St.-Sgt. Nadav Rotenberg, 20, was killed on January 7, 2011 by friendly fire when a shell fired by a mortar team exploded accidentally. The incident occurred during an exchange of fire with Palestinians who had been spotted trying to plant explosives along the Gaza border.
Golani Brigade soldier St.-Sgt. Moshe Naftali was killed on August 18 last year by friendly fire in a confrontation with terrorists during an attack on Israel’s south in which five people died. “He led his soldiers with courage,” the IDF Spokesman said.
In a ceremony this week on Mount Herzl honoring fallen soldiers, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz laid flags on the graves of Lt. Hila Bezaleli, killed last week when a lighting structure toppled over during a rehearsal for Independence Day, and of Cpl. Yehoshua Hefetz, who collapsed during a trial for an elite IDF unit. – Compiled from press reports
‘Killed by friendly fire” – what an incongruous, almost mocking juxtaposition of images to describe the death of a soldier felled by his own side as a result of accident, negligence, miscalculation or other tragic human error.
For there’s little that can be called friendly about fire, particularly when it kills you.
On this somber Remembrance Day commemorating the some 23,000 individuals who gave their lives in defense of their country – a day in which the bereaved families experience anew the wrenching loss of their fallen loved ones – it occurs to me to ask whether the families of soldiers killed by “friendly fire” bear a more complex, perhaps even heavier emotional burden than other grieving families.
Let it be stated, once and for all: A lost child is a lost child is a lost child. At the basic, most brutal level – the harsh and absolute reality of gonefor- ever that is an inseparable aspect of war – the matter of who fired the bullet or missile that ended the life of a beloved son or daughter, brother or sister, grandson or granddaughter is irrelevant. The loss is the same loss.
But at other, emotional levels, other factors come into play: a desperate, frustrating search for meaning; a heightened sense of impotence and anger, and in some cases a feeling of embarrassment, even shame.
FAMILY THERAPIST Dvora Corn of Life’s Door – Tishkofet, whose work involves helping grieving families, talked to me about helping the families of friendly fire victims find the compass that can help them navigate this turbulent emotional sea. It’s a complex, lifetime process that can be unpredictable, she said, but one that can lead to a deeper self-understanding.
One of the most important parts of grieving, Corn explained, is to be able to find meaning in the loss. “A person begins to heal from the pain by ‘putting things in order.’” That’s just it, I said. The family of a soldier killed by enemy action – whether it was a Ro’i Klein, who jumped on a grenade, absorbing the impact and thereby saving his men, or any soldier killed by the enemy while defending his country – can find some order in their child’s death. They can point to some meaning.
But a soldier killed by his own side? How on earth do you find “order” there? Corn granted that “in accidental or random death, the more you go into that space, the harder it is to find meaning, to build a kind of world order that says, ‘These things are logical.’” The search for meaning, Corn stressed, is thus a search for personal meaning: what the soldier meant to you, or you to them.
“A person who has lost a loved one through random circumstance needs to begin the healing work by asking: ‘How do I start to reconnect to my relationship with that person? How can I reconstruct it in a new way?’ “The bereaved mother needs to ask: ‘How can I still be a mother to my son or daughter [who is no longer among the living]?’” Corn emphasized that this process doesn’t require making sense of the loss. “The world may look for answers,” she said, “but the bereaved family’s work begins with letting go of the need to explain.”
Heroism such as Klein’s can be beside the point, Corn added. Even when a soldier died a heroic death, his parents don’t always integrate that fact; because, essentially, they have lost a son. That is the overwhelming reality.
WHEN IT comes to anger, Western self-help counseling talks a lot about “letting go” of one’s anger, but Corn doesn’t agree; on the contrary.
People who work with grieving and loss talk about NASH, she said, an acronym signifying Natural death, Accidental death, Suicide and Homicide. “As you move up the rankings, so the anger increases.
“Feel the anger, look at it, analyze it, see what color is it, give it a shape and a personality,” she advises clients. “Anger needs to find its place in the family, so the members don’t lose the relationship with each other.”
“Don’t fight the anger or ignore it, but begin to accept it, to understand it. Move it gradually to a place where emotion exists, and ‘frame’ that place.”
Corn seemed to be saying that families need to learn to legitimize their anger at their loved one’s death – but, at the same time, not allow it to rule their lives.
They need to internalize the fact that injustices exist, and turn the energy produced by their anger into something more positive.
“You see a lot of people who turn anger into a cause,” she noted, “putting their emotional energy into helping others.”
Since Remembrance Day also commemorates the victims of terror, I thought of the Koby Mandell Foundation, set up by Seth and Sherri Mandell after their 13- year-old son, Koby, and his friend Yosef Ishran were murdered by terrorists on May 8, 2001. The foundation offers healing programs for families struck by terrorism.
MY FIRST exposure to the notion of a “hierarchy of suffering” came some years ago, when I heard one group of Holocaust survivors speak deprecatingly about other survivors who had “had an easier time” during the Shoah – for example, being interned in a forced labor camp as opposed to a concentration camp.
Such comparisons are, of course, out of place, because who amongst us really possesses the ability to weigh and judge one person’s suffering against another’s? Corn noted a similar phenomenon in the context of soldiers’ deaths.
“An absence of apparent meaningfulness in the public’s immediate understanding of a friendly fire incident creates a hierarchy of who died more ‘nobly,’” – i.e., engaged with the enemy – “and who less nobly,” she said.
After any bereavement, the process of moving back into normal society, of trying to reintegrate with who you were before the tragedy, already carries a sense of embarrassment as people readjust their relationship with you to incorporate your changed reality.
On top of that, Corn noted, any “labeling” of soldiers’ deaths by society could well induce a sense of shame in bereaved families who felt their soldiers hadn’t “made the grade.”
It needs to be spelled out that when a loved one dies, there are no “grades.” “Everybody’s pain is 100 percent,” as Corn put it.
TWO TRUTHS about soldiers killed during their army service: Death is a great leveler. And the death of anyone serving in the IDF – in any capacity whatsoever – is a death in Israel’s defense.
For if Israel didn’t need defending, why would these people be in uniform at all?