War is a Combination of Boredom and Hell
"Beaufort, A Novel", by Ron Leshem, translated by Evan Fallenberg
-- Rabbi Jack Riemer
This is one of the most painful books that I have ever read, but if you have a strong stomach. I heartily recommend it. It has much to teach us, not only about the state of the Israeli army, but about the nature of war, as soldiers experience it anywhere.
This book makes “The Naked and the Dead” and “All’s Quiet on the Western Front” seem tame by comparison. It is surely the grimmest account of what war is like that I have ever read, and although it claims to be a novel, I am sure that most of what it describes actually happened.
It teaches us that war is made up of four parts of corrupting boredom and one part brutal killing and being killed. And it teaches us that the scars that it leaves on the souls of those who participate in it are as painful and as lasting as the wounds on their bodies.
During the First Lebanon War, as it is now called, this unit captures and occupies Beaufort Castle in Lebanon. They hold on to it for years, and then, finally, are ordered to give it up and withdraw back into Israel. During the years that this unit occupies Beaufort, they live lives of quiet desperation, lives that are made up of days of endless boredom, mixed with days of sudden death. And as we turn the pages of this book, we are sickened by both-- by the sheer corrupting waste of time that these young soldiers could have spent more productively and then by the ugly horror of their deaths.
During their many months of guard duty, the youngsters in this unit---and that is all that they really are—kids of eighteen, nineteen and twenty---these soldiers face death many times. What keeps them going, what enables them to stick it out, is not so much a commitment to their country, though there is much of that, as a commitment to each other. Soldiers who live together in such crowded and dangerous conditions develop strong bonds with each other, and so there is nothing that they will not risk in order to protect or rescue each other. And every time one of them dies, it is a terrible trauma for all the members of the unit.
In one scene, one of the soldiers is shot by a sniper, and his head is blown off. Without hesitation, all of the soldiers, including even their commander, break the orders that they have been given to stay put, and rush out to comb the fields to search for the missing head.
The soldiers who survive this ordeal will never be the same again. For the rest of their lives, they will carry with them, inside them, the scars of their stay in Beaufort. In the times of their greatest joy, they will suddenly be struck by the awareness of those of their buddies who did not make it, and by the memories of what they went through.
You begin to grasp the complexity of Israel’s mixed attitude toward war. On the one hand, if the government plans to eventually withdraw from Beaufort and from the Security Zone in Lebanon, anxious parents want to know why not do it immediately?. Why keep their sons up there, in daily danger, if the plan is to eventually to bring them back?
But on the other hand, how can you talk about this, how can you question this, without affecting the morale of the soldiers and making them feel that their sacrifice is in vain?
In a country that is a democracy, and in a country where the home front is not very many miles from the fighting, and in a country in which everyone carries a cell phone and watches the news, how much can you criticize the government’s policy without spoiling the spirit of the soldiers?
What impresses me most about this book and the movie that has been made from it is its reception in Israel. It is no surprise that the movie has won all kinds of prizes in the liberal West. The West enjoys movies that question the morality of Israel or the decency of its army. But more impressive, at least to me, is that this book won the Sapir Prize---Israel’s top literary award---even though it questions the army, which is Israel’s unifying force and its central cultural icon. I think that there are very few countries in the world that would pay honor to a book that challenges its basic institution the way this book does, and it speaks very well for Israel that this book has been received so well there.
But the book has implications beyond Israel itself. We hear of the American soldiers who are coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan with what they now call “Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome”. This book explains what that term really means. What does it do to a youngster to see a comrade, no older, no wiser, no different from himself, cut down by a sniper’s bullet? What does it do to a youngster to see a buddy with whom he has developed the closest ties of friendship suddenly struck down before his eyes? What does it do to a youngster to have to wonder which is worse: a sudden death or to be condemned to life as a cripple, or as a blind man? What does it do to a soldier to have to cope with the feeling that his government does not care about him, or that his people are divided over him?
This book is by no means fun to read, but Ron Leshem captures our attention from the first page on, and I, for one, simply could not put it down until I finished it. It gave me a whole new appreciation for the Israeli army, and for its efforts to keep the country safe, while at the same time trying to keep its soldiers human and humane. And it gave me new appreciation of the cruelty of all war, and of the brutality that is a part of every soldier’s daily experience.
I don’t mean this review to be a defense of pacifism; not by any means. I understand that, when the enemy is evil and uncompromising, there is no alternative to military strength. But this book has given me, and I think it will give every reader who confronts it, a new understanding of the enormous human cost of war, of the price soldiers pay for keeping us safe, and of the impossibly porous line between necessity and morality that every soldier has to walk.
This is a painful book to read, but a necessary one for all of us who owe our lives of comfort and safety to those who defend us with their lives.
Rabbi Jack Riemer reviews frequently for journals in America and abroad. He is the author or editor of six books of Modern Jewish Thought.
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