Waltz a moving experience, but not a universal truth

I recently saw the animated documentary “Waltz With Bashir,” director Ari Folman’s semi-autobiographical cinematic journey into the “heart of darkness” of the 1982 Lebanon War. It is a profound, haunting and exceptional film on many levels — yet it left me with mixed emotions

Michael Roth

Having spent some time in Lebanon as a combat soldier during Operation Litani in 1978, and again as a reservist in 1982 and later, many parts of the film resonated deeply with me.

What felt especially true were the sense of psychological solitude and the oftentimes absurd and surreal nature of being in a war zone.

I remember vividly at the start of the war in June 1982, riding in a convoy up the coast of Lebanon, how awestruck I was by the natural beauty of the country. How very sad that the PLO and civil war had already brought so much destruction upon this place. And then a rocket-propelled grenade whizzed overhead toward one of our helicopters flying nearby, fortunately bursting harmlessly in mid-air.

Gunfire, rocket fire, artillery and even friendly fire — always forceful reminders of where you are.

I experienced some real danger in Lebanon, but never felt the sense of utter doom and remorse that pervade this film, and I think that is true for the vast majority of Israelis who served in this and all of Israel’s wars.

And although my memory of that time has blurred over the years, I believe I have not repressed much of anything. Even the very few instances of disquieting conduct I witnessed on the part of our soldiers have not been erased from my memory. Part of that surely is because I wasn’t confronted with any truly horrific or otherwise terrifying situations against which I might have needed to protect my psyche.

As this film so profoundly documents, not everyone was so fortunate. Others suffered far worse fates than repressed memories.

The massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camp carried out by Phalangist militiamen is a dark chapter in Israel’s history. The Kahan Commission found that Israel Defense Forces commanders were indirectly responsible by allowing the Phalangists to enter the camp and not taking immediate measures to stop their actions once reports started coming in. The defense minister, Ariel Sharon, was found by the commission to bear personal responsibility “for not taking appropriate measures to prevent bloodshed.”

One can easily grasp how memories associated with this massacre might be repressed, only to surface years later to haunt a soldier so very close to it. Perhaps there was some catharsis for Folman in making this film, if it is even possible to heal these psychic wounds.

But the carnage at Sabra and Shatila does not define Israel’s role in the Lebanon War. Neither does it serve as an analogy for other wars, including the recent war in Gaza. And that is where I believe the film tries to draws us in to make the larger statement that does not resonate with me — that war is useless and only results in psychological trauma and senseless death.

Lebanon was not invaded without cause, and even in recognizing that Israel sorely overreached its stated and legitimate purpose in that war and got bogged down in a morass for the next 20 years, the overall context is sorely missing from the film.

Perhaps I am not objective, but those unfamiliar with this war may unfortunately come away from Folman’s film with a different message than even he seemingly had in mind — not only that war is useless and never worth fighting, but that Israel has created an army of zombie-like soldiers (of which only an enlightened few can reflect upon their actions some 25 years later).

As much as the film felt familiar on many levels, I found it difficult to relate to most of the characters. Surely, part of this is due to the animation and other techniques used, but these characters are not representative of the soldiers I served with. That is not meant to diminish this extraordinary film, but only to point out that it is was essentially created through the lens of one man’s journey and experiences.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote: “ ‘Apocalypse Now’ is the best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films, because it pushes beyond the others, into the dark places of the soul.   It is not about war so much as about how war reveals truths we would be happy never to discover.”

In much the same way, “Waltz With Bashir” reveals such truths about the brutal effects of war, both psychological and physical, on all sides of the conflict.

For Israel, there is no good or easy answer. As with any army, it simply cannot wage even the most justified war without causing immense physical destruction and unintended loss of innocent life. This is the inevitable horror, and it is why Israel must go to war only as a last resort.

Yet the truth remains that Israel’s enemies are intent as ever on the destruction of the Jewish state and have so very little regard for the welfare of their own people. And many do not seem to realize or cannot accept that we operate from a fundamentally different value base. These are enemies that proclaim to love death more than life, use their children as human shields and play cynically on our moral values. Peace for Israel’s foes is failure.

Can Israel survive without a military option? Is it ever worth the price? In the end, we must reconcile the enormous toll of war with Israel’s inalienable right to defend itself against attack. Most Israelis don’t have an alternative refuge; it is their only home. They must struggle with the conflict between their desire to live in peace and the need to ensure existential survival as individuals and as a people.

As Israel’s enemies recognize that it cannot be defeated, they will make necessary compromises. This is a slow but proven process, and there are no long-term guarantees.

In the meantime, Israel must remain ever-vigilant in maintaining its moral base and pursue peace at every opportunity. In that sense, “Waltz With Bashir” can remind us of the hell of war and our obligation to ourselves and all of humanity to always look for better answers.

Michael Roth lives in Berkeley and works as the general manager of a real estate company. He lived in Israel for 12 years and went to law school at Tel Aviv University.