The never-ending story
"Bekhazara Letsevet 4" (Back to Crew No. 4) by Dror Green, Sfarim, 223 pages, NIS 79
Little by little, our bookshelves are being filled by books describing "that" war from the perspective of the soldiers who fought in it. How real it looks, and how different from the standard portrayals we have encountered over the years in newspaper articles, the memoirs of generals and military chronicles.
The rank-and-file soldier, be it a tank crewman like Haim Sabato in "Adjusting Sights," or a radio operator like Yoram Kupermintz in "October, Diary of a War," or a gunner like Dror Green in "Back to Crew No. 4," already has the "big picture" of the war down pat. But when he returns to his personal memories of the war, he goes back to being a small cog caught in a cruel machine, lacking all control over his fate. Intertwined in his story are truncated images and slivers of memory, seemingly parenthetical and emotionally detached. Many could be the springboard for a journalistic inquiry or a documentary.
This is what Zeevik the gunner, one of Green's narrators, says about his first days of combat in Sinai: "We started out near Tasa, where we stayed for a couple of days. We fired, we ducked, we got shot at, planes swooped down on us. Baptism by fire, they call it. The whole time tanks were scurrying around like crazy bugs. Battalions of them would come and go. It was pretty scary to see them, because the ones that came back were all battered and dented. We advanced, very slowly, with everything around us in total chaos. At night they wouldn't let us bed down near our gun batteries, as we were accustomed to, because the tanks returning from combat didn't pay attention to where they going. They would zoom all over the place at top speed and there were cases of sleeping soldiers being run over."
That's it. These sleeping gunners crushed by speeding tanks are never mentioned again. Zeevik (i.e., Green) does not linger over them or try to find out who they are and how many might have been killed this way. For him, it is just another war scenario, as "normal" as any other. Green and his comrades came out of the war emotionally scarred, suffering from what is known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and emotional detachment is a kind of defense mechanism. Repression supposedly protects their inner psyche.
But when the protective barrier bursts, and Green understands that all kinds of strange behaviors he has engaged in are really a consequence of this emotional injury, he discovers, sadly, that his mental state has only worsened: "It was not a liberating or pleasant realization," he says. "On the contrary, all the walls I had built to hide my problems from myself and others came crumbling down. In one fell swoop, all the energy I had invested in ignoring the trauma came gushing out. Instead of feeling relief, I was forced to cope with post-traumatic symptoms that I could no longer disregard."
These are the words of a man who spent years treating PTSD sufferers, training psychologists, physicians and psychiatrists, writing books on mental care and building up an Internet forum for those affected with PTSD.
Green's book was first published 14 years ago, twenty years after what he insists on calling the October War, because it lasted a whole month, rather than the Yom Kippur War, which compresses it into one day, i.e., the first day. Now, in the wake of the recent war in Lebanon, he has published an expanded version called "Back to Crew No. 4" which includes a new chapter that brings the book up to date. Describing a recent reunion with some of his old comrades and their commander, he identifies them by name and allows them to tell their side of the story.
Compilation of testimony
"It was only after the publication of the first edition, when people began to call me and tell me their war stories, that I discovered PTSD," he writes. "But I didn't count myself as one of them until two years ago." At that point, it became clear that not only had the "healer" failed to diagnose his own problem, but he was not able to treat it. "For over a year, I couldn't get up the courage to talk about it," he reveals. "I was afraid people would think I was crazy."
"Back to Crew No. 4" is a compilation of testimony from soldiers, not always in chronological, or logical, order. It reads quickly, like a good thriller, complete with mysteries and surprises. Despite the author's psychological training, there is no outright attempt to define what kinds of situations breed PTSD. Green's book (like that of Kupermintz, who also suffers from PTSD) is about soldiers who find themselves in the midst of a war, pretty much clueless about what is going on. As the bombs rain down around them, they devise all kinds of strategies to cope with their gripping fear. One thing they all have in common is that every round of shelling sets off the urge to urinate, so much so that at one point Green is too lazy to button up his fly, knowing that within a couple of minutes he will have to unbutton it again.
Green mentions that even back then he was distressed by the thought of having to police occupied territory, but he does not address the question of whether an unjust war increases the risk of PTSD. Could a lack of faith in one's commanding officers, combined with a sense of powerlessness, increase the risk, too?
In his book "Alamein," military historian Stephen Bungay offers a fascinating analysis of the factors leading to PTSD in World War I and II. Kupermintz, Green and their buddies will no doubt see themselves here:
"Shells always arrived suddenly and often without any warning. Men clung to the ground, holding their breath, trying to make themselves as small as possible by contracting every part of their bodies, including their bowels. Prolonged shelling led to constipation. After a few hours, the nervous system gave way and men broke down, either giving way to sudden, passing panic or becoming long-term psychiatric cases. In World War I, soldiers in trench systems with dug-outs withstood sporadic shelling for weeks. Sustained fire would incapacitate some within a day. Most men outside shell-proof dug-outs could only take a barrage for two to four hours. The desert offered scant protection. Bombing had a similar effect. Whilst the fear of high explosives was fully justified by their actual effects, the stress imposed by them was further heightened by the victims' complete lack of control. At least a fire-fight gave them something to do, and let them feel like soldiers rather than 'cannon-fodder.'"
The writer's book "Milestones on the Road to Hadhramaut" was published in 2004 by Hakibbutz Hameuhad.