In a way, the next war is always the previous war. The image of war is of assault and conquest of vast terrain. But in fact, war is always characterized by withdrawal. As can testify those who had fought. Not me. Because I’d rather tell the story of how I ran away from the last war to my parents, who received me with the disappointment appropriate for deserters, and why I won’t sign up for the next war, which is always also the previous one.
This is actually a story about a jacket. Let me explain. When I went to the previous war as part of the reserve forces, I had a fleece jacket, and that jacket was the one good thing that I received from the IDF in my three years of active duty in the paratroops and over 10 years in the reserves. This jacket was my pride and joy because it could be worn on both sides. One side was the IDF olive green with my battalion number on it, a number I could never remember, and the other side was civilian black. Clad in the civilian black you could walk around without anyone knowing who you were or from which reserve unit.
Boy, I loved that jacket. I would wander the fields of the Valley of the Elah in my jacket, covering kilometers with my two dogs. In the winter, at night, in the rain, always with the jacket, a song in my heart.
In the summer, of course, the jacket had to be stored away, since wearing fleece in the summer doesn’t make much sense. But each winter I would pull it out of storage and walk around wearing it inside out and continue to forget the brigade number printed on it.
And then the next draft arrived. And in that draft a number of problems surfaced: First of all, it was an emergency conscription, and the intention was to invade Gaza. Not that it bothered me much; like most Israelis I found a certain release in the thought of screwing them over. They always provided enough reasons to make this feel right. The real problem emerged after I went to sign for my new equipment. When I returned to the pile of things I brought from home, I saw that something was missing: my fleece jacket.
At first I felt my heart pinch. Impossible, I thought. Who would take such a jacket when everyone in the battalion was given one? I began circling the base like a rabid dog. And zilch. No jacket, or rather, each and every soldier had a jacket like mine. Everyone except me.
I decided to take the initiative and went to the officer in charge of stores, the quartermaster OC. Do you have a jacket for me, I asked. Only what’s in the store rooms, he replied. He was talking about the duffle coats, those heavy winter jackets like the one worn by Itzik Mordechai when he was framed for killing the hijackers from the Bus 300 Affair, and not the delicate fleece that was the only present I’d ever received from the IDF. I decided to go up the chain of command and raise some hell with those pencil-pushers up at the headquarters company. But they all sent me away with the same answer, that there weren’t any more fleece jackets, and why didn’t you write your name on it? And why didn’t you keep an eye on your equipment? And why didn’t I this and why didn’t I that. And I said, why would I need to write my name on the jacket—wasn’t it enough that it had the numbers on it?
To make a long story short, my fleece jacket was gone. And all those I’d pestered only tried to remind me that we were getting ready for a ground assault in Gaza, for a war in which there would be hundreds of casualties. And why was I being such an asshole, the commander of the pencil-pushers shouted at me while he was busy arranging the battalion’s logistics and getting the giant tanks off the trailers. That was the situation. Everybody was busy, and as time passed, everyone was also getting pissed off.
Immediately after this, the troops began training, and I came down with a case of flagging morale. Just after the first night’s exercise in the dunes I cornered an Orthodox officer called Yaki and said, Hey, I’m not going to fire my weapon during training. “What’s that?” he jumped up and said, “What are you talking about?” I said I’m not firing during training because my jacket’s gone missing and the base HQ were refusing to replace it, and that without my equipment I refuse to shoot. He understood that he was confronted with a mild case of mental imbalance and smiled at me and slapped me on the back in paratroop style and said, “But you’re wearing a jacket.” He meant the awful Yitzchak Mordechai duffle coat. No, no, you don’t get it. I tried to make him understand. I’m talking about the fleece—like the one you’re wearing. “Listen,” he said, still smiling—he was still sure I was fucking around—“we’ll do some night shooting. We’ll practice sighting and combat. And at four o’clock we’ll go back to base.”
“There,” he continued, “over coffee and cookies we’ll sit down and sort it all out.” He concluded and slapped me on the back again. But I wasn’t satisfied, and I said, “Listen, I know these games with coffee and cookies. I ain’t playing them. No jacket, no shooting. No coffee and no cookies.” But then, at the height of my first act of disobedience in Israel’s wars, the battalion OC arrived to raise the guys’ morale a bit, and I didn’t want to lower his own on the first night of training. So I hissed at Yaki, “Remember what I said” and went and joined the group with their rifles on the range.
But when they shouted “fire” I stuck to my guns, literally, and didn’t press the trigger. “Fire,” “fire,” “fire.” But from me, nothing. It was night, and no one noticed. But when Yaki, who was supervising the firing section, checked everyone’s guns, he saw that I hadn’t even put in the magazine. He tapped me on the shoulder, which was the sign to release the firing pin and put on the safety catch. And as he did it, I packed up my equipment, and under the cover of darkness I set out toward the base several kilometers away.
When Yaki arrived at 5 a.m., sweating, he found me drinking coffee and eating cookies at the entrance to the compound. He said, “Tell me, what’s up with you; are you OK?” I smiled at him. Later that morning I woke up with a terrific pain in my back, probably from the night’s 40-kilos haul, down in the dunes next to the firing range. Everyone was getting ready to move, but I could not budge an inch. Officers came and shouted at me that the campsite had to be evacuated, but I adopted a new and forceful stance. Won’t go anywhere without being checked by a doctor. (At some point during the night, the issue had changed from the jacket covering my back to the back itself.) I said: Not moving without a doctor’s check-up. My back’s broken. For that is truly what I thought I felt. Finally the battalion doctor showed up. He was overweight and looked a bit retarded. But to him, I’m sure I looked no less of a moron. “What do you feel?” he asked, both bored and bothered, which is a combination unique to the Israeli armed forces.
“Back’s broken”—I repeated my new mantra. The doctor pulled a Leatherman, the super-hero of penknives, out of a small leather pouch attached to his fatigues. He opened the Leatherman, and tapped me lightly on the kneecap. The leg jerked. Then he tapped on the other kneecap. Another jerk. “You’re fine,” he said. My back’s broken, I repeated.
“What’s your story?” he asked. My story, I replied, is that my back’s broken, and the military has caused me a thousand problems and pains, and this is the last time I’m willing to be injured by you. I don’t care about the Hamas, I don’t care about an all-out war on seven fronts. I’m not carrying out any maneuver, even the smallest, without a back X-ray. “What back X-ray?” he screamed, and his eyes turned all crazy. But I could see he was all bark, so the crazy eyes didn’t scare me.
“You understand,” he said, “that an X-ray means we’ll have to transport you and by the time you get the X-ray, the battalion will already be inside Gaza, but it seems that that’s exactly what you want,” he said, “I get you now.” I’m not sure you do, I said, I don’t give a shit about the war. At that moment he gave up, and said: “Do what you want. I’m not sending you to any hospital, and I’m not transporting you anywhere in the middle of training.” No problem, I said. I’ll go by foot, I added, but by then he’d already left.
I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I packed up the 40-something kilos of equipment on my back, which all of a sudden was as strong as ever, and set out toward the base. Various ranks galloping through the dust passed by me; tanks on semi-trailers and D-9 armored tractors and Safari armor-plated trucks and all sorts of other vehicles that looked as if they’d appeared out of an old edition of Transformers. A complete military machine was pushing toward me, heading toward the front. Everything had been assembled, prepared for the battle and breakthrough. Only I was left behind, chugging heavily through the cloud of dust, heading in the opposite direction. It was strange.
A white car appeared out of the desert, heading in my direction. I signaled it to stop. In the back sat the deputy brigade commander, a short, thick-set killer with a giant scar on his face. He looked like Tom Cruise in Valkyrie, the officer who wanted to stop the war and assassinate Hitler. But this commander was busy fiddling with his smartphone, and the driver asked me where I was heading. In a moment of inspiration, I remembered that the commander beside him was the officer in charge of the rear echelons and logistics and was probably heading for the emergency stores units, away from Gaza. I said I was headed for the main base, because I was in Defense Minister Barak’s security detail and had another task. The commander suddenly paid attention, if only for a moment, and he said, “Get in.”
I sat next to the commander, looking at the magnificent pink scar in the center of his face. These days, few are lucky enough to brandish such symbols, I thought. It was impressive. They let me off where I asked, next to the infirmary. Before I got off the commander said: Carry out your mission well, soldier. In some ironic way, I felt as though that was exactly what I was doing.
I entered the infirmary. It was filled with half a million low-rank pencil-pushers. They had no respect for a real soldier, a battle-hardened veteran. Or, possibly, a deserter more determined than them, one who runs away from the very cusp of battle. I said I was in a real hurry. They smirked and said there was no such thing as a hurry in the army. Sit, they said. They all had the same face, almost handsome but ugly. I sat down.
When the nurse, who looked Russian, emerged, I leaped from my chair: “I’m from the front,” I said. I told her that I needed immediate referral for an X-ray. I need it ’cause I had to get back to my battalion in Gaza.
“Try tomorrow,” she said, “we’re all booked up, no more referrals to Soroka Hospital today.” But the war, I said. Tomorrow, she answered. The soldiers laughed. Sit down, they said. What’s the rush? You’ll miss the war. There’ll be another. I walked out of the infirmary, with leaden worried steps, toward the camp gate. This was the moment of truth. If I leave here, on my own free will during the run-up to the war, this would be the end of the affair. This was the point of no return. In relationships, this was the moment in which you fucked another woman. A moment in which you leave one jurisdiction and enter into another. For better or for worse. I put one foot forward and took to the road.
A very old Renault stopped with a thin man inside. We exchanged “where to”—“where from,” and when all was agreed upon, I got in beside him, throwing my equipment in the back seat. It was at the moment we crossed a small, flooded culvert in the south that I began to feel something I’d never felt before. Something karmic suddenly enveloped me. I had the strangest insight. I understood instantly that I was orphaned. I was no longer a member of the paratroops family. Just like that.
Now, to the reader at home this might sound like nonsense, and a moment earlier I wouldn’t have believed it either. But that’s the strange thing, dozens of times, dozens and dozens of times, I sat at get-togethers and conferences, briefings on military heritage and morale-boosting discussions and heard the same thing: “The paratroops family is assembled to remember …”; or: “the paratroops family celebrates four decades of …” Hearing this affected combination of words always made me giggle. I always thought to myself—the absurd military language that tries to rally you around and tie you up in knots—I thought that it was a silly figure of speech. But at that moment, inside the Renault, after crossing that flooded culvert, I understood that it was the simple truth.
I had a family for 15 years. It was the paratroops family that shared blood and souls and gestures and expressions and a comportment and a look and another thousand and one things that turn a random group into a family with deep and hidden connections. When I left through the guard shed’s gate and said what I’d said to the driver in the Renault, I had not only broken my back and lost my jacket, but I had suddenly become an orphan. I had lost a family. A moment before, I hadn’t even been aware that I had one.
This story was originally published in Hebrew in Haaretz on the day of the ground assault on Gaza a year ago. This English translation was edited by Daniella Zamir.