From Vietnam to Baltimore to Gaza: in response to a “report” by “Breaking the Silence”

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, arguably America’s most infamous military failure. With the subsequent fall of Saigon American troupes returned home to hostile greetings and sentiments someone of my generation and upbringing could never understand. As an Israeli and as an American, I was raised to revere the men and women which protect both of my homelands, regardless of whether or not I agree with the cause.

In compensation for the cold welcome home, and commemoration of the war itself, TIME magazine published a photo gallery on their website titled 39 Photos That Captured the Human Side of the Vietnam War. It wasn’t the war history geek buried somewhere (if at all) deep down inside me that was attracted to the article, but rather the use of words. “The Human Side” stated the title; as if it needed to be revealed, as though the humanity had been collecting dust under a white sheet for the last five decades. War is one of the most human things I can think of. It’s tragic, it’s horrible, and as a pacifist I wish it weren’t true, but in fact war is the activity humanity as a whole has been most preoccupied with since history (written or otherwise), can recall. I opened the article anyway, and as advertised there it was: human men being human. Their faces young, exhausted, seemingly unprepared or perhaps grasping at a remaining strand of naivete, as they carry bleeding children or attempt to calm a little girl’s screams by presenting her with an Anglo-looking plastic doll, or point a gun at a Viet Cong POW’s head. Apart from the weapons and uniforms, every photo seemed like it could have been taken yesterday. Smiles and kindness, like tears, never go out of style. I wasn’t surprised to see the humanity TIME had promised to deliver, but for some reason it made it difficult to swallow. Here were these men, doing what they were sent to do – whether by force or volition- to the best of their abilities. Straddled with the task of not only becoming murderers for the sake of someone else’s sense of liberty, but also to care for those who have no part in the greater scheme of things, when they themselves are also nothing more than pawns.

It sounded all too familiar.

Recently the United States [and Israel] has seen an out-pour of violent responses to police brutality. Rather than wonder what kind of psychological changes these working men and women must have come under to lead them to respond to unarmed civilians with violence, the masses have labeled them evil. Since the protests began, officers of law have been laid to rest as retribution for someone else’ crimes. It has become somewhat of a civil war, and I can’t understand it. I can’t understand police officers using violence against those they are sworn to protect, I can’t understand their “top brass” who bypass the court system and refuse to seek anger management or psychological assistance for those employees who apparently need it, and I don’t understand how blood for blood could ever be the answer. Just as I cannot understand the homefront reactions to Vietnam, I cannot understand the hostility taking place across the pond. I may not agree with the actions of our police forces, but I also cannot agree to use blanketing terms which label the police as criminals, evil or racists. Maybe some of them are, it’s certainly possible. However, I guarantee that many of them are men and women who, in the process of doing a job that not many are willing to do, have laid witness or experienced events that have shaped them for better or worse. Without doubt they should be tried and charged as any other citizen. Yet that is not what concerns me. My concern lies in the question of how our generation is mindlessly repeating the same shameful behavior our parent’s generation exhibited in 1975 and the years following. Even when hate is the question, should adding on more hate be the answer? Do you put out a fire by adding wood?

I’m not a police officer, and I’m not a solider, nor have I ever been one. Incidentally, however, I work in international affairs. As an Israeli, that means constantly having to justify my nationality to people who don’t seem to think I should have the right to call myself what I am. If I should suggest I call myself a Palestinian instead, they become outraged and point accusing fingers in my too-fair-skinned direction. Well if I’m not Israeli, and I’m not Palestinian, then what am I? What they want to say (but can’t for fear of being politically incorrect and/or outwardly anti-Semitic) is that I’m a Jew. Niether here nor there.

The Jewish question hasn’t gone anywhere since the 1930’s. It still weighs heavily upon front pages of world newspapers and websites. The Western world still hasn’t figured out what to do with those damned Jews who survived its well supported genocide to give birth to children, grandchildren and so on. In response, some of those very same damned Jews took what was given to them in 1947 and did something with it, not wanting to dillydally while the world made up its mind. As the story goes, the offspring of damn Jews had the audacity to take up weapons and defend themselves from the relentless attacks of neighboring countries and at once its own residents (to clarify, Palestinians are not included as a neighboring country, since at the time there was no internationally received concept of a Palestinian country with a Arab-dominated society in what is today Israel). In lieu of said behavior the world has consistently remained critical of those damn Jews.

Along with never having been a soldier or an officer, I’ve also never been much of a Jew, but I’d be Jewish enough for Auschwitz and I think that’s what counts. I want to keep on living, and I want the people around me to keep on living.

Sometimes when serving my function as a voice against calls to put an end to the state of Israel, I have a funny feeling. I have this image of a man or woman reading a news piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict somewhere on a plush white sofa in France while having a slice of Tarte Tatin with their coffee and thinking to themselves “those damn Jews are at again, taking over the world, murdering left and right, behaving like animals”, and daintly wiping away crumbs with the edge of a cloth napkin while birds whistle asynchronously outside. I theorize that it’s hard for them to recognize that Israel, like any other nation (including France), is subject to making mistakes, and like every nation in Europe at the very least, has likely engaged in regrettable warfare, and has, not unlike the rest of the world, not always been a perfect country. It has its problems like any other. And just as in any other country, there are those who agree with the government and those who fight desperately against it. The EU, best of all  -with its greedy ongoing colonization holding half of the world’s poorest countries pinned under its shoe still decades after the word “imperial” had been phased out of describing any one of it’s 28 members- should know this best. The fact that the world forgets all this leads me to conclude that either the majority of the world holds those damn Jews to exceedingly high expectations (higher than that of, say, China, Russia, Japan, 90% of the Middle East, a substantial part of Africa and, yes, even the US and continental Europe itself), or that they subconsciously wish they could press the “redo” button on the day they liberated the many concentration camps from which these Jews, like rats, were released to infest the world with their insufferable character once more. [Should this person indeed be sitting in France with his/her Tarte, I’d like to kindly remind them that in regards to the Jewish liberation, they need not blame themselves too terribly. The French never liberated anything beyond Louis the XIV’s bursting trouser buttons].

In team with Western sentiments, this past summer photographs of “Israeli” soldiers murdering children and holding guns to bloody civilians were strewn across the Internet like the business cards that pave Ben Yehuda St. on a weekend. Incidentally these soldiers were wearing sandals, brown uniforms, carrying AK47s and had headscarves wrapped around their heads whilst presumably in combat. I don’t have to be a soldier myself to know how wrong this description is. Also incidentally, these children were in Syria, and having followed the events of Israel’s northern neighbors far more religiously than I would venture most of my ever-criticizing European, Asian, and American counterparts have been, I identified the photos as the results of a violent Syrain civil war immediately. It became a task of mine to comb my Facebook newsfeed every morning and ask my “friends” to kindly remove such false images, amicably explaining that they have been misinformed, and sometimes including a photo of what our soldiers look like in combat, or the original article from which the photo in question had be extracted.

It occurred to me that everyone I know in this country is a villain to the world outside. Like the soldiers of Vietnam and the police force in the states, Israelis- and Israeli soldiers in particular- are dehumanized. You need to see videos and photos of them giving bread and water to hungry Palestinian children, or carrying the old and weak to safety, in order to believe that these are real people like you and I, and even so you simply wouldn’t believe it. The IDF sends the largest number of emergency response personnel to Nepal and in return receives criticism for supposedly turning a blind eye to Gaza, all the while shipments of goods enter Gaza through Israel’s Erez crossing regularly. It simply doesn’t add up, particularly if the only thing you’ve heard of Israel is bloodshed. More so if you had no idea Israel has been treating injured Syrians (still technically enemies of the state) at its northern border for over a year, or that it had set up field hospitals near Gaza’s borders to treat civilians during last summer’s war. I have yet to recall a point in European history in which the Romans sent medical supplies to the Germanic tribes, or when the British caringly tended to the Scots, Irish, Dutch, Spanish, French, East Indies, Indians, Sierra Leonians, Ceylonians, Chinese, Argentinians, Southeast Asians, Egyptians, Canadains, Americans, Australians, shall I keep going? Nor more recently, when the Soviets stormed what is now Eastern Germany ready to bandage and care for war-weary German women (quite the contrary actually), nor the day that Serbians,  Croatians and Bosnians took care of one another for the entire decade during which I came into a adulthood. To summarize, Europe is aruguably the most conisistently bloodthirsty, centralized group of peoples on the planet. That does not mean that all that Europe takes part in is bad, unjustice, inherently corrupt, or harmful.

Yet, in their watchful eye, if Israel’s activities on the whole don’t add up, then they must be a farce, acts of pure evil. That is an easy immediate response to take. These days, being anti-Israel come with a free bag of kale chips, a plad shirt, and a badge that says you’ve scrolled through the news thus you must be intelligent and intelligent is sexy. As for me, I can’t seem to grasp why hateful responses are so prevalent. Why is it so common that we use hate to cope when we see good and bad existing side by side, or when there is anything we fail at being able to accurately categorize we can do nothing more than immediately resort to hating it, or form timid attempts at political correctness to avoid admitting that not everything around us is categorical.

There’s this theory that when we see something different, it is easier to hate it than to attempt to understand it. I’d prefer to believe that we can learn from our mistakes. That umbrella ideologies, and all-encompassing tags should lay to waste like the remains of mines which line the beaches of Da Nang. That it’s possible that good and bad can, and often do, coexist ; within the workings of a nation, and within any living being, be it man or mouse. That it’s likely that every woman or man is protecting something, whether or not you know of what it is. That it’s possible that at the end of our day, whether turning off the computer screen at the office, or sleeping in a foxhole, or laying down the pistol and badge, most of us just want to keep living and loving those who make living all that it is, without bearing the burden of hatred on our fatigued forms.

If we could just accept the empty spaces that question marks leave in our minds, without having the need to fill them in with a black or white marker, I think the world would be…well…more colorful.

About the Author
Hila Karmi holds a BA in English and an MSc. in Environmental Science. She has written many things.