Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2010
Lebanon, 1982: Facts and Films
WALTZ WITH BASHIR, 2008
Review by Ralph Seliger
Driven by a need for personal catharsis and the economic necessity of small budgets, two veterans of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon have made innovative feature films about their war experiences. The first, Waltz with Bashir, a 2009 Oscar contender for Best Foreign Language film, tells filmmaker Ari Folman's story in the only way it could without incurring production costs on a massive Hollywood scale -- through animation.
The second, Lebanon, conveys the experience of writer-director Samuel Maoz as part of a tank crew in an astonishingly apt way -- almost entirely from within a tank. Viewing the dismal landscape of war from inside a tank is literally myopic, but no less horrifying. In fact, the mechanical whirring sound of the turret lent an added dimension of dread to the scenes of devastation that the crew traversed -- mostly destroyed by air strikes -- as well as the deaths and destruction that the tank itself spewed forth and absorbed in turn. This searing winner of the Golden Lion award at the 2009 Venice Film Festival began its U.S. commercial run this August.
These films are rooted in a political history that is important to remember. After being mauled by King Hussein's Jordanian army in September 1970, the Palestine Liberation Organization ensconced itself militarily in southern Lebanon, in a de facto occupation that helped trigger the Lebanese civil war in 1975. This area became known to Israelis as "Fatah-land," for Yasser Arafat's dominant PLO faction. The PLO's heavy hand drew the ire of both Shia Muslims and Christians living in the south.
Attacks were launched from Fatah-land, including the spectacular raid that killed thirty-eight civilians and wounded seventy-one along the Tel Aviv-Haifa coastal road in 1978 and the massacre of a family in the Galilee town of Naharia in 1979. But an informal truce had been reached with the PLO when the Begin government seized upon the wounding of Israel's ambassador to Britain in an assassination attempt in England by a dissident PLO faction as the trigger for its massive offensive in June 1982.
Israel's initial armored thrust in 1982 was greeted warmly by some Shias and with enthusiasm by most Christians. But the Israelis soon overstayed their welcome and their initial political gains proved illusory. Christian Phalange leader Bashir Gemayl was assassinated almost instantly after being named Lebanon's president, and with him soon died Israel's expectation that Lebanon would become a full-fledged, Christian-dominated ally. By 1983, Hezbollah bombings drove Western armed forces out of Beirut, killing hundreds of U.S. Marines, French soldiers, and others in the process.
Hezbollah began its rise as a dominant force in Lebanon, and the Shia became hardened enemies of Israel -- for the first time. Israel lost hundreds of soldiers during its eighteen-year occupation of the "security zone" along its border; it suffered over 150 more deaths (mostly civilians), plus widespread damage and dislocation to northern Israel, during the ill-fated second Lebanon war in 2006.
My first official activity as a left-Zionist occurred in that fateful summer of 1982, hardly a month after Israel's invasion. I was part of a young adult tour hosted by the Mapam (socialist) party and the National Kibbutz Federation (Kibbutz Artzi). One of our guides, a jovial forty-something kibbutznik, joined us a day or two late, after fighting in Beirut.
The 1982 war was Israel's first as a regional superpower that could not be defeated militarily. But it was also the first war in which Israel's broad national consensus of support was breached.
Our hosts that summer, twenty-eight years ago, Mapam and its aligned kibbutz federation constituted the only Zionist movement that opposed the 1982 invasion from its inception. The movement itself was divided between a faction that advocated refusal to serve militarily (which mostly coalesced around the short-lived Sheli party in the Knesset), and the majority, who favored serving in the war but demonstrating against it upon their return. The mainstream Mapam argument was that service in the army -- i.e., not undermining its cohesion as an institution -- was necessary to the small nation's survival, but that it was also an obligation to work politically as citizens for a better national policy.
Mapam formed a key component of the Shalom Achshav (Peace Now) movement that rallied hundreds of thousands of Israelis to protest the slaughter of Palestinians by Christian Phalange militiamen permitted to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps under cover by Israeli forces. It is little remembered that no less a pro-Palestinian voice than the late Edward Said noted the irony that the only Middle Eastern city where masses of people protested this massacre was Tel Aviv.
"Shooting and Crying"
Both Lebanon and Waltz With Bashir have been criticized by pro-Palestinian partisans and some left-wing Israelis as part of a long tradition of yorim ve'bochim -- of liberal Israelis "shooting and crying," as if they were the victims. What would be courageous, this criticism goes, is for an Israeli filmmaker, perhaps teaming up with Palestinians, to make a film from the perspective of the Palestinians and Lebanese who lived through the invasion, or perhaps creating a film that alternates the experience of Israelis with those of Lebanese and/or Palestinians. Otherwise, these critics argue, the Israeli invader is the only one given subjectivity, and the Lebanese and Palestinians are wholly "other," without voice or feelings, and the terror that they experience is rendered invisible.
Since these films do not flinch in depicting the carnage Israel inflicted on Lebanon, this last point seems to be unfair on its face. For example, Lebanon depicts a Christian family held under gunpoint in their bomb-damaged home by gunmen who confront the Israelis. Despite the tearful pleading of the family not to fire, the tank releases one shell, killing all but the distraught mother, who tumbles out of her home screaming for her little girl; she stumbles upon burning debris that ignites her housedress and the soldiers strip her naked to save her life. This scene alone leaves its mark on the viewer.
In Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman suddenly jumps from animation to actual footage to depict the horrendous aftermath of slaughter and grief at Sabra and Shatila, with which he concludes his masterpiece. Perhaps this event was too true in its monstrous reality for the filmmaker to bear approaching it from the remove of a cartoon, however artful his work was with this form until that point.
To respond more completely to the "shooting and crying" charge, one needs to consider what makes a war movie into an anti-war movie. In Saving Private Ryan, the bloodletting (especially at its beginning and end) is so unrelenting and so realistic that in no way can it be depicted as pro-war propaganda. I wonder how many actual lives were lost or shattered (say in Vietnam) as a result of youngsters being seduced into uniform by the war movies of John Wayne and other cardboard action heroes who starred in such films in the forties, fifties, and sixties. One would hardly expect that Saving Private Ryan motivated young people to want to go to war. The same is true of HBO's recent TV mini-series, The Pacific, co-produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, the star and director respectively of Saving Private Ryan.
These works associated with Hanks and Spielberg quite properly honor the fighting men who served their stint in hell to defeat Hitler and his rapacious Imperial Japanese ally. By way of contrast, there is nothing in the least bit redemptive or even patriotic in how the filmmakers Folman and Maoz have presented their material -- surely representing their verdict on the war that they fought.
It would be great if one day Israeli and Palestinian filmmakers could collaborate to show the truth from a variety of standpoints. The collaboration of a Palestinian Israeli with an Israeli Jew to make Ajami, Israel's recent finalist for an Academy Award, is evidence that this may yet happen. In the meantime, Folman and Maoz should be given credit for having made remarkable cinematic statements from their personal experiences.
The Big Picture
Given that the innovative quality of Lebanon is that it's almost entirely set inside of a tank, its power is to show how what happens before the soldiers' eyes (the "small picture") undermines the "big picture." The tank commander initially has faith in the larger strategic design that motivated Israel to attack, as he explains by using these very words to his men, until losing his nerve in a general panic that seizes the entire Israeli contingent late in the movie -- both the tank crew and the squad of paratroopers they've linked up with -- when they realize that their small force is behind Syrian lines.
Still, in the larger realm of fact, Israel's invasion in 1982 illustrated how it had become invincible against conventional Arab forces. Yet the inglorious end of Israel's long, unhappy Lebanese sojourn, with its unilateral withdrawal in 2000 -- commemorated cinematically in yet another highly-acclaimed recent Israeli film, Beaufort -- shows how Israel is vulnerable to the "asymmetric warfare" of well-organized and well-motivated irregular forces fighting on its home ground.
The Likud government's decision to go to war in 1982 was widely believed, by the leftist elements we visited that year, as intended to forestall a political process with the PLO -- building upon the short-lived ceasefire that the invasion brutally pushed aside -- nearly a decade before negotiations finally began at Madrid in 1991, and then in Oslo and Washington, D.C., in 1992 and 1993. If Israel went to war in 1982 to sabotage a possible peace process with the PLO, it is a cruel twist of history that its enemy in the north is now a more capable and fanatical foe in the form of Hezbollah.
It can be cogently argued that Israel fought for its survival in 1948, 1967 and 1973. The twists, turns, and failings of peace efforts to date have not all been Israel's fault, but the 1982 war was the first of a series of wars of choice, rather than necessity. Interestingly, Israel has unambiguously prevailed only in conflicts when it has absolutely had to.
Ralph Seliger is editor of Israel Horizons, Meretz USA's print publication, and a blogger at www.MeretzUSA.blogspot.com.
Source Citation: Seliger, Ralph. 2010. Lebanon, 1982: Facts and Films. Tikkun 25(5) 83