It has been four days since Hamas terrorists succeeded in breaching barriers, infiltrating towns and communities in southern Israel, and wreaking such havoc as Israel has not seen before. Two days ago I was able to begin expressing my reaction to the tragedy and catastrophe. Two days ago I wondered out loud how I was to weigh in on 700 members of my 'family' suddenly being murdered.
In the last two days more information has made its way to the news media, and the number of murders has risen to over 1,200. The numbers by themselves are meaningless. But if you attach each number to the face of a child or mother or man who once smiled and sang and made people laugh, and you cover that face with a sheet or jacket like in the images on the internet, and you try to repeat that image with a thousand different faces, it quickly becomes too much.
Confusion and Sorrow
The first Lebanon War was about 10 days old when I went up to Lebanon to join my combat unit that I had trained with. From the beginning of the war, I had been told to stay in the office where I worked in southern Israel. Feeling useless, and wanting to be up there with my friends, I got permission from my commanding officer to go.
I made it to the rendezvous point in Rosh Hanikra in the early afternoon. As with most things in the Israeli army, the rendezvous point was a disordered scene of confusion. There were units of soldiers that were called up. And there were a few rogue soldiers, like me, who decided to show up.
I was assigned to a tank crew in a reserve unit. These were men who had finished the regular army and had been called to duty for this operation. In Israel today, hundreds of thousands of reserve soldiers have been called up to counter the terrorist attack that occurred October 7. Many are married and have children. All have had to put their lives on hold. Whether it be jobs that they go to everyday, or studies in university, some 4% of the total population of Israel is now mobilized to respond to the terror attacks of October 7.
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A Camp In Lebanon
A tank crew consists of four men; the tank commander, the gunner, the loader, and the driver. I was a driver. Before we crossed the border into Lebanon in trucks and jeeps, I met the gunner and loader of the crew I was assigned to. We stuck together for practical reasons, but I did not really get to know them well. They rightfully spent their free time with other friends from their reserve unit.
The gunner, the loader, and I were packed into a jeep to take us to the camp. At one point the jeep stopped on the side of a dirt road, as the driver had to speak to someone. While we were stopped I saw soldiers walking by. I recognized one as a friend from my original unit. I called him over. His name was Jon, and we spoke English as he was originally from Canada. Jon was never highly energetic or enthusiastic about anything, but what I saw this time - it was like he was only half there, robotically walking to his camp. I wanted to go with him and see the other guys, but I had to stick with the reserve unit.
Jon confirmed that our regiment was among the first that crossed into Lebanon on the first day of the war. We didn't talk about firefights or anything like that. But Jon told me how several of the guys were wounded. It's wierd being happy that no one was killed while also feeling awful that your friends were wounded. Among those who were evacuated for medical treatment were my old tank commander, loader, and the gunner apparently had a stomach wound.
Chaos And Sadness
The driver of the jeep came back, I put a hand on Jon's shoulder. We sort of nodded, then he walked on, while the jeep brought me and my new crew mates to our camp. What sticks out in my memory the most about that camp was not the sight of near chaos, with tents pitched wherever, and men seemed to wander wherever they needed to go. Indeed the sight truly reminded me of scenes from the movie, "Apocalypse Now." But that is not the most memorable thing for me. What sticks out in my memory is the mood.
You could feel the low morale as soon as you stepped into the camp. Of course, the men were tired. They were weary. They were probably disgusted with the rations. That's another thing that sticks out. I got the feeling the canned meat (of some kind) might kill more men than the enemy. That's probably an exaggeration, but it didn't seem like it at the time. Anyhow, it was clear that the war had changed some perspectives, like there was not only no hope, there was nothing left to hope for.
These guys had recently experienced combat. I had not. I could only observe and reflect on how such a trauma as war can disorient people. It's a mess. Chaos mixed with a kind of sadness - I don't really know how else to describe it. "Disorientation mixed with sadness."
Then it dawned on me: Jon had told me that my old tank commander, and gunner, and loader had been wounded. That means, had I stayed with my unit instead of taking the job with the psychologist, and had gone up to Lebanon with them, I would have been in a tank that got hit.
I have never given thought to how I would react had that happened. The only thing that has ever gone through my mind is that I wasn't there when my friends were in trouble.
I envy and I do not envy the men and women gearing up for war in Gaza right now. I do not envy them the stress, and the fear, and the sick feelings they will get when they are in a war zone. But I envy them because they are doing something that is right as it is necessary to do. I envy them because they will not have to say, "I wasn't there."