Mothers and Sons: When Your Boy Goes Off to War

Mothers and Sons: When Your Boy Goes Off to War

by

Howard Adelman

In David Grossman’s marvellous, but also exasperating, book, To the End of the Land, the heroine of the book, Ora, is a mother whose son has been called up for duty in the Israeli Defence Forces when a war has just started. Among the many options mothers have of dealing with such a frightening situation, instead of staying at home by the telephone and cancelling all personal pleasures, or keeping herself immersed in busy work, Ora took the path far less travelled. She recruited an old friend and lover, Ofer, to go hiking in the Galilee where, if she were busy hiking and not at home to answer the phone, miraculously the phone would not ring to deliver any bad news. So the reader is taken on a roller coaster ride of emotions and revelations as Ora and Ofer hike and camp in the Galilee hills. This blog is not intended to review the roller coaster ride Ora takes the reader on in northern Israel but rather to compare the son’s experience with that of his mother.

If the response Ora took was unusual, the situation in which she found herself is common in Israel. Lihi Lapid, another Israeli novelist (Woman of Valour), journalist and columnist, posted the following article:

“To Be An Israeli Mom”

To be an Israeli mom is – before you’re even an actual mother, to wait for the ultrasound exam to learn that everything is ok, but when the doctor says “it’s a boy” – to immediately imagine your foetus a soldier in uniform, with road dust in his hair, his rifle hanging on his shoulder and his eyes full of innocence. And to start being afraid.

To be an Israeli mom is to teach your daughter not to show weakness in front of her third grade classmates, because she has to be strong, so she doesn’t fall apart in front of her tough commander at basic training as a rookie soldier.

To be an Israeli mom is to complain about your country quite a bit, but always tell your children it’s the best place in the world.

To be an Israeli mom is to be involved, to “consume” the news like a drug addict, to protest for or against, and always feel responsible for what’s going on here, because it’s yours. It’s your state, and it’s your children that will protect it. And to know that you don’t have the option to be indifferent, not in this country. And sometimes – to agonize that you didn’t protest more.

To be an Israeli mom is to know about the situation no less than the staff sergeant, the commanding officer, and even the Chief of Staff. And if you meet them, to also let them know what YOU think should be done.

To be an Israeli mom is to be scared when the sirens go on, but to remember it’s important that your children don’t stress out, and won’t be afraid, so you take a deep breath and tend to them first, like you couldn’t be more calm and you’re not scared one bit.

To be an Israeli mom who lives by the border, near Lebanon in the north or Gaza in the south, is to be a part of a chain of the wonderful brave Israeli women, for whom guarding their homes is also guarding their country. And to hope this time would be the last.

To be an Israeli mom is to see field-training-uniform hanging on the laundry rope, and know how difficult it is to iron them. And to also know that the mother or father who irons them might shed a small tear which will probably be absorbed into the cloth, without leaving a trace, but which will have come from deep within the heart.

To be an Israeli mom it to not be able to look at the photos of our killed soldiers, and try not to think how they look like your own son. And then look at the photos and think it anyway.

To be an Israeli mom is to see a bereaved mother and feel how you run out of air, feel the sharp pain in your chest. It’s to know that the bereaved mother is not someone else – she is a mom exactly like you. And that it could have been you. And through that to feel you are soul sisters, and hurt with her. To want to hold and hug her, but at the same time to know you will never be able to actually ease her pain, and that there are no words.

To be an Israeli mom is to want one day to be a grandmother too. To be an Israeli grandma is to not to believe that both your grandson and granddaughter are being drafted to the army. After all, you were the one who told grandfather, when he went to war, that by the time you had grandchildren this would end. And to wonder whether it will ever end.

To be an Israeli mom is to know that all you want to give your children is security, and to realize that this is the one thing you cannot actually promise them. And still know for a fact that Israel is the most secure place for your child. (I know this cannot really be explained to anyone who is not an Israeli).

To be an Israeli mom is to want peace, but not be willing to give up safety or security. It’s to go through the current month in Israel and to know that an Israeli mom deserves to grow her children quietly. It’s to also know that one day peace will come.

Because peace is the promise of the Israeli mother.
And she is not the one to give-up.

One reader wrote a response. Here is an extract.

Every word of it describes precisely what we feel every day: Our happy moments along our sad or terrifying moments, the choice we make every day, choosing to live in a place which is homeland on one hand, and the center of a world conflict between 3 religions on the other hand. Looking straightforward into the eyes of a harsh reality forces you again and again, every day, to choose optimism instead of despair, choose hope for peace instead of knowledgeable interpretations about the impossibility of achieving it, choose looking at the beautiful face of humanity and solidarity while ignoring the ugliness of evil and terrorism…The times of Gaza war were very very difficult for A and me, as E participated there intensively. For known reasons I can’t write about it. He was risking his life and all we prayed was that nobody will knock on our door with terrible news. We stayed at home, didn’t want to go out, prayed for this temporary terrible tsunami to skip our house. The burden of our deep worry was very heavy this time. We were sticking to the news, both on T.V. and on the radio praying to hear about cease fire or political negotiations.  At war times I keep saying to myself “no news – good news”.

Mothers go through horror often much more terrifying than their sons or daughters on the military front. The woman who sent me the original article and the response had a son, Aryeh, in the recent Gaza War. She claimed that her husband was much more of a wreck than she was because he had a non-stop stream of news while she had retreated to the cottage and tried to live in a bubble. Though her son had phoned daily when he was mustered to Gaza, after he actually went in when the ground war started, communications were cut. “That was the difficult part, not knowing where he was or when we would hear from him again. We jumped every time the phone rang and slept with our cell phones on and beside us.”

Just nine days before Aryeh and his fellow Israeli troops were the last to withdraw from Gaza, ISIS or the Islamic State blew up a shrine in Mosul with which he shared a name. Aryeh is a young upstanding man whom I have known since he was a baby. He is a man of excellent character and virtue. Yesterday evening I interviewed him.

I asked Aryeh if he saw any similarity between himself and the approximately 100 Canadian volunteers fighting with ISIS. He responded that we all go to serve a cause we believe in. I was surprised at his answer and the additional remark that one man’s terrorist is another man’s crusader and champion, since I radically distinguish terrorists who capture and cut off the heads of Westerners versus Canadian volunteers who go overseas to serve in the Ukrainian or the Israeli armed forces. Of course, he too distinguished the two groups, but he also recognized similarities. For awhile, he did not know whether his volunteering to serve in a foreign army was legal, but subsequently learned that service abroad in the IDF is legal. In contrast, Canadians serving in an organization the Government of Canada has labeled as a terrorist one, including not only ISIS but Hamas, are engaged in illegal Canadian activity. Those individuals are branded as terrorists by the Canadian government.

I asked what training he had in the norms of a just war. I had to explain briefly what those just norms were. He could not recall any lessons and suggested from the instructions of officers, that they had been trained in just war theory because he and his other fellow grunts were taught, for example, never to shoot at a fleeing car except in three cases: 1) men are firing at you from the car; 2) if there has been a kidnapping; 3) he could not recall the third. I suggested that it was perhaps if they had evidence that the car was filled with explosives or if the car was bearing down on you. He could not remember.

For Aryeh, throughout his training, the army almost always appeared as a balagan (chaos but without the texture and feel of the disorder of the original Yiddish or Hebrew). However, once they were engaged in war, the infantry, the engineers, the intelligence units, the tank and artillery units and the dog unit all came together in a marvellously well-oiled machine of coordination and cooperation. Even then, and in spite of all the care taken, some soldiers were killed by friendly fire. He thought the figure was thirteen. When I returned to my desk, I checked. The IDF figures showed five deaths from friendly fire. I was unable to follow up on the discrepancy.

This war had cost the lives of at least five Israeli soldiers from friendly fire, about 8% of the sixty-six military deaths. On the Palestinian side, with equipment much more prone to mishaps and with units working far more independently without the command and control system of the Israeli army, it is estimated that at least 15% of the Hamas and Jihadi militants were killed by friendly fire – as well as far more civilians – or about 40-71 Palestinian militants depending on whether one relies on the Hamas figures of about 600 militant deaths or the Israeli figures of 1068 militants killed.

The first Israeli soldier to die in the Gaza War, 20-year old Eitan Barak serving as a commander in the Nahal brigade, was killed by friendly fire from a tank missile fired by another brigade, the very type of event that Aryeh described that took place near his position. He had been sent with his battalion to the Gaza front two weeks before the ground war started and six days before the actual war started. During those two weeks, the news that the units were going into Gaza or not were reversed many times. However, once his paratroop battalion under the command of the Givati brigade went into Gaza, with an artillery, a tank, an engineering unit, and even a dog unit, the hesitancy and reversals seemed largely to stop until just before the end of the ground war.

However, frustrating reversals did occur. His part of a platoon had taken a position in a house and had filled up special bags with sand to fortify the windows. That same evening, they were told to pack up; they were being withdrawn from there. They emptied the bags and were almost finished cleaning up when they were told the order had been rescinded and they had to refill the bags and fortify their position once again.

Aryeh had not spent all of the 18 days fighting in Gaza. He went in on a Thursday, nine days after the war began with the first troops entering Gaza. After five days, on the following Wednesday morning, his battalion was ordered out of Gaza. By the same evening, they were ordered back in. After another eight days, they left Gaza for some respite, but soon returned to the battle. He himself never found himself engaged in a fire fight. He shot no one and was never shot at. But one soldier in his battalion had been killed. In another incident, a terrorist came out of a tunnel 100-150 metres from his location, shot an RPG at an Israeli tank and another soldier was injured. In his own unit, a soldier was injured by a piece of shrapnel that went right though his leg and another by a sniper bullet that went through his neck, but he survived.

Though Aryeh had been in the war from the very beginning until the very end, the war had not been traumatic for him. Nevertheless, his sense of the contingency of life had become much more acute. Even though the situation was not akin to the action seen in the vast majority of war movies, he still censored what he told his parents sensitive to their fears and what they might imagine. When sent to the front, he told them he was in training. One of the two times he came out of Gaza for rest, his father, who had traveled from Canada, was there and they were able to hug and cry together.

Aryeh was largely engaged in blowing up tunnels with the main focus on tunnels going into Israel rather than the many logistical tunnels within Gaza. The engineers planted the actual explosives that blew up the tunnels. On his cell phone he showed me a picture of a mosque beside which the entrance of a tunnel had been built. He then showed me the picture of the tunnel exploding. The mosque was severely damaged in that explosion. The soldiers themselves had been ordered never to enter the tunnels, so the presumption I had made that the Israeli soldiers needed training in tunnel warfare was wrong. They did not fight in the tunnels. They only located them, traced their route and the engineer company destroyed them.

Near the very end of the war as units were being withdrawn and as the cease-fires were no sooner agreed upon than they fell apart, his unit was engaged in locating and protecting the engineers as they worked to blow up one final  tunnel they had located. When they were ordered to withdraw on 4 August, they felt they had only partially succeeded in totally destroying the last tunnel. But Aryeh felt very proud about the 32 tunnels they did locate and destroy.

Asked about the relatively high cost in military casualties, he said that is why they were in the army. They were there to sacrifice their lives for the protection of civilians. The few Israeli civilians killed (six plus one Thai foreign worker) was a testament to the IDF’s success. Just imagine if the planned attack on Rosh Hashanah of 200 Hamas and jihadi militants through the tunnels into Israel had taken place. Can one imagine how many Israeli civilian deaths there would have been? The soldiers, and the four sniffer dogs that had been killed, about which he felt particularly badly, were necessary sacrifices for the larger cause of protecting Israeli civilians.

Near the very end of the war, just an hour before the final real cease-fire came into effect, on a kibbutz next to Gaza that had been under almost constant code reds, Shahar Melamed, 43, a father of three children, and Zeevik Etzion, 55, a father of five, were outside repairing an electricity line damaged by a mortar attack earlier that day when they came under a barrage of fire from Gaza. Both men were killed.

Aryeh had also been very near the position where three Israeli soldiers had been killed near the end of the war. Initially, his unit had been told that two of them had been captured and kidnapped and then that figure was revised to only one. As it turned out, all three had been killed. But the believed kidnapping of an IDF soldier had triggered Operation Hannibal and his and other units were ordered to leave the work they were doing locating the last tunnel and aggressively ordered to penetrate further into Gaza to isolate the area of the alleged kidnapping.

Aryeh is very proud of what he and his fellow soldiers had done and accomplished in Gaza. He had no doubt that they had won. In the tension between those who believed that too much ordinance had been used and those who believed that the army had been held back and should have finished Hamas off, he sided with the government and thought it struck a reasonable balance between minimizing IDF casualties and destroying Hamas by debilitating Hamas to a very large degree.

Aryeh seemed less aware of the much larger media war in which Israel and Hamas had been engaged. For him, there was no question. Hamas was a terrorist group, perhaps not as bad as Islamic State, but nevertheless a group that ruthlessly, openly and in public killed civilians simply because someone claimed they were collaborators. He thought that the greatest victims of Hamas were the Palestinians they ruled over. He also conceded that the Hamas militants the IDF encountered this time had been much better trained, much better equipped and much more determined and tactical in fighting an urban war.

The most surprising part of the whole discussion was the number of soldiers Aryeh thought had been deployed in Gaza. He asked how many I thought. I replied that the highest figure I had read in an article by a purported expert on the Israeli military was 73,000. I had been very critical of that figure as highly exaggerated and thought the figure was less than 40,000. He said that the Israeli army went in with four battle groups. He knew the numbers in his own battle group and calculated there were 8,000 IDF soldiers who entered Gaza. According to him, at most 10,000 soldiers went into Gaza to fight against 21,000 to 30,000 Palestinian militants. The discrepancy between the 10,000 maximum and my figure of 40,000 may have come from my failure to distinguish between Israelis called up for duty and Israeli soldiers deployed on the ground in Gaza.

When asked about the pain and fear and suffering of his mother while he was in Gaza, he said that he was aware of it and tried to spare her as much worry as possible, but that it was part of the sacrifice of the war. He himself had emerged from the war relatively unscathed and was surprised to learn that I believed that his mother had been more significantly affected and had become more acutely aware of which of her friends offered and were capable of offering empathy and understanding the fears that she went through. Both parents were amazed at the outpouring of love and support from those outside their close circle. That meant so much while they waited to hear news.

I came away from my interview convinced that the parents of the Israeli soldiers in Gaza suffered far more than the soldiers themselves. This is probably the case with parents of Palestinians. The dread may also be akin to the fear and trembling parents experience when their children are suffering or have a severe illness.  Their pain might be even more acute than that of their children.

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