In December of 2004, I was among some twenty Americans, all of us Jewish, to varying degrees, who had volunteered to fight for Israel. As I look back, it seems to me that we were fairly unique, the twenty of us, in that there wasn’t a real fighter among us. A number had been taunted as kids, or had captained the debate team, and most bore the typical Jewish physique: scrawny build, curly hair, bad skin, etc. Some had worked out at gyms, but it hadn’t much changed their temperaments. The irony is that when we found ourselves assigned to an infantry base, where we were to undergo basic training, alongside three hundred drafted Israelis, we were hardly alone in these traits.
Here it was, the vaunted Israeli Defense Forces, and barely anyone could do a dozen pushups, much less fire a gun. For better or for worse, I had endured summer camp as a boy in the northern woods of Wisconsin, where the gentiles taught me to shoot. In the IDF, I was soon promoted to marksman, and I became as much an object of fascination among the Israelis as I had been among the gentiles at camp, where I had had to explain, however woefully, why I wasn’t attending the Sunday morning worship in the lodge.
That December was a cold one, with a seemingly endless rain. We had just completed our training and were awaiting deployment to the line, so for one month we guarded a base in Neve Yaakov, a pine-studded settlement in Jerusalem’s east half, which also housed Central Command. Ostensibly, a general worked there, though we never saw the man. We simply blew on our hands, perched inside the steel lookouts, shivering away in the gloom. I imagine the conditions in solitary aren’t much worse. About the only solace I had was books, which I read in secret beneath the dull glow of my cellphone.
One was Nine Stories by Salinger, which I didn’t much like, the other a tattered volume of poems by e. e. cummings, including my favorite, “the bigness of cannon”:
I have seen all the silencefull of vivid noiseless boys
at Roupyi have seenbetween barrages,
the night utter ripe unspeaking girls.
War in the trenches was evidently different from this; we had lost one man to suicide already, and several more would be dead soon in Lebanon, but the war as we knew it was itinerant, more or less random, and completely without logic or cause. Men simply guarded, went on arrests, staged patrols or raids, and, as we were soon to discover, got shot in the head late at night, or while walking back from a bathroom, or carrying a carton of food. In Jenin, one man, a guy I disliked, took a mortar in the cheek while losing at Halo 2. No one shut the thing off for weeks. They just left it on pause, as if believing that he was frozen within the stalled screen.
Around the third week at Neve Yaakov, some artillerists arrived, and we were given a weekend leave. One of my platoonmates, Scott, a bulky teen from Los Angeles,who had recently failed out of Bates, invited me to stay at his apartment in Jerusalem, for which his parents helped pay [End Page 137] the rent. I took him up on the offer, since I myself lived in an army-subsidized cell on a molding kibbutz thirty miles west of the city. Scott lived with another soldier, Mike, an American stoner who had also volunteered and, like him,was trying to get his life straight.
We were all planning to go out for drinks that evening and pick up some girls,which they seemed somewhat regularly to do. Not being the flirting type, I bowed out around five and headed over to the Kotel—or the Wall, as Americans call it—to try and find a meal. As any freeloading foreigner in Jerusalem knows, dozens of families congregate around the Western Wall after dusk, inviting upstanding youth—mostly dressed in jackets and hats—to join them in...