Michael Totten

The Transforming Fire

My colleague Jonathan Spyer’s book The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict has just been released, and I urge everyone who enjoys my work to order a copy at once. His publisher sent me an advance copy and, and it is outstanding.

You may recall that I published a lengthy interview with him in August. And here is an excerpt from the book:

In the late afternoon of 9 August 2006, the unit received word that the operation into el-Khiam and Marjayoun was on. We would be commencing movement at six p.m. The company was positioned on a field next to an avocado grove, on lands belonging to a border kibbutz. We had been waiting there for three days. Twice, the entry into Lebanon had been postponed. We’d spent the days checking our equipment, eating sandwiches and smoking cigarettes. Waiting. The routine of tense expectation and prolonged inactivity was one you got used to.

You can get used to a lot. You can sit next to a verdant field of avocados, and get used to the endless, sinister booming of our artillery in the morning, and the Katyusha rockets from the other side that started around 11 a.m. You can get used to scrabbling for cover in the rich dirt as the missiles fly overhead, and watching them plow up white smoke in the hills. All of that can, within 72 hours, start to feel like a normal routine. So much so that some poor, domestic animal that lies within you can even feel a little sad when it hears that its time to move on.

All the same, I was aware of the strangeness that had brought us to this point. We had come a long way from the great hopes of the 1990s. From the high-tech boom and the successes on Nasdaq and the New Middle East. All the way down through the collapse of negotiations, the ending of illusions, the return of the suicide bombers to our towns and cities, and now this, war. Who had ever believed that we would be rushing for the bus depot in confusion, like extras in some fourth-rate film about the Yom Kippur War? That we would be taking the polythene covers from the tanks that had waited patiently and motionless for precisely this moment.

The operation was into one of the areas south of the Litani river, as yet untouched by our forces. Everyone was thinking about the huge mines that had devastated a couple of the tanks heading inward at earlier stages of the war.

Nothing much you could do against the mines. I thought about them a lot. They seemed more fearsome than the other ordnance in Hizballah’s armory. Mainly, I was concerned as to whether I would know what had happened. Whether there would be time to realize, with a sort of mild surprise, “We’ve hit a mine, so this is where it ends.” Or whether the process would be too quick, and one would simply switch off. I wasn’t sure which of the two possibilities seemed worse.

There were fewer jokes than usual, and no one was playing cards. We knew that we were going into the killing zone, and that it was not certain who would come out. Lebanon was the adjacent fields a few hundred yards ahead. Topographically identical, and strangely alien. The hills a little balder. No electric cables. Gray, flat roofed houses clustered on the inclines, instead of the familiar beige ones with red roofs.

With the tanks all in line against the setting sun, an elegiac mood came over us as we made the final preparations before moving off. There was time for thoughts, cigarettes, maybe surreptitious final mobile phone calls from home, or last minute adjustments.

The call had come on Friday evening. The phone rang, and after a second or so of silence on the line a recorded woman’s voice was telling me to report to the agreed point from which buses would be arriving to take us north. The peaceful summer evening atmosphere abruptly changed into something cold and urgent. I had a boiling hot shower, perhaps my last for a while, it occurred to me — and dressed in the olive green uniform which I had presciently washed a few days earlier, as the scenes from the war on TV had worsened. I called my parents in London. I wrote a couple of e-mails to friends, and turned off the computer. Then I walked out of the house into the calm Jerusalem Friday evening, and began making my way to the assembly point.

Years before, I had read an interview with the Israeli journalist Amnon Abramovich, who was severely wounded in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Abramovich had been a law student in Jerusalem when the war erupted. As I walked to the meeting point, the details of this article returned to me. I remembered his description of the transformation of his life following the severe burns he’d received when his tank was hit by Egyptian Sagger missiles.

It happened during General Avraham “Bren” Adan’s failed counter-attack on 8 October 1973. Abramovich noted how one minute you’re living the good life in Jerusalem, with the girls and the parties and the bars; the next you’re facing surgery to rebuild your face, and burns across 70 percent of your body. The first part of Abramovich’s narrative was not a bad approximation of my own life, at least on a good day. The prospect of becoming acquainted with the second was at the forefront of my mind through the weeks of the war.

The assembly point was in an Ultra-Orthodox part of town. Young secular and national religious Jerusalemites were gathering there when I arrived. The called-up Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fighters and the Ultra-Orthodox men mingled amiably, ongoing enmities put aside due to the strange drama of the event. After a while, I noticed an acquaintance of mine from Jerusalem, whom I hadn’t seen for about ten years. We knew each other when we were students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the mid-1990s and were involved in the campaign against the Rabin/Peres government’s attempts to negotiate away the Golan Heights to the Syrians. In the meantime, Eli had married and had two children. We reminisced about various characters we’d known.

Some men had turned up with their girlfriends, and there were high spirits outside as people prepared to depart. For a while, something resembling the atmosphere of a café at the Hebrew University prevailed. Shouts of laughter, and friendly mockery. Mildly combative humor with the Ultra-Orthodox men, who as usual proved to be possessed of a no less nimble humor of their own.

Finally, at about 11 in the night, a convoy of buses arrived, and there was a crush as people piled aboard. I remember the Jerusalem night outside as we pulled away. The crowd of Ultra-Orthodox men watching us, now mostly in silence.

You can order a copy of The Transforming Fire from Amazon.com.