The new 'normal' is the waiting for more war

We can talk about what our leaders did and did not do, but we also have to talk about our willingness to accept casualties.

By R.Z. FRIEDMAN
August 22, 2006 03:33

 
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A week after the cease-fire went into effect, Nahariya would seem to be back to normal. The town's population has returned, and the physical damage is being quickly erased as crews replace the glass and broken storefronts in those establishments damaged during the "Katyusha War." But the "normal" that now prevails is not what people wanted to return to, the situation as it was before the soldiers were attacked and kidnapped along the border. Then, normal meant quiet (though of course not peace) and a secure situation that seemed durable and predictable. But the new normal offers the residents of Nahariya little more than a day-to-day staying of the conflict. In the new normal, we are waiting for war. That we should find ourselves in this situation is the subject of much discussion in the country, as it should be. The chief of General Staff, the defense minister and the prime minister will be called upon to explain why the war failed to bring about the release of the kidnapped soldiers, the reigning in of the Katyushas or the marginalization of Hizbullah. There were serious failures in the execution of the war and they must be dealt with before the next one breaks out. The conflict expanded our knowledge of our opponents on the other side of the Lebanese border: Hizbullah is stronger than we thought, Lebanon is weaker, Syria is bolder and Iran is obviously seeking a dominant role in the politics of the region. These are all important issues - but it is another aspect of the war that absorbs me these days: our attitude towards the loss of soldiers. This was brought home to me on my first post-war bike ride up along the coast to Rosh Hanikra. I anticipated a bright sunny day, but it was cloudy and dull as I began my ride. Making my way out of town I came across the neat, round hole of a Katyusha hit in the road alongside a playground. Farther along was a residential building damaged by a rocket on its upper balcony. The walls leading to the roof had been peppered with shrapnel. As I rode north along the sea, I saw more than the already intolerable amount of garbage on the beach and along the road, the result of a month of neglect. The heat has been intense in recent days, and the odor of decaying matter was heavy even in the relative cool of early morning. Two boys standing along the side of the road looked at me furtively. They were packing a cylindrical metal object into a plastic bag. I assume it was part of a Katyusha they had found and were claiming for a souvenir. There was evidence of fires in the fields alongside of the road, quite possibly the results of rocket hits. My attention was drawn to a small monument alongside the road, a marker I have passed many times in the past few years. The stone slab sits in a small circle of flowers in a border of smaller stones. We are told that on this site in 1995 an 18-year-old boy was hit and killed by a Katyusha. The point of impact is still clearly visible, a semi-circle of pavement is missing where the road joins the shoulder. Ripple marks also caused by the impact spread across the road. This marker has been in place for about three years now, having replaced a more improvised but more compelling one. It was simply a low mound of rocks that cradled the boy's photograph and gave his name, age and the basic details of his death. On a number of occasions I have seen a middle-age man drive up to the little monument and water the flowers. I don't know who he is, but I assume he is the boy's father. It is painful to think about this life cut short by an un-aimed rocket from the sky, to wonder about the thoughts of this father who faithfully maintains the site. One day a few years ago I was wheeling my bike through the military cemetery in Nahariya. I thought that I was the only visitor, when I spied a man working among the graves. At first I thought he must be a gardener, but then realized he was not in work clothes and that he was tending only one grave. I must have come too close, or expressed too much interest in what he was doing, because he looked up at me with an expression that told me to come no closer. It was then that I realized he must have been the dead soldier's father, perhaps not merely tending the grave but sharing a quiet moment with his son. The little monument alongside of the sea road brought this memory to mind and led me to think once again about the many soldiers, sons and fathers, and this time even a daughter, who have died this past month. I was on the train coming north last Wednesday evening. It was the first day since the fighting began that the train was allowed to proceed all the way to Nahariya. Residents of the North rode for free, and the train was full. Families with kids occupied many of the seats. Soldiers and teenagers sat in the aisles. Heavy bags and backpacks were shoved in whatever room was left. People were heading home, and some mild inconvenience was not going to mar their relief that they would sleep in their own beds that night. At Atlit, the seats across from me became vacant, and this allowed two teenage boys to move up from the floor. They talked about this and that, and then the discussion turned to the army, about how long before they would be inducted. Two years, it would seem, making them just 16 years old. One said there would be a war with Syria, that his father was sure of it. The other boy listened and shrugged. I was looking at the next generation of soldiers gamely facing a task they could only partially understand. We can talk about what our leaders did and did not do, about what we have learned about the people and politics of the region as a result of this conflict. But I think we will also have to talk about our willingness to accept casualties. How many people would have responded to the often heard call for large numbers of troops to be committed to an aggressive ground war against Hizbullah if that meant there would be a large increase in the number of casualties? We think that our cause is just, and we want and need to win, but in our minds and hearts we quickly count up the casualties, see the photos of the dead soldiers in the papers, imagine their parents and ourselves in their places, and wonder if it is worth it. Our sense of what victory will cost, and whether we are willing to pay the price, may be the most important element in determining whether it is achieved.

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