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Remembering the unglorious Lebanon War

Making the hairpin mountain turn and seeing Beirut below us, I turned to the soldier next to me in the jeep and said, 'We're never getting out of here'
Michael Oren on the outskirts of Beirut during the Lebanon War (Courtesy)
Michael Oren on the outskirts of Beirut during the Lebanon War (Courtesy)

On Father’s Day in the United States my American family gathered in the house where my mother still lives, in New Jersey, to celebrate all our fathers, including the one who won’t be there. My father died over a year ago at age 95, yet he left many powerful and loving memories. And he left the War Room, an addition to my parents’ bedroom that showcases my father’s war trophies. These include, among many other medals, two Bronze Stars for Valor and the French Legion of Merit, and mementos from the Normandy Invasion and Battle of the Bulge reunions he attended.

Being a World War II veteran was a big – some would say the biggest – part of my father’s identity, and he spoke about his war experiences constantly. By age 10, I knew all his stories by heart and, in his old age, remembered them better than he did. Several of my books, including my forthcoming novel, Swann’s War, are set in the early 1940s. Naturally, then, growing up, I often wondered how I’d perform in warfare, under fire, facing death. And then, in June 1982, 40 years ago this week, I learned.

Fresh out of my regular service in the paratroopers, I was already a reservist that summer, assigned to a forward recon unit that was supposed to probe the enemy ahead of our main army’s advance. That action was clearly only a matter of days away, with the PLO relentlessly shelling northern Israel. The assumption was that the government of Menachem Begin would send the IDF into Southern Israel and push the terrorists out of rocket range. A single spark was needed to set off the war and it came on June 3, with the attempted assassination of Shlomo Argov, our ambassador in London. Though the gunmen belonged to a rival faction of the PLO, Begin nevertheless used the event to justify invasion.

The war, at least initially, was overwhelmingly popular. Everyone agreed on the need to deal with the intolerable PLO threat. Only later, with the revelation of Defense Minister Ariel Sharon´s master plan to order the army to Beirut and lay siege to the city, to kick the PLO together with the Syrian army out of Lebanon entirely and install a pro-Western, pro-peace Christian government, did the controversy in Israel begin. Still, had the scheme worked, had Lebanon been transformed into a tranquil country, becoming, after Egypt, the second Arab country to make peace with Israel, the war would have been deemed an historic success. History, tragically, had other ideas.

Those of us fighting, though, had little time for history. Late in receiving my call-up notice, I arrived at my base only to find my unit’s jeeps already mounting on helicopters. I hopped on a command car intending to link up with them in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre. But by the time I did, the unit had already fallen into a Syrian ambush, killing our officer and wounding many of our soldiers. The command car, meanwhile, joined the major paratrooper column that came under often withering attack. That’s what I learned about war.

It wasn’t at all as my father described it. To be sure, I saw unforgettable acts of heroism – soldiers running under fire to save the wounded, an anti-aircraft crew that remained exposed to shoot down the Syrian MiG that was strafing us – but none of them were mine. Heroism was the last thing on my mind. I was focused on staying alive and not accidentally firing on our own forces, a common calamity in battle. I saw things that I knew even then would haunt me always. My only claim to glory was dubious: being on one of the first vehicles to make a hairpin mountain turn and see below the sprawling city of Beirut. I turned to the soldier next to me in the jeep and said, “We’re never getting out of here.”

All told, I calculated a spent a year of my life in Lebanon – in Beirut and in the Security Belt to which Israel later withdrew. I participated in the 2006 Second Lebanon War as well. I fought against Palestinians, Syrians, Druze, and finally Shiites. There were nights when any one of these enemies, or combination of them, were shooting at us. Throughout, my sole concern was to defend our country and, in the process, survive. But the last thing I ever wanted, coming home, was to talk about it.

With few exceptions, my kids never heard my war stories. It was bad enough I remembered them so why should I burden them as well? And even if I were disposed to reminisce, what would I relate? About the bodies and the fear and the pain? Even if there were space in my Tel Aviv apartment, I will never have a war room.

But I will remember the fathers. The fathers who were or who might have been, the sons and daughters as well, and not only on Father’s Day but every day. There was no glory in what we now call the First Lebanon War but there were acts of extraordinary courage and self-sacrifice. And no matter how ill-conceived the plan, there was no detracting from the willingness of tens of thousands of young Israelis to risk their lives defending their country. Hundreds did not come home while a great many others did but with lifelong injuries. My family does not have to hear that from me, but Israelis must remind themselves and others. War is never glorious, but it can reveal something profound and enduring about a country and its people.

About the Author
Michael Oren was formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a Member of Knesset, a deputy minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. His latest book is, To All Who Call in Truth (Wicked Son, 2021).
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