[EDITORIAL NOTE: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the bi-weekly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. He also publishes a weekly column, Gray Matters, on aging for Newsday.
I’ve covered a couple of wars in my reporting days - the 1971 war between Pakistan and India, their second or maybe third, and the 1973 Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli conflict, their third or fourth. I say “covered,” but that’s not possible. All I could see and write about was my small corner of the wars. But that was enough to teach me how little the war makers really know about war.
For example, I watched a dog fight in the sky above Egypt during the Yom Kippur war from the top of an Israeli tank that had crossed the Suez Canal the night before. I couldn’t hear the sounds of the planes above the noise of the tank. But soon one plane, we thought it was the Egyptian, went down and crashed a mile or so away. There were no cheers, but I remember thinking, “someone died.” I wondered, did anybody watching realize that?
I had been called away from a European vacation with my wife and younger daughter to cover the war from the Israeli side. Israel was reeling from simultaneous Syrian and Egyptian invasions. The older daughter was wandering in Israel when the war broke out.
In the states, Watergate was coming to some sort of climax, but I was getting away to Europe because I had helped break the story about Vice President Spiro Agnew’s bribe-taking. Covering the Arab-Israeli War was a welcome change.
But it presented me with a new dilemma, as a Jew. I was driving back from the front in Sinai to Tel Aviv with a colleague from The New York Times when we were stopped by an Israeli convoy. It was carrying portable bridge sections, which meant the Israelis were planning a Suez Canal crossing to flank and surround the Egyptians.
Should we have reported that and killed the Israeli surprise? I doubt if we could have gotten it past the censors, but there was a way. Should we have taken it? We didn’t, for it would have meant a great loss of Israeli lives. As it turned out, the Israelis didn’t attack the Egyptians and at war’s end, Israel had lost territory for the first time. Would I have made the same decision reporting from the Arab side? I hope so.
That’s part of the trouble with modern war. Much of it is remote and surreal, like that silent dogfight. Not until later, when the tank reached the crash, did we see the body; it looked like a mannequin with arms and legs splayed like a stick figure. Even the dead in war often look unreal, undead. From the air or from afar, no one really knows what or who the bomb or rocket or artillery round may be killing.
Maybe that’s what makes it morally easier for Hamas to fire a rocket toward an unseen target, for Israeli planes and mortars to demolish Gaza homes and offices, for American planes to kill innocents in surgical strikes aimed at the Taliban. The dead are unseen; indeed under Jewish law and the Muslim faith, the dead are buried before the investigators can come.
And of course, everyone who was responsible regrets “the loss of innocent life,” as if the deaths of non-innocents are okay.
I am not a pacifist, though I admire a principled pacifist - to a point. Some wars against some enemies need to be fought. But I can’t think of a war that could not have been prevented. One reason I can dig pacifism is because I can no longer distinguish between the innocents and the non-innocents. Today’s innocent is tomorrow’s non-innocent. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the U.S. support Iraq and Saddam Hussein against Iran after we sold arms to Iran, which was before Hussein invaded our innocent sheik friends in Kuwait?
Didn’t Israel encourage the formation of Hamas in Gaza as a fundamentalist Muslim counter to the then hated and decidedly secular Palestine Liberation Organization of Yassir Arafat? I was in Israel in those days and Hamas, which had been scorned in Egypt as too radical, took root with Israeli approval as a kind of community political and service organization.
Now the Palestinian Authority are the good guys, although they are walled off from Israel and their own lands. And Hamas, whose organizing paid off politically, became Israel’s worst enemy and was supposedly the target of a devastating 22-day attack that incidentally killed 1,300 people, including 400 children. Only the Red Cross and Human Rights Watch people who come in later, shuffling among the ruins and smelling death understand what happened, despite the predictable denials.
As long as we’re on the subject of unintended consequences (unintended, perhaps, but easily foreseen), was the U.S. not enthralled with the Taliban when their American-made, shoulder-fired missile-launchers brought down Soviet helicopters killing scores of Russians and running them Russians out of Afghanistan?
I remember American reporters in their bush jackets, singing the praises of the valiant Muhjahadeen fighters. Then they took over a secular government in Afghanistan, smashed ancient monuments, turned the country and its women back to the 13th century and gave cover to Osama Ben Laden. Now we bomb the Taliban and the civilians - killing innocents among the non-innocent with missile strikes with impersonal drones. And we and the Afghans send in investigators with the Red Cross and Human Rights watchers, some of whom had been investigating in Gaza.
Only when I saw war on the ground did I know for sure people died. Not just died; they were torn apart, and then they died. Seeing war up close is what ended the Vietnam tragedy; seeing war up close is what is ending our participation in the Iraq stupidity. That’s the reason the Bush and his other draft dodgers did not want us to see caskets, perhaps because they did not want to see them.
They were far removed from the killing. The writer E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime) wrote of George W. Bush in 2004, “I fault this president for not knowing what death is. He does not suffer the death of our 21-year-olds who wanted to be what they could be.” Nor did he suffer the death of the Iraqi, Afghan, Israeli or Palestinian that his policies caused.
I knew death close-up from the other, earlier war, between India and Pakistan in 1971, over the land known as East Pakistan, until it became Bangladesh, thanks to the strength of the Indian Army which had the backing of the then Soviet Union, while the U.S. tilted towards Pakistan. I remember taking cover in a farmer’s field while the Indian and Pakistani artillery traded rounds and I was rooting for the Soviet-made guns.
A few minutes earlier, I had been chatting with three Indian soldiers in a small shack among the trees, comparing our watches. Suddenly, I thought that shack would make a target for a Pakistani gunner and I left. Sure enough, the guns opened fire and I lay between furrows in the field until the firing stopped.
I went back to the shack to find it had been demolished and my three friends were dead, torn apart by shrapnel. But their watches still kept time. Cruel anomalies when allies become enemies and enemies become friends until next time - that’s the absurdity that is war.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Claudia Chyle Smith: The Wedding Gown.