This is what it's like, huh? After all the movies I have seen? I really didn't expect it would be like this.
It's not like the grinding nature of rations, eating beans from a can, crafting items out of stockings or cardboard in the flickering light of a gas lamp. It is nothing as I imagined.
I am not suffering. I am not wounded. I have food and water and a bed. My cousins in Gaza do not. Less than 50 miles from where I live, people are sleeping in ruins and need medicine and water and food. Soldiers and civilians -- people -- are dying daily. Tanks roll and guns phut, phut, and there are funerals every day, in the heat and in the dust.
As an American, raised on Westerns and John Wayne and Platoon and Apocalypse Now, war is far away. It is a movie. It is an idea. It is something you are made to read about in high school -- The Red Badge of Courage or All Quiet on the Western Front -- as if reading about it will in some way illuminate the experience itself. The horror.
Americans love war stories and war movies. They are full of heroes and crises and drama and, of course, bad guys. Yet we are experientially more removed from the reality of war -- especially 21st-century war -- than any other nation on Earth, owing to our geographic bubble.
When was the last time we in America actually had to take cover? To really, truly be afraid for our lives? When was the last time we were actually physically threatened by mortar fire or missiles? Never. Not in our land, not in our neighborhoods and communities, not for over 150 years, and even then, in the awful, violent, visceral Civil War, most Americans were far-away enough from actual engagements that they only read about what was going on in the paper -- unless you were unlucky enough to live in the American South. But that was a long time ago. Modern-day Americans have no idea what the hovering, grinding despair feels like.
When the American military waged "shock and awe" in Iraq in 2003, I remember watching it on television and indeed feeling shocked and awed -- and proud. I felt a visceral, patriotic, completely primal feeling of "Take that, Saddam Hussein!" (We later learned that was more than misguided.) It was a war that we watched on television, as was and is the slow-motion, awful engagement in Afghanistan. It's a TV war.
Because America is so vast, Americans don't see soldiers with big packs flooding the train station to report for duty. I lived for 47 years in the United States, and never once did I see that. Sure, you'd see soldiers occasionally, but the military reality of America was, for me, an idea more than a fact. My cousin flew a helicopter in the Iraq war. I'm proud of him. I'm glad he was not hurt. He showed me pictures of Fallujah taken from overhead. But that is as real as that war ever got for me, personally. I know there are many Americans for whom these TV wars were quite real because they lost family members in them. And what a painful thing, to not only lose someone you love but to lose them in a war the reasons for which are unclear to you and have no measurable effect on your life or your country. How do you deal with that grief? "Why?!" is the howl that I imagine rises from the throats of Americans grieving the loss of their sons, brothers and husbands.
But for me, now, things are different. I live in what can authentically be called a "war zone." I may not like the reasons for this (or any) war, but the impact is very direct and measurable in my life. And I must note here that I am alive right now because of a sophisticated anti-missile weapons system. Over 2,500 missiles have been fired in my general direction.
As an American for whom war has always been an awful abstract, this is a surreal experience. The siren wails, and I know that missiles are coming, missiles shot only moments ago by Hamas, by people who want to kill me, my neighbors, my countrymen and women. It's not a movie. It's really happening.
We run to shelters, and we wait for the house-shuddering "boom!" to tell us the missile was either intercepted or hit somewhere. We don't know what happened until after we leave the shelter and find out.
This is war in the 21st century, a war of sirens and propaganda and beliefs, a war being waged in two theaters: on the ground and on social media. Nobody will ever be able to say they didn't know this was happening. People are dying -- not memes, not slogans, but people -- less than an hour's drive from where I live. And there is a terrible, creeping, confusing guilt for me, living in this. I am not suffering -- how obscene to even say so! -- when families are burying their sons, their daughters, their children; when I have an air conditioner, food and shelter. This is not suffering. But I am suffering, as are so many Israelis, hence the guilt.
Every day, when I wake up -- often by air raid sirens -- I start thinking about where I will take cover today, or right now. In my home? On the street? Against a wall? Is that wall good enough? Do you cover your head? Rush into a store? Will the bus I am on explode? What is in that backpack? So many shots of adrenaline a day that your mind and your body begin to respond in a number of ways, none of which is easy to endure.
Those are the obvious experiences that create stress. Can you imagine going through them yourself? But that's not the worst part, not really. You get used to it. You begin to shut down. Sure, it's very hard to focus when you are always aware of where your phone, keys and shoes are, should you have to run, which you have had to do two and three times a day for three weeks. Yes, it's hard to relax or laugh or be hopeful about the future when you know so many people are dying, when you feel them get yanked into the ether one by one and in groups -- as if each one is a part of you -- when you know that what you are experiencing is some kind of trauma short of actual trauma, but measurable nonetheless.
It's not the trauma of running and fear but the deeper trauma of existentially questioning so many things you thought were true -- even sometimes -- like the idea that sometimes, in some places, leaders lead with nobility, strength and a purity of conviction; like the idea that common sense and common decency will prevail; like the idea that any of the "We are one" stuff you hold so dear can be evidenced when it's just not, when none of these things is evident or true right now. I think the traumatic feeling I am experiencing is called despair.
As a way to cope, I created a Facebook page called Truth & Beauty in Wartime: Israel, Palestine and Peace. It's a gazette, a reading list of articles about this conflict that come from reasonable, credible sources. It helps me stay informed, which doesn't always help with the despair, but I'm trying to think my way through this.
I wrote a guide for talking to your Jewish and Israel friends about this conflict in response to an overwhelming number of emails and messages I have received that were minimally wrongheaded in nature. That helped me too, and I think it's helping others who are here with me, in this nightmare.
Mostly I want to regain a sense of hope, faith and optimism about humanity. That what this experience has taken from me, and I am fighting tooth and nail to regain that.