The notice came in the usual way: square envelope, perforated edges, Israel Defense Forces seal. July 7 to July 28, active duty, Northern Command. Nine a.m. meeting at Elyakim, a reserves training base at the foot of the Galilee.
A single telephone call revealed the ultimate destination: Mount Dov, up above the valley where chocolate-brown patches of Lebanese, Syrian, and Israeli soils meet.
I knew the place well enough. It had once been a training area, sunny and green, and infused with some of the Galilee’s inherent optimism. But that was before the withdrawal. By the time we arrived, the place was a hot zone and the forward base we were sent to—“Adina”—perched on the crest of a jagged ridge, ostensibly dominating its surroundings, seemed to be under a silent, incremental siege.
Inside, beneath the reinforced concrete, the light was unnatural and insufficient. The conscripted soldiers spent their time in weight rooms, in front of TV screens, and in their beds. The thick red steel doors at the entrance to each room, a sign declared, must be locked in the event of an infiltration.
Outside, there were eight guard posts. Seven of them were manned by a single soldier equipped with a radio, a rifle, and a mounted machine gun. The eighth one looked north.
It sat directly above the border region and was manned by two people: an enlisted soldier from field intelligence—which is a whole hell of a less than it sounds—and one of us, a reserves infantryman.
In order to get out to our post we had to grope through a long dark corridor, illuminated by a chain of dangling green Light Sticks that led to a concrete bunker with an open porch. The porch, outfitted with binoculars and a heavy 7.62 caliber machine gun, was our post; the bunker belonged to the kids. From there they operated a high definition surveillance camera that was mounted on an antenna about a hundred feet above the base. Their call name on the radio was “Eyes,” but the truth of the matter was that they couldn’t see a thing.
“Basically, we’re blind up here,” the kid said during our initial tour of the base.
I asked him to explain. He shrugged. He couldn’t have cared less. None of them could. They watched the screen passively, like a TV, and performed their tasks—pulling 12-hour shifts in front of the screen, talking on their cells, texting the girls they wanted to be their girlfriends, listening to the radio, and handling whatever requests the officers sent their way, sounding adult and responsible over the radio frequency, their voices deep and soldierly.
There was a chain-link fence in front of our post. It was a muted red and it looked like it belonged at a public park, but its task was to trigger the arming mechanism on a missile before it struck its target.
“To trick it,” the kid said. “But it doesn’t work.”
The kid was thin and dark and he wore his fatigue pants low, as if they were jeans. His speech was clipped, his slang smooth; I saw that he had been at the top of his class.
He got up from behind his surveillance device and walked over to the unprotected side of the wall, to my machine gun position. “See,” he said, pounding the concrete with his bony little hand. And only then did I notice that right behind me the reinforced concrete had been cratered. “They fire one for the fence and then another one right after that,” the kid said.
“They thread them like that one after another?” I asked, and he just chuckled. Like you have no idea what kind of shit they can do.
And the truth is, I was more than convinced. The regional Military Intelligence Directorate officer, pious and perfumed with his own intelligence, had taken care of that. At the end of a three-day, pre-active-duty training session—where I discovered that my fingers still know how to disassemble an M-16—he told us “a little story that the newspapers missed” about a squad of Hezbollah commandos, that’s what he called them, who had set up a position under the cover of an overhanging rock, just 300 yards beneath “Yocheved,” a neighboring base.
The commandos fled under fire, but left their gear behind: tranquilization syringes, an open stretcher equipped with four thick zip ties and a black burlap sack. The other guys seemed to let the story wash right over them. It was nothing new. We’d seen and heard a lot worse from similar officers. But I couldn’t banish the image of my body prostrated on that stretcher. I felt the textured darkness of the sack, the wildly urgent bucking of the stretcher beneath me. It was my oldest fear, the sudden and complete obliteration of my freedom, and the manner in which it had been reignited, with a chuckle from the pale-faced officer, only made it worse.
I took the four to eight shifts, a.m. and p.m. From up on the ridge you could watch the sun sink deep into the horizon. A golden eagle had nested on top of the anti-missile fence and she swayed in the wind every now and again, taking some time to play before going back to the duties of her nest. But the four to eight in the morning was awful. At first, it was just a dense, still darkness, but as the night prepared to recede, a thick fog rolled in, veiling the hours of transition.
On the first night, after about 15 minutes in the raised chair behind the machine gun, I called the kid over and asked him to show me where the grenades were. It felt like school, like calling him up to the blackboard, as he could barely be bothered to peel himself off the chair. Finally, he pointed to a wall of ammo cans and said, “That one, there, with the yellow paint.” Then he turned back to his seat. But I checked the box and found the long slender smoke variety, rather than the bulbous and deadly fragmentation devices I needed. I called him back.
“What do you need them for anyway,” he complained, “we’re sitting on the top of a fucking mountain; you throw them and they’ll roll all the way down the hill.”
I pointed to the smoke-colored rock terraces just a few feet from the mouth of the bunker. “They could crawl up to these, here, fire missiles from behind cover and try and take this position,” I said, my voice rising higher than I’d planned.
The kid just rolled his eyes in a silent ‘whatever’ and said, “Then it must be this one,” pointing to an unmarked box towards the bottom.
But it wasn’t. It took us 10 full minutes to find them and I wondered if Hezbollah was really as good as they said or these kids just didn’t know what they were doing.
Each night before I went up for a round of guard duty I verified that the box was nearby, that it hadn’t been re-shelved, and that the machine gun bullets were properly fed into the firing chamber, and each night the time passed more slowly, the visibility worsened, the intelligence reports grew more grim, slowing the passing of time, until seven, when the sun finally defeated the fog and the danger was over and I could safely reassume my nonchalance before the next guy came up at eight.
And then one night, about a week and a half into my stint, during the black darkness, when the camera behind me still saw clearly, a woman’s voice came over the radio frequency. There were a lot of them on the airwaves. It was, at the time, one of the best jobs for a female soldier—it didn’t include serving coffee and it was close to the action. But this girl’s voice didn’t come over the radio fast and self-important, a clipped feminine take on macho army talk; it was broadcast in low, leisurely moans.
At first I couldn’t believe it, thought it was a guy playing a practical joke over an active frequency, but ten seconds in, there was no doubt. It was too good to be one of the kids. I looked through the porch’s steel door at the kid and watched as he raised his weary black eyebrows high up on his forehead.
“Happens all the time,” he said.
I looked out into the dark and listened. Just when I thought she was getting close to the peak, she backed off, and the frequency fell silent. No one said a thing. I waited for some officer to come on the air and squelch the performance, to deliver a stern and immediate rebuke, but the radio maintained its usual whispery quiet, an amplified noise that grated against the sounds of the night.
Logic dictated that the show had ended. Most of these girls served on bases dominated by men and they tended to take a low profile, as they got more attention than they needed anyway. I recalled how the girls sat clustered at their own table in the mess hall, how each guy who walked past inhaled, gathering up their scent.
Maybe it was just a fluke, something strange brought by the night, I thought, but then it came back, her voice bold and sad, a brassy lament. Two long minutes followed, during which I started to wish that the kid wasn’t there nearby, sitting at his computer screen a few feet away, unmoved, as she flirted with orgasm, faded, and then, finally, triumphantly, came back on the air. The climax was even better than the build-up. I was rock hard. Thirty-four years old and swollen to the point of bursting at the mere sound of a 19-year-old’s voice.
I slipped off the elevated chair and ducked out of view of the kid, rearranging myself as I patrolled the length of the open bunker. But despite the deep breaths and the feeble demands of my brain for sobriety, my mind swung to Carmel. She was a doctor. Her brown eyes were thin and quick to crease into a smile. After reserves, she wanted me in a very different way. I envisioned her pulling off my boots, struggling happily. And there was something so attractive in the refuge of my mind that I cast aside the first noise I heard.
But a few seconds later it was followed by something human, like a grunt or a sigh, a form of exertion. I hurried back to the machine gun fixed on the tripod, pushed the heavy wood and steel stock into my shoulder and kept my head up, waiting, listening, hearing the quick beat of my breath in my ears. Bats flit past my eyes. Then quiet. And I knew that from where I stood all it would take was one rocket, followed by a short hail of machine gun fire, and I could find himself flat on my back, pinned to the stretcher, tearing down the hill toward a soul-smothering captivity. Fear swelled my eyes and ears. I detected the faint rattle of metal, and anyone who knew anything about being a soldier at night knew that metal was the sign of an enemy and though I knew that the right thing to do was to call to them in Arabic, it may well have been the only sentence I knew in that language, it’d been drilled into me to the point of being unforgettable—stop, stop or I’ll shoot!—I couldn’t speak the words. Or rather, I could, but I was afraid of how they’d come out. And so I just stood there with my finger on the trigger, cursing the kid and his blind camera, the lack of lights, the fact that these Hezbollah guerrillas knew exactly what the camera saw because with every passing day they mapped a new section of the route, marking the blind spots with cairns of ancient stone, and everyone knew that the routes to the base were marked but the Israeli army did not open fire on these shepherd boys because they were still on sovereign Lebanese land, and I cursed them in my head, wishing there was a moat around the base filled with hungry alligators and a one- hundred-foot wall, flood lights and bulldozed terrain, not this rickety fucking fence and stone terraces and cairns that lead you through the fog, and as I thought about this I heard feet disturbing leaf and stone, and so I had no choice but to pull the trigger, not as I’d been taught, a controlled milking of that smooth crescent, but in a single unplanned movement, puncturing the black veneer of the night. The gun swayed across my field of vision, issuing a constant and comforting stream of bullets, pummeling rock, splitting leaves, tearing through the cold night air, but I was afraid to stop, to see what my fire would reveal, so I kept my finger on the trigger even as the alarm in the base started its sad, undulating wail.
My commander arrived in a remarkably short period of time. He was in a tank top and shorts. His face was puffy with sleep. But he had his weapon in his hand and his helmet on his head. “Hold your fire,” he said, putting his left hand on my shoulder, “let’s see what’s down there.” But I couldn’t let go. Every part of my body was clenched. Only the soft click of the empty chamber released me and, with one hand on the stock of the gun, I pointed to the area behind the second terrace. I didn’t need to say a thing. The platoon commander, Nadav, nodded and called the rest of the guys over the radio, told them to get ready.
When light came up there was nothing to be found. Only the eagle had departed, abandoned the nest, and I knew that I’d been spooked. Everybody knew.
One year later, a round-shouldered Hasidic man leaned over our strip of sidewalk.
“Tefilin?” he asked. “Lay tefilin yet today?”
Usually I just shook my head, not dignifying the request with much of a response. But with the war on, it didn’t seem as obnoxious.
It was eight days old and nameless still, but its cause was clear: the abduction of two soldiers, reservists both. Since late in the afternoon on the first day, I had been receiving a steady, icy drip of text messages from Nadav. “Stay tuned for Cabinet meeting tomorrow.” Or: “Not yet, but have bag ready.”
The worst part of the waiting was the uncertainty. I spent an inordinate amount of time rotating between the TV, the radio and the Internet. The death toll was spread across the board: Paratroops, infantry, armor. Even a few pilots. The analysts were all in favor of a mass call-up of the reserves.
Without consulting Carmel, I rotated out of her embrace and said “Yes” to the Hasid.
The man threw a warm arm around me and steered me toward a rickety table where the phylacteries were laid. He wound the phylacteries around my arm and around my head, spoon-feeding me the blessings word by word, and I played along, wanting to be shown, not revealing that my muscle memory ached for the meditative motion. When he was through adjusting the smooth leather straps, I asked for a prayer shawl. The man looked surprised, but took out his own personal one from its maroon velvet bag. I wrapped it around my shoulders and brought it over my head, the thick manly smell of the wool blocking out the hot midday sun, and said a short prayer for peace. Then, before unwrapping myself, I made a bargain with God: “Absolve me of this call-up and I’ll give you my undying devotion,” I whispered. I held the pose for another instant and then I took off the prayer shawl, handed it back to the Hasid and watched as he folded it along the creases, holding it up with his considerable, whiskery chin.
Carmel and I held hands on the way back home. I felt somewhat unburdened by the prayer, but was still waiting for her to address the war. All she had to say was this: “Please don’t go” and I would have called Nadav immediately. He knew her father had died in the first Lebanon War. He’d been a Lieutenant Colonel at the time. His name was known in Israel. I’d tell Nadav I couldn’t leave her, that she wasn’t well, and he would understand. After all, she’d already been touched by war. The Israeli Army recognized these things. Nadav wouldn’t even report it up the chain of command. He’d just state it as fact. David wasn’t available. But she said nothing.
Instead, I found himself roaming around town, taking long walks and watching the Hasid. He was talkative and friendly. He shook hands with passersby, jumped in on conversations, threw greetings across the main road. It was like he was on a mayoral campaign. But with me he was gentle and respectful, clasping my hand sincerely and saying little as he ushered me off the sidewalk and towards the small plastic table on the edge of the town square. Once I was under the shawl it was always the same. First I’d pick up a different part of his life—the plain white working man’s soap he washed with, the printing press he worked at—and then in the reverent silence I would speak my mind.
I told God that I was scared. My friends couldn’t hear it, my wife couldn’t hear it, so I told Him. I just said it simply. “I’m scared. I’m scared of dying. It’s not like it used to be. The burden doesn’t belong to my parents anymore. It belongs to me. I have a wife, God, I have a wife who’s suffered enough, and she is with child. Please, God, allow me the joy of seeing this child. Please, I’m a man of peace. Do not force me to fight. Please. I’m not sure I can handle it. Please God, keep me from this.”
It was hot under the tallit but I took my time, enjoying the shelter it provided. “Please,” I said, shifting toward flattery, “I know you see all and that your wisdom is infinite but please grant me this one single favor. Absolve me of this duty. Make it happen with grace and dignity. Make it happen so no one knows. I beg you, take this yoke off my shoulders,” I said, remembering all the talk about the Yoke of Heaven, “and I will accept yours with love.” Then I shut my eyes even tighter and added a single, final, plaintive, “please.”
But as with every other exchange I’d ever had with God, it was useless. On a Saturday, after a long day at the beach, playing soccer and Frisbee while combat helicopters ferried north along the shore, I got the call.
The pre-recorded voice was cold, female, metallic. It asked for my name and serial number and then told me that this was an emergency call-up and that I should report to base immediately.
Nadav called a little while later and clarified: “Tomorrow morning at eight,” he said. He sounded tired and strained and in a rush to get off the phone. He had another 20 of those calls to make.
Carmel and I went to a movie. When we got home we made love in a way we hadn’t done for months and as she began to shake, she dug her nails deep into my skin and growled in my ear, “You come home to me, you hear, straight back home.” I nodded as I fell down on top of her, assuring her that I would. Minutes later I was asleep.
She drove me to the base. I put on a good show for her, worrying whether I packed a towel, enough socks, a razor, the tops and bottoms of my fleece long underwear, as though this were an ordinary call-up and the difference between comfort and suffering would lie in the material things, and not a war, where a towel would not be a critical component of my well-being. I was going in to Lebanon in a day or two. Not to a forward base but to the field. The last time the army went there en masse it stayed for 18 years. I could be gone for three months straight. I could be airlifted to the outskirts of Beirut. I could be shot the second we crossed the border.
Outside the base, traffic stood still. The entrance was so choked with cars, with families parting, that traffic was backed up for over a mile. After sitting in silence for a while, I went to the trunk and shouldered my bag, then laid it by the door and waited as she struggled out of her seatbelt and into my arms. We hugged and kissed each other firmly on the mouth. I’d rehearsed some lines during the quiet of the car trip—lines that promised a hasty and healthy return—but decided against them. “I love you,” I said.
“I love you, too,” she responded, hugging me again. “I always will.”
I began winding through the stopped cars, thinking about the posthumous tone of her final words. After a few steps the heavy bag slung over my shoulder released some of the tension in my chest and, now sure I wouldn’t cry, I looked back. Her head was resting on the steering wheel and when she felt my gaze, she looked up, wiping her cheeks and waving a final goodbye through the tears.
At the gate, the guys were already clasping hands, pounding each other on the back, but most of them were younger and I didn’t recognize them. Instead I flashed my ID and walked into the base. The thin strips of asphalt through the eucalyptus trees were identical but my feet seemed to remember the way.
The 100 men in my company were running around, loading gear into piles and onto trucks. Everyone was in motion except for three female soldiers, who were seated in the shade of the parking garage, behind a table with three large loose-leaf binders. They were from personnel, a reservist’s first stop, the official conversion center from civilian to soldier. I walked straight toward them. The table was surrounded by guys, speaking their names and serial numbers and rather than wait in the sun I figured I’d take a cup of cold water from the big cooler on the table next to theirs. Drinking it in the shade, watching the scurrying soldiers, urgently, diligently, preparing for war, a poem came to my lips. It was about the effects of gas on a slowly dying soldier. Actually it was about more than that. I only remembered part of it, but it sufficed. “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” I spoke the words into my paper cup, feeling the warmth of my breath on my face. It was true. I knew it was true. It was written by Wilfred Owen, an officer and a poet who had died during the last week of the Great War. And yet I also knew that was not the reason I didn’t want to go. No one claimed it was great to die for your country these days. They just asked that you be willing to do so, well into middle age, and I, I realized, with my paperwork waiting on the table beside me, was not.
The company’s deputy commander, Shlomi, was directing the traffic of soldiers around the square. He waved at me, a curt impatient gesture, asking what exactly I was doing in the shade. I walked over to him, overemphasizing the little bit of a limp that I had from a collision during the beach soccer the day before. The X.O. clasped my palm and though he was on his cell, he asked, “What’s up?”
“Not so good,” I said, “I busted my foot.”
“No problem,” Shlomi said, “go sign in with the girls and we’ll get one of the doctors to look at it right away.”
That wasn’t what I had in mind. I knew how that would go. I’d get two pieces of surgical tape and a kick in the ass. “Not sure,” I said, “if I do it in the army I’m going to have to wait a year and a half for an X-ray and…”
“Did it happen in the civilian world?” Shlomi asked, pressed for time.
I said yes.
“Then take care of it in the civilian world and get back to me ASAP.”
I nodded as if this were an unwanted but inevitable answer and started to hobble away, already thinking of how I would phrase it to my family doctor. “Call me tonight with an update,” Shlomi said.
I assured him that I would. On the way to the bright yellow gate at the entrance to the base, I called Carmel. I caught her on the second try. She was in the car. I could hear the radio. It was turned to the news. Her voice was tender. “What,” she asked, after I explained, “I can’t hear a thing.”
I explained again and she said she’d be right there, that she hadn’t gone far. I was sure I’d heard approval, even outright levity in her voice.
Nearing the gate, the happy clap of my heart straining against the limitations of the fake limp, I felt myself being watched. Before looking up I knew I’d find Nadav’s marbled blue eyes.
He was pulling his gear out of a jeep in the officer’s parking lot. An off-road tour guide in his civilian life, he had clearly driven himself. I looked up at him and considered making a motion towards my foot but instead indicated that I would call him in a little while. He nodded and I made my way through the gate, toward Carmel and the car, but as I limped to the main road, I felt Nadav’s eyes on my back, and even though I was sure that my performance had been credible and that Nadav would let me off the hook, I realized then, under my officer’s scrutiny and the close white sun, that, unlike Wilfred Owen, who had won a Military Cross at Jancourt, I was, in the most basic sense, a coward.
Mitch Ginsburg, a former military correspondent for The Times of Israel, has translated several novels, including, most recently, Sayed Kashua’s Second Person Singular, and is at work on one of his own.