We first arrived in Israel a few weeks after the Six Day War. Obviously, I didn't know anyone who had been killed, though over time I came to know various people who had lost a son, or a fiance, or a father. Two years later some of the teenagers above me mourned a young man who had been a few years above them, and was one of the last IDF troops to be killed in the War of Attrition that no-one even remembers anymore. Maybe he'll be the last soldier to fall, they told us; in retrospect he was the first whom I "knew" and whose death happened in real time. Lots of young men were killed in the 1973 war, while I was still in high-school. I knew one personally, and three others belonged to families I knew. In the aftermath of that war it occurred to me that soon I myself would be in the IDF. Like everyone I regraded this as a duty, an honor, a challenge, a rite of passing, and an enormous adventure. There were fleeting moments of apprehension - fear would be far too strong a word - but they were fleeting. When the big day finally arrived it was more than anything a gigantic lark. Only a generation later, when our first-born Meir was inducted in 2002, did I ever pause to wonder what my parents might have felt at the time.
It was an adventure, of course, and a transformative, life-changing experience. And no, it had nothing to do with the Palestinians. In those days the IDF and the Palestinians had almost nothing to do with each other, and in my entire three year tour of duty I never interacted with a single Palestinian. I was a tank commander, and spent most of my service in the Sinai Desert, facing the Egyptians. A number of friends I made along the way were killed in training accidents, but I suppose college students sometime lose a friend to traffic accidents.
Then there was the war of 1982, which I joined on its second day as a reservist, three weeks after my wedding. A couple weeks later, when I first came home on a short leave, we spent a chunk of our precious time visiting the homes of Shlomo and Ram who had been killed; I can't remember why we didn't visit Avi's widow that time. Shlomo's father had fled Nazi Germany as a kid. Ram's maternal grandfather had been killed in Jerusalem's Old City in 1948, as had his paternal uncle. Avi's father hadn't escaped the Nazis, though he had survived them. By this age I no was no longer convinced of immortality, as youth mostly is, but nor was I really aware, truly aware, of the price of living at war.
My father died a few years later, when Meir was a toddler. I was a graduate student studying Nazism and the Shoah, and remember telling one of my professors that I now felt one couldn't truly study that history until one had experienced parenthood and bereavement. The professor, sole survivor of a clan of 40, and also a bereaved father, was very troubled by the thought, but I still think I was at least partially right.
And so it came to be that it was only when my own sons began joining the army that I recognized the fear, even though at the time (2002) more Israeli civilians were dying near their homes than IDF troops in their units.Or maybe I didn't fully recognize it, as the very first post of this blog indicates: it's the story of a brief encounter I had as Achikam went in, with the mother of another young man who was also going in:
So I expressed my wishes for the woman's son: "That he be successful". She looked at me curiously, and retorted: "Let him come back in peace. Who cares about success!?"I hope her son came out fine. Achikam did, thank God. He has grown, in many ways, but that's his story to tell. He went to war, and came back; while he was away we went to Nitai's funeral for him. I would love to know that our children won't have to learn, as I have, that being the father can be harder than being the soldier, but I don't think that will be granted. So what's left is to hope that they all come back in peace.