Thursday, March 27, 2008

Five Years Ago

The fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has come and gone, with 4000 dead American soldiers, and who knows how many maimed soldiers, dead and maimed "contractors," and dead and maimed Iraqis. Five years ago I was living in a basement in Jerusalem. I kept a blog for the purpose of connection with my family, and as war grew close, I kept the blog to distance my family from the my experiences. I've never written about those weeks, until now.

I remember saying to one of my friends, before I left the States in June, 2002, that despite the Intifada, I felt that I'd be quite safe "unless we get into a war with Iraq, and that just isn't going to happen." Then, after I got to Jerusalem, I watched my own government move steadily towards policies that seemed quite insane to me.

I was caught up emotionally on two levels. First of all, I was living in the Middle East, in Israel, where the memories of Scud missles in Tel Aviv were still very fresh. Secondly, in January, my eldest son saw fit to celebrate his 21st birthday by enlisting in the Navy Reserve. I was proud of him, terribly proud, because he did so out of the conviction that he could not take advantage of the contributions of others without making a contribution of his own. I was also worried half out of my mind, because by then the serious sabre-rattling had begun.

As the buildup began, we heard large planes flying quite low over Israel, on their way East. Every time I looked up and saw one, I would think about all the young people in it, young people like my son. I talked with Israeli moms, who were old hands at this. We had a new bond, since most American moms they knew did not have sons in the military. I learned about keeping my chin up in public, but that in private conversations with other mothers, I could talk.

By March, I was distracted by the training we received in preparedness in Israel. We were instructed in the fine art of preparing a "miklat" -- a sealed room in our own homes. Unlike the silly instructions to wrap entire homes in Saran and duct tape that circulated in the U.S., we were issued rolls of heavy-duty plastic and tape and told to go home, pick a room, and seal it up. We were given detailed instructions in how to do it, and told to stock the room with food and necessities for 10 days. Somewhere I still have photos of the plastic cocoon I constructed in the bathroom of my little apartment. I couldn't take a shower without pulling it all down, so for the period of the war scare, I bathed from the sink. The cocoon was stocked with canned tuna, peanut butter, chocolate, water, my radio, and the best bottle of Scotch I could afford. I honestly believed that if I actually had to use that thing against "WMD" I was a dead woman. Of course I couldn't write that to people back home.

We had bomb shelter drills, both at home and at school, and we were issued gas masks by the Home Front Command of the IDF. In addition to Hebrew, scripture, and rabbinics, we took classes in gas mask use. I was horrified to learn that if I had to use mine, I would be unable to see (I'm severely nearsighted, and you can't wear glasses in the thing) and unable to hear much of anything useful (I'm hard of hearing as well.) Breathing is better than either seeing or hearing, of course, but the idea of being stuck somewhere in that thing, unable to tell what was happening around me was a truly scary prospect.

I could never tell whether the Israelis seriously thought we were in danger or not. There is a weird mix of hyperbole and bravado that takes over there when things are bad, and we'd been living in a miasma of it for months, with the Intifada. Either things were very, very bad indeed, or it was nothing at all, and I was not culturally savvy enough to sort it all out. We were told that there was nothing to worry about UNLESS we got word from the IDF to crack the seal on the gas mask box and try it on -- then we would know that the situation was very serious. We were assured that we'd get a call from the school about the same time.

We students reassured each other that no Muslim leader in his right mind would bomb Jerusalem, anyway. Given the press that Saddam Hussein had been getting, that wasn't terribly reassuring.

Purim came and went, and then, one night when I was home in the apartment, working on a translation, I suddenly got the feeling that something was different outside. The street had gone silent, at a time of night when it was generally rather noisy. I had no TV, only the radio, and when I turned it on, there was an official announcement of -- something -- that I couldn't make out. The announcer sounded upset and was speaking even more rapid Hebrew than usual. Panicking, I turned on the computer, and discovered that the IDF had indeed put out the word: open the box. Put on the gas mask. Adjust the straps. Then put it back in the box.

The news was confusing. Apparently the U.S. had invaded Iraq, and there was a lot of shooting. There were conflicting rumors about the fighting, where it was happening, and how it was going.

I realized, with a shock, that I had not heard anything from the school. I called the woman who acted as a sort of ombudsperson, and she was surprised I hadn't gotten a call earlier in the evening. It seemed that I'd been inadvertently skipped on the list. It seems silly now, but that fact drove me completely over the edge.

For the next week, we toted our gas masks with us everywhere we went. I remember going to a class, and putting it under my chair. It was one more thing to wigwag around, along with my Bible, my dictionary, my books, and assorted paraphenalia. Gradually we got used to them. About the time we did, it was time to give them back to the IDF.

Of course, it eventually became clear that there never had been any WMD in the first place.

I hope I am never again that close to a war. As it turned out, we were never in any real danger, but the perception of danger was an experience I will never forget. I know enough now to know that I cannot accurately imagine what it must be like to be a civilian in the middle of a real war.

It seems to me that we speak far too lightly about the effect that war has on civilians. In the service of being "patriotic" we speak piously about things that most of us know nothing about.

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