Thursday, April 10, 2008

My Lai, Kfar Kassem, and How to Train Soldiers

Achikam was home from his unit over the weekend. At one point he asked me if I thought that young Americans know as much about the massacre at My Lai (40 years ago last month) as young Israelis do about the massacre at Kfar Kassem (51 years ago last Fall). He's right that the two cases can be roughly compared. The Americans at My Lai murdered a bit more than ten times as many civilians as the Israelis did at Kfar Kassem; but at My Lai there was at least one case where an American helicopter crew trained their guns on fellow Americans in order to save lives of Vietnamese; there was no corollary to that at Kfar Kassem. In both cases justice was never really achieved, and the few culprits put on trial were quickly pardoned.

I told Achikam that while I don't know, I assume that most young Americans don't know about My Lai, and many Americans of all ages no longer care. That war is long over, and its events have long since receded, even if they still instruct the political understanding of a segment of America's voters - but not the rest. (My American readers are welcome to contest this statement if they wish: I'm writing from anecdotal knowledge, not well founded knowledge).

Then I asked Achikam how many young Israelis does he think have ever heard of the massacre at Kfar Kassem? Perhaps he, Achikam, is unusual in knowing about it?

Impossible, he said. Anyone who has gone through basic training has heard about the massacre at Kfar Kassem, as part of the training to prevent anything like it ever happening again.

I was a mite surprised by this (not greatly so, but a little bit) and asked him who talked about this in his basic training, and if perhaps that individual might have been unusual.

Nonsense, he said. The topic was raised repeatedly by the lieutenant, not one of the NCOs, in official training contexts that were repeated throughout the training course specifically to sensitize the soldiers to issues of morality at war, and they weren't the idea of that specific officer because he was working from a syllabus that was handed down from the educational branch of the IDF; Achikam's friends in other branches were getting the same materials. "It's inconceivable that a soldier who goes through basic training (which means, all soldiers) would NOT have heard about the time Israeli soldiers massacred Arab civilians in cold blood during the Sinai Campaign (October 1956)".

Those of you who have read Right to Exist may recollect that I told about having this experience when I was in basic training. But that was quite a while ago, and the event we were being warned about had happened around the time of our birth, which means that the older officers and sergeants - not our staff, but the top brass at least - still remembered it. Achikam is telling that he and his comrades are being warned to remember an event that happened before their parents were born.

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