January 3, 2020 was a special day for me. It was a chilly Friday morning in Tel Aviv, and even though the Israeli Friday is like an American Saturday and I didn’t have work, I was still up early getting ready to head down to the beach in order to help run a pre army program for young foreigners eager to join some of the most coveted units in the IDF. That morning, sipping my coffee getting ready to head out, I saw a simple and straight notification sent to me courtesy of my subscription to the New York Times: “U.S. Strike in Iraq Kills Qassim Suleimani, Commander of Iranian Forces.” The reporting was excellent (it’s the New York Times after all) honest, straightforward, giving the facts along with quotes from everyone from President Donald Trump to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and even an official statement from the Pentagon. There was even a helpful graphic showing a satellite image of the Baghdad airport with a little picture, which pointed out exactly where the assassination had actually happened. But the best part — no analysis, no hysteria, no so-called “experts” weighing in on the situation, just facts. As a result, for the first time in a long something I felt a feeling that I realized I missed having; I felt a rush of pride for the country I had grown up in — the United States of America.
After a full year of touch and go, of Iran shooting down an American drone, attacking shipping vessels, and even bombing a Saudi oil refinery met with little response from an administration who had basically said they were willing to go to war with Iran after pulling out of the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear agreement) we had acted. America flexed its muscle and showed Iran that the most powerful country on Earth was not going to back down after one of our own had been killed. I was proud that day to call myself an American.
That feeling didn’t last long; within days every political pundit and idiot with an opinion (except for me, I was late to the party) was jumping into the drunken pool of moronic insanity, hysterically claiming that we were inches from war and annihilation or foaming at the mouth eager for war to begin like it was some sort of Superbowl event. A coworker of mine, who had gone back to Los Angeles to visit her family, messaged me asking, “What’s it like in Israel? Is everyone freaking out? Cuz everyone here is panicking.” What was remarkable to me was that nobody was “freaking out.” In fact, other than a couple of conversations around the coffee machine at the office, business went on as usual.
What I remembered is that Israelis are used to being under the threat of war. When I was serving in the IDF it was something that our officers used to shove down our throats all the time. Every company meeting was met with our commander telling us something along the lines of, “Just so you all know, I’ve met with the higher ups, they predict that within the next few weeks we will be entering [insert enemy country of choice] so you all need to be ready.” I used to read every news headline describing a missile attack with absolute apprehension. Was this it? I asked myself, was this the incident that was going to snowball into some bigger thing and uproot me from my regular schedule, plunging me into the unpredictable and chaotic world of war and violence from which I might never return?
Even once, while visiting my family in California, I got a message from my commanding officer telling me to be ready at a moments notice to get my ass to the airport and on the first flight back to Israel. An Israeli citizen had been killed in a missile attack out of Gaza and the leaders of the security apparatus were convening. What should have been a relaxing time with my family, who I hadn’t seen in over a year, turned into a stressful affair involving me anxiously checking my phone as I read every update, every analysis, for signs of what the powers that be had decided for the rest of us. It was an inescapable feeling of dread.
The crazy thing is that with enough time you got used to it, the feeling of impending doom hanging over you, and after awhile you even begin to read through the bullshit and understand what’s an actual threat and what’s just panic. You realize things like we won’t go to war now, it’s winter, and tanks and vehicles can’t move in mud and rainstorms make flying unpredictable. Or, they won’t declare war, it’s an election and it might hurt Netanyahu’s chances. Or, Hamas is already having trouble with controlling their population, they’ll pull back first before things get out of hand. You start to see things through your enemy’s eyes and step outside just yourself. After awhile, you become rational, you learn to look past the headlines and hysteria meant to move newspapers and learn to assess an issue through multiple perspectives.
I’ve had soldiers in Hezbollah, guys who may have returned from fighting for years in combat in Syria, point their weapons at me and ,starring down the barrels of their guns less than 15 meters away from me thought to myself, “They’re not going to do shit. It’ll start an incident that nobody wants, especially with the protests going on in Lebanon right now. There’s no way this guy was given an order to shoot. If he does, there’s a good chance he may be jailed or worse for creating a problem with a country which poses a huge threat.”
But most modern Americans haven’t lived through experiences like that, at least not since since September 11, and the slight increase of a chance of war suddenly sent everyone spiraling in to hysterics. After hearing my coworker tell me that I sent her back a message, “Do yourself a favor, stay off of MSNBC and the New York Times.” All the actual experts whose opinions I found with a quick Google search, academics who had dedicated their lives studying Iranian-American relations, had all come to essentially the same conclusion; this is definitely not good for US-Iran relations but other than that, Iran had been basically backed into a corner.
Most people tell each other to stand up to the bad guys. To be tough, to be strong and confident. But most people don’t know how it feels to be staring at someone who wants nothing more than to hurt you. Who would smile if you were on the ground bleeding. Standing up to a person like that, or in this case a country, takes courage because you could get hurt. Bad things can happen but you have to be ready to accept that because if you don’t that bully is coming back the next day and the day after that until giving him your lunch money becomes second nature. We tell our boys to stand up to schoolyard bullies, and we tell our girls to stand up to boys who pressure them for sex. So why don’t we tell our country to stand up to nations who want to hurt its citizens? The JCPOA is over, and whether we like that or not is irrelevant, the man we chose to represent us decided it wasn’t in our interest and now we as a country have to be ready to take the next steps. Rather than read the newspapers that want to scare us in to buying more newspapers, lets be smart and listen to the actual experts. Let’s understand that sometimes we have to do scary things if we want to be taken seriously, if we want to stop bullies and people from hurting us. Let’s be brave, and be smart. Let’s remember that the United States, for many people, is a beacon of hope and salvation. Speaking as someone who lives in a tiny country always on edge, we look to America as inspiration. What I learned is that inspiration, that beacon, isn’t lit by just the soldiers and politicians, it’s lit by every citizen who is ready to accept the worst possible scenario, but not dumb enough to immediately expect it. To see a situation for what it is, scary but not an inevitable descent to the worst possible outcome. To be nervous, unsure even, but still standing ready and brave.