Behind the Lines: Killing the messenger

Fallen soldiers were defending a democratic way of life.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
The night following the cease-fire, I liberated Amir from his post at the underground field hospital in Kiryat Shmona. After three weeks of his living in a MASH-like fantasy - where he had assigned all the doctors and medics nicknames like "Hawkeye and "Hot Lips" - the war had finally caught up with him. During the fighting, all the wounded were flown to regular hospitals. On the morning of the cease-fire, however, seventy soldiers with "non-urgent" conditions were brought to the field hospital. Officially, none of them had serious injuries. But now that the battles in which they had participated were suddenly over, what they had experienced in Lebanon was now surfacing. The younger, regular soldiers were anxious to return as soon as possible to their "hevre (comrades) in the field," and it was all Amir could do to make them take a shower and get some rest. The older reservists started to realize how lucky they were to be alive, and now had to find a way to face the wives and children of fallen comrades. And the first cases of shell-shock and post-trauma began appearing. The medical teams found themselves acting more as older brothers and psychologists. After a long day, Amir and I both felt we deserved a beer, and drove to the border town of Metulla, where bars and restaurants were bustling with groups of foreign journalists and soldiers fresh from the front lines. A bit after midnight, we heard familiar music emanating from the local synagogue, and we followed the sound down the road. There, in the structure's picturesque courtyard, was Ariel Zilber performing golden oldies for an audience of a few dozen reservists. The now kippa-clad veteran troubadour sang, and we all sang along with him. Zilber underwent a transformation over the last few years, dismaying his friends when he decided that the settlers were the "salt of the earth," and became the Bob Dylan of the anti-disengagement movement. Exactly a year ago, the former bohemian also performed for groups of soldiers. But then he was calling on them to disobey orders and refuse to participate in the evacuation of Gush Katif; now he was volunteering to join the IDF war effort. Last year's anger had been replaced by a kind of woeful cynicism, which he exhibited by incorporating light-hearted politics into his songs and standup, not neglecting to add some dirty jokes, in spite of his kippa. No one minded. The tired soldiers clapped and cheered at everything he said, regardless of their personal beliefs. It was one of those classic "only in Israel" moments. "You realize that he gave exactly the same kind of performance in 1973 on the Suez Canal," said Amir, whose academic thesis was on the history of the Israeli rock scene. "Yes," I answered. "But now it's our generation's war." Both of us had combined journalism with our reserve duty during the past month, but tonight we kept quiet about our currently not-too-popular profession. We had both found ourselves on the defensive during political discussions with fellow reservists, leading us to the disturbing discovery that the media have once again become the enemy. • • • Before going into battle, Golani soldiers scrawled slogans on the panels of their armored vehicles. At the beginning of the war, these slogans were along the lines of: "Nasrallah, we're coming to get you," and "Have no fear, Israel." During the past week, new graffiti began appearing, such as: "The media are collaborating with the enemy," and "Close the army to the media." This was only the tip of the iceberg. Some photographers were beaten up by officers for trying to take pictures of IDF troops entering or leaving Lebanon; nasty rumors circulated about undercover Hizbullah agents masquerading as reporters; and radio shows were inundated with callers saying that journalists should be put on trial for abetting the enemy. Even Chief of Staff Dan Halutz contributed to the ugly atmosphere. In a letter to IDF officers on the day of the cease-fire - the first he sent during the entire war - he chose, of all issues, to address the dangers of talking to reporters without authorization. When he wrote the letter, he probably didn't know that a mere few hours later he would become the focus of a newspaper-garnered revelation of his personal finances that threatened to end his career. But at least he proved in this case to be tuned in to public sentiment. The charge sheet against the media can be boiled down to two main accusations: disclosing details that could help Hizbullah target vulnerable locations and prepare ambushes; and deeming the outcome of the war a defeat for Israel. Are we guilty as charged? Yes. But our co-defendants are the public and the leadership. From the beginning of the campaign, the IDF did nothing to keep details from the press. The staging areas next to the border were wide open. Every bus transferring troops - and every convoy of tanks - was immediately surrounded by camera crews from around the world, who were allowed to document every stage of the units' battle preparations, right up to the march into Lebanon. And, as if this weren't enough, the media was also invited into the normally closed Air Force bases to interview pilots embarking upon missions over Beirut. The IDF Spokesman's Office said that this was part of a deliberate policy - to "humanize" the killing machine, but at times it resembled a chaotic free-for-all. Areas that had been hit by katyushas were rarely cordoned off. The government wanted the world to see that Israeli civilians were suffering from indiscriminate bombings. True, reporters could and should have exercised greater self-censorship where supplying details of bomb sites was concerned. But their not always having done so is the price of an open-door policy. IDF Spokeswoman Brigadier-General Miri Regev pioneered this approach a year ago, when she gave reporters full access to every stage of disengagement - a policy the army considered an unqualified success. But portraying soldiers quietly accepting insults hurled at them by settlers as compassionate angels is a piece of cake compared to selling a real war with multiple casualties. Hizbullah closely monitors the Israeli media to gather additional valuable intelligence on IDF military preparations and on vulnerable home front spots. Its PR policy is the exact opposite of ours. Hizbullah doesn't admit to its many defeats on the battlefield, and releases no casualty lists. While its supporters cheered, waved flags and declared victory atop ruined high-rises, journalists reporting from Lebanon were forbidden from asking awkward questions. Some IDF officers, and some of the public, believe we should have had a similar policy. Regev and Halutz thought differently, at least for most of the war. Though they both definitely deserve their share of criticism, you have to give them credit where its due. The soldiers who lost their lives in this war were not only defending our northern border; they were defending a democratic way of life - one that is totally alien and abhorrent to our enemies. Let this be a reminder to all the gloomy commentators attacking us journalists for being too quick to criticize and condemn. Furthermore, nothing we said was really different from what we were hearing in military circles, at all levels. Whether the overall atmosphere would have been better had we painted a rosier picture of the war is debatable. But as stories began to trickle back from the front, and as reservists returned home on leave, the result was - and would have been - the same. In addition, in many cases, chronic problems, such shortages of basic equipment, were solved much more quickly, thanks to spouses and parents who supplied the media with reports from their loved ones. Journalists were also the only address for civilians under fire, and their plight was alleviated due to the coverage. Media attention is also the best way to make sure that all of the above doesn't repeat itself next time. One more point: The same soldiers and civilians attacking the media now were the ones seeking out reporters during the fighting to recount their personal tales of woe. Israel is going through a painful period of self-examination and recrimination, turning in on itself in a not always justified, yet totally understandable, way. The media - as the rest of the country - will be as integral a part of the eventual healing process as it is a culpable one. Let us not forget that many of the journalists are reservists themselves, and all have friends and family in uniform and in bomb shelters in the North. This was as much our war as anyone else's. And while we're on the subject, this reporter doesn't think for a moment that Israel lost the war. Whom would you or any other sane person prefer to be right now - an Israeli living in Kiryat Shmona, or a Shiite in southern Beirut? On that score, we continue to win each and every day.