Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (2) — War Ethics in a War Zone (3)

Waltz With Bashir
Haim Watzman

Waltz With Bashir directly addresses the philosophical question we’ve been discussing here. Ari Folman, the film’s director, served as an Israeli soldier on the perimeter of the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut at the time of the massacre committed there by Lebanese Phalangist militiamen in mid-September 1982. Folman clearly feels guilt, and feels that he abetted an act that was comparable to the Nazis’ massacres of Jews in Europe—his parents are Holocaust survivors. To what extent is he, an individual soldier, morally culpable. Should he have acted otherwise than he did?

There can be little doubt that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon, Chief of Staff Rafael (Raful) Eitan, and the top army command knew very well what would happen if the Phalangists were given a free hand in the refugee camps. The Phalangist forces had a long history of murder, mutilation, and destruction, committed not just against Palestinians and Muslims but also against rival Christian forces in Lebanon.

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Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (1) – A National Nightmare on Film

Haim Watzman

Just after seeing Waltz With Bashir at the Semadar Cinema in the German Colony, Ilana and I ran into our 17-year old son, Niot, with two friends. They had been at the pool, at their twice-weekly get-in-shape-for-the-army swim class. “You’ve got to see this film,” I told them. “Every kid who is dying to be a soldier should see it. So should every Israeli who loves his country.”

In Waltz With Bashir, director Ari Folman conducts a personal journey to recover his lost time and lost memories of the first Lebanon War. He knows that in September 1982 he was an Israeli soldier in Beirut. He was there when Lebanese Christian Phalangist militiamen, outfitted in IDF uniforms, massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, two refugee camps that had become neighborhoods in the Lebanese capital. But, except for an odd vision of himself and two friends swimming naked in the sea at the time of the massacre, he can remember no details—what he was doing at the time, how he felt, who was really there with him.

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Beirut Nostalgia

Haim Watzman

Beirut is an evocative city even when you’ve only seen it in its worse moments. In yesterday’s New York Times, Roger Cohen waxes nostalgic about Beirut of a quarter-century ago, and in today’s Ha’aretz, Yehuda Ben-Meir praises Israel’s restraint in not invading the city back in the first Lebanon War. I was probably in Beirut at the same time Cohen was, so I’d like to join the party.

I was two days into Hell Week, the first chapter of my infantry NCO course, when helicopters appeared out of nowhere. We had barely slept for two nights, had eaten little, and were caked with the mud stirred up by a persistent late-winter downpour. Within a few minutes we threw our gear together and lugged it into the choppers that flew us to Tyre.

Israel had been in Lebanon for six and half months then and the quick victory and new Middle East that Defense Minister Ariel Sharon had promised had not materialized. The IDF had begun a long and intractable occupation of all of southern Lebanon–including the southern neighborhoods of Beirut. Ben-Meir, who as a parliamentarian for the National Religious Party, was a member of the governing coalition at the time, is not accurate in his description of events. Israeli forces entered the Lebanese capital at the beginning of the war. The restraint he speaks of was not pressing further into the northern and western sectors of the city, where Cohen was, where Arafat and the PLO leadership had been until they were, as Ben-Meir describes, forced to leave.

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