Friday, June 8, 2007

Peace, שלום, ειρηνη

I'm on my way to Tel Aviv at the moment, and I'll post this as soon as I can. I usually fly Delta, with a layover in Atlanta, and on the first leg off today's trip, I had the privilege – I think that's the right word – of sitting next to a Green Beret in training. We started up a conversation when I noticed that he appeared to be studying Arabic – not a typical way to spend your time on a flight, though one I fully approved of. (Turns out that it was actually Farsi, but close enough.) Matt was on his way back to Fort Bragg from a brief stint ("mission", he called it) at Fort Lewis. We talked for several hours: and unlike the taciturn image I had in my mind of a Special Forces soldier, he was a friendly, talkative fellow, only too eager to answer my questions.

I'm well aware (in theory) of the horrors of warfare, but as I was listening to his stories, I remembered a quote from a movie director I heard some time back: "The problem with making an anti-war movie is that war is so exciting." The Seals, of course, have their "hell week", but it turns out that the Green Beret equivalent is a full three weeks long. It features exciting tasks such as orienteering in the dark through cotton-mouth infested swamps (one of Matt's friends actually got bit); or sometimes they strap 100 pound packs on you and say, "Run." You don't know how far or for how long: you just run. The penultimate task is a 30-mile slog carrying a 65-pound backpack: though they do have mercy on you and give you four hours of sleep beforehand. The last task is surviving the two or three days of mind-games they play with the 300 remaining recruits, as they pick the 100 who will actually become Green Berets. Matt said that when he realized he had been picked, he cried like a baby. (As ridiculously painful as all that sounds, a part of me is envious that I'll never have the chance to go through it. And yes, that's rather silly of me. But still.)

Green Berets, of course, are "force multipliers": their typical mission is more about training armies in foreign countries than engaging in direction action themselves – though I gather they see plenty of the latter, too. They're the eggheads of the Special Forces: Farsi is only the first of three languages that Matt will be learning over the next several years. As a fan of languages, and of eggheads of any stripe, that's a calling I can easily appreciate.

Still, I had to conclude that it was ironic that my airplane reading (for that leg) was Jimmy Carter's recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Carter's career, both public and private, has largely been dedicated to making the existence of folks like Matt unnecessary. (Though to be fair, he was not above using – or misusing – Special Forces when he thought they were called for.)

Carter's book deserves at least an entire post to itself, but I'll say here briefly that I don't think that he's entirely fair to the Israeli point of view. I think he is reasonably fair to the Palestinian perspective: at least, I came away with a better understanding of why the Palestinians are so full of despair and hatred and determination, all at the same time. There is a certain nobility to many of their goals: though not to all, and certainly not to all their methods. But when it comes to the Israelis, Carter leaves out at least half the picture. He generally seems less incensed at the intentional slaughter of 35 Israeli civilians by the PLO, than at the razing of a Palestinian home by Israeli bulldozers. Not knowing the details of the latter, I'm still willing to grant that it's wrong, and even horribly wrong: but it's not at the same moral level. And while he legitimately rails against Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank, he nowhere acknowledges that Israel came into possession of the occupied territories only as the result of a war of aggression that was initiated by Israel's Arab neighbors, and cheered by the Palestinians. If that war had gone the other way, and if any Israelis had survived the inevitable slaughter, they would now be the refugees living in despair under a foreign occupation, with even less likelihood of a Jewish homeland than there presently is of a Palestinian. Israelis understand this in their bones: and it drives many policy decisions that would otherwise appear counter-productive or even obtuse.

Carter's book thus stands in stark contrast to the other book I just started, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace, by Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's Foreign Minister under Ehud Barak. Ben Ami sums up the difference between the two books admirably with a quote from Raymond Aron: "The reason I never became a politician is that I want to understand." Although both Carter and Ben Ami were politicians at some point in their career, Ben Ami is first and foremost a historian, and his book, so far at least, strikes me as a real attempt to understand, as objectively as possible, the thinking of all the many parties involved in the many battles over Palestinian territory since 1906. In contrast, Carter is taking sides, attempting to be persuasive: and perhaps for that reason, is not as persuasive as he might be.

Still, I can't fault his vision for Palestine and for Israel, to live together in peace; and for both sides to compromise pretty substantially to get there. It's pretty clear that if Israel and the Palestinians could make reasonable progress, my Special Forces seatmate would be out of a job. And with all due respect to him and to his profession, and with every realization that it's highly unlikely this side of the eschaton: that would be a very fine thing.

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