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In the 1960s lyricist/satirist (and physicist) Tom Lehrer decided that if any songs were going to be written about World War III "we'd better start writing them now." The result was, as he put it, "a bit of pre-nostalgia" - a song that the boys sang as they went bravely off to The Third World War.
It starts like this:
So long, mom,
I'm off to drop the bomb,
So don't wait up for me.
But while you swelter
Down there in your shelter,
You can see me
On your TV.
and finishes thus:
I'm off to get a commie,
So send me a salami,
And try to smile somehow.
I'll look for you when the war is over,
An hour and a half from now.
Nostalgia obviously works better with hindsight. Predicting that there will be another war is a lot easier than determining who the bad guys are going to be and where and how it's going to be fought. Lehrer's communists, for example, have been replaced in Hollywood and the real world with Islamist extremists. Nonetheless, I found myself humming the ditty recently as I reflected on wars past, present and future.
IT'S THAT TIME of year. We are getting close to June 5, which marks the start of the Six Day War 40 years ago, and June 6, the outbreak of the First Lebanon War (which is still officially called by the optimistic name Operation Peace for Galilee). Given that it's also been almost a year since the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War (the Hizbullah war), thoughts of the periodic hostilities inevitably crash into my mind now and again with all the grace and desirability of the average rocket attack.
When I was growing up in England adults used to talk about The War and mean only one thing: World War II. I have learned to envy the fact that no other wars have impinged on the inherent security felt in a country which was last invaded, as any English schoolkid could tell you, in the Norman Conquest - generally referred to as "1066 and all that" after the humorous book of the same name which summed up British history.
British humor (actually that should be "humour") helped the country survive the Blitz (and served my family well in later wars as well).
As Fawlty Towers' proprietor Basil famously put it in a memorable episode of the television comedy series when serving German guests: "Don't mention the war. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it..."
But like Basil, who just couldn't leave the subject alone, I keep poking at those memories, an itch which bleeds when you scratch too hard but disappears when suitably distracted by the many fun things in life.
'MY WAR" was definitely the 1982 one, which lasted longer than anyone feared and took the lives of many more Israeli soldiers than anyone had dared consider - more than 600. Having spent the build-up period of Katyusha attacks as a soldier in the North, I, like the most of the country, fully supported the start of the operation. Even the Knesset in Lebanon I (and later Lebanon II) was united about the need for action.
One of the last things I did in military service was prepare a letter to be given to the UN soldiers asking them not to interfere as the IDF moved through the areas they were meant to be controlling. But I realized even as a 21-year-old corporal that if the UN peacekeepers would take no action if Israel sent them a nice polite letter, it was hardly surprising they hadn't been doing much to stop the Palestinian terrorists who spoke through missiles instead of missives.
In 1982, Karmiel was home for me. It not only felt safe, it was safe. With the IDF in Lebanon, the threat of terrorist infiltration in the Galilee town - a very real one until then - was removed, and missiles were not sophisticated enough to reach us the way they did places like Nahariya.
By the summer of 2006, Jerusalem was my home - and the temporary safe haven of many Galilee residents, including those from Karmiel, seeking respite from Hizbullah's missiles.
Hizbullah wasn't on the map in any sense in 1982. Israel was fighting the PLO, Amal and Syria.
Today's wars, as Lehrer predicted, are very different. And while war is a concept known worldwide there were many uniquely Israeli aspects to Lebanon I, at least as I recall it.
I knew soldiers who hitched a lift back home from near Beirut in a Chabad "mitzva tank" - not the sort of tank US or British soldiers would recognize on their battle lines - a truck fitted out to help soldiers put on tefillin and meet other Jewish ritual requirements.
My mother had the extraordinary experience of driving her son back to the war, dropping him off at Rosh Hanikra or Metulla or wherever, with supplies of food, clean socks and fearful wishes to look after himself.
I DOUBT a soldier in any other country could even relate to the idea of popping home for the weekend.
It underlines the fundamental difference between Israel's wars and the wars being fought elsewhere. The US, Britain and the allies might be fighting global terrorism - terrorism which hits home be it in New York, London, Madrid or vacationing Australians in Bali - but they are not fighting the war right on their doorsteps, a short ride away from their soldiers' homes and families.
Israel's front lines are too close to the home front for comfort. IDF troops combating last summer's Katyushas in the North and the six years of Kassams being fired from Gaza are, at most, a few hours' bus ride from their own front doors.
Israel's many detractors are willing to concede that the country still faces the double-edged threat of missiles and terrorism. What is less acknowledged - at least out loud - is that Israel is fighting World War III.
Perhaps the realization is unspeakable. For when Israel is on constant alert for terror attacks and suffering missile barrages, the rest of the global village needs to either take serious action or start cleaning out its own shelters for a protracted stay.
When will it be over? Not Lehrer's "An hour and a half from now," obviously. Not until all the MIAs - from 1982 on - are back and our homes are again safe and sound. Perhaps when the proverbial fat lady sings Lehrer's lyrics without wincing.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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