August 15, 2006

War Warps the Mind a Little

The events in this essay took place on August 11 and 12.

NORTHERN ISRAEL – War does strange things to the mind. The first time you hear the loud BOOM, BANG, and CRASH of incoming and outgoing artillery, you will jump. You will twitch. You will want to take cover. You will want to hide. You will feel like you could die at any second, like the air around you is drenched with gasoline, like the universe is gearing up to smash you to pieces.

It’s amazing how fast you get used to it, even if you have no military training and grew up in a tranquil conflict-free place in suburban America.

It took me four hours.

The BOOM, BANG, and CRASH had nothing to do with me. Oh sure, it could have had something to do with me. I could have been hit. There is no doubt.

But here’s the thing: war is slow. War in Northern Israel, anyway, was slow. It isn’t, or at least wasn’t, anything like fast street to street fighting in Hollywood movies. It wasn’t Black Hawk Down and it wasn’t Omaha Beach.

Any given location in Northern Israel and Southern Lebanon would almost certainly never be hit with a missile, bomb, or artillery shell. Lebanon was hit more frequently, and Israel was hit more randomly, but the vast majority of people in both places weren’t even scratched, let alone killed.

Explosions crank your survival instinct up to eleven. But after a while straight math kicks in. You run numbers in your head, even subconsciously. Most specific locations aren’t hit, ever. And most of the time you are standing in one of those locations. Even if you do happen to briefly pass through one of the specific locations that are destined to take a hit, what are the odds, really, that you will be standing there when it actually happens?

Being in Northern Israel was not like being in Baghdad. No one was out to get me. Only Hezbollah fighters and leaders in Lebanon were targeted as individuals. All of Northern Israel was a collective target, but a very large one which I vanished into almost completely.

Hezbollah killed more cows than people in Israel.

The odds that any given place in Northern Israel would be hit were the same as the odds that any other given place in Northern Israel would be hit. Hezbollah’s rockets land almost at random. They are, therefore, pathetic military weapons, but perfect terrorist weapons.

There were a few exceptions. Kiryat Shmona was hit quite a lot, Metulla not at all. Still, anywhere out in the open was just as dangerous as anywhere else out in the open.

This is logical, but the mind doesn’t work like that when sensing danger from the environment.

Driving on an empty road and looking at an impact site up ahead is unsettling.

Burning Ridge From Road Northern Israel.jpg

Getting out of the car at Kibbutz Goshrim is a relief.

Kibbutz Goshrim.jpg

Each location photographed above was exactly, precisely, as dangerous as the other.

Trees blocked out the sky and made me feel safer. Obviously the branches of trees would do nothing to stop or slow a Katyusha attack. But when you’re under rocket and missile fire, the sky feels like a gigantic malevolent eyeball. When you’re underneath trees, the gigantic malevolent eyeball can’t see you. Therefore a rocket won’t hit you. That’s not how it is, but that’s what it feels like.

During my first several hours in the war zone I constantly tried to figure out what I could do to make myself safer. Should I stand here instead of there? How about if I crouch down a little bit? Maybe if I sit on the ground a rocket will miss my head? I figured it was better to stand near things than away from things, as long as those things were not cars.

All this thinking was useless. I would either be hit or I wouldn’t. Walking or driving fast could get me away from an incoming rocket, or it could get me closer. It was all totally random, and after every possibility was considered and rejected as useless the fear slipped away.

Fear forces you to think hard and fast about what you can do to protect yourself. As soon as you become 100 percent convinced that there is nothing more you can do to protect yourself, fear becomes a useless emotion. Then it goes away all on its own. You can’t talk yourself into or out of this mental space. It’s just something that happens.

This is the fatal weakness of terrorism.

When I tell you I was not afraid after four hours in the war zone, it is not because I am brave. Maybe going to the war zone made me a little bit brave, but feeling fearless inside it was different. It certainly helped that the rockets, missiles, and artillery shells were flying over my head rather than at my head.

Missile in Flight.jpg

Kibbutz Goshrim is the place where the IDF Spokesmen set up shop. Journalists came in and out of there all day. The lobby of the hotel had food, drinks, and free wi-fi. My laptop wouldn’t pick up the signal for some reason, but Noah Pollak’s did and he shared his computer.

Michael Oren Checking Email.JPG
Military historian and IDF Spokesman Michael Oren checks his email on Noah Pollak’s laptop in the war zone.

CBS CNN news correspondent John Roberts interviewed an IDF colonel out front.

John Roberts with CNN Cap Guy.JPG

Michael Oren translated. Roberts asked pedestrian questions. The colonel gave stock answers that sounded like propaganda.

Oren and Roberts.jpg

The entire exercise seemed pointless to me. I learned nothing at all from watching and listening.

John Roberts Interviewing Colonel.JPG

The funny thing about it, though, is that I felt safer than usual while it happened. I stood right next to three famous people. Hollywood screenwriter Dan Gordon was on site as well, volunteering as an IDF Spokesman. What are the odds that three famous people will all get taken out by one Hezbollah rocket? I mean, come on. The CBS news anchor isn’t going to get hit. He creates the Famous Guy Force Field. Michael Oren and Dan Gordon gave the Famous Guy Force Field two extra boosts.

This is the kind of stupid crap that goes through your mind as you struggle to cope with the threat of random attacks. If there’s nothing you can do to protect yourself, your mind will hallucinate bogus strategies.

I also simply got used to the threat of random attacks and forgot all about it, even as the sound of explosions rocked the kibbutz all day long.

The contrast between what I was seeing and what I was hearing really was odd. It was like watching a Green Gables episode with the volume turned down and the audio track for a war movie cranked up instead.

Statue on Kibbutz.JPG
I heard BOOM, BANG, and BOOM as I took this picture.

Noah and I sat in the hotel lobby and surfed around Web sites for digital cameras on his lap top. He was shopping for a new high-end camera and we discussed the pros and cons of various lenses. BOOM. We kept surfing. BANG. Ooh, check out that lens. CRASH. “Nikons are better than Sonys,” I said, “and more worth the money.”

I completely forgot I was in a war zone even though I could hear it outside. I was just as calm sitting there as if I were reading the morning newspaper at the Oregon Coast.

We all know fear is contagious. What might be less understood is that calm is also contagious. It’s hard to even want to freak out when no one else is freaking out.

New York City after September 11 was a lot scarier than Northern Israel on August 11.

Lots of people were in the hotel lobby, surfing the Internet, drinking coffee, interviewing spokesmen, filing stories, watching the news, ordering lunch, whatever.

Kibbutz Hotel Lobby.JPG

BOOM. No one was nervous. It’s not that they were hiding it. They really weren’t nervous. BANG. No one so much as raised an eyebrow at any loud noise. CRASH. It was as though the war outside were just a soundtrack on a movie turned up too loud. Nothing was hitting us, so what’s the big deal?

Wifi and Rifle.JPG

Noah and I spent the night in that hotel while cannons right outside fired sky-ripping artillery shells at Hezbollah. I slept perfectly soundly and did not wake up once.

*

The next day we went back to the Alaska Inn for the view. While we sat on the roof and looked into Lebanon a loud voice down below blared something in Hebrew over a loudspeaker.

“What was that?” Noah asked the Israeli woman standing next to us.

“He said Go to the shelters because a rocket is about to hit the roof of the hotel,” she said.

“Seriously?” I said.

“No,” she said and laughed. “But a rocket really is coming. It really is time to go to the shelters.”

We waited for the elevator. It seemed to take forever.

“Where is the shelter, anyway?” I said.

“I don’t know,” the Israeli woman said.

The elevator doors opened. We all got in. It took ages to get down to the lobby.

When the doors opened on the main floor, no one was moving. Everyone was perfectly calm as though nothing were happening.

I walked up to the front desk.

“Do you have a bomb shelter?” I calmly asked the young man standing next to the register.

“Of course,” he said.

“Should we go down there or does nobody care?” I said.

“Nobody care,” he said.

“Let’s get a Coke,” Noah said.

So we sat in the restaurant and asked the waiter for two Cokes.

I heard a faint whump somewhere off in the distance. The rocket had landed. Nobody moved. Nobody cared.

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Posted by Michael J. Totten at August 15, 2006 10:02 AM
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