I remember being in Israel the last time rockets were being fired from Gaza. It was January 2009 and I wasn't a journalist or a tourist. I was a recent Iraq war veteran trying to figure out how I felt about the Middle East. In the weeks leading up to the trip I had repeated nightmares about my tour bus being blown up by an IED. In spite of the bad dreams, I went anyway.
I had been home from Iraq for about two years when I got on the plane to go to Israel. I came back from Iraq to a wife who was cheating on me with my neighbor, an Army Major and married father of four. The Christmas before my trip to Israel was my first Christmas as a divorced father of two boys.
My father invited me to visit him in Israel. He is a Christian pastor and was travelling to Israel and Egypt with a group of his parishioners. I told him I would meet him there and hang out in Jerusalem after his tour group got on the bus for Egypt. My father loves Israel and has been hosting church tour groups since the 80s.
The first thing I noticed in Tel Aviv was that all the bars had their front windows completely covered in black paper and paint. This was so the suicide bombers wouldn't know if they were crowded. I spoke with a bartender at one of the blacked out bars. Like me, he had just finished his service as a commissioned officer in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). His deployment took him a few miles down the road to Gaza. My deployment took me to Iraq, on the other side of the world. Both of us didn't talk about anything specific. We couldn't. I think we were both trying to get on with our lives. I don't know if we were succeeding.
I stayed in a youth hostel in Tel Aviv and most of my bunkmates were American students from Christian colleges in America. They were part of an outreach organization that babysat the children of Israeli settlers near Gaza. They watched the children in the bomb shelters while their parents worked above ground.
In Jerusalem I noticed the J-Lens. The J-Lens is a small, white blimp that flies over Jerusalem. On the bottom of the balloon is a powerful camera that watches the Old City of Jerusalem day and night. I knew what it was because one of these flew over the city of Baghdad while I was there. I will let the reader draw the obvious parallels.
Since there was an uprising in Gaza and the rockets were whizzing into Israeli territory, the military and police were out in force. There were large groups of young men and women in green and guns everywhere. Again, I felt like I was home. That is, at home in Iraq. I liked being around the young people with the guns. I missed being with my soldiers in Iraq. For the first time since I had been home from Iraq, I felt safe.
Whatever U.S. veterans feel after they come home from Iraq or Afghanistan, you can be sure that Israeli soldiers feel it even more intensely. We get to leave the problems of Iraq on the other side of the world. They don't. I can't even imagine how the veterans on the other side, the side that lives in Gaza or Baghdad feel. Its 2012, but I don't think I'm ready to learn about them yet.
I remember what the Katyusha rockets sounded like in Iraq. I remember lying flat on the floor, waiting for the attack to stop. I remember hearing my loud breathing and making all sorts of complicated calculations in my head, in an attempt to believe that if one hit near me, the shrapnel would be absorbed by the concrete barrier outside my door. I still avoid fireworks shows, even on the 4th of July.
I imagine that they sound a lot like the Qassam rockets that are being fired from Gaza this week. Katyusha rockets originated in Russia and are named after a song that was popular in WWII. The song was about "Katy" who misses her lover, a soldier who has gone off to war. Qassam rockets are named after a Syrian preacher who died in an attack against the British in 1935. His death was a catalyst for the 1936 Arab Revolt. Indeed, as Chris Hedges rightly pointed out, "War is a force that gives us meaning." We are the lover, we are the girl on the home-front, or we are the martyr. We are never ourselves.
War is fought on a mythic level and those who participate in combat, become heroes, even gods, but only for a moment. After war, we sometimes feel like we are less than human.
I remember staying at a Kibbutz on the Sea of Galilee. One morning, while it was still dark, I went for a run. Running had become for me my primary form of therapy and I ran every day. I ran so much that I qualified for the Boston Marathon that year. On my run that morning, I came upon the place where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, 2,000 years ago. Jesus' baptism marked the beginning of his healing ministry. It was a moment when he heard a voice from heaven, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:17) It was a moment when he realized who he was, he realized his identity.
I stopped and stared at the dark water. I plunged my head into the water and knelt on the bank. It was a cold morning and the icy water ran down the back of my shirt. I didn't flinch. I knew then that I wanted to start over. I wanted to be different. I wanted to leave the war and the anger at my ex-wife behind. I wanted to move on with my life. I wanted a new identity. I didn't hear a voice from heaven, but I heard a voice in my heart. It was then I realized that I had come to the Holy Land only to find out that there isn't any holy land. The Holy Land, Israel, is a place of constant war and those of us who want to live in peace must find it for ourselves.