This weekend was a funny time for us. Elie was in a very strange and wonderful mood for much of the time. When he would first come home from the army, in the early months of his service, the soldier in him remained with us for much of the time. He was more serious; more responsible; just more mature. Same Elie, just different – calmer at times, more in touch in some ways, older.
More recently, I’ve noticed that within a short time, he often comes back to the Elie that was. He’ll tease and be wild and play, but it still takes time – a few hours at least. First the uniform comes off and the laundry goes in and then, slowly, as the day progresses, he eases up, opens up. He’s less likely to lose his temper or get angry and more likely to reason through or accept frustrations now than before he went into the army, and those traits remain as a reminder that he’s still a soldier, still part of this army for most of his days and nights.
He was always one to order his younger siblings around, but now he does it with more determination, but also with more logic than force. Once, when he was home for five days, on the third day, he was arguing with his older sister. They were bickering as they did in the past, before she was married, before he went to the army. But it had taken him days to go back to the pre-army Elie. Most of the time, with only a short weekend visit, there isn’t enough time for him to truly uncover this inner self.
To be a soldier means being a person of action. You run, you learn, you think, you train. You are challenged to push the borders of the person you were, until you reach the person you can become. Perhaps part of this is an issue of age. Young men and women, as they enter the army in Israel, are on the edge of their childhood.
They are rushing towards being adults, hurrying towards freedom and independence. But the army is the opposite of independence. Your every move is controlled, especially at first. What you wear; the color of your socks and shoes; whether you wear a hat, and when; when you eat and what you eat; how far you run. It’s all determined by someone else.
And yet, in the midst of this, the greatest freedom is found. Elie has learned so much in so short a period of time. He’s learned the most, I think, about himself, his capabilities. He has always been told that he is special and smart and quick…and he’s proved this to himself and others. He’s learned to control his anger, his frustrations. He’s learned to think his way through. He reasons more with his youngest brother and sister, but is there to demand with a booming voice if they don’t see HIS reason.
He has also learned more about the world around him than he (or I) could have ever imagined. Before going into the army, he could tell you so much about cars and assembling things. He is truly his engineer father’s son so much more than his political science mother’s son. History never interested him, nor politics, nor the happenings of the world. He only watched the news when there was a terrorist attack and he, like all of Israel, waited for the worst of the information to be told.
This weekend, he slipped back into the pre-army Elie quickly and with ease, but not in anger. He was teasing his brothers and sisters, running through the house. He was louder, wilder. He was mischievous and funny and laughing. He was happy and easy. He walked into the kitchen and started with the brownies, ignoring the real food until after. “I’ll get to it,” he assured me with the smile I can never quite resist and a twinkle in his eyes that is guaranteed to twist even the most hardened mother’s heart around his finger.
Shabbat afternoon after others had gone off to rest, we sat for a short while and talked about rockets and weapons and missiles and armored personnel carriers. We talked of guns and bullets and war. Shabbat is a day of peace; a day when we leave the world and pull into ourselves. But Elie was talking and I wanted to listen. I wanted to give him the time to open and share what is in his mind. I don’t remember half the details – of how far this can fly, how long, how many. Of weapons and navigation and guns. Of war.
Now, the army teaches him about other nations – how strong they are, their motivations and intentions. Syria and Egypt are his focus; they pose the greatest threat: Syria for its ongoing aggression and support of terrorism and Egypt for its strong army and probable insecurity when President Mubarak dies or leaves office. Lebanon is a puppet of Syria, Elie explained this past Shabbat. Jordan and the possibility of war was mentioned. They have the largest border with us, Elie said, and so they too are a topic for discussion.
What of Iran? I asked, interested to hear his perspective. “It won’t be a war,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because you can’t go to war with a country that far away.” They might throw missiles at us and we might throw missiles at them – but that’s a battle or a mission, explained my son, the artillery soldier, “that’s not war.”
I don’t know what war is. I have lived in a country at war, but the war was in the distance. First two summers ago in the north, and now, every day, in Sderot and its surrounding areas.
Elie explained the difference between a mission or operation versus a war. “A war has specific goals and a set time to accomplish it.” Not the last war, I wanted to say, but Elie was ahead of me, “they told us not to mention the last war; that they would talk about it after.”
But as I sat there listening to his voice (trying to let him think I was listening to his words), I thought that while I don’t know what war is, the possibility that Elie will some day know is more than I can bear.
The political scientist in me knows very well the chances of the Arabs ever accepting a peaceful settlement that includes our continued existence are somewhere between dim and non-existent. That part of me can marvel at my son’s capacity to absorb these political facts and apply them to today’s realities. But another part of me sat there listening and remembered when he had once explained about chemical warfare. He was 15 years old and America was about to invade Iraq with the very real possibility that Iraq would attempt to send chemical weapons against us in retaliation. Elie explained that if it happens, we have to make sure to throw flour on ourselves, and not water. Water will just spread the chemicals, he explained, while flour will absorb it. I listened to him then, too, wondering at his maturity even then. But even more, I kept thinking (then and now), these are things I don’t want my son to have to know. I didn’t want him to know about gas masks and chemical weapons when he was 15 years old, but that was what was necessary, if we were to make our homes in this land of our fathers. I don’t want him to know about missiles and rockets and guns, but this is necessary, if he is to live his life here.
I don’t know what war is…but I am going to have to accept that my sons will know and I have to trust the army to educate them in the things I don’t know, so that they will be strong and brave and defend all that we have built here.