Between reality and a hard place
As with two popular books published following the Six-Day War, the movie 'Beaufort' and the book on which it is based reflect the image of Israeli fighters as they - and the public - would like it to be.
At the end of 1967 a collection of conversations with soldiers from the kibbutz movement who had fought in the Six-Day War, which had ended a few months earlier, was published. It was called "Siah lohamim" (literally, "Fighters Talk," published in English as "The Seventh Day"), and very quickly exceeded the narrow circle of readers for which it had been intended - kibbutz members - and became a best seller and, above all, one of the two books that best reflected that war. The other book, called "Hasufim batzariah" (literally "Exposed in the Turret," published in English as "Tanks of Tammuz"), was published later, during 1968. In it, author Shabtai Teveth described the glorious war campaign of an armored brigade in northern Sinai.
At the time the two books looked like diametric opposites. "The Seventh Day" expressed the distress and soul-searching of the kibbutz soldiers in the face of the death and destruction, first of their buddies, but also of the enemy soldiers. "Tanks of Tammuz" was a paean of praise to the heroism embodied in the character of the brigade commander, the admired Shmuel "Shmulik" Gorodish. "The Seventh Day" was supposed to serve as a kind of antithesis to the victory "albums" that inundated the country after the intoxicating achievement of the war. "Tanks of Tammuz" was the literary expression of those albums.
In retrospect, it appears that these two volumes complemented each other. The anti-hero of "The Seventh Day" melded with the hero of "Tanks of Tammuz," and together they formed the character of the Israeli fighter as the public wanted to see him at that time: Courageous and sensitive, rough-edged and humane, determined and considerate. This image of the Israel fighter suited the self-image of the entire State of Israel in the 1967 war: A small nation that wants to live in tranquillity, but is forced to go to war. The stunning victory in the war was more than anything else a result of its moral superiority.
The years have not been kind to these two books. The popularity of "Tanks of Tammuz" lasted for barely five years, until the Yom Kippur War. Gorodish, the hero who in the meantime had been appointed GOC Southern Command - partly thanks to his unforgettable speech, quoted in Teveth's book - crashed together with the Israel Defense Forces during the first days of the 1973 war, was deposed and finished his life, an expatriate and lonely, in the forests of Africa. "The Seventh Day" became flabbier the more the occupation tightened. Opponents of the occupation saw the book as the progenitor of the "shoot and cry" approach. Others saw it as representing something that was outdated. The line from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" seemed better suited to the new situation: "If you want to shoot, shoot, don't talk." Thus "The Seventh Day" and "Tanks of Tammuz" left the stage. Today they look antiquated and almost ridiculous, relevant only to researchers of culture who want to understand what "the spirit of the times" was in those years.
The good old days
Ron Leshem's "Im yesh gan eden" ("If There Is a Heaven") is the most popular Israeli war book since "Tanks of Tammuz." Joseph Cedar's film "Beaufort," which is based on the book, is showing at dozens of movie theaters around the country as of this week, and many believe that it will be a blockbuster. Both the book and the film succeed very well in describing the suffocating reality that prevailed during the last year at the Beaufort military outpost before the withdrawal from Lebanon - so much so that it seems as though Leshem and Cedar are trying to take us back to those good old days. This is no small effort, considering the circumstances. After the recent Lebanon war, after the profound crisis of trust between the Israelis and their army, after we have seen a brigade commander say in front of the cameras that his division commander sent soldiers into battle unprepared, and after hearing about officers who conducted battles via plasma screens - the IDF that is reflected to us from the screen of "Beaufort" is nearly pure, barely tainted by the ills of Israeliness.
Cedar's and Leshem's soldiers are rugged and talk in a very soldierly and masculine language, but at the same time they behave with great sensitivity toward one another. Keep up with your music to the end, says the tough commander Liraz Liberti to one of his soldiers, who plays beautifully the evening before he is killed at the outpost. The fighters come from the entire social spectrum - Mizrahim (Jews with origins in Middle Eastern countries), Ashkenazim, religious, secular - but the harmony among them is perfect. Despite the difficult conditions and the psychological pressure, neither in the book nor in the film are there real quarrels or violence among the soldiers. And above all, these young men are completely united in their aspiration to "carry out the mission." The "right-wing" Liraz is prepared to die for the "leftist" Ziv and vice versa, and Ziv is indeed killed for his fellow soldier's sake. Politics does not reach the peak of the Beaufort. Nor do cynicism or despair.
Although the film is based on the book, and author Leshem wrote the screenplay together with director Cedar, there are differences between the two works - differences that are somewhat reminiscent of the differences between "Tanks of Tammuz" and "The Seventh Day." The book is accompanied by a profound sense that it is the lives of the soldiers at the Beaufort outpost, with the constant danger and the endless fraternity, that constitute real life, the thing to which it is necessary to aspire. "If peace does not prevail, I would also want my son to go through what I have gone through," says Liraz the commander, a moment before he prophesies that the withdrawal from Lebanon is a mistake and that Israel will have to return there. The war itself becomes the supreme expression of life, as for Shmulik in "Tanks of Tammuz."
"Beaufort" is more like "The Seventh Day." The belligerent sentences spoken by Liraz do not make an appearance. The film depicts life at the outpost as a series of blows that the soldiers absorb time after time with no ability to respond. The soldiers are first and foremost victims: of the Hezbollah, of their commanders, of the politicians. Director Cedar has defined "Beaufort" as an "anti-war film." Throughout the entire film the soldiers do not open fire even once. They crawl through their trenches, dig into their positions and peek out at the scary world outside. The soldiers of "Beaufort" are not exposed in the turret; they are imprisoned in it, buried in it.
Sense of alienation
Beyond all else, there is a strong feeling that arises from both the book and the film: a sense of alienation. The soldiers at the Beaufort are cut off from the place, cut off from time, cut off from the state, cut off even from the army, as though the pile of concrete that is protecting them is preventing them access to the world around them. The soldiers of "The Seventh Day" and "Tanks of Tammuz" came from Israeli society and spoke about the war with civilian eyes. The soldiers of "Beaufort" seem to have disengaged from Israeli society. Their only demand of the state is that it provide them with enough equipment and the freedom to "fight the way they should."
The soldiers of "Beaufort" are posted in Lebanon, but they know nothing about it. Nor do they think about or discuss their impact on the Lebanese even for a moment. The Hezbollah bombardments are blows of fate. The soldiers only know that the Beaufort is a place for which they have to fight. Even the creators of the film think that. In the titles that precede the beginning of the film, it says that bloody battles were fought for the Beaufort and that the site had passed from hand to hand over the generations. According to Wikipedia, the last battle for the Beaufort before it was occupied by Israel in 1982 was between the Muslims and Crusaders, in the 13th century. Since then it stood in silence.
The fighters at the Beaufort are cut off and alienated not only from the political debate in Israel, but also from the social questions in the country. In the book there is some trace of the social ills and the class gaps, but in the film they vanish entirely. The soldiers' universe boils down to the unit in which they are serving, and they view the rest of the IDF as a distant and abstract entity. Therefore they find it difficult to understand the General Staff's considerations when it orders them to come down from the hill. The diplomatic decisions look to them in general as if they were made by a foreign government.
But the soldier of "Beaufort" is not autistic. He is simply in love with himself. If there is evil all around, someone else is to blame for that: the Hezbollah rocket unit, the Four Mothers organization that aren't giving any support, the commanders who are afraid of a real war. Possibly this is what the public likes about the book and will like about the film. After all, this is to a large extent the feeling in Israel after the most recent Lebanon war: The feeling that "we" were all right and "they" failed, and the feeling that there is no alternative - we have to carry on fighting.