Monday, September 13, 2010

What does it look like when you're really at war?

My rabbi talked for 30 minutes or so on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It was a fiery sermon, filled with passion and rage. He built his talk around the idea that we’re at war, that we need to understand our collective home is ablaze – at least metaphorically – and it’s time for someone to have the courage to stand up and yell fire.

I could spend the rest of this post detailing the points he made, those I agree with and those I thought were off base or overstated. It’s worth noting that the congregation is large, filled with people holding a wide-range of ideas and beliefs. There was a great deal of head nodding and shaking and, somewhat surprising, spontaneous applause following the sermon.

I have no particular desire to debate my spiritual leader. There’s much he said I agree with and much he said I take issue with. That said, it’s the “we’re at war” idea that he continued to fall back on that lingers in my mind.

The U.S., of course, continues to battle insurgents and Islamofascists in at least two countries – Iraq and Afghanistan. Sure, I know, we’re in the process of pulling combat troops out of Iraq, but 50,000 soldiers remain in the country with no plans of removing them in the immediate future. The war my rabbi was referencing, however, covers a much larger area and many more fronts – here at home in the U.S., in Israel, across the Arab world, in parts of Africa, Europe and Asia. We’re talking – at least my rabbi and many others – about a global affair, essentially World War III.

And yet, despite all the sturm und drang, the fiery words and hand waving, it’s hard – in fact, nearly impossible – to buy into the cataclysmic picture that the world and, more specifically, the U.S. is teetering on the abyss. Why?

Nothing – and I mean, absolutely nothing – has changed in the Land of Cotton or across the nation since the World Trade Center in New York was toppled by terrorists nine years ago. There was an instant when I think the country was ready to mobilize, to listen and follow our leaders into battle, ready and willing to crush the evil that festers around the world.

But the moment passed and we were told to, well, go shopping. And we did. Today, despite a faltering economy – the issue that fills most of us with dread – we go about our lives, knowing that there are U.S. soldiers in distant lands, doing battle for, well, we’re not exactly sure.

Meanwhile, we work and play, shop for the latest designer duds at the mall and manage to eat out several times a week. We visit with family and friends; go to movies, the theater and, occasionally, the local symphony and area museums. This time of year, the weekends are spent in front of the TV, cheering our favorite football teams – here in the Land of Cotton it’s the Dawgs or Yellow Jackets on Saturday, the Falcons on Sunday.

Occasionally, I spot a soldier in battle fatigues, in the area on business or visiting family. At the airport just south of the city, I’ve seen dozens of soldiers arriving or waiting for flights. They wear those camouflage uniforms that have become common in recent years and they are often cheered as they come and go about their business. Yet there’s a disconnect, the sense that we’re traveling in parallel worlds – one fraught with danger, the other filled with the ho-hum stuff of life.

But my rabbi says we’re at war! And, on a certain level, I believe him. What he didn’t offer was any words on what we should be doing to prepare for the imminent invasion of our homeland or how best to battle our enemies.

Exactly a year ago I was in Israel, taking part in a volunteer program that had me doing menial labor on a military installation. The idea was that I and other volunteers would clean out warehouses, sort equipment and other such things, so the “real” soldiers could be released to handle more important duties.

My weekends were free to travel, which gave me the opportunity to see parts of the country I had only seen from a distance on previous trips. I was working on a huge base outside of Tel Aviv, but managed to make my way to Jerusalem for Yom Kippur – an adventure I’ve written about here in earlier posts.

After the holiday and the long weekend, I needed to return to Tel Aviv to meet up with friends and other volunteers. I arrived early at the central bus station in Jerusalem, just as it was opening and workers were setting up the ubiquitous security checkpoints that can be found at most public places here – malls and shops; restaurants, clubs and movie theaters; grocery stores, offices, museums, stadiums and government buildings.

After only a few moments, a car pulled to the curb and a soldier hopped out, opened the back door and took hold of an overnight bag and some sort of automatic weapon. He leaned back into the front seat area, kissed the woman behind the wheel, then waved a final goodbye and made his way to the nearby security area.

A minute later a city bus came to a stop across the street and at least a dozen soldiers – young men and women, all in uniforms of one sort or another and all sporting colorful berets and an assortment of weapons – crossed the street and entered the bus station.

These scenes were played out dozens of times over the next 30 minutes, hundreds of Israeli soldiers – husbands and wives, sons and daughters – saying goodbye to someone, hustling passed the nearby checkpoint on their way back to a base, an outpost, a command post somewhere in Israel.

I recall thinking that this is probably how my parent’s generation lived their lives during the darkest days of World War II. And it was this memory of soldiers going about the business of soldiering that came to mind last week as my rabbi talked about us being at war.

Life can be filled with ho-hum stuff in Israel also, but it’s a normalcy surrounded with all the trappings of war. Such a way of life – troop trains and convoys moving through our major cities, our sons and daughters carrying around weapons and waving a melancholy goodbye as they return to nearby bases and command centers after a weekend at home, security checkpoints not just at our airports but in front of all public buildings – may one day become part of the landscape in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And on that day I will believe what my rabbi said on the first day of Rosh Hashanah in 2010.

EVER VIGILANT: Israel is filled with the ho-hum stuff of life, but it’s also a country of citizen soldiers (photo above) that is armed and ready to protect its people and way of life.

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