lived in Israel, everybody saw everybody else as family. When a terrorist attack killed one person, the whole country felt it. When a terrorist attack on a bus killed 13 children and 25 adults, the whole country mourned in shock. If 23 fatalities from wartime battles shock Israelis as they did in my story, how can we possibly comprehend our own reactions when 700 members of our family are suddenly murdered? And I, once a soldier in Israel, was not there.