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Gone To Soldiers


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Israel & Palestine / SOLDIERS

Gone to soldiers
Dan Bar-On believes that young Israeli
soldiers are becoming the unintended
victims in the war to defend the occupation.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), based largely on reserve units and two-to-three years of conscript service, built its morale and strength over the years on the assumption that its task was to defend Israel against the Arab enemies who wished to defeat and demolish it. This was more clearly the case during its earlier wars (1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973). During the Lebanon War in 1982, some Israelis began questioning this assumption and this questioning continued through the first Intifada (1987-93) and through the current Al-Aqsa Intifada, which began in October 2000. These wars can be seen as 'wars of choice' (as opposed to the earlier 'no-choice wars'). People holding such critical views (usually identified with the Israeli Left) believe politicians have misused the IDF to avoid giving up the occupied territories. This violates the IDF's defensive purpose. The army is forced to defend the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to protect Israeli settlements. The dissenters believe recent military activities against the Palestinian population actually inflame a tense situation, diminishing prospects for peace and security. A growing number (now 465) of reserve officers and soldiers now refuse to serve in the occupied territories. About 70 of them have been court-marshalled and imprisoned. This is the biggest number of conscientious objectors ever jailed in Israel.

There's no monopoly in hate: Hebrew graffiti on a wall in East Jerusalem translates as 'Kill Arabs'.
Photo: Richard Swift

Since 1982 Israeli soldiers have been fighting without the national consensus that accompanied earlier wars. They have found their society (including themselves) polarized over the legitimacy of armed intervention. Professional psychological issues are also becoming politicized. The decision to classify soldiers who fought in the first Intifada as suffering from  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become a political issue. If the military establishment agreed such a syndrome existed they would have to admit some soldiers have paid a heavy psychological price during the Intifada. This might cause upheaval in society and be interpreted by the Palestinians as weakness. Psychologists who identified this syndrome and surmised that there are soldiers roaming around untreated, perhaps a danger to themselves or others, were accused of ulterior political motives. Therapists were torn. Should we encourage the soldiers to suppress their conflictual feelings about acts they are committing against civilians (seen by some of them as dehumanizing or even immoral acts)? Or should the psychologist help the soldiers express these feelings and draw conclusions and quit the service?

Here is an example of a monologue of an Israeli soldier after he was involved in the current IDF military actions in the West Bank: Adam's (pseudonym) voice is recorded with a lovely Neil Young song in the background. The music conflicts sharply with the metallic tone in which Adam tells his story in a breathless rush to the Israeli journalist Lilly Galili.

'We were given the mission to enter a village in the West Bank, and during the mission a house was identified that was suspected of possibly containing weapons. We were told that there might also be an armed man there, and the goal was to shoot toward the roof. Not to hit anything, just to shoot. It was raining hard and there was a tree that hid the house. We shot. A Palestinian kid was hit in the back. I don't know exactly what happened to him, I don't know how old he is. They only told me it was a kid when they examined the car that came to evacuate him, to make sure they weren't using it to smuggle arms. I didn't see the kid. I don't know whether he's alive or dead. My impression was - and I don't know whether this is a fact or a feeling - that he was seriously hurt. That's it. Actually, that's the whole story. Only the next day, I saw that I couldn't function. As a commander who receives missions and assigns missions to others, I suddenly am not thinking about the missions. I'm thinking about what I'm doing here, I'm asking myself if I feel like a criminal, and I got into a state of physical passivity in which I can't eat and I can't sleep. It started from the instant we were told that the kid had been hit, I suddenly felt this pressure in my stomach and legs. So I know it has to do with ideological baggage that I brought with me to this reserve stint, that it comes from questions I asked myself even before. But in an emergency call-up you go first and ask questions later, and that's what I did.'

Adam's monologue, though confused and tormented, represents many other accounts of soldiers who served in the occupied territories that we have gathered at our university over the past 15 years. Shimon, an officer who participated in the first Intifada, called his experience 'the death of the soul, which is worse than the death of the body'. Do Adam and Shimon suffer as a result of their unintentional deeds? According to their accounts, they do. Adam could not function, he could not focus on his mission; he had difficulties eating and sleeping, tormented by the images of the Palestinian child he had injured or killed. Adam suffered from the outcomes of his deeds ('Am I a criminal?'), rather than from something that had been done to him. Psychologists make the distinction that Adam suffered from a moral trauma rather than from a trauma from battle or combat shock. So perpetrators (whether intentional or not) may not come out unharmed.

What do we know about the after-effects of intentional atrocities or unintentional acts of violence on the people who committed them? Actually, very little. Most of our information is based on studies carried out during and after the Vietnam War. We know that as long as soldiers are shielded by ideology, authority, comradeship or harsh socialization, the psychological impact of their violence remains limited. But once the perpetrators are left alone with the acts they have committed, the effect on body and soul may be quite different. Some become numb and some have difficulties in intimate relationships with their spouses and children. Others become aggressive toward themselves or others. Still others cannot concentrate and function in daily life. The crucial question is - does the society that sent the soldiers on their military missions take into account the emotional price that they and their communities pay? In the case of Vietnam, American society did retroactively take responsibility to some extent: about 25 per cent of its soldiers sent to combat in the war were recognized as suffering from PTSD and were eligible for treatment and compensation.

Soldiers are increasingly put into situations that lead them to harm innocent people and invade their privacy

In our case it has taken years for the macho Israeli society to recognize the existence of shell-shock victims. In the 1948 war, for example, such individuals were simply labelled 'cowards' or 'degenerates'. It was only in the 1973 war that battle shock was officially recognized and treated by the IDF medical authorities. During the first Intifada, soldiers suffered more from moral traumas, such as Adam reported, and less from battle shock. Recognition of a moral trauma necessitates admitting the existence of moral dilemmas - something that the military and political establishment want to suppress.

Similarly there is silence concerning the wider dissemination of aggression from the Intifada into Israeli society. This cannot be directly linked only to the Intifada, as there are other changing tensions in the society. But there is statistical evidence of more murder cases in the family (mainly women), about more violence on roads and a general higher level of violence in verbal expressions and an increase in xenophobia. For example, one can see today many more graffiti slogans on walls communicating such messages as 'Death to Arabs'.

The few studies that have been conducted clearly show the after-effects of participating in combat actions against civilian populations. Keren Neeman conducted research with married couples where the husband was in combat during the first Intifada. Neeman asked: What did he talk about at home about his military actions? What did his wife want to know? The findings paint a complex picture: The men said very little while the women, for the most part, wanted to know even less. The Intifada became an 'unspoken' shadow in quite a few marital settings. Natalie (pseudonym) told of her relationship with her husband: 'I think I just ignored it... I know that he was more violent than others... That's how our life together began, in the shadow of a secret and things that were never clarified.' In her interview, Tova (pseudonym) said : 'He really liked Lebanon as compared to Gaza, where he always said he didn't feel like a real soldier... It really bothered him that he was [fighting] against women and children, in Gaza. In Lebanon (on the Lebanese border) he felt that he was. doing the task of the fighter. I would try to get him to talk about it. But about Gaza, he felt uncomfortable. To tell how every day they went into a house and woke up some Arab woman and overturned her mattress.'

The male reaction often took the form of the statement that: 'Anyone who wasn't there won't understand.' Some of the men chose to emphasize the singular character of the Intifada as being different from other wars. They said it generated a lot of soul-searching and that it was difficult to share things - the 'unheroic' experiences - especially with their partners. This is only one example of the long-term effect that this type of warfare can have on the family. Today, even if it is more like a war, the situation is even worse than it was during the first Intifada. We can observe a barbarization on the part of the Palestinians, in the form of suicide bombers, forcing the IDF's response to become barbaric as well, such as in the assault on the Jenin Refugee Camp. Soldiers are increasingly put into situations that lead them to harm innocent people and to invade their privacy.

These events are now engraved in the mind with little possibility of working through them in the current political climate. Very few soldiers will get a chance to heal. Most will simply repress these sights until repressed aggression erupts in some uncontrolled way, or worse, gets transmitted to the next generation. The professional aspect (of identifying and treating moral trauma) and the taking of a political position (by those who refuse to serve in the occupied territories) are deeply interwoven. There is actually no military solution to suicide bombers. One cannot wipe out the 'terror infrastructure' as it is in the souls and minds of Palestine's oppressed population. The only way to solve this conflict is to move out of the occupied territories and to let the Palestinians develop their own state and society. This will, hopefully, reduce the Palestinians' motivation to take revenge on Israeli civilians and break the cycle of violence.

Dan Bar-on Dan Bar-On is a professor of psychology at
the Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
His previous books include Legacy of Silence,
Harvard University Press, 1989.
[email protected]

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New Internationalist issue 348 magazine cover This article is from the August 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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