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Most people who want to learn more about the Arab-Israeli conflict begin with a wide-ranging book such as From Beirut to Jerusalem or What Went Wrong?. Such books can be informative. But in painting the big picture, they sometimes lose sight of the details. Company C, the first book by translator and journalist Haim Watzman—subtitled An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel—may not encompass the broad sweep of modern history or even a particularly wide range of opinion. But it offers something just as valuable: an unflinching view of the conflict from a perspective many American readers can relate to.
A liberal American Jew from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., Watzman describes in his prologue how in the late ’70s, when he was in his mid-20s, he embraced Orthodox Judaism and decided to move to Israel. Within a few months of becoming a citizen, he was drafted into the Israeli army and sent to Lebanon to fight a war that is often described as Israel’s Vietnam. But in spite of his political misgivings, Watzman was proud to serve in his newly adopted country’s army. “I served in uniform in conflicts that I demonstrated against in civilian clothes,” he writes, embracing the inconsistency head on. This internal conflict, between the empathetic, liberal-minded citizen and the loyal, patriotic soldier, serves as the book’s major tension.
From the invasion of Lebanon through the First Intifada, the Oslo Accords, Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, and the Second Intifada, Watzman observes much of recent Israeli history from the front lines, as an active-duty soldier and later as a reservist. During this time he gets married, settles down, and has three children. But the book is centered almost entirely on the four weeks out of each year that he is with his reserve unit, Company C. Apart from a helicopter crash at the beginning and pot shots at Palestinians throughout, the book contains little of what American readers might consider action. But the picture that develops—Watzman, with his duffel bag and his M-16, patrolling the streets of Hebron, searching houses in the West Bank, and staring down Syrian soldiers across the frigid slopes of Mount Hermon—accurately portrays the conflict’s sometimes boring but always tense day-to-day reality.
But it’s not just the anecdotes of army life that lend Company C interest. What truly sets this book apart is Watzman’s candid, and at times searing, internal debate about his role in an army whose actions he doesn’t always agree with. “After being the victims of such oppression,” he writes, pondering the similarity between Russian pogroms and Israeli incursions into the West Bank, “how could we Jews do the same to others? How could we even do anything that might be viewed that way by outsiders? It seemed to contradict the very idea of what a Jewish state should be.”
Watzman approaches these much-vexed questions with a refreshing frankness and naiveté. Readers are given full access to the internal struggle of a deeply religious, compassionate, and patriotic soldier faced with the thorny and often deadly daily interactions that define the conflict. One tangled-up paragraph of Watzman’s thoughts will tell you more about the situation than any of Thomas Friedman’s easy-to-digest columns in the New York Times.
“I need a God I can argue with,” Watzman says at one point to a more dogmatically religious member of his battalion. Indeed, his internal debates are almost rabbinic in their attention to detail and possibility, impressive not only for their reasoning but also for their faith, in both God and peace. “My faith in peace with the Palestinians had come to resemble my faith in God,” he writes as the Oslo Accords are beginning to break down. “[B]oth seemed a necessary, fundamental truth that didn’t fit easily into the real world, something to be aspired to but also wrestled with.” Wisely, Watzman keeps these disquisitions short enough to prevent their bogging the book down.
If the intellectual center of Company C is Watzman’s internal grappling, its emotional center is his relationship with his reserve unit, Company C. Over the years, this motley group of men develop an intense bond, despite, Watzman repeatedly emphasizes, major ideological and socioeconomic differences. “There was a sense of cohesion, mutual respect, and common purpose that broke down the usual dividing lines of religion, politics, and ethnicity…” This unspoken covenant has a profound effect on Watzman’s thinking. Indeed, it is this that convinces him to stick with his unit in spite of frequent missions he sees as morally questionable. “How could I walk out on them at such a moment?” he argues to himself. “They needed every man they had for the assignment.”
As hard as it is for Watzman to reconcile his responsibilities as a soldier and his opinions as a civilian, the soldier/father dichotomy is even more difficult. “‘Rabin negotiates with the Palestinians and the Syrians,” he muses, on the way with some other soldiers to report for duty in the Golan Heights, “‘and my kid has a hernia operation. Syria says they want all of the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon before they even start to talk, and my daughter’s first-grade teacher calls to say she isn’t doing her homework. Hamas terrorists attack Israeli soldiers, and my two-year-old is beating up the other kids in his nursery school class.’” Although he steps lightly around the issue, one gets the sense that Watzman also has serious issues with his Israeli-born wife, who strenuously objects to his continuing to serve in the army after he loses a number of his toes to a bad infection.
Throughout the book, Watzman is very careful about his use of contentious language. He makes sure to call anything beyond Israel’s 1967 borders a “settlement” and refrains from overusing the word “terrorist.” But his portrayal of the situation is not without its issues. He often falls into a typically Israeli pattern of describing every Israeli military action as a “counterattack” or “reprisal.” And, as might be expected in a military memoir, he tends to aggrandize his comrades while stereotyping the enemy. His fellow soldiers are complex human characters; Palestinians, on the other hand, are rarely anything but shifty-eyed shopkeepers, wailing women, stone-throwing children, and terrorists. In one telling passage he muses, “Two soldiers might have been killed instead of two Palestinians.” As compassionate as he may be, Watzman is still a soldier.
Near the beginning of Company C, Watzman complains, “Some unthinking journalists (and readers) equate objectivity with not having opinions.” One would hesitate to call Company C objective. But its purpose is not to be impartial or comprehensive. Its purpose is to tell an honest, compelling story of one man’s experience as a soldier in the Israeli army. And that it does.CP