Grumpy old man: The unbearable numbness of being

In life-and-death situations it’s good when our reactions are automatic, but less so when it’s because things feel so banal and mundane.

Soldiers defending themselves from rioters 370 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Soldiers defending themselves from rioters 370
(photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Two security incidents in the West Bank drew a lot of attention over the past couple of weeks, and for good reason.
The first showed IDF troops looking like Keystone Kops. The second showed what a well-trained, cool-headed member of the Border Police could do. Yet I came away from both with mixed feelings.
In the first incident, on December 7, a seven-man IDF patrol in the Palestinian village of Kafr Kadum, near Nablus, came up against a phalanx of well-organized youths throwing rocks and other debris. With several injuries among his men and determining that it would be too dangerous for them to continue, the patrol commander gave the order to fall back and regroup.
The problem is that in Kafr Kadum that day there was at least one video camera in recording mode. The IDF insists that the resulting footage posted on YouTube was edited, but it indeed shows, in full, excruciating detail, at least some of the troops charging the rock throwers before beating a hasty retreat, with one soldier awkwardly slipping on a carpet of small stones while trying to stop his momentum, turn around and get the hell out.
From the footage it seems these soldiers were ill-equipped for crowd dispersal and had not been properly trained for the mission at hand – and standing orders say that you use live ammunition only when your life or someone else’s is in danger.
While it’s true that rocks can and do kill, it’s often hard to determine in the middle of a wild melee the exact point at which a life truly is at risk. Your brain might be screaming YES! and your finger inching toward the trigger, but if you’re a soldier you know that firing a single live round, even into the air, could mean questions, or worse, from the brass. So you play it safe.
To say this incident and others like it made the soldiers – and, by extension, the IDF – look bad would be an understatement, and the radio call-in shows and newspaper letters columns were full of angry, embarrassed remarks. The comments were less about the soldiers and more about perceptions of stringent regulations and a timid military that had lost its nerve and, not incidentally, long been overseen by a highly polarizing defense minister. According to press reports, even some of the soldiers involved were complaining about this.
I can identify with them. Having done some of my IDF reserve service on riot duty in the thick of the first intifada, I know how a soldier feels. Your hands are tied. There’s no one backing you up. You’re out there alone, ill-trained and ill-equipped. So you start bitching.
You bitch at the politicians for stupid policies.
You bitch at the entire world for making pronouncements on what it can’t even begin to understand.
Most important, though, you bitch at the army for limiting your freedom of action.
But after taking a deep breath and two steps backward, you realize that there is a need for clear and distinct boundaries in practice and behavior, especially in situations where soldiers are few against many and it is easy for things to get entirely out of control. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to rationalize this, and it’s even harder to reconcile the macro with the micro.
THE SECOND incident in the past couple of weeks was almost the exact opposite. It took place in Hebron on December 12 and involved a local resident named Muhammad Salaymeh. It was Salaymeh’s 17th birthday, and for some inexplicable reason he showed up at a Border Police checkpoint and entered into an altercation with one of the guards. According to the IDF and police, the youth pulled out what looked like a handgun and aimed it at the guard’s head.
At this point a female NCO, identifiable here only as N., raced out of the checkpoint booth. Once she was able to get a clear shot at the assailant she fired, striking him three times and mortally wounding him.
Later it turned out that the weapon seen in Salaymeh’s hand had been a realistic-looking toy handgun. No matter: From a trained soldier’s point of view, what looks like a gun is a gun, and N. is to be commended for her clear thinking and raw courage.
ON ONE of my last stints in the reserves, between the two intifadas, my unit was assigned to an area of the West Bank just outside Ramallah. The memory of Nachshon Wachsman was still fresh, and intelligence had received information that there were plans afoot to kidnap another soldier, perhaps in our area of responsibility – which included the hamlet where Wachsman had been held.
We were given clear instructions during a briefing: If we saw anyone trying to kidnap a soldier, the kidnapping was to be foiled at all costs, even if it meant the death of the soldier. No more kidnappings. Full stop.
These were grave instructions, and I clearly remember how we looked at one another. I had served with some of these men for over a decade and a half. One had saved my life in Lebanon. As the saying went, we ate from each other’s mess kit. We knew the ages of each other’s children. We could finish each other’s sentences.
And now, what they were telling us boiled down to this: We might have to kill each other to prevent our own kidnappings.
Was this for real? After a few seconds of logical deduction it made sense. Not only did Wachsman’s captors execute him during a rescue attempt, but the commander of the rescue force was killed, too. So there was no debate. Kidnappings are costly, even if they end well. Witness Gilad Schalit.
Then the self-doubt slithered in.
Could we actually rake an escaping sedan with gunfire knowing that one or more of our comrades was inside? This we debated, and the comments were not surprising: Some thought they wouldn’t be able to do it, but the rest of us thought we could. All of us agreed, though: In every war tough soldiers had been reduced to tearful, hollow shells for having been forced to kill the enemy – how would we hold up emotionally after killing a friend? Would we, too, end up this way? Or worse? Remembering all this made me wonder about N. She was feted personally by Border Police Commander Amos Yaakov. She also was allowed to speak with select members of the media, and she came off looking and sounding like a cool professional, one the Border Police might use on a recruitment poster (were there not a need to pixelate her face and hide her likeness due to the death threats she’s received).
“After they investigated the incident it turned out it was a fake gun,” she told The Jerusalem Post’s Ben Hartman the morning after the incident, “but it didn’t change how I felt about it. I’m happy this ended with no injuries on our side and I’m sure any other officer in my situation would have done what I did.”
I certainly hope so. But still, there’s something that bothers me: N. had been forced to kill someone. To make matters worse, the threat that justifiably had led her to open fire turned out to be not much of a threat at all. Did she feel bad, or at least sad? From the words quoted by the press it didn’t seem so.
Perhaps she was holding it in. Perhaps the higherups had limited her comments. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt. But maybe after 45 years, occupying another people has become absolutely mundane, in this case apparently little more than a job. N. herself was quoted as saying that in the wake of the shooting she was considering extending her service and perhaps attending officers’ school.
And therein lies our dilemma: To protect ourselves from without, we run the risk of going numb – and perhaps even rotten – from within. Is one threat more dangerous than the other? I honestly don’t know, but we seem to have gone far beyond even thinking about this aspect of our quandary, and it’s this numbness to our predicament that has me most worried, no matter what the outcome of any security incidents.