This morning, Sunday, 25 April 2010, I watched a TV documentary, The Letter, in the Issues of Faith series. The documentary, which focuses on the experiences of Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son died at a checkpoint on the road between Israel and Palestine, makes plain that war, which is made at the highest levels of society, causes suffering predominantly to those at the lowest levels. The leaders of societies are the perpetrators of war. Robi says that if those who declared war were to take the field themselves, there would be fewer wars.
This documentary shows ordinary people, like Robi, doing their best to overcome the pernicious exclusivity and prejudice that result from religion and patriotism. If the Palestinians and the Israelis were of one faith, would there be this terrible conflict in which people cannot see one another as human beings? Robi Damelin, whose son David was killed by a sniper, repeats several times that if the sniper had known David, he never would have killed him. But to the sniper, David was his uniform. Equally, the sniper is simply a Palestinian to Robi. It was only after she heard that the sniper, a man about David’s age, had at the age of twelve, witnessed an Israeli soldier cold-bloodedly shooting his uncle, that Robi began to think of him as a person. The sniper had for years been obsessed by the horror of his uncle’s death and had at last sought revenge by killing a dozen Israeli soldiers, among them David, at a checkpoint.
A vibrant, outgoing young man, David was a pacifist at heart. He had joined the peace movement and become an activist seeking peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. But for Israelis, military service is compulsory and when David was called up, he felt he owed it to his country to comply. He was concerned about the example he would be setting his students if he did not. Once students complete high school they have to go for military training. Perhaps he did not want to confuse them. Whatever his reason, his complicity indicates that patriotism won out over pacifism. In choosing to serve, he gave up his will and became the instrument of the will of warmongers. His mother’s plaintive utterance that if the sniper had known David he would not have killed him indicates a lack of understanding of the conditions of war. In war, one cannot know the enemy; the whole point of a military uniform is to suppress the individual personality and to present soldiers simply as ‘us’ or ‘them’.
Like most young people, David did not realise that merely donning an army uniform made him a killing machine, an instrument of the expansionist and genocidal will of those who have the power to conscript and coerce young men into war. Though he was not assigned combat duty but was in charge of a checkpoint between Palestine and Israel, as an Israeli soldier he represented the will of his government. Once a person undertakes military service that person has no will of his own. But David probably thought he could be a pacifist in the army; that he would never kill. He did not count on being killed. As a soldier he represented the enemy to the sniper; and a soldier either kills or is killed. When one goes through military training one learns not to question, i.e. one learns to suppress the individual will in favour of the political will, and one learns to kill. One cannot be a pacifist and a soldier at the same time; the two are diametrically opposed.
Military training normally begins at age eighteen. How does one at eighteen understand all that military service implies? If young men and women understood all the implications, would they still go into military service? They are conscripted at an age when they easily believe that they are doing their duty, that they are serving their country, that it is an honour to die for one’s country: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. If it is such an honour to go to war, why do we chiefly send off youngsters to sacrifice their lives? Parents instinctively protect their young from harm but when it comes to war, they are ready to sacrifice them, ready to allow them to be trained as psychopaths.
In society, we teach children, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ then we send these same children for military training where they are taught, ‘If thou dost not kill, thou shalt be killed. So kill, kill, kill.’ Is it surprising then that soldiers in war are known to go on killing sprees? Is it any wonder that when they come back from war they are confused; that they suffer posttraumatic stress? They have been through intensely demoralizing, barbaric experiences and on their return, we expect them to pick up where they left off, pick up the civilized norms and values that were drilled out of them, as easily as they doff army boots for ordinary shoes.
In the global village, where there is continuous interaction, the narrow limits of patriotism and religion are being transcended. We no longer function as closed restricted societies. Those who insist on racial, religious, traditional and cultural exclusivity are at odds with new trends that are bringing people together across racial and cultural barriers. We are in the process of building new understandings of society and loyalties are no longer to narrow, limited cultural perspectives; loyalties are shifting to universal principles of humane, compassionate behaviour. In such a world those who insist on preserving their closed societies will not survive because the current trend is towards a more humane, global community that is both diverse and unified. Apartheid has been relegated to the past even though some, mainly warmongers, still cling to it.
In the documentary, The Letter, the establishment of a parents’ committee comprising Palestinians and Israelis, is an indication of current global trends. Such situations where people are willing to meet, they discover that they are all human beings and their efforts to reconcile transcend the narrow boundaries of race, tradition, culture, religion and patriotism that exclude rather than integrate. And they begin to question the rationale of war and warmongers.
Robi Damelin writes a letter to the family of the sniper who killed her son. She is reaching out to them across cultural and racial barriers in the hope of finding peace and reconciliation. A young Palestinian, Ali, who has become her good friend, delivers her letter to the sniper’s family and after he meets the family finds himself questioning his loyalties. Ali regards Robi as more than a friend and the sniper, who has killed a dear friend’s son, is a hero on the Palestinian side. How should he react? One can see in his dilemma, the beginnings of a search for reconciliation.
Robi does not receive a response to her letter, but she has begun a process that must eventually take root in other hearts and minds. She and the members of the parents’ committee have begun a movement, a movement that must grow and overtake us all. We must be forced to question why we allow governments to make war. If government is for the people and by the people and not only of the people, ordinary people, the main victims of war, should have the right to veto war. How can any country call itself democratic when decisions to make war are taken without the consent of the people? And we must ask of what use is religion that teaches ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and then condones the killing of masses of people.
We the ordinary people make possible the conduct of war because we comply. If we didn’t take up arms, there would be no war.