Luftmensch Reporter Watches the Rockets at Lebanese Border

JERUSALEM, Israel—I’ve never been a war correspondent, and this failing has sometimes gnawed at me, say when I am watching Christiane Amanpour. Oh, I could do that, I think, and feel a little wave of inadequacy. Finally, my chance came: I’d traveled to Israel on a personal project, and war had begun in Lebanon and Gaza. So on Wednesday, Aug. 2, I went to the central bus station in Jerusalem and got a ticket to the north.

The station and the street outside were filled with kids with automatic weapons dangling off their hips. Most had on uniforms. One reservist ran past me in pajama pants and a tie-dyed shirt, with an M-16 smacking against one shoulder and his boots bouncing at the end of their laces off the other. Another guy was saying goodbye to his girlfriend with a pistol shoved down into the waistband of his gym shorts. Nothing in life prepares you for a city teeming with Jews with guns. Well, actually one thing does: the Holocaust. It is invoked frequently: the idea that Jews went passively to their deaths, abandoned by gentiles, is offered as a justification for the militarization of Israeli society.

On my bus, gun barrels poked into the aisle or up in the air. The more careful soldiers removed their magazine clips and wedged them into the metal handhold on the back of the seat in front of them. A girl in uniform sat down beside me. She had tattoos on her arm, and nails with gold crescents at the tips. She plugged in an MP3 player the size of a lighter and kept tugging her M-16 back to her side of the seat, like a stray umbrella.

No one was reading. Cell phones went off, soldiers murmured. We made our way north past slow-moving trucks with the soldiers sprawled out in the back. At every station, reservists ran up carrying worn backpacks made for treks in India, not bunkers. After their service in the army, almost all Israeli kids go traveling, to decompress, to escape this world of guns. Now and then, as if to keep the picture real, a fatty in uniform would run up to the bus with his shirttails out and jump on too.

We stopped for a while in Afula. I talked to a guy who looked like a professor, in fatigues and purple Crocs, his gun worn shiny.

“All Israel is together now; there is no right or left,” he said. “The feeling is beyond patriotism. It is not nationalism, or something taken from the inventory of ideas in Europe—this is essential. There are a very few on the left who have a different idea, but no one pays attention to them. The Palestinians do not want us to be here.”

I quoted a former minister in The Jerusalem Post saying that the war had begun not because of the attacks on civilians but because of the capture of three soldiers, damage to “the Army’s ego.”

The man nodded. “An ego is important …. The army is our echo of reality. Not to be poetic.”

After the Sea of Galilee, we lost our soldiers one by one. Then the bus pulled into Kiryat Shmona and a couple of civilians got out and I found myself alone. The town was empty. The Golan Heights loomed in the east, and smoke rose from what I would learn was a Katyusha landing. You could hear the ordinance now. I walked one way, then another on the big avenue, wondering what to do. A group of soldiers who had taken over an apartment building looked at me as though I were an idiot.

Thankfully, there soon appeared in the frame that genie for all foreign correspondents, that provider of Middle Eastern quotations: a taxi driver in a Mercedes. The guy shot his window down. “Journalist?”

After a while—I have to be vague about this under the constraints of my newfound calling—we were in a pretty town by the Lebanese border. The driver took me on a tour of the high fence separating countries, then back up the hill about a hundred yards—or, as Christiane Amanpour would say, meters—and dropped me at a hotel I must also be vague about.

One thing about war—in my experience—is that it rapidly sorts people out. The only people in the town older than 50 looked to be this group of slovens running a hotel, sitting around in various lumpish poses on the patio showing utter indifference to anything except when a credit card was needing to be swiped. They were catering to CNN. Its cables snaked through their lobby and dining room. One of the slovens, a fat gray unshaven man wearing threadbare white linen pajama pants with blue bikini underpants under them—take my word—gave me the key to Room 436 across the way.

A TV crew was sitting outside in the sun, as though by the swimming pool, though there wasn’t a pool. Before them was an Israeli army spokesman, feet apart, explaining very directly in a perfect American accent what Phase 3 of the war would involve. I noticed signs for the bomb shelter and went upstairs.

My first flutter. My room was the most exposed in the hotel, the most northerly on the top floor. The window looked out on two Lebanese villages on a ridge. I had a mind to ask for another room, but the last thing I wanted was to seem chicken in front of the CNN guys, so I lay down and read Hannah Arendt. I tuned out the crump of shelling, took a nap.

At 6, I went down for a beer and hung out some with the Israeli spokesman. He is a type you see a lot of over here, more American-seeming than Israeli. Their families made aliyot when they were in their early teens, so their accent was fixed in the States. This fellow had the aggressive quality that I recognized in Israeli spokesmen on the PBS NewsHour. He was not without charm, even twinkle-eyed, but he was utterly focused as he spoke in incisive and logical terms. We had been talking for only a minute or two when, without any prompting on my part, he explained why more Arabs died in their houses than Jews (apparently referring to both Lebanese Arabs and Israeli Arabs). The Arabs had the same understanding about war that Israelis did; still they chose to defy the building codes and did not put in bomb shelters, which were expensive, while the Israelis did put in bomb shelters, and arranged for an orderly evacuation of the war zone, too.

I have to say that contempt for Arabs is a theme in Israeli conversation, though it does not seem that the Israelis have spent any real time with Arabs. Of course, there is plenty of contempt toward Jews when you talk to Arabs. That is the most obvious problem in the Israel/Palestine situation: The two sides don’t talk. And within five minutes of meeting you, a middle-class Israeli is saying that Arabs are animals and you Americans are lucky you don’t have to deal with them. And meantime, the Israelis are putting up a giant concrete wall so they don’t ever have to talk to one another again. There is a reason for the wall, as there is a reason for everything people do to one another here, but some part of it seems a vanity. Israelis are convinced that they are a Western country. They say this all the time: We are Westerners. But they live 500 miles east of Istanbul. I wonder if they aren’t embarrassed by the neighborhood.

There was a restaurant up the hill. I walked up the road, and Israeli boys came down wearing helmets and camouflage and moving at a military trot. The ground invasion. And what a pretty little town we were in. There were flagstone sidewalks and rock-walled gardens and a plaque outside a writer’s house. When I had confessed to the spokesman that I was new to wartime correspondence, he told me that he’d been a paratrooper in the first Lebanon war and this is how things went, sitting around a remote town, half in civilian life and half in military engagement, waiting. It was nice of him to say, and in the pretty hill town, I began to feel a little like Hemingway in Spain. Where was Martha Gellhorn?

At the top of the hill. Here was the real reporters’ hotel. My cabdriver had boned me. This place was crawling with people I recognized, daring and a little meshuggeneh, near the beginnings of their careers, working for several outlets at once, trying to catch a break. I followed a group of them down the road. We passed their cars and vans, all with duct tape plastered to roofs and windows, shouting out: TV.

I wish I could tell you the name of the steakhouse. It was good. They served stuffed grape leaves and kohlrabi spears as antipasto, then a rib steak and local beer. Israeli officers were at half the tables, foreign correspondents at the others. The press were in helpless little packs of people who would not get along under other circumstances, leather-tongued old misfits, young whip-smart Englishwomen, a tall nonverbal guy or two, a dyke, a womanizer and the counterpart of a womanizer, a ball-buster.

At this time, I began to feel alone. It was night; I had no pack. The rockets went off, boom, boom, every minute or so, and the restaurant dog, a big old yellow Lab, pushed under my table, afraid. I tried to make out the incoming from the outgoing, using the lesson the spokesman had given to me, about waiting for the reverb on the incoming. One of the correspondents said into her phone, “We haven’t had so many as this before,” and I had my second flutter.

I stuck at my table, reading Hannah Arendt, and grew irritated by her manner. She used irony once or twice a page. She began sentences with “Well,” signaling her judgments.

At last I made myself go back to Room 436.

For a while, I couldn’t get to sleep. I told myself they had to take a break now that it was dark, but of course they didn’t. A few minutes would pass and there would be another explosion. I went to the window. There was only the silhouette of a little windmill on a well pump across the alley and, in a yard on the border, a group of soldiers monitoring the ridge. I went back to bed and didn’t sleep. I calculated how many people were left in the north, say 200,000, and how few had died. Then I turned on the light and read some more Hannah Arendt and began underlining the parts where she was ironic. I wrote in the margin, “Stop, Hannah.” Or “Bloody Irony.” Notwithstanding her manner, Eichmann in Jerusalem is a great, rich book; and then I wondered if I was getting more out of her book than from the war, if I wasn’t more of an intellectual than a man of action; and I was angry at myself for not having resolved this conflict and maybe dying for my neurosis, before I turned off the light and still couldn’t sleep. I thought about girls. That helped. I fell asleep, I think.

The next thing I knew, I was out of the bed. There had been a huge crack against the hotel building, under the window, it seemed. My first thought was: We’ve been hit. I ran to the door, then it came again—the crack sound came right through the room and the suspended ceiling tiles jumped up and down. The door of the room next to me slammed. No, we hadn’t been hit; it just felt that way. I wasn’t sure what to do. The loud cracks came a third time, then a fourth. It was like being inside a toaster that someone was hitting with a baseball bat.

Out on the balcony, I saw a red explosion on the ridge, and then it came to me that it was outgoing, not incoming: The Israelis had moved to a bigger gun, or they had changed the angle of fire. It was going right past the fourth floor. It was only then that I realized how deadly and serious this really was. Movies hadn’t prepared me for this, and not Tolstoy or Vonnegut, either. A friend who came close to a shooting war once in South America told me he was so scared that his only thought was the desperate feeling, “There has got to be a better way to deal with whatever you are quarreling about than doing this to one another.” I was right there.

I dressed and went down to the bomb shelter. There was a stack of mattresses in a polar-white cube the size of the bedroom in which you were conceived (indeed, in which I imagine some of you were conceived), but there was no one there. Chicken.

Up the road, a couple of the slovens were at a table in the piazza, but up the hill the other hotel was dark. A kid came walking down the road nonchalantly. Soldiers went by in a Hummer.

I went back to my room, and the sharp cracks continued. You can get used to anything. I fell asleep.

In the morning, one of the CNN guys told me he had been terrified too. Their crew was getting ready for the day’s action. They looked wildly excited, loose, wide-eyed, with the sort of joyful anticipation that exceeds even the anticipation of fucking. One of the slovens was having an argument with a European journalist. It was the moral-equivalency argument, the idea that our violence is different from theirs, the argument that goes round and round like a pepper grinder. The European journalist said, “They are both forms of terrorism. Hezbollah practices terror against civilians. Israel’s is state-sponsored terrorism.” The sloven said something dismissive of the world’s opinion, and I bent into the conversation. “Of course I agree with you,” I said, “but I am curious. Does it ever upset you that world opinion is so often against you?” The sloven shrugged. “It used to bother me, not any more,” he said, then offered the obvious unfolding of the thought: “The United States is on our side.”

I forget what reason I had to get out of there. The spokesman said I needed to get credentials in Jerusalem. Or I needed to see the Hagana Museum in Tel Aviv, or the Begin Museum in Jerusalem, or another of the many museums to the military ego. By 12:30, I was back in the bus station in Kiryat Shmona. It was now full of soldiers, one in a SpongeBob SquarePants T-shirt, another lean, handsome one changing out of his fatigues into shorts and hiking boots right there on the platform, and a girl draped like a Versace waif against a railing, in flip-flops, her T-shirt cut off, an M-16 strap not covering a violet bra strap. A couple of hours later, we were in Afula, where Katyushas killed that day, and where you saw soldiers running up to one another and kissing each other—boys who hadn’t seen each other in years, I guess—and then after that we were out of Nasrallah’s range. Though it was not till that night, in Jerusalem, that a shop owner supplied that staple of war correspondence, the sober conclusion:

“The Palestinians live in misery. We do—we live in misery. And so do the Israelis.”