Paul Mirbach
Paul Mirbach

Recollections of Lebanon

Courtesy of timesofIsrael, Feb 16 1985.  Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90
Courtesy of timesofIsrael, Feb 16 1985. Photo by Yossi Zamir/Flash90

Last week I came home to find a letter addressed to me from the army. I haven’t received a letter from them ever since I mustered out of the reserves, 17 years ago. Intrigued, I opened the envelope, and in it, I found a campaign ribbon and a letter thanking me for my service during the First Lebanon War.

IDF’s letter, thanking me for my service during the First Lebanon War. A letter of thanks I would have preferred not to have gotten. (Own picture).

And all the memories, that had lain dormant, resurfaced.

The recollections I am about to share are filtered. They cannot describe my entire experience in Lebanon; there are some memories, of things I saw and did there that I can never write about. They will remain buried. They evoke in me a confusing mixture of pride and shame that to this day I have not fully come to terms with, and so they will stay with me.

It continues to confound me how those four months I spent in Lebanon, were like living in another world, a surreal existence, where the breathtaking beauty of the verdant countryside and the pristine beaches seemed to coexist with a dystopian reality of mayhem and unfathomable cruelty and barbarism.

War is indescribable. It is impossible to fully capture the depths of hatred and enmity that drive people to commit such grotesque acts of inhumanity. People who have never participated in war will never be able to grasp the horror of living that reality, and for those who have, it is not the description of war itself that affects them, but that they evoke the fears and emotions that they relive. In my experience, the first time you are fired at, at first you don’t what’s happening. Then the training kicks in. But afterwards, you can’t stop thinking about how your life hangs by a delicate thread, as thin and as wispy as that of a spider web, and how Fate and one split second stands between you and death. You contemplate how close you came to meeting Death, and you can’t stop shaking. But when you fire on a human target you cross a conscious threshold that makes you aware of what you are truly capable of – and it is just as frightening a revelation. It strips away the thin veneer of decency that we cling to and exposes an aspect of oneself that one desperately wants to suppress and bury so that we can feel comfortable living with who we are. At least it was for me, and it happened in Lebanon.

Entering Lebanon was a nerve-wracking experience. The army had converted old army supply trucks from the late sixties and early seventies into open-sided transport vehicles, with two long benches placed back-to-back facing outwards. We were required to sit on these benches in full combat gear, our rifles pointing outwards and with a bullet in the chamber. Those hour-long journeys were the most uncomfortable I have ever experienced. It was impossible to find a comfortable position; the hard collar of my flak jacket dug into the side of my neck and the bottom of the vest was pushed upwards, causing the edge of the sleeve gap to cut into my underarms.  The top of my head itched constantly from my helmet as it jiggled on my head, and there was no place to put my feet because all our kit was piled on the floor beneath us.

I had never felt so exposed to danger in my life. Every rock on the side of the road could be an IED, and there was nothing we could do about it. The back of my neck prickled constantly with the feeling that we were being watched by people hiding in the thick foliage that lined the route, and I was haunted by the feeling that an ambush was imminent. I was struck by how pathetically futile this show of supposed self-defense was, because it was obvious that if we were attacked, there was no way we could get into firing positions to return fire effectively, and there was no way we could disembark under fire without being picked off. (Later, the IDF started transporting soldiers by helicopter, which led to the worst military tragedy in our history, when in 1997, two helicopters carrying 73 soldiers, collided. No one survived).

Clearing a route to an Israeli outpost in Lebanon during the First Lebanon War, looking for IEDs (Courtesy of Times of Israel, Yaron Kaminsky, AP photo, 1996).

Going out on an ambush was nothing like what we practiced in training. In training, we went through the motions. The real thing was deadly serious. I remember the first ambush I went out on. It was a crisp, cold late-autumn night. We had spent the entire afternoon choosing the ambush site and planning the approach to it, working out every detail. After we did our equipment check, we were ordered to rest. But I couldn’t. My stomach was knotted with nerves and my head was swimming with contours on topographical maps, as I tried to remember the route I would have to navigate. I desperately hoped I wouldn’t get it wrong – I had ten of my soldiers behind me and I knew they were watching my every move, not convinced of my abilities. I couldn’t blame them.

Eventually, the time arrived and we were transported in an APC to the drop-off site and from there, we walked seven km to the ambush site. Luckily, I didn’t get lost. Have you ever marched in full gear while wearing a winter, fur-lined jumpsuit? You sweat so much that your back itches and you are incapable of scratching it, and it pours down your face so much, that the chinstrap of your helmet slips and rubs on your skin. But the physical discomfort was the least of our worries. Anyone who has ever moved inside enemy territory knows the feeling of insecurity and how your nerves are on a knife-edge, as you scour your surroundings, second-guessing every fleeting shadow that you pass. Throughout my time in Lebanon, I never lost that feeling.

By the time we reached the ambush site, I was emotionally exhausted. We lay in a circle facing outwards, legs spread, one foot on each other’s to maintain the integrity of the circle and to communicate. After half an hour of lying on the cold, damp ground, the cold seeps through your clothing and you feel the sweat hardening on your skin. We couldn’t march with winter boots, so we had to wear our normal boots, and my toes started to sting from the icy cold that penetrated the leather. Even though all your senses are heightened, you have to fight off falling asleep, and the cold and exhaustion didn’t help.

Four hours felt like an eternity. At one point we were alerted to the approach of three figures moving within range, but it was so dark, we couldn’t see a thing. After they passed, we received the order to pack it up. Both my muscles and my clothes were stiff as boards after lying still for so long and then we had to move quickly to cover our tracks and leave the scene without being noticed. The atmosphere in the APC back up the hill to our outpost was of disappointment, that we missed making contact. Personally, I felt relieved. I don’t think I was psychologically ready to be in a firefight. I wasn’t always so lucky.

Then there was the time I got stuck on the side of a mountain with a broken track on my APC. Our stronghold, Mutzav Livne, also manned a permanent lookout point opposite a Syrian position in the Shouff mountains. One day while climbing the path to the lookout to rotate the soldiers and replenish supplies the APC groaned and jerked, and then broke down. We were stuck, right in front of the Syrian machine-gun nest. After reporting the breakdown to my CO, I was told that we would have to stay there for the night because the regional commander had imposed a ban on the movement of army vehicles in the dark. So, there we were, directly in range of Syrian snipers, unable to move and unable to find cover. And it was freezing cold, with a cutting wind. If I had felt exposed on the transport truck driving into Lebanon, that was nothing in comparison to what I felt now. We were sitting ducks.

There was me as NCO, and two soldiers. We rotated guard duty; one of us guarded from the turret while the other two sat on the hard benches inside the APC, breathing stale air mixed with the smell of dust, gun oil, and grease. None of us slept. We couldn’t light a fire to keep warm, but we had battle rations, which we opened. It was then I first tasted Caffe Egzoz. We used the exhaust pipe of the APC while we kept the engine running, to boil water for coffee. It smelled a bit like diesel, but as I felt the warm liquid slide down my throat, I thought it was the best coffee I had ever had.

The next morning, I went outside as the sun was coming up. The ice covering the mud crackled under my feet as I stood looking over the valley, relieving myself. The valley was so beautiful; it looked pristine, pastoral. It seemed like I could see forever, along the length on the entire valley floor. Below, the green of the cypress trees seemed to shimmer in the rising sun like emeralds, and the fields were the richest, brownest brown. They blended perfectly with the silvery green of the olive trees. It looked so quiet and peaceful from up there, not the war-torn, shredded country I had come to dread. And as I marveled at this beautiful panorama, I thought; What am I doing here? Deep inside another country, closer to the border with Syria than Israel. I didn’t come to Israel, just to die alone on an icy mountainside in Godforsaken Lebanon for a cause I don’t believe in!

And then it hit me;  that while we were in Lebanon, we spent more time and energy defending ourselves, more concerned with getting out of there alive, than we did about the missions we were tasked with – and this was the substantive difference between defending Israel from inside our country, and being an unwanted presence in another country. And if anything determined the way that war would end, it was this.

It was an honor and a privilege to serve in the IDF, despite all the hardships. And I embrace those years of service, both as a regular and as a reservist, with pride and a sense of having done something meaningful for my country. I still have my stripes and bars, which I earned, along with my dog tags. I keep them in a box in a drawer. They are a part of my past that I will always cherish; the sense of mission and accomplishment, the camaraderie, and the contribution to Israel.

My campaign ribbon. (Own picture).

But I wish I had never earned this campaign ribbon.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach (PEM), made Aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz, transforming rocks and mud into a green oasis in the Gallilee. Paul still lives on Tuval. He calls it his little corner of Paradise.
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