Best of 2012: My brush with Israeli militarism


'Soldiers' trauma' by Chris JohnstonAged 18 in 1967, during a period of great personal confusion and in search of an expression of idealism, I impetuously considered volunteering for the Israeli Army.

I am utterly embarrassed by this. I had been indoctrinated within a community of holocaust survivors who had latched onto militant Zionism as a means to reclaim Jewish pride and safety. At youth groups we enacted mock battles between Jews and Arabs in the same way non Jewish youth played at cowboys and Indians.

In early adulthood when the brain is not fully matured, youth is particularly vulnerable to being captivated by idealism and a purportedly noble cause. It is the age of the search for meaning. An age when the young may be conscripted and sent to war. An age when many serve in the Israeli Army, some from the Jewish Diaspora.

Post traumatic stress disorder intensifies with time rather than diminishes. So too, the soldiers who took part in these assaults, as well as the victims, can remain injured by the visions, sounds and smells locked into their mind until their own deaths. Traumatisation can also be transmitted as a grim legacy to the next generation.

A fragile ceasefire has been brokered between Gaza and Israel. Had this not succeeded, troops that had been massing on the boundaries of Gaza would have commenced a ground invasion. Hundreds of heavily armed, shoot-to-kill soldiers would have advanced on largely defenceless civilians.

This would likely have been a repeat of Operation Cast Lead, the devastating and brutal invasion of Gaza in 2008, whose aftermath is depicted in the award winning documentary Tears of Gaza.

How many could watch this without shedding tears for the victims? But the soldiers who are sent into battle have their own horror to bear.

In the short documentary Cleansing Gaza three Israeli soldiers are tracked from the 'discos of Tel Aviv' and the gung-ho massing on the Israeli border. They describe being revved up and feeling part of something powerful as they advanced into Gaza. But their qualms and pain become increasingly evident.

One remembers 'looking a Palestinian in the eye' through the sights of his rifle seconds before he shoots, and thinking, 'he is not different from me'.

Another describes breaking down when he returned to his own scrubbed-clean, renovated home and contrasting it with the Palestinian home that the IDF had occupied and fouled. He thought of the bathroom filled with excrement, the defaced family pictures. the torn clothes, and the smells and destruction the soldiers had left. 'At that moment everything changed. Then came the sadness and tears and pain.'

Another remembers the Palestinian families leaving with no bags, but carrying babies and leading children, a little white flag held aloft on a stick.

In a war young soldiers bear the brunt of 'following orders and doing their duty'.

Australian Major John Cantwell, who served in Operation Desert Storm and later in Afghanistan, kept his pain hidden for decades, finally breaking down upon his return from the Middle East in 2011. He found himself unable to take up a new post. Instead he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

In his memoir, Exit Wounds, Cantwell describes the bulldozing of enemy trenches as part of Operation Desert Storm. This buried Iraqi soldiers alive. A stark image emblazoned in his mind was of the hand of an Iraqi soldier reaching out of the sand. He carried that image, among other horrors, in his mind and heart, for over 20 years.

Trauma remains in the human brain for a lifetime, bringing intense feelings of fear, remorse, rage and shame. Both the actor and the acted upon may experience this life sentence of flashbacks, triggering painful feelings and alienation. It brings depression anxiety, relationship disintegration and loss of friends and loved ones. Many sufferers resort to alcohol and other forms of addiction and distraction to alleviate symptoms.

Recognition of this disorder, therapy and community support can make this chronic condition subside. But ultimately war is an insanity that bestows a horrible legacy on all: even bystanders in faraway lands.

Lyn Bender headshotLyn Bender is a Melbourne psychologist. Her Twitter handle is @Lynestel


Topic tags: Lyn Bender, Gaza, Israel, Palestine, Middle East



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Existing comments

I'll be interested to read John Cantwell's memoir "Exit Wounds". And I've recently read an article about the popularity of military history books, particularly those relating to the 'Anzac Legend.' It seems Australians can't get enough of raking over every aspect of 'heroic' war stories. But possibly trauma caused by suffering doesn't fit neatly into the incarnation of events like Gallipoli as a definition of what it means to be 'Australian'. Little wonder that those traumatised by war find it so difficult to regain their sense of place in that sort of Australia.
Pam | 09 January 2013

Whether war is insane or not Lyn I fear it will continue. It is part of human nature. The Israeli soldiers' experiences you relate is very similar to what many British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland experienced. There are close parallels between the two conflicts. I suspect many ex-servicemen from World War II felt and experienced very much the same. What our leaders should do is not follow blindly into "The War on Terror" and similar.
Edward F | 11 January 2013

Lyn Bender's powerful writing with its terrible images provides an antidote to the propaganda we are inundated with day after day. Thank you, Lyn
Hanifa Deen | 11 January 2013

I read your article with great interest on the eve of my journey to Israel and was profoundly moved by the video clips and my experience of Israel. Thank you
Stephanie Schenk | 18 May 2013

You sound like a helaer to me. Ive made mistakes and all I want is to heal and be healed...and want the same for all people.
Anthony | 06 November 2013


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