“For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men— “
— William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
“When I see those ads for Sniper, I think about that boy in Morocco, outside the fence.”
A long pause, and then, “Yes, I can imagine,” she replies.
The recurring image of a young goat herder rises again in my mind, moving probably at random, but too close to the perimeter for my comfort.
Behind me stands the small blockhouse, bristling with antennas, that hides my comrades and their listening devices from prying eyes. Before me my target, the incinerator in which I am to destroy the shredded paper I carry. I will burn it, then stir the ashes until nothing can be reconstructed, and finally wash it all out to ensure nothing escapes complete obliteration.
But the boy troubles me. Just across the fence, clothed in shades of dun like his animals, he moves through shady green brush under an overcast mid-morning sky.
Carrying a side arm, under orders to shoot anyone who attempts to breach the perimeter, I envision the scenario I most dread. I wonder just how old this child is – older than he looks perhaps? Is it mere curiosity that causes him to watch me, or something more deliberate? Is he actually alone, as he appears to be?
How will I interpret a move closer to the fence? How will I know what kind of move is dangerous, and what moves are totally unthreatening to my mission?
Worse still is not knowing how I myself will behave. Will I draw my weapon, if I become too uncomfortable with the boy’s approach to the fence line? Will I gesture with it to warn the boy away even before he touches it? Will I know the difference between curiosity, or even a desire to talk, and a serious effort to scale the fence?
How quickly could this boy get inside, if he is seriously intent on getting the bags of shredded paper?
Shredded paper — balanced against the life of a child! How can this be?!?
The image of my smoking gun, and the child lying outside the fence, alarms me. My heart racing, I shake my head to clear my mind — shake off the fearful image that I do not yet know will stay with me for the rest of my life.
It was also an image I did not then know would eventually dissolve a 40-year anger; would become, on the Golan Heights, a key to unlock my heart, allowing me to forgive the men I had locked outside its perimeter.
The seeds of both the anger and the healing were planted almost a half-century ago; the first seed, sprouting quickly, hardening my self-righteous heart against its seething rage; the second seed, a late-blooming balm that finally, after so many years, softened that heart with a simple, devastating, humbling image.
In this day of so many children literally torn apart by the violence of their elders, how did it take so long? How does “the fierce urgency” of our chosen path steel us against the claims of others – their claims first on what we are so sure we must have for ourselves (and have a “right” to) – ultimately, their claims on the very core of our humanity – on our understanding, compromise, compassion, forgiveness?
In 1967 I left my ship, my comrades, and military service to take up my life again as a free man: return to college, pursue the dreams I’d put on hold for four years in order to mature in the disciplined environment of the Navy. Six weeks later, even before I’d left Norfolk for home, came news of a devastating attack, the near-sinking of my ship, massive wounding and literal decimation of her crew, as I would eventually learn – 10% of my shipmates suddenly dead under a cloudless, blue Mediterranean sky, their ship limping home, spilling bodies and secrets from a gaping hole in her side.
I rushed to the naval base hoping for information, but I could no longer gain entry and no one would talk about what news was coming in. There was a total news blackout. Eventually, the story coalesced: “mistaken identity”, “fog of war.” Israel apologized, Washington “accepted” their explanation. Reparations were paid. “These things happen…”
Only later did the information begin to filter out from the more articulate – and courageous – of the victims who had been further threatened by their own government with life in prison if they dared to speak the truth about what they’d actually seen that clear June day: eye witness accounts of multiple close-in reconnaissance fly-bys of the ship clearly marked and flying the U.S. flag under a cloudless sky; bombing and strafing first to remove all the ship’s antennas and small machine guns (non-offensive weaponry, fit only for repelling boarders); withering fire directed at personnel and life boats, tearing through bodies and bulkheads; a flotilla of torpedo boats that opened the ship’s side and, in blatant violation of international law, shot up the inflatable life boats put in the water to evacuate the wounded and dying from the sinking ship.
Eventually, documentation also revealed the complicity of our own government: how Israel had forewarned Washington to remove the ship from the vicinity of the fighting (or it would do so*); how multiple squadrons of our own fighter jets were recalled to their ship (on direct orders from the White House itself) even as the attack continued for hours; how the official investigation was managed to ensure that the politically sensitive facts, which the crew was reporting in their first interviews, were suppressed everywhere, falsifying the official record of the investigation.
(* Diverted from its post off western Africa at the start of the six-day war to keep Washington advised on any move to take over the Golan Heights, from which its people north of the Sea of Galilee had been suffering withering bombardments, the U.S.S. Liberty was a diplomatic threat, and judged to be a practical threat to the Israeli war effort and particularly to its effort to secure the Golan Heights.)
Out of all this was born an anger that repeatedly flared within me every time I encountered new information, saw a fresh report on the incident, and heard the continuing insistence – the persistent lies from both governments — that it had all been “a terrible mistake”, an accident of war, this in spite of the voice recordings between pilots and their headquarters that eventually leaked out, and the flood of other documents gradually accumulating over the years: 40-some years of anger at the continuing lies, the deaths, the maimings, the PTSD that disabled so many of my shipmates beyond their ability, lacking psychological help, to manage their lives – some hounded even to death at their own hands – betrayed and attacked by an ally, then betrayed over and over again by their own government.
The anger even interfered with my ability to work smoothly with occasional colleagues of Jewish heritage, in spite of my Liberal predisposition to avoid bias, and my conscious awareness that they had no role in the incident.
When after 40 years of this it develop that a visit to Israel would include the Golan Heights (the prize purchased in significant part with the blood and suffering of my shipmates) I decided to incorporate a commemorative coin into my photos of that precious piece of land as a small private tribute to my comrades, who had helped purchase it for Israel, paid for it with such terrible suffering.
Syria, viewed from the Golan Heights
As we travelled, I began speaking of the incident with my fellow travelers and with our local tour guide, meeting first surprise and then deep resistance to my account and interpretation of the incident.
Eventually it was our Israeli tour guide, who never accepted my understanding of the incident, who actually helped me most to resolve the anger that had wrenched my heart for over 40 years, by providing an understanding of the fierce urgency with which the war had been prosecuted.
As part of the Golan leg of our tour, we watched a film about the reasons for their insistence on controlling this land that looked down so lethally on the fertile bread basket of Israel north of the Sea of Galilee. We watched footage of the assault that dislodged the Syrian attackers from their machine gun nests and rocket-launching installations.
What stayed with me as we drove up to the Heights was not so much the visual images, stark as they were, but the graphic descriptions of the brutal fighting it required to dislodge the Syrians from their commanding heights. This was grueling, hard work, frightening, dangerous fighting, stretching over far more time than even the hardened Israeli soldiers foresaw, well beyond the point of exhaustion for the attackers of the heavily-fortified Heights. Work they saw made necessary by the fatal shelling their fellow countrymen, -women and –children endured daily to live below the Heights and feed the nation.
We stayed in one place on the Heights, overlooking Syria just below, for a longer time than I’d gotten used to for so many of the other sites we visited in Israel, a length that seemed to reflect the importance our tour guide placed on the location, and on the importance not only of taking but also of retaining control of it. I photographed the view – with and without my commemorative coin — my “editorial comment”, in effect, on the price of war, the cost of our “victories.”
Gradually, looking down on the land still harboring Israel’s enemies, the phrase I’d so often heard in President Obama’s speeches about the need to accomplish his political goals – “the fierce urgency of now” – began to emerge from the “fog of war” (imagined and recorded and recalled).
What was the fierce urgency that had driven the decisions these men made almost a half century ago, decisions to start a war, to attack an enemy stronghold, to go up that hill against such terrifying odds, to push on against their fear and pain and fatigue, to warn an ally to mind his own business, to ignore that warning from an ally and send in spies, to attack the spies, to withdraw fighter planes from their rescue mission, to threaten ordinary sailors with all the might of the most powerful government the world had ever known if they so much as whispered what they’d suffered even to their own wives, let alone to their sons and daughters, to their grandchildren (those who even lived to have grandchildren)?
What would I have done in their places? Out of that fog an image coalesced of shady green brush under an overcast sky, of a young goatherd moving just beyond a chain link fence, and who might so easily have ended up lying shocked and horrified in uncomprehending pain beside that fence – if not already dead.
I knew what I might have been capable of doing under the “fierce urgency” of whatever I believed threatened me or those I loved or even those to whom I believed I owed obedience.
In compassion I recognized that I was no different from these men, who had made these decisions so long ago, they no different from me; and in that instant the 40-year anger that had so crippled my heart and warped my mind dissolved, like a sand castle suddenly too dry to hold itself together.
I have dedicated this account in gratitude to Menachem Wertheim, the Israeli tour guide with whom I contended so often during my visit there, and to whom I promised a fuller accounting of my own conversion to a more compassionate understanding of his and his people’s situation while under his influence, as well as two books providing details of the attack and ensuing investigations, which I still owe him if he is willing to receive them.
“… no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier’s courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause, to comrades in arms. But war itself is never glorious, and we must never trumpet it as such.”
— Barak Obama
Nobel Committee address