Let me begin by acknowledging I’ve never been in the military. Never been in an active combat zone. Never fired a real gun. Never been shot at. Never shot at anybody. My exposure to war has been vicarious—through the media of print, television and film.
I grew up on war movies and westerns. Forget about the pyrotechnics of today’s shoot ‘em ups. The best of any genre are the ones that put you into the minds, the psyche, of the combatants to reveal their fears, their tension, their disgust with the dehumanizing character of war. All Quiet on the Western Front. A Walk in the Sun. The Hurt Locker. The Enemy Below. Das Boot. Platoon. The Red Badge of Courage. To this list of extraordinary studies of humans in and under conflict (and others too numerous to mention), add Lebanon, an Israeli film about a tank crew, and the dozen foot soldiers they are meant to protect, in the opening days of the war in Lebanon in 1982.
I saw Lebanon this week, part of the free-Tuesday movie series courtesy of Cablevision’s Optimum Rewards program. For 93 minutes I sat riveted as if in the claustrophobic confines of a dark, dank, dirty, noisy, clanking, reverberating, oily, sweaty, smoky, suffocating, greasy tank, looking out on the world only through the telescope of the gunner, a young soldier fresh from shooting barrels during basic training now ordered to fire into combat zones inhabited by civilians.
It would not be hard to view this film as anti-Israel. That would be wrong, for there are plenty of villains represented, including the PLO, the Phalangists and the Syrians.
No, Lebanon is first and foremost an anti-war movie, conveying in this singular story the horrors and fog of war, how it torments its participants, turning some into monsters, some into weeping children, others into selfish, delusional action figures. And how innocents become casualties of even the most well-meaning initiatives.
It is a hard movie to sit through, especially if you are pro-Israeli. But a strength of any country and people is the ability to look deep inside their actions to bring out the truth of their experiences. As I watched this film just days before Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, I was reminded of a sermon my rabbi gave Kol Nidre night, the commencement of Yom Kippur, in 1982, just days after the Israeli army stood by as Phalangists massacred hundreds of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps around Beirut. It remains the low point of Israeli involvement in any military action. As he recounted the tragedy, Rabbi Turetsky intoned words from the Yom Kippur confessional liturgy, over and over repeating Ashamnu, “we have sinned, we are culpable.”
The Sabra and Shatila massacres took place September 16-18, 1982.
Tonight, September 17, 2010, Kol Nidre services begin at 6:30.