I read Wilfred Owen when I could’t really appreciate him.
A 21 year old Canadian Jewish girl living in the 21st century, who by the force of whimsey, picked up a massive tome, a collection of 20th century poets, from a book stall on the Upper West Side.
Admittedly, there’s an elegant despair, a poignant defeat, mixed with a humble, resilient hope in Owen’s words that I couldn’t possibly internalise then.
I wasn’t in the trenches of France. It wasn’t 1916.
And since I was carrying that religious exemption in my pocket stating I was excused from serving my country, I was not a solider, or a veteran.
I came across him again, while reading Matti Friedman’s Pumpkinflowers, a melancholy and haunting collection of a few soldier’s accounts of what it was like, serving in Lebanon in the mid to late 90’s.
Wilfred Owen. In a book about young IDF troops.
The Soldier’s voice.
The voice of pacifism behind a resolute sense of honour. A seeker of morality.
Wilfred Owen. The soldier’s friend, forgiver, testifier and confessor.
When terror strikes it is a cold coal dropping into your belly.
When you hear it told of your delayed reaction is muted, the ice splintering somewhere between the frigid hard facts being updated and reviewed by news sources and media outlets.
But we all have that initial Stop, question your breathing.
You forget that it’s not you for a split second and then immediately wonder who you know who it might be.
This country is small.
The truest thing ever said about this place is that there isn’t one human here who hasn’t been affected by terror.
Someone knows someone who loves someone, who was…taken, destroyed.
So when we all heard the news…it trickled in waves.
And we waited thinking there were only wounded and no fatalities.
We could survive wounds.
Then the first deaths were reported.
And then the narrative began to build.
In the world of academic dialogue, in the ivory towers, and the panels on news stations, in the houses of law, and the congresses of the world, terror is defined, studied, adjudicated, and worst of all, normalised.
I remember sitting in my Just and Unjust War class, reading Michael Walzer, and dissecting the words terrorism and total war, following it through ancient Greece, to the First World War all the way to the Algerian Civil War. Terms and laws and international bodies were all grappling with new wars and new realities as the world evolved and borders aligned and realigned.
It was about the late 1890’s that “terror” became synonymous with anti-government violent “”guerrilla” methods of revolt. This was the antiestablishment. This was the rebellion. And it was acting out of desperation. It was used to describe Russians opposing Czarist policies.
Despite this, when the 1st World War rolled around, pacifism became the voice of modern cultures.
Wilfred Owen’s poetry was born and blossomed in a trench amidst the sounds of a war the world still can not justify.
He did something in those trenches no one had been able to do before him.
What Mallory failed to do, and Kipling could not help but keep romanticising, Owen did with staggering honesty.
He gave the soldier fear.
He gave the soldier doubt.
He gave the soldier love and dreams as simple and cottony as Home.
He took out the country. He removed the pride. He excised the politics.
He made the soldier human.
There have been many terror attacks in this land, the place that inextricably holds my heart in its soil and raises it above the wonky mismatched roofs of fortresses, temples, minarets, and bauhaus buildings.
Some of it thudded inside me like that reoccurring cold coal. Way down it would go and I would blink and move on.
When that truck plowed into a group of swaying, unconcerned 20 year old cadets, the coal got stuck in my throat.
I swallowed it eventually.
I kept checking reports, knowing it happened in my city, knowing people who lived near by, knowing that it couldn’t have ended well, once the video footage was leaked.
I walked home and called my parents.
My mother’s voice held traces of earlier panic.
“I knew it wasn’t you. I knew you’d be ok. I knew you were at work.”
Her mind, 3,000 miles away had trained itself to go through those logical steps.
The coal was stuck somewhere in there.
Maybe it was because i knew so many who were in, or had been in uniform, that the cold terror wouldn’t go away and my heart whispered it could have been you.
It couldn’t have. I never fought. I still had that piece of paper.
But I had seen scenes like that one on the tayalet so many times before.
I had stood in a circle like that, listening to my temporary mefakedet in Gadna, explain something in that blunt voice making sure we were paying attention because a real war had broken out somewhere beyond the base.
I knew what it was to see soldiers not on their guard, not ready for battle, both in dress and mind.
This was just a gathering of future officers.
This was a day of culture.
They had just come off the bus.
One of them texted her friend saying sof shavuah had been great.
Another was probably thinking how badly they wanted a coffee.
They were standing in a cluster in front of the bus, a field trip for overgrown scholars, a handful of Wilfred Owens among them, knowing that if they were to be soldiers, they had to be good ones, anything else was unthinkable.
I checked the sites again before heading out to the supermarket, waiting, waiting like everyone else for the gag order to be lifted.
Everyone from the family of the wounded needs to be told before the public can be told.
And then the pictures starting filtering through.
Shira, Shir, Erez, Yael.
And I really did cry.
People were watching the CCTV footage and gawping at the fact the soldiers didn’t suddenly turn around and become Rambos and open fire.
I kept watching the cluster of soldiers on replay.
They stood like school kids. Close together, waiting for guidance.
And I got angry at those saying this had anything to do with Elor Azaria. I was livid at the tour guide who initially shot the attacker as he backed the truck into the crowd to run them over again, for even suggesting it.
I was livid at the fact that this tour guide would even use this moment to politicise real human events, and turn this country into turmoil.
And I was livid at him because he was wrong.
I watched the footage.
Yes, they ran.
The terrified 20 year olds bearing humanity under that uniform and those lapels of future leadership.
But most turned around.
And my focus got caught by one at the corner of the screen who got down on one knee, grabbed the comrade next to him, raised his gun, and began…
To try to understand what was happening.
Because he saw a truck swerve and plow in to people.
Because their first thoughts were probably, “car crash,” and not “this man wants to kill me and others,” until they noticed he was reversing.
When terror strikes, it is not battle.
Someone at work said it was sad that the state’s punishment of one soldier would stop the others from acting when they needed to act.
Another said, you had to be on, all the time, when you were a soldier. Unfortunately terror is constant.
So when one of my coworkers, who did serve in a combat unit rebutted with “that’s not always the case,” I felt that tidal wave back down a little.
Amidst the sea of anger and hurt, I heard the hope and humanity of Wilfred Owen.
Soldiers are not fair game.
They aren’t nameless, they aren’t headlines, they aren’t one in 200,000,000 people.
Your child. Your sister, brother, boyfriend, girlfriend…friend.
They go home on weekends and dream of lazy days and careers and beers and beaches and mama’s cooking, of their dogs and their dog eared books, of the rave they might go to or the class they might excel in… of freedom and the life yet to be lived.
You can throw any of the political science books you want at me.
They are not fair game.
Reports came out denying the tour guide’s version of events.
The soldiers hadn’t hesitated to shoot.
One of them, in fact, shot one of the fatal bullets that stopped the man behind the wheel from killing others.
They weren’t weak nor did they pause in thought wondering, “if I act to save a life, will I go to jail?”
When terror strikes and is still moving, trust me, those thoughts are nowhere to be found.
They are not on the radar.
The soldiers were good soldiers. They assessed the situation after a surprise attack. They responded. They survived.
Now, with the nation holding them, they will mourn.