A tale of two sol­diers and the pres­sure of war

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - OPIN­ION JENNI FRAZER

ap­proach is taken by the hi­lar­i­ous writer Shalom Aus­lan­der, hav­ing re­jected his rigid, Ortho­dox Jewish up­bring­ing (and who ap­pears in The Last Laugh).

In his 2006 film, Bo­rat, Sacha Baron Co­hen spec­tac­u­larly in­cluded a se­quence in which, ap­pear­ing as the ludicrous an­ti­semitic sim­ple­ton of the film’s ti­tle, he got the en­thu­si­as­tic pun­ters in a Coun­try and Western joint in Tuc­son, Ari­zona to join in a song with the re­frain, “Throw the Jew down the well.” This, Baron Co­hen told Rolling Stone magazine, ex­posed not an­ti­semitism par­tic­u­larly but its dan­ger­ous ac­ces­sory, in­dif­fer­ence. You can find the se­quence on YouTube. It is out­ra­geous — ou­tra­geously funny — a vivid ex­am­ple of cre­at­ing gen­uine com­edy out of the most un­promis­ing, even sick­en­ing, ma­te­rial. Mel Brooks pro­motes There were even mo­ments of hu­mour within the dark heart of the Holo­caust, as con­cen­tra­tion camp in­mates tried to keep up their spir­its. One of the sur­vivors fea­tured in The Last Laugh,a nona­ge­nar­ian called Re­nee Fire­stone, is pre­sented by direc­tor Fearne Pearl­stein as an ex­am­ple of sur­vivors who “hold tight to their hu­mour”. This is prompted by Fire­stone’s laugh­ing rec­ol­lec­tion of a mo­ment of al­most sub­lime irony when, hav­ing en­tered Auschwitz, she was told by the evil Dr Men­gele: “If you sur­vive this war, you re­ally ought to have your ton­sils re­moved.”

For Re­nee Fire­stone, that amused rec­ol­lec­tion is a kind of small vic­tory. And in more pub­lic in­stances, turn­ing the joke upon the bad guys can be an ex­tremely ef­fec­tive way of punc­tur­ing a de­luded sense of grandeur — which, too, is a vic­tory.

In the con­text of the Nazis, there have been var­i­ous ex­am­ples of this, in­clud­ing Char­lie Chap­lin’s film, The Great Dic­ta­tor, Ber­tolt Brecht’s play The Re­sistible Rise of Ar­turo Ui — both of which came out dur­ing the War — and, look­ing back long af­ter­wards, Mel Brooks’s The Pro­duc­ers.

But the most dev­as­tat­ing way of re­vers­ing the tyrant’s op­pro­brium is in the form of a joke — suc­cinct and res­o­nant — de­liv­ered from higher moral and in­tel­lec­tual ground. The late Rabbi Lionel Blue loved telling the tale of the lit­tle man stand­ing at the back of a Nazi rally where a uni­formed dem­a­gogue is stir­ring up the crowd with the chant: “Death to the Jews!” In the brief si­lence when the speaker closes his mouth, the man at the back shouts: “Yes, and death to the cy­clists!” The speaker stares back and asks: “Why the cy­clists?”

“Why the Jews,” an­swers the lit­tle man.

And then there was Pi­casso. The pow­er­ful evo­ca­tion of wan­ton de­struc­tion in his mighty paint­ing, Guer­nica, which he com­pleted in 1937, was in re­sponse to the bomb­ing of the town of that name in the Span­ish Basque coun­try by joint Ger­man Nazi and Ital­ian Fas­cist forces, killing hun­dreds of civil­ians, mainly women and chil­dren.

Pi­casso stayed in Paris through­out the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion. One day, a Ger­man of­fi­cer came to visit him in his stu­dio. See­ing a pho­to­graph of Guer­nica, the of­fi­cer asked the painter: “Did you do that?”

“No,” Pi­casso replied. “You did.”

WITHIN THE space of a few weeks, two cases hit the head­lines — one in Is­rael and one here in Bri­tain — which might give cause to re­think some easy as­sump­tions about what it means to serve in an army — par­tic­u­larly the Is­raeli and British armies, which place an ex­tra­or­di­nary em­pha­sis on the moral dimensions of ser­vice.

The Is­raeli case is that of Sergeant — now Pri­vate — Elor Azaria, a 19-year-old con­script and com­bat medic, who, in March 2016, was caught on cam­era in He­bron as he shot dead a wounded Pales­tinian would-be ter­ror­ist. The man, mo­ments be­fore, had at­tempted to stab an Is­raeli sol­dier.

Azaria’s case, heard by a mil­i­tary tri­bunal, caused a pub­lic furore in Is­rael, with sup­port­ers and crit­ics di­vid­ing fairly evenly along po­lit­i­cal lines. Those on the right — in­clud­ing Prime Min­is­ter Ne­tanyahu — dubbed Azaria: “Ev­ery­body’s Child”, and called for a com­plete par­don. Those on the left said he had trans­gressed the IDF’s moral code and ef­fec­tively per­formed a sum­mary ex­e­cu­tion.

I must ad­mit that ev­ery­thing I read about the Azaria shoot­ing led me to be­lieve it was an open and shut case. He ap­peared to be a not very well ed­u­cated teenager, out of his depth in the mil­i­tary court, grin­ning ner­vously while a grow­ing group of ap­par­ent char­la­tans on the make swirled around him.

Pub­lic opin­ion swung be­tween people like the IDF chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, anx­ious about the ef­fect a “not guilty” ver­dict would have on the army’s stand­ing, and Azaria’s fam­ily and friends, who said he should never have been put on trial.

Part of his de­fence was that he felt his life, and those of his friends, were in im­me­di­ate dan­ger and that he there­fore shot the Pales­tinian in the head, based on his train­ing.

An al­most iden­ti­cal ar­gu­ment, it turns out, was used by Sergeant Alexan­der Black­man, other­wise known as “Marine A”, who was given a swinge­ing 10-year prison sen­tence, later re­duced to eight years, af­ter he shot dead a wounded Tal­iban in­sur­gent who had at­tacked his pa­trol in Hel­mand Prov­ince in Afghanistan in 2011.

Black­man, un­like Azaria, was a ca­reer sol­dier who had done nu­mer­ous — and ar­du­ous — tours of duty in var­i­ous for­eign the­atres of war. But, on this oc­ca­sion, Black­man, faced with a wounded man who had just done his ut­most to try to mur­der him and the rest of his unit, cast aside the rules of en­gage­ment and killed him — although he ev­i­dently re­gret­ted his ac­tion im­me­di­ately.

In both Azaria’s and Black­man’s cases, there was filmed ev­i­dence as to what had taken place. And — as with Azaria — Black­man’s seemed an open and shut case. He was told by the judge at his 2013 mil­i­tary tri­bunal that he had “tar­nished the rep­u­ta­tion” of all those British ser­vice per­son­nel who had served in Afghanistan.

Af­ter months of cam­paign­ing the Black­man team en­gaged QC Jonathan Gold­berg to help in their ap­peal. Gold­berg suc­cess­fully per­suaded Ap­peal Court judges last week to com­mute Black­man’s con­vic­tion down from mur­der to man­slaugh­ter. Time he has al­ready served in prison may mean that Alexan­der Black­man will be free this week.

In both cases, the judges came down very heav­ily on the moral­ity of army ser­vice, ar­gu­ing that the army code of con­duct needed to be ap­plied strin­gently. The Is­raeli judge said: “The use of force must not su­per­sede IDF val­ues, among them the rules of en­gage­ment, which de­ter­mines that a sol­dier pro­tects hu­man­ity even in com­bat. The ac­tions of the ac­cused un­der­mine the IDF’s moral for­ti­tude and even if it con­cerns a ter­ror­ist, the use of force in tak­ing a hu­man life was in­valid.”

The British judge told Black­man: “If the British Armed Forces are not as­sid­u­ous in com­ply­ing with the laws of armed con­flict and in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian law, they would be­come no bet­ter than the in­sur­gents and ter­ror­ists they are fight­ing.”

Jonathan Gold­berg is hes­i­tant to com­pare the cases. But he says: “The com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor, per­haps, is the stress and provo­ca­tion which caused both sol­diers to snap.”

Gold­berg also points to the “one­hand-tied-be­hind-the-back” rules of en­gage­ment re­quir­ing com­bat­ants not to shoot at as­sailants if they were run­ning away and their backs were turned. And, just as in Is­rael, “a wounded Tal­iban was en­ti­tled to the self­same stan­dard of treat­ment as our own Marines.”

For me, the Black­man case has thrown new light on the Azaria sit­u­a­tion, and I am no longer so in­clined to treat it as such a black and white is­sue. And it has given me new re­spect for those who pro­tect us, and the con­di­tions un­der which they op­er­ate, ev­ery day. Stress was a fac­tor caus­ing both sol­diers to snap



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