Remembering the Ways of War
Issue #49, April 2000
War is My Oyster
When I was a child, I never collected toys or baseball cards. I shied away from team sports, hated disco and never worried about how I looked. War was the only thing I ever thought about. It all started with my parents' book collection. The only things they had in their library were English and Hebrew language coffee table texts commemorating Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Like many Israelis of their generation, this was an event that meant a great deal to them. It was the first popularly recognized Jewish military victory since Biblical times. Especially for a country which had very few modern weapons at its disposal, and saw in every new Jeep that it acquired another element of reassurance that it wouldn't be destroyed. This was something that most of the propaganda books that my parents owned spent an inordinate amount of time focusing on.
For example, on one page there'd be a picture of a Mirage IIIC flying over the Sinai. A typical caption would revel in all the details of the plane's remarkable offensive characteristics, describing it's payload, what kind of cannon it used, how powerful its turbofans were. On another would be a picture of a Willy's Jeep with a recoilless rifle mounted on it. Underneath, a typical caption would describe the importance of such cheap forms of mobile artillery, especially for a country short on mortars and self-propelled artillery. Not only would such books give you a history of Israeli military prowess. One would also receive an education in modern armaments. Along the way, the two would in essence combine. Our weaponry, and how we used it, was the basis for our new national identity.
Even though this kind of literature was ubiquitous in Israel's fledgling media culture at the time, it wasn't just empty propaganda. It was also emblematic of the country's anxieties about its survival, and how it invested it in weapons of war. It was natural. Everyone engaged in the same forms of projection, because everyone served in the army. Thus, whenever the IDF took delivery of a new weapons system, it wasn't just an important event for the armed forces -- it was also a moment of empowerment experienced by the entire country. As soon as a new weapons deal was being negotiated with the United States, everyone knew about it. The moment there was anything to report, newspaper headlines would announce the results. You'd overhear children talking about it in the hallways of your elementary school, or coming out of the mouths of grownups sitting at sidewalk cafes. Or your parents would talk about it over the dinner table, even if such events had no direct consequence on their lives. Everyone expressed an investment in it. And it made sense. Our country was at war.
The problem with such a culture, however, is the degree to which such preoccupations with instruments of violence makes one come to accept them as commonplace and necessary, even when they're not. Somehow their importance as a tool of survival becomes too familiar, and we forget why our respective personal valuations of weaponry must be regarded as temporary rather then a permanent part of who we are. This is particularly true for those persons whom are born into cultures of conflict, who cannot remember a time when there was no violence, for whom it is doubly important that they not have their imaginations circumscribed by its seeming inevitability. I'm one of those people. I could have used more of that kind of education. But I didn't, and as a result, no matter how hard I try, I'll never totally forget the ways of making war. Even in the abstract. But in order to even get that far, you have to remember them in order to provide yourself with a way of thinking your own way out, even if that means never losing a sense of how natural it would be to imagine a world in which things were otherwise.
No Future for Me
When I was ten, my family moved from Israel to England. I immediately lapsed into a state of culture shock. The English, I used to think, are wussies. They're so sallow and easily lead around by the nose, they must have never had it very hard. And they're all obsessed with soccer and rock-and-roll. What gives? I can't relate to any of this. My response was to recreate what I knew of Israel in my own head. And where I first found it was in bookstores. Whenever I went into one, I unconsciously headed straight for the military history section, as though that were a metaphorical recreation of my homeland. If there were none, I'd high-tail it to the magazine rack and start looking for any of the military-oriented periodicals that were available in England at the time. Armies and Weapons, Interavia, and Aviation Week and Space Technology were particular favorites of mine. If for some reason the most recent annual Jane's weapons guides were on the shelf, I'd be overjoyed. Oversized coffee table books about the Second World War were always a feast for my eyes, particularly those that focused on vintage tanks and fighter aircraft employed by the Allies and their foes, the Axis powers. By the time I was twelve, I was an acknowledged expert in my field, twentieth century military history included. Perhaps the first piece of philosophy I ever read was Von Clausewitz' tactical primer, On War.
An enormous impetus behind this interest was the kind of parental affirmation that it received. Whenever we went back home to Israel, my father would trot me out at parties and have his officer friends quiz me on the latest developments in weapons technology, assessing the various strengths of opposing Arab armies. I'd even get asked to give my opinion on the relative merits of multi-caliber infantry weapons such as the Israeli Galil, which fired both 5.56mm Russian standard cartridges as well as NATO-compatible 7.62mm munitions. "It's the ideal infantry assault rifle," I remember once telling a former general. "If you're fighting a NATO army, you can pilfer M-16 and FN cartridges from their dead and use them if you're running low on ammo. Same goes for if you're fighting an Arab army using Kalashnikovs. Just strip the corpses and voila, no need to worry about supply lines. All sizes fit." My father's friends would be amazed. I was a very troubled child.
However, at a certain point, my adolescent preoccupation with all things military started to take on more serious overtones, some of them positive, but in retrospect all of them negative. I first became cognizant of this when I was thirteen, when my father's airforce friend Benji decided that it was time I start learning how to use these weapons I seemed to know so much about. In the space of a Saturday afternoon party at his palatial orange grove home in Rishon Le Zion, Benji trotted out an AK-47, an Uzi and an M-16, all of which he stored in his basement. "Yoel," he said, "I want you to strip these weapons bare, clean them, and put them all back together again. Yallah Habibi ("Get going kid,") you've got two hours to figure it out."
The only thing I can remember about that moment is the terror I felt inside. I wondered if I was about to be found out to be a fraud. Here I was, for the first time staring down the empty barrels of my fixation. I did not have the slightest idea what to do. Everything else from there on in remains a metaphorical blank, except my father and Benji congratulating me for thinking so well on my feet. Without the benefit of written instructions or legible English-language manuals, I still got it done. "He'll make a fine officer," Benji remarked with a huge smile on his face, congratulating my father with a very warm slap on the back. "Elie, the future of Zahal (the Israeli Army) lies in the hands of our children. Your son is as much a testimony to this as any commando I've ever seen." My father turned red with pride, his eyes lighting up like cedar tree decorations in Bethlehem at Christmas. "Nu Benji," Elie replied, "We'll have to reserve a spot for him in officer's training school as soon as Yoel is eligible."
As for me, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. "I guess I'm not such a poseur after all," I thought. "Maybe I'll get an extra piece of baklava for this." That was really all I cared about. Given all my father and his friends appeared to have invested in my activities, my creeping sense of doubt about my own personal motivations for being such a chacham or know it all when it came to matters of killing started to trouble me. If the only reward I was seeking was an extra piece of baklava, there was obviously something wrong with my soul. I carried this feeling of guilt around for quite a while because I knew I had no overriding moral objection to what I was doing. I began to get the sense that I was losing interest, and I was lying to everyone about it because I didn't want to lose their approval.
Rabin and the Phantom
Nonetheless, as I became more internally disconnected from my hobby, my father and his friends became more obsessed with it. Wherever we went, my legend among middle-aged military officers and politicians seemed to follow. During a lunch meeting at a Moroccan restaurant in Jerusalem not long after he had first left office, Yitzhak Rabin gave me a model F-4 Phantom jet for my birthday. All I can remember is sitting there in shock, looking at my couscous, going "Rabin gave me a Phantom Jet, Rabin gave me a Phantom...." A year or so later, Jerusalem's former mayor Teddy Kollek gave me the exact same gift at the exact same restaurant. As flattered as I was at the attention being bestowed upon me by my father's friends, I started to feel as though I really had something to live up to.
Sensing there was something potentially explosive about my creeping sense of self-doubt -- I kept on having visions of grenades exploding in an empty Jerusalem square - I bottled it. What would happen if my father found out? What would occur if all of the sudden the basis for all of his friends' appreciation of me turned out to have been undermined? I'd not only let my father down in public. I'd also undermine the basis of what had become a terribly close relationship between father and son that was built upon war. However, time as well as adolescence took eventually began to take its toll. One terribly humid day in the summer of 1979, broke, wandering around the streets of Lugano, Switzerland, looking for something to do, we stumbled upon a movie theatre showing the latest American hit film, The Deerhunter. Elie proceeded to spend our last bit of cash on two tickets. By the end of the film, he was in tears. I sat there in a complete state of shock.
As we walked out, my father reflected on the scene where Robert De Niro, egged on by his Viet Cong captors, is forced to engage in a game of Russian Roulette. Christopher Walken dies. For the first time my father talked about having been a prisoner of war, first incarcerated by the British along with Rabin in the late 1930s, and the time he did in a Syrian military stockade in Damascus from which he escaped after six months of near-starvation. I had never heard my father speak so somberly of what it meant to actually be at war. It came as a total revelation, one that for the first time gave me the resolve to feel more accepting of my discomfort at being a trained pseudo-Israeli parakeet that reeled off weapons statistics. I finally had the parental sanction to do so, even though as a child I did not necessarily have the room to be as inconsistent as my father was. Not knowing what to do with ourselves now that we had spent our last bit of dispensable cash, we wandered out to the waterfront. Little did I know how much further my father would go in disabusing me of my fetish.
Lugano, Home of the Body Bag
Staring out at the lights on the other side of Lake Como, Elie roundly condemned my fascination with all things military. "Can't you find other things to think about Yoel?" he asked. "Can't you devote yourself to other interests, like sports or girls, the way other young children your age do?" I didn't know what to say. I thought I had spent the last few years finding ways to please him, not only because I thought I was following in his footsteps as a legendary warrior, but also because that's what Israel, in the form of my father's friends, required of me. Somehow, if I were able to be as learned about the ways and means of warfare, despite my increasing misgivings, I would be both a model son and a model citizen. We stood there in silence, while the sounds of Kiss' "I Was Made For Loving You," blasted out of the speakers of an open air-discoteque in the distance. I could see beads of sweat rolling down my father's balding, wrinkled forehead. "You look old," I thought. "So old I almost don't know you. There's something missing in your eyes. They seem blank, almost vacant, and yet you can sense that the only thing behind them are tears." I began to tremble slightly.
All of the sudden this man, my father, was a stranger to me. I spent the next twenty years of my life unable to decipher what that empty stare of his meant. That is, until one day last year, a video cassette arrived in the mail. It was an interview with my father, done for Israeli television. My roommate Annalee and I immediately put it on and began watching it. "Your father has the longest thousand yard stare I've ever seen," Annalee remarked. Overwhelmed by this observation, I chided myself for never having noticed it before. That's what it was! Twenty years of puzzlement seem to collapse in a matter of seconds. I excused myself, and stepped out onto our back porch to have a cigarette to calm down. As I looked down on our filthy back yard full of wet laundry blowing in the lukewarm spring wind, I remembered why my father's empty stare troubled me so twenty years before. He'd seen enough death to last a thousand lifetimes. Even though I knew that intellectually, I'd never fully acknowledged how his body had been changed by it. I started to cry.
Later on that afternoon, unable to concentrate, I quit my schoolwork, and drove my truck down to the beach. It was still early enough that barely a soul was present, except for the stray person walking their dog. The only thing I could hear was the sound of traffic moving up and down the highway. All I could see were clouds hovering over the ocean. I imagined myself a ship heading west, so far west that I was crossing the Indian Ocean, looking at the faint outline of the coast of Yemen, contemplating entering the Red Sea, destined for a fictitious port somewhere in the Suez canal. Suddenly my daydreaming was interrupted by the sound of sonic booms. I looked up and saw the fuselages of a team of dark blue, dual finned fighter planes. I identified them immediately. They were US Navy F-18s from the Blue Angels acrobatic team, on their annual visit to San Francisco.
Man in a Uniform
A weird sense of reassurance overcame me. It was okay to know what kind of aircraft they were. I turned around and watched the fighters until I couldn't see them anymore. I recalled how surprised I always was at their yearly arrival, always signified by unexpected, low altitude sonic booms over my neighborhood that reminded me of when I lived in Israel. The first time I noticed them, I got incredibly nervous and almost dove into the bushes. But I didn't. I regained my composure, and I asked a person on the street what was going on. Excitedly, they told me. "It's the Navy acrobatic team, man," they proclaimed. "They're so rad." All I can remember is feeling slightly nauseous. But not so much so that I couldn't relate to the feeling of reassurance that such machines of war could actually inspire in someone. After all, I had been one of those exact same persons.
I recalled how excited my father was when we first moved to a house in the Tel Aviv suburb of Savyon. Awoken by a series of extremely loud sonic booms our first morning there, I rushed into his room yelling "Abba, Abba, what's going on? Are we at war again?" "No child," he replied. "We live next to an airport now. Those are our new American fighter planes, the best ones in the world." "What model are they," I asked, excitedly. "The F-15 Eagle, Yoel. It's a dual-finned fighter bomber that can fly all the way to Cairo and back with a full complement of air-to-surface weapons if necessary."
A year and a half later, my then-girlfriend and I were standing in the Miami office of my older brother Michael, an ex-paratrooper, stopping over briefly for the two of them to meet each other, en route to spend New Year's with my parents in Israel. As we waited for him to get off the phone, I looked over at Michael's book shelf and saw several coffee-table volumes about the history the Israel Defense Forces, along with a couple of editions of Jane's annual weapons guides. Bored and anxious to get on with our trip, I pulled them out and began showing them to Cori. "There was a point in my life when I could tell you anything you wanted to know about modern weaponry," I said. "The even scarier thing is that I can still remember it all. For example, those are remodeled Shermans from the Second World War sporting new turrets and 75 mm guns." Cori looked amused.
Half listening to our conversation, Michael cupped his hand over the telephone. Looking at the two of us, he smiled and said, "When we were children that was required knowledge. The only problem is that it never leaves you."
As we boarded the plane to Tel Aviv, I thought hard about the truth of Michael's words. "No, I'm not that way I reasoned," even though I knew that as soon as we got to Israel, I'd end up unconsciously taking inventory of the kinds of weapons I'd see soldiers carrying on the street. But that still made me feel uneasy. "Why can't I lose knowledge of it all," I protested as our plane left the ground. Then, as if out of nowhere, I recalled my last trip to Miami. Michael had insisted we go shooting. "No man, I don't want to do that," I remember telling him. "Can't we go to an aquarium or do something a little more benign?" Michael refused to answer.
The next thing I remember happening was driving straight to the shooting range, two rifles and several hundred rounds of ammo in tow. When we arrived, twenty or so Cubans in camouflage uniforms and baseball hats wearing what looked like large DJ headphones were busy firing away. I felt deafened by the roar. Then, I started cataloguing the kinds of assault rifles that were being fired -- old American M1s, German Heckler and Koch G3s, Israeli Uzis and Galils, AR-15s, M-16s, AK-47s of a variety of different national brands, even Mac 10s. It was overwhelming. Then, of course, it was my turn to join them. Michael handed me a fully loaded Chinese model Kalashnikov. "All you have to do is look straight through the site Joel. The target should be right there, down the middle. Just squeeze the trigger and FIRE."
Horrified by the task that had been set out before me, I picked up the rifle, and slid the butt into my armpit. For some reason, it felt natural. "Good Joel, good, you know exactly what you're doing," my brother said, trying to be encouraging. Truth was, however, that my heart was pounding. My ears felt hot. Sweat was pouring down my forehead. Finally, I said fuck it, and I took aim and fired. Once I was done, the both of us looked out at the target. Not a single bullet of mine had hit it. Taking stock of the results, Michael turned to me grinning and said rather affectionately, "Joel, let's face it, you'll never make a good sniper."
Joel Schalit is proud to declare that the only weapon he still owns is a plastic machine gun that plays the sounds of farm animals when you pull the trigger. Otherwise, he co-edits Chicago's Punk Planet Magazine, writes a dissertation, freelances as a journalist and manipulates sound in San Francisco's Elders of Zion, who are finishing up their first album.