A tale of two soldiers and the pressure of war
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