They were only two years of my life, but they changed everything. The memories sit on my brain like a scar, a wound healed but ever present. A scar I see every time I look in my mind’s eye. Every time I look at my life.
The first thing I tell anyone about myself is that I served in the Israel Defense Force. That I was a paratrooper. It’s been 12 years since I was released and nothing since has come close to those days in the army. Nothing since has given me the same sense of meaning, that same feeling of belonging, of being involved in something important, of participating in something so important that it was worth my life or just my arm or my leg.
I think about those two years of service every day. My memories sit with me. They keep me company. I remember my brothers from the August 2002 team. I remember civilians from Nablus and Jenin, though with the passage of time they all seem to blend in to one miserable face. I remember a 40-something man wandering around holding a colostomy bag while I searched his home. I remember the old woman, perhaps his mother, who sat on the ground in the middle of a courtyard rocking herself backwards and forwards. I remember a house in a village perched on a hill, a woman sat on the floor in the middle of a room clutching a child while laughing hysterically. My friend saw me staring and simply said “meshuga.”
I remember the first time I was shot at. I remember thinking it really is exactly the same way it happens in the movies. I remember feeling not afraid but proud. Now I was a soldier who had been under fire. But most of all I remember being consumed by a white light. A light so powerful it engulfed me and all my friends within its embrace. A light accompanied by a bang so loud I couldn’t hear anything other than a high pitched whine in the moments after.
A moment that seemed to go on forever.
I was confused, which is to say I wasn’t confused at all, but utterly certain I had died. The white light and the loud bang were an explosion I was certain had killed me. And death wasn’t bad at all.
But it hadn’t killed me. It had just thrown up so much dust it was impossible to see anything except the white light showering down on us from a lamp post. The sudden flash of white light morphed very quickly into a softer hazy white. I stood entranced, wondering how all the mystics seemed to know that there really was a connection between death and white light.
But I wasn’t dead and the light came from a lamp post rendered invisible by the cloud of dust and smoke thrown up by the blast. It felt like the whole world had simply turned into a bright white cloud.
The explosion killed none of us.
For years after, I would experience the embrace of that beautiful white cloud, reliving it over and over. Sometimes I longed for it. Often I wished it would really take me away. It reminded me of a comic book I read once. A crippled Vietnam veteran finally dies a long time after the war. In death, he is reunited with his legs and his comrades from ‘Nam. Together, they fight a never-ending war against darkness. This was his heaven. In the days and nights after my release from the army, it seemed to me that heaven would look a lot like Nablus with my friends and me being stuck in a wrinkle in time going out night after night into the darkness forever.
Ernest Hemingway said:
There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.”
And I did like it. I reveled in it. I loved every second of it. Even the stupid little things. Especially the stupid little things. The taste of coffee. I’ll never again taste Turkish coffee right after an op. As good as the Turkish coffee made in a friend’s finjan is now it can’t compare to the I’mstillalive coffee made by the same friend in the same finjan back then. It doesn’t matter what delicacies I eat; they will never taste as good as tinned rations after a day or two without food. No feeling will come close to looking at a suicide bomber I’d arrested before he had even left the safe house and knowing it had been me that stopped him.
It doesn’t matter what I do with my life now. It will never be so full of purpose as it was during the days of the al Aqsa Intifada when I went out night after night. I enjoyed it. I loved it. I lived for it and I didn’t want to do anything else. Other guys cracked from the strain, they reached a point beyond which they couldn’t move. A number of ops beyond which they couldn’t stretch. But me? I was fine when I was in the middle of it; it was when I was out of the army that I fell apart.
Because when you enjoy military operations, what else is there?
When they let you go on the weekend, what amount of alcohol can compare with the adrenaline of an operation?
How can you sit by the pool one day after wading through garbage left to fester in the casbah of Nablus the night before? The juxtaposition was too much for me and I rebelled against it, choosing to remain in my room on kibbutz, barely leaving until it was time to go back into the army once again.
They call it Post Traumatic Stress Disorder when you have things like flashbacks, depression, suicidal thoughts. There were other things too after getting out of the army. Lots of drinking, fighting and all around unhappiness came in the days and years after my release. Thinking about it now, that happened even during my service.
But I take issue with the word disorder. I’m not sure how else a perfectly sane human being is supposed to respond to the stresses of serving in an army, being shot at and shooting at others, dealing with civilians and such.
Perhaps writing is my therapy. I know thinking about how I would write the experiences up helped me make it through the tough slog of training. Doing the writing helped me through the tough days in the wake of my release and return to London. The manuscript is almost ready. I threw everything into it, from running through the desert sand as a new recruit to the time someone threw a washing machine on our armored vehicle while I was standing outside shooting rubber bullets and screaming expletives at stone-throwers on the rooftops above us. And to my descent back to London and the time my parents locked themselves in their bedroom after one of my alcohol fueled rages at them, Israel, Palestine and the unfairness of a war I had expected to find and the reality that greeted me instead. The reality of a has-been soldier vomiting on the carpet of his bedroom floor.
All I hope now is that we don’t go back to the days of buses blowing up on our streets. But it looks like it might be too late for that.