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

Dear Lyn, Thank you for writing this. There are a growing number of Jews like you and me who can no longer support the horror of war and dispossession taken in our name. Braver still are the soldiers who recognise war for what it is - the meaningless slaughter of innocents and the trauma for those who survive.

Sara Dowse | 10 December 2012  

Thank you Lyn for this always timely reality check on militarism. As for political leaders, 'When will they ever learn?' As a non-Jewish Australian, I recall without embarrassment a heightened level of excitement during the 6-day war in 1967, when Moshe Dayan was a hero to everyone I knew. During that time, as a student at RMIT, I enjoyed the theme tune from the film, 'Exodus' which was played almost continually at just above subliminal level from Studio 2, the then campus radio. I remain an ardent supporter of Israel's right to exist - but no supporter of Likud and their coalition colleagues. My heroes in Israel are the peace movement who, alone, can influence Israel to search for ways to find peace in a 2-state solution. We outsiders have very little influence. But it is not only up to Israel. The recently re-asserted extreme anti-Israel position of Hamas is from the same militaristic mindset that caused the 2008 devastation in Gaza. We can only hope that a calmer mind will arise in Gaza, with the strength of a leader like Aung San Suu Kyi, who could firstly establish real peace with Fatah, and then together, negotiate lasting peace with Israel.

Ian Fraser | 10 December 2012  

It seems to be fashionable for the beautiful politically correct trend setters to pick which side is good and which side is bad. It seems that Israel cannot do any good at the moment and is put into the “bad box”. The other side (the good side) cannot do anything wrong and everything from firing missiles into civilian areas to executing “suspected collaborators” on the street is innocent self-defence and love of peace.

Ali Neustein | 10 December 2012  

There is really only one question - why is it OK for the Israelis to do to the Palestinians what it wasn't OK for the Germans to do to the Jews?

hilary | 10 December 2012  

Thank you Ms. Bender for this insightful article with its extra content (from most essays) from a psychologist's point of view. Yes, as Hilary asked "Why is it OK for the Israelis to do to the Palestinians what wasn't OK for the Germans (Nazis should be here instead of Germans) to do to the Jews. And I disagree with the writer who has "good" and "bad" boxes. It was never good ever, to corral innocents and shoot them while they remain in this "box." That can be called "genocide." Is genocide OK?

Jeanne Conte | 11 December 2012  

Ali Neustein, go and read the psalms. Take note specially of what the Babylonian exiles would have done to their enemies' infants if they had half the chance...

JR | 11 December 2012  

There is really only one solution - and it's no different to any other conflict (whether personal or global, one on one or mass scale) - someone on one of the sides needs to make a concession. Call it what you will - maybe not an apology, maybe not a compromise - but someone on one of the sides needs to make a personal sacrifice, even if it means humiliation and cost. But as we know - such gestures are rare in this world economy, and even the religious faiths that suggest such a tactic are not followed (ours included). It's still simply the rule of the jungle, survival of the fittest.

AURELIUS | 11 December 2012  

Dear Lyn, I would like to thank you for yet another article that begins to explore some of the complexities and the consequences of this terrible situation in Israel / Palestine. But I do not think that I can add anything more constructive to your article Lyn. What I would like to address is the tone of some of the comments that appear in response to it. Please be careful about ‘picking sides’ in this conflict, for to pick one side over the other will do nothing to resolve the conflict in a way that recognises the humanity and the fragility of all who are part of this terrible situation, which for far too many is one of very real fear and death.

Refusing to take sides does not stop us from naming those on ‘both sides of the fence’ who do not seek peace and whose rhetoric and action seem to actively undermine its likelihood. Finally, I urge people to think twice before they invoke the language of genocide and Shoah (Holocaust) to describe this very different reality. There is no ‘final solution’ at play here that seeks to annihilate every Palestinian, or every Jew. Let those of us who live so far from this conflict try to stand for peace for all people.

Mark Walsh | 11 December 2012  

Aurelius, you're right. I often think of another context of your proposition - the formation of the Uniting Church from parts of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist churches. Each had to give something up, and sometimes it was an aspect of their church life that seemed absolutely foundational. That they could do it, in such a good cause, confirms for me that willingness to sacrifice is a work of the Spirit with marvellous fruits. However, who are we to tell Israelis or Palestinians that they should sacrifice in the cause of peace? We can only pray that the Spirit will speak in their hearts.

Joan Seymour | 11 December 2012  

Dear Lyn, Thank you for your honesty. We have just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the experience of meeting the military at the checkpoints radicalised everyone on that bus. All Australians from every walk of life they to a person felt outrage at the indignity meted out to non Jews whether Palestinian or not. It seemed that having a gun gave one the right do as one pleased, and they did.

graham patison | 14 December 2012  

Please don't give up the idea that one day all this will be sorted out. It is a political situation and any political situation can be compromised. If they could do it in South Africa and in Northern Ireland they could do it in Israel

Michael | 14 December 2012  

Thank you Lyn. How true it is that before the brain is fully developed we are so vulnerable to idealism and governments the world over exploit this fully. How different the world might be if no-one was allowed to join the military until the age of 25.

spiritedcrone | 15 December 2012  

Ian, 1. Exodus was a propaganda film utterly devoid of facts and 2. there is no such thing as a piece of dirt's right to exist, it is or is not a piece of dirt.

Marilyn | 15 December 2012  

To JOAN SEYMOUR, thanks for your comment but I disagree with your final comment about "who are we to tell Israelis or Palestinians that they should sacrifice in the cause of peace?" Well we are fellow human beings who also have experience of suffering, conflict and attempts to empathise, reconcile and find ways to heal. I'm not talking from an Australian nation point of view - but a human point of view. So really when you suggest we can only 'pray' for them - we are really both saying the same thing. Isn't a prayer also an articulation of our desire - that in order for there to be peace there must be concessions made.

AURELIUS | 16 December 2012  

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