Between the West Bank and the Sea by Jason ArmentA long way from home, knowing where you are is somehow very important. I’d never left for parts unknown before, so when one of the senior Marines asked me to find a landmark in the dark, I thought it a fool’s errand.

“Can you see the Eiffel Tower?”

I peered out the plane’s window.

“I can’t tell,” I answered.

“What do you mean you can’t tell?” Sergeant Woods asked, his voice sharp.

I stepped back from the window and shrugged my shoulders at him.

“It’s night time, raining, and we’re high off the ground,” I said. “That’s how.”

The flight to Israel had been something like close to thirty hours with all of the waiting around in airports. Echo Company, 2/24 Battalion, was on its way to Israel to go through the Israeli Defense Force’s Counter Terrorism School and play war games in the desert. The four weeks would be my first Active Training (AT) period with the Marine Corps Reserves and I was excited, as were the rest of the Marines. A brooding mood fell over Echo when the Company First Sergeant kicked off AT with a speech about how this AT needed to be taken deadly seriously, that we needed to study and take to heart every instruction given to us by the IDF Counter Terrorism Instructors because Echo had another deployment slated within the next eighteen months.

The veteran Marines of Echo shook their heads as they thought how fleeting time seemed since they’d come off of three months leave after the last deployment—only six months ago. Most of them were “short timers” with contracts that expired shortly after returning to the U.S. after AT ended at the end of July 2006. A deployment slated within eighteen months made AT the last chance for junior Marines to utilize senior Marines as mentors. The Sergeants in Machine Guns took this responsibility seriously—Woods, Johnson, Smith, Harris, Schaffer—men all in their late twenties or early thirties. But relations strained between the junior enlisted and the senior men. And I’d had plenty of time to think about it during the journey across the Atlantic and Mediterranean. I smiled thin lipped at Sergeant Woods, trying to keep things civil. Neither of us wanted to start of the AT with bad attitudes. Ducking my head I moved toward my seat, across the aisle.

“I’m sorry,” Woods said. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I just wanted to see it, is all. I don’t want to be shitty this early in the AT.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t want to risk making Woods play the Sergeant card and freak out on a 747. I sunk low in my seat. The last six months since getting out of the School of Infantry had flown by. The fiery baptism spoken of at check-in never came to fruition. The units getting pounded on the front lines had utilized active duty Marines to fill the spots left by the dead. Sweed and I had been thankful for that. Neither of us wanted to go straight to war; we wanted to see what college was all about. Boot camp and SOI had made me late to the party; so I quickly enrolled in classes at the local community college and found myself surrounded by barely post-pubescent eighteen and nineteen year olds who wanted a college experience that was far more involved in drinking, drugs, and sex, than learning.

My peers bored me. Unlike the Marines I’d lived and served with in boot camp and SOI, none of the community college kids cut in the lunch line, much less had the courage needed to take a hill under enemy fire. They scheduled their own classes, complained about waking up early, then slipped into absenteeism. Around campus, I would see students in ROTC and other delayed entry programs proudly walking around. I wondered how they could consider themselves part of something when they hadn’t earned the title.

But my awareness still carried with it the sheen of a newly minted Marine, and I didn’t stop to challenge my own visions. In the future I saw combat as a grandiose proving grounds, knowing nothing about what it really took to fight an attrition war with guerrilla forces. I hadn’t yet broken up the war into two parts in my mind: the invasion and the occupation. To me it was all the same thing: the years, deserts, and violence blended together into a single mosaic vaguely spoken of in the Koran and Bible. My conception of Jihad was religious struggle that bound Muslims in holy war with all those in opposition to Islam, forever. My own intentions were part war tourist, mercenary, and civic duty.

Another reason why Sergeant Woods couldn’t bring himself to look at me or any other new Marine. We disdained our civilian life because of its boredom while nurturing our sophomoric views of war—an experience that could tear us apart, both psychically and mentally. Woods knew the Corps bred this in us, that the fearlessness of young military men came from stoic self-sacrifice for ideas not yet fully understood.

The plane touched down in Tel Aviv as the sun rose. Marines loaded onto buses. Israeli Defense Force troops escorted us to a secret base within sight of towns flying Palestinian flags in the West Bank.

The heat came off the asphalt in waves, distorting the air. When we’d left the U.S. I’d thought myself ready for the desert. I’d had no idea. The southern California desert seemed like a trip to the pool compared to the kiln like conditions in Israel. I stood in line waiting my turn to run another drill while the three Counter Terrorism instructors watched. Uday, Gal and Thom took turns policing the drill where Marines practiced sprinting to a downed enemy combatant and shooting them in the head. The IDF Standard Operating Procedure dictated that any and all terrorist threats must be neutralized immediately. A wounded enemy could still call out locations of friendlies, operate their weapon system, or detonate a suicide vest. The IDF Counter Terrorism Instructors insisted all enemy threats, or possible enemy threats, be terminated without regard for their medical condition.

“Who will tell the parents of dead Marines that you were just looking out for an injured enemy?” Thom asked as he watched Marines run the drill again and again.

Thom was the youngest and most junior in rank of the three instructors at twenty: his sandy blonde hair bleached by the sun, his raw passion always moving him to correct a Marine’s stance or posture, never needing a break. All of them had beards, the norm in the Israeli military because of their religion. The beards stood in stark contrast to us clean-shaven, short-haired Marines. The second in command, Gal, seemed to be two people: an easy going, short, wiry framed man with a genuine smile when he wasn’t instructing, and an ultra professional special forces trainer with laser like intensity whenever he stepped in front of the group. Uday had shorter hair than most of the IDF, looking more mature then the age of twenty-two due to his receding hairline and white hairs in his beard. He headed the Counter Terrorism Unit and led instruction at the Counter Terrorism School.

Although everyone in the IDF was close to my age, their eyes glinted with a mettle that made mine look soft, like a child’s. The constant threat of violence from the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians put them under immense pressure. The women in the IDF challenged my conceptions of what it meant to be a warrior. Most of them served as snipers, a highly technical job that required great endurance. In the U.S., military women weren’t allowed to fill combat roles, being thought too physically weak. Not only were the Israeli women in very direct combat roles, their beauty struck me dumb. At nineteen, I hadn’t the life experience to smile and chat easily with them like some of the senior enlisted Marines.

“You want to sleep because it’s hot?” Thom screamed.

I looked up from daydreaming about IDF women to see Thom in front of me instead of the next person in line. It was my turn to run the drill and I’d dropped the ball. Without waiting for an answer Thom stepped forward and booted me in the chest as hard as he could. The armor plate in the front of my flack jacket absorbed the blow and I hopped back a few feet instead of crumpling to the deck. I recovered and pantomimed shooting a silhouette target set up twenty meters away, then rushed forward to plant the butt of my rifle in what would have been its gut and pretended to shoot it in the head when it hit the ground.

“Faster! Faster! Faster!” Thom screamed.

The drill wasn’t tactical, only meant to build aggression and confidence. Since arriving Echo had spent every waking moment running drills on the ranges under the watchful eyes of IDF instructors. When Marines had arrived at the camp, whose exact location remained secret, and dismounted the buses, Uday had been waiting for us.

“Who among you has fought in Iraq?” Uday asked.

Three fourths of Echo Company’s Marines raised their hands.

“I am honored,” Uday said, and it sounded like he meant it. “But it will be important for you to listen to the instructors. Our war is constant. When the instructors leave here they take their weapons. They are never off duty. The enemy could strike at any moment. We must always be ready because war is part of our everyday life. We struggle to survive.”

The instructors bore down on us from the beginning. Twelve hours at the range on the sweltering gun-line, firing thousands of rounds, working our rifles as if searching for their weaknesses. Our style of gun slinging differed from theirs in that our Marine maxim, “slow is smooth, smooth is fast,” made us measure our steps and slow our breathing before aiming controlled bursts of fire. The IDF wanted a hailstorm of bullets, as much fire as our fingers could muster, so that the enemy never had a chance to peek around the corner. Marines teach Close Quarters Battle as a kind of knock down, drag out fight that goes house-to-house, street-to-street. The IDF wanted us to think of it as a battle with our eyes, instead of bare-knuckle boxing. Whoever saw the other first in a gunfight could shoot first. Not all of their doctrine was so readily accepted, though.

“When you are firing around a corner and need to reload,” Thom said. “Don’t duck back. Bring your weapon up in your line of sight so you can see the reload while watching the enemy.”

“What if you take fire?” Prockop asked. “The bullets that hit the wall will spray shrapnel in your face.”

“What if? What if?” Thom pointed. “If you want one hundred percent you sit at home on the couch. In combat there is no one hundred percent!”

Prockop moved to the back of the group of Marines running drills. Sergeant Woods followed him. I watched, not caring if I got caught eavesdropping. Prockop had deployed with the unit but came back still a Lance Corporal. A few other Marines in Weapons Platoon had come back Lances because of poor physical training scores, failure to complete Marine Corps Institute study programs, or just plain old bad attitudes. The senior enlisted in the platoon favored Prockop due to bonds made during the deployment. But not Woods.

“Prockop, could you try to learn from these guys? They know what they’re talking about,” Woods said. “And has it ever occurred to you that you’ll lead the section someday, so you might want to learn as much as possible?”

Uday called for us to make a U, the Israeli version of the Marine Corps “school circle,” when everyone formed around the instructing Marine like a football team listening to their coach.

“We’ve been training hard,” Uday said. “And now we are going to start doing more complex drills with multiple targets. It is not enough to shoot first and well, you have to be able to distinguish between a terrorist and a civilian instantly.”

The huddle of Marines broke and started walking back to the small tent city to turn in for the night as the sun set behind them. I watched the blazing orb dip below the mountains on the horizon and marveled at the bleakness of the Israeli landscape—rocks everywhere. Unlike California desert with lots of sand and shrubbery, Israeli desert was almost all rock. Sand dunes seemed ornate in what resembled a moonscape. Just over the crest of a crag in the distance, a Palestinian flag snapped in the wind. It baffled me to think that everyday people killed each other for the very ground that I stood on, that the flag resided in the infamous West Bank. I’d heard the instructors talk about some of their missions, how some of them had an “X”—a confirmed kill. Uday’s mention of civilians before he dismissed us made me wonder what the instructors thought about going to war in Palestinian neighborhoods. I looked around for Uday, knowing his friendly attitude would hold through a difficult conversation about war, but he had started walking back to the tent city after he dismissed everyone. Thom and Gal remained behind though, cleaning and locking up.

“How do you feel about fighting Palestinians?” I asked Thom.

Mundell and Rose stood nearby talking about the training that day, their tall figures towering over Thom and Gal. They looked at me with like I was playing in a minefield. Thom didn’t even blink before he answered.

“I hate Palestinians,” Thom said. “When one of them dies, I am happy. They are enemy who attack my people. Sometimes they blow up schools and malls, the Muslim dogs!”

I listened, unflinching.

“When we have a night range, shoot at the blinking lights over that village,” Thom said, pointing at the Palestinian village. “It’s their minaret. Maybe you kill a Palestinian?”

Thom sneered in contempt, then laughed raucously. Over his shoulder I saw Gal watching our exchange. When he finished guffawing Thom excused himself to eat with the IDF facilities.

“Maybe you should come back with me and Rose to the tent city,” Mundell said. “Instead of asking these kinds of questions.”

“I’ll catch up with you,” I said. “I’m going to talk to Gal.”

“Be careful, Big Head,” Rose said, using my call sign.

Gal smiled at me as I approached him, leaving Rose and Mundell to walk back on their own to the tent city and evening chow. Gal looked me up and down. I figured he was trying to remember my name, but couldn’t, since we’d only been quickly introduced at the start of training. Unlike the Israelis, whose facial hair made them distinguishable from each other, Marines in their flack jacket and helmet all looked the same.

“What do your friends call you?” Gal asked

“Big Head,” I said. “It’s my call sign. You know, for over the radio because we don’t use real names over comm. Big Head, because I’ve got a big head.”

Gal covered his mouth and laughed.

“You Marines,” he said. “I like you. You joke as you fight.”

“Speaking of fighting,” I said in a respectful but friendly tone of voice. “I saw you listening to me and Thom talking. Do you agree with him? Are you happy when Palestinians die?”

“No, they are my brothers,” Gal said. “We are turned against each other by terrible circumstance. I do not want to fight, but I must protect my people.”

Gal told me he couldn’t undo history, that it was forever. He said he could only seek to do things to right the past, but the future required survival. What Gal said made me believe in him, in Israel. For me it was enough to hear the articulation of what I could only wish my motives were. I didn’t lie to myself or anyone else about my much more ham-fisted desire for justice—I wanted to go to Iraq and stomp it into a mud hole.

I wanted to be Gal, the battle proven veteran with a tight-lipped smile. But I was much more like Thom. They both knew this, even if I was barely cognizant of the similarities, and it made Gal sad and Thom like me. He called them “Muslim dogs” to my face when he hadn’t to the larger group of Marines. Even though I didn’t say it back, or smile and laugh, I didn’t correct him. He knew I wouldn’t before he’d said it. Both of them had. As I thanked Gal for talking to me and walked back to the tent city alone I wondered how they’d both known. I also wondered about the conflict they had such different attitudes about.

At the time, my understanding of the conflict amounted to the vague idea that the Palestinians actively sought to destroy the state of Israel and its people over a land feud. I knew little more than that save for the predominant detail that applied most to my current situation—Israel was our ally. That meant my allegiance was pledged to them unwaveringly until I was told otherwise.

I kicked rocks as I walked back to the tent city. As the sun set, the minaret’s chant echoed thinly and the sound of cooing doves filled the air. Before coming over I’d had no idea that Israel had so many doves, so many they almost seemed like a more dignified pigeon. I watched them fly with grace from bush to shrub and stunted trees. The sky was a clear, cold blue that reminded me how close the Mediterranean ebbed and flowed. I stopped and turned to hear better the chant from the minaret. The Palestinian flag over the village barely fluttered now in the evening dusk. I wondered if the IDF or its special forces ever executed operations in small towns like this one, seemingly long since removed from current day events. I heard the Arabic from the loudspeaker, barely discernible, and wondered at what seemed like gargling babble broken by sudden syllables. Listening to the alien tongue lead its people in worship made me want to walk among them, to watch them put their rugs out and press their foreheads to the ground. I turned away from the sound of chant, the distant flag, and resumed my uphill trek to the tent city.


Photo Tel Aviv, Israel by Ron Almog adapted and used under Creative Commons License (BY-2.0)