Wednesday, August 19, 2009

From Hale to Alterman: Coming to Terms with the Final Sacrifice

The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other poor bastard die for his. George Patton, US General (1885-1945)

"Many of the people in our garin don’t see to understand," one of the girls told me as we barbecued outside our staff coordinator's kibbutz home, "that enlisting in the army means they are prepared to give up their life for this country. I am ready. But to them, it seems like just a game."

Less than two weeks on kibbutz, I thought to myself as I stared glumly at the piles of roasted meat, and the Nathan Sacrifice has been brought into play. My earliest memory of someone giving up their life for their country came when I read the stirring words of American patriot Nathan Hale. Captured by the British during the first year of the American war of independence, Hale famously stood before the gallows and declared "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Hales words came back to me a decade later when I stood in the Hall of Independence in Tel Aviv, reading a poem by Israel's first poet laureate, Nathan Alterman. The poem imagines two disheveled and war-torn youth introducing themselves as the "silver platter on which the Jewish state was presented," as the youth whose sacrifice enables the state of Israel to overcome their enemies in the war of independence.

The two Nathan's had two very different audiences in mind, both of which I feel at home in with my mixed American and Israeli identity. So when I consider whether I would be ready to make the Nathan Sacrifice, to give my life for my country, I draw from my attachment to (i.e. my understanding of) both America and Israel in drawing a conclusion.

My attachment to Israel rests in my commitment to realizing the dream of crafting a society that fulfills the ethical and spiritual mandate of Jewish tradition. Whether I like it or not, that dream cannot be realized without an army ready to defeat the enemies who wish to destroy the state of Israel. That dream also requires sacrifice, and so if in defense of that society I need to sacrifice my life, so be it.

I would be doing a disservice to you, my reader, if I did not pause to share some words by the Israeli author Amos Oz that deftly capture my sentiment on this issue. Shortly before I was born, Oz wrote the following in his startling report In The land of Israel:

This is the place to make my first shocking confession—others will follow. I think that the nation-state is a tool, an instrument, that is necessary for a return to Zion, but I am not enamored of this instrument. The idea of the nation-state is, in my eyes, goyim naches—a gentiles’ delight. I would be more than happy to live in a world composed of dozens of civilizations, each developing in accordance with its own internal rhythm, all cross-pollinating one another, without any one emerging as a nation-state: no flags, no emblems, no passport, no anthem. No nothing. Only spiritual civilizations tied somehow to their lands, without the tools of statehood and without the instruments of war.

But the Jewish people have already staged a long running one-man show of that sort. The international audience sometimes applauded, sometimes threw stones, and occasionally slaughtered the actor. No one joined us; no one copied the model the Jews were forced to sustain for two thousand years, the model of a civilization without the ‘tools of statehood.’ The drama ended with the murder of Europe’s Jews by Hitler. And so I am forced to take it upon myself to play the ‘game of nations,’ with all the tools of statehood, even though it causes me to feel like an old man in a kindergarten. To play the game with an emblem, and a flag and a passport and an army, and even war, provided that such a war is an absolute existential necessity. I accept those rules of the game because existence without the tools of statehood is a matter of mortal danger, but I accept them only up to this point. To take pride in these tools of statehood? To worship these toys? To crow about them? To convert the state from a means to an end, to an object of ritual and worship? Not I. If we must maintain these tools, including the instruments of death, it must be with wisdom—and with caution.

Oz's words richly capture the hesitation, however slight, that I bear in affirming my readiness to sacrifice whatever is necessary for Israel. My American heritage lends an added note of caution, in particular the Vietnam inflected words of fellow Minnesotan Tim O'Brien. In Chasing After Caciotto, O'Brien suggests an alternative reading for why soldiers give their life for their country.

The lieutenant knew that in war purpose is never paramount, neither purpose nor cause, and that battles are always fought among human beings, not purposes. He could not imagine dying for a purpose. Death was its own purpose.


(I) I can only agree with my friend on her observation that too many foreign volunteers, if not in our garin than elsewhere, do not seem to appreciate the sacrifice implicit in their decision to enlist. There may be any numbers of reasons that explain why. In my book, one reason is simply that 18 years old, straight out of high school, is simply too young for most people to make a decision of such significance. The reality is different in Israel, where serving in the army after high school is a social reality. But for a foreign volunteer to enlist at such a young age asks a lot of their maturity, a challenge that one is far more prepared for after having lived away from home and seen more of the world than most 18 year-olds are exposed to.

(II) While I agree with my friend that it is critical for foreign volunteers in the Israeli army to recognize that we ready to give up our lives, I find it far more challenging that I may be asked to take the life of another--whatever side he or she is on. Of course, much of army training is designed to address this very challenge, teaching recruits to overcome the practical and mental challenges to taking another's life. Nonetheless, I can look deep into myself today and recognize that I would sacrifice my life as necessary. Right now I am unsure if I could sacrifice the life of another.

1 comment:

  1. Your post script captures one of my greatest fears for all my friends in the army. Not just for their bodies but also their minds. I have no idea what effect army service can do to a beautiful mind. I hope this exerience enriches you the way you want it to. I am proud for you and all those who have served but absolutely terrified as well.

    One of the things I cannot stop thinking about when I think about my Aliyah is that my children will have to serve. Many of my friends, Jewish and non-Jewish alike have questioned me about how I feel about it. I always tell them that I cannot in good conscience send someone else's child to fight a war for a country I believe is mine and not send my own. But I have nightmares of the children I do not have dying, being captured, tortured or losing their sanity because of war. Honestly for all the selfish reasons possible I hope meshiach comes before I have an 18 year old son.