Culture, Israel

Dancing Around Bashir

Waltz With Bashir” has been racking up the prizes. In addition to a slew of international awards, it was awarded Best Picture by the National Society of Film Ciritics, Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes, and it seems to have the inside track on the same award at the Oscars this Sunday night.  But as “Bashir” amasses its acclaim, some observers are frankly critiquing the film against Israel’s painful present-day reality.
In a recent Nation article, Israeli author Liel Liebovitz wonders why the Israeli public has so thoroughly embraced this fiercely anti-war statement (enough to vote it as their third-favorite Israeli film of all time) while ignoring its “harrowing lessons” through its strong support of their government’s military actions against Gaza.
Liebovitz concludes that “Bashir’s” popularity not withstanding, Israel is sadly disregarding director Ari Folman’s powerfully moral vision – particularly in light of the recent elections:

Israel of today is not Ari Folman’s. It is Avigdor Lieberman’s and Benjamin Netanyahu’s, the country of the countless men and women crying out for revenge. As we root for Waltz with Bashir, if we want to truly honor that film’s message, let us never forget that. Otherwise, all we have is just a pretty animated film.

Journalist Naira Antoun, writing in the Electronic Intifada comes to a similar conclusion:

(We) are reminded of the psychologist’s comment near the start of the film: “We don’t go to places we don’t want to. Memory takes us where we want to go.” Perhaps this explains how at the same time that Gaza was being decimated, Israel heaped acclaim and awards on Waltz with Bashir; in addition to numerous international awards, the film scooped up six awards at the Israeli Film Academy. Indeed, the same Israelis who flocked to see the film gave their enthusiastic approval to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. According to a poll released on 14 January by Tel Aviv University, a staggering 94 percent of Israeli Jews supported or strongly supported the operation.

As a Palestinian viewer, however, Antoun goes even farther than Liebovitz: she faults the film for rendering Palestinians essentially invisible:

There is nothing interesting or new in the depiction of Palestinians — they have no names, they don’t speak, they are anonymous. But they are not simply faceless victims. Instead, the victims in the story that Waltz with Bashir tells are Israeli soldiers. Their anguish, their questioning, their confusion, their pain — it is this that is intended to pull us…We don’t see Palestinian facial expressions; only a lingering on dead, anonymous faces. So while Palestinians are never fully human, Israelis are, and indeed are humanized through the course of the film.

Among other things, I think these reviews illuminate the painful difficulties inherent in making an anti-war statement while the war is still raging.  A sad anecdote: a congregant recently told me that when she saw the film a screaming match erupted in the audience after it ended.  Apparently someone screamed “That’s Gaza!” to which another responded “Shut up!” and on it went…
And on it goes…

44 thoughts on “Dancing Around Bashir

  1. interesting.
    I would suggest though that you can talk about the absurdities of war – the decisions people have to make on the spot in ridiculously unclear and confused moments, along with the fear and horror and death that go into it – without being a pacifist, holding the position that war is NEVER the best of bad options. Perhaps that is what some Israelis feel with regard to some wars and not others. That it’s easier to look back and analyze a war years later, than to use those lessons specific to that war and apply them to decisions specific to a different war. The pacifist (but of course not only a pacifist) would probably say there is no such thing as “different” wars – that they are all the same. But I don’t know.

  2. There is a difference between engaging in violence to defend one’s self, and perpetuating violence to defend conquest over another. Unfortunately, the line between the two horribly blurred by propaganda, confusing many into supporting warmongering, and some pacifism.
    -“That’s Gaza!” to which another responded “Shut up!”-
    That’s cognitive dissonance.

  3. Let’s not forget why Lebanon became Lebanon. The IDF did not finish the job. We never finish the job. We just beat the crap out of someone and then make sure they have all the time they need to rebuild and come back to fight us.
    We should have gone into Beirut and finished the PLO once and for all, just like we should have completed the mission in Gaza City and went after Haniyeh and their military leadership in the city center.
    It is the same battle over and over.
    In Lebanon we achieved the first several objectives with lightning speed, surrounded Beirut and then started thinking… do we want to risk more casualties? No, let’s just stop here and consolidate our gains. Had we finished the job there would be no Arafat, there would be no PLO, there would be no Oslo and there would be no Second Intifada. We would have negotiated a peace with the felahin and would have had 15 years of peace by now.
    In Gaza we achieved objectives no one thought would be possible with the few casualties that we incurred. Then Olmert and Barak left the army to sit for a week doing nothing as they started thinking… do we want to risk more casulaties? No, let’s just stop here and consolidate our gains.
    How many times must this strategy be discredited? We need to finish our wars. This is the ONLY way to prevent the long term loss of life on all sides.

  4. Victor, it’s the perpetual folly of the hawks to always suggest that we just didn’t kill enough people in the preservation of human life.
    It’s been discredited because it’s never been attained, of course!

  5. Yeah, if only we had killed off the IRA wholesale, as only though that could we have truly taught Irish Catholics their place.

  6. With regards to Electronic Intifada review. The film is not supposed to be a balanced documentary about the Sabra and Shatila massacre. It merely discusses the experience of one Israeli soldier and it should be recognized as such.

  7. KJF, where in my comment did I mention that we must kill “enough” people? Why would you even think such a terrible thing? What I said is that whenever we go to war, we need to complete the objectives we set out to achieve. How is that controversial? This isn’t a hawkish position. This is position of pragmatism, based on experience. The alternative is ludicrous – to stop wars before achieving the objectives, thus wasting lives on all sides and prolonging the conflict.
    Israel went to war in Lebanon because we were facing continuous infiltration and terror from PLO bases in Lebanon. Jordan fought the PLO conclusively and never had a problem with them again. Syria fought the PLO conclusively and never had a problem with them again. Israel fought the PLO inconclusively, and fought the PLO inconclusively, and fought the PLO inconclusively… and we’re still fighting the movement offshoots of the PLO.
    The only reason we were occupying Lebanon for 20 years is precisely because we did not finish our operational objectives, which necessitated a residual force to protect the northern border – and for this reason, for 20 years boys were coming home in body bags.
    Fighting half-hearted wars and not completing initial objectives is the most discredited, bloody and undignified way of going to war, from experience gained during 60 years of Israel’s existence.
    I guarantee you one thing – half-hearted wars are sure to produce a long of beautiful, hand-wringing movies about the senselessness of war.
    When Israel goes to war, it must complete its objectives. This is the only pragmatic, as well as moral and bloodless way to fight a war. I honestly don’t see how anyone short of a pacifist – or someone who wishes for Israel to lose its wars – can disagree.

  8. Victor, war is a tool of foreign policy, not an objective in its own right.
    Let me walk through your presumption: It is possible to fully crush a guerrilla war (which I disagree) by accepting more civilian casualties (which I feel is all that could distinguish us from the terrorists in a morals, and thus undesirable). I opine that to fully root out a guerrilla war from a civilian populace, you’d need to kill all or nearly all the civilians.
    You may be “pragmatic” in a Machiavellian sense, but nobody would ever call your calls for more use of the military anything but hawkish, sorry.

  9. Kyleb and KFJ,
    I would like to address your comments together, since I think they both stem from similar roots. The objective of war is not to kill people, but to accomplish whatever goals you set out to achieve. War is certainly not an objective in itself – that’s both silly and disturbed. If your goal is to kill people, then yes, that is what you set out to achieve, and some militaries in the world go to war with this misguided mindset. But this method of waging war is not particularly effective, and certainly not moral in the least.
    There are many potential objectives of war, and there’s no reason for me to reiterate each and any potential objective for any given situation. In broad terms, typical legitimate objectives in war are to deny a perceived enemy the use of a geographic area or to break the will of a perceived enemy to continue waging war, and thus accept the post-war conditions you wish to impose.
    When referring to guerilla warfare, there is a wide range of examples one can cite, each with peculiarities not necessarily shared by others. Clearly, Iraq is not Vietnam, Chechnya is not Sri Lanka and Algeria is not Turkey.
    I opine that to fully root out a guerrilla war from a civilian populace, you’d need to kill all or nearly all the civilians.
    This merely demonstrates my point – you would not trust your teeth to a car mechanic, and I would not trust the successful waging of an asymmetric, irregular war to you. Although every war is different, various militaries around the world have significant experience in successfully concluding low-intensity conflict operations, without butchering the local population (which is not only not effective, but counterproductive).
    Furthermore, if you look at the fighting during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, it was anything but irregular. The IDF was engaged by organized PLO units with a clear command structure, often wearing identifying insignia. This was a war the IDF knows how to fight quickly, bloodlessly and decisively. There would have been no reason for what happened in the refugee camps, and no reason to occupy South Lebanon for years, had the initial objectives been met. The objectives were not achieved due to political calculations within Israel, not realities on the ground. This political interference confused operational planning, resulting in a bleed of momentum, confusion down the ranks and ultimately a costly occupation. Had the original objectives been achieved, the IDF could have returned to Israel, protecting the lives of its own soldiers, giving the Lebanese population immediate relief to rebuild their lives, and most importantly, never having to deal with a violent PLO again.
    nobody would ever call your calls for more use of the military anything but hawkish
    When have I called for MORE use of the military?! What I have said, repeatedly now, is that completing military objectives successfully is the most effective way to shorten the duration and lessen the terrible bloodletting of war. It is the most humane, moral way to fight a war – for those who believe there comes a time when war must be fought – and shows the utmost respect for the lives of your own soldiers, the enemy, and to any civilian population caught in between.
    You can keep calling this position hawkish, of course, but that does not address my points, it simply tries to frame the argument to one you are more suited to emotionally exploit.

  10. Victor-
    You’re forgetting that during the first Lebanon war the objectives were changed more than once (and in the second, and in Gaza). What is more, willful killing in war is not just immoral, it is illegal according to the Geneva conventions. I don’t know enough about the effect of the first Lebanon war on civilians to make comment about whether or not it was “bloodless” as you say. But I can tell you that if what happened in the second Lebanon war and in Gaza recently was not willful killing, well, I’d sure hate to see what willful killing by Israel would look like…
    Completing the objectives in the wars you’re referring to would extend the wars, not shorten them, and that is why KFJ and Kyleb are saying that you are calling for MORE killing, because each day a war goes on more people die. It’s simple logic. They are not saying, I think, that you WANT more people to die, per se, but rather that if the military took your advice that would be the inevitable result.

  11. Justin,
    You misunderstood my remarks. I said that the first Lebanon was needlessly bloody and prolonged BECAUSE of what you mentioned – “the objectives were changed more than once”. The objectives were changed for political reasons, and I explained the consequences earlier.
    I know when people say the following on blogs they’re usually being combative, but I really feel you misread my statements, so I urge you to read them again.
    You seem to imply that meeting objectives in war prolongs the conflict and leads to more bloodshed. I can’t see how that could possibly be, from a logical or experiential standpoint. I am saying the exact opposite, that NOT meeting objectives in war prolongs it.
    The Six Day War. Let’s say the IDF did not act with tremendous speed in achieving its objectives and breaking the will Israel’s foes to fight. The conflict could have become a prolonged engagement, with each nation using every ounce of national reserves it had to continue the fight. This would be the most bloody outcome possible. By breaking the Arab armies within essentially three days, the IDF was able to shorten dramatically the course of the conflict, and thus prevent needless blood loss on all sides.
    I honestly don’t see a way to contest this. Please write to me your thinking process in greater depth.

  12. Victor,
    you’re right, I did misread your comments on the Leb war. I think regarding the second Leb war and Gaza, however, the objectives to destroy Hezbullah or Hamas would have prolonged the war to a state of endlessness, thereby seeing the deaths of many more civilians. Ultimately, in this case and in many others, I think we will do best to agree to disagree.

  13. I really think you, Justin, KFJ and many others, are very jaded about war precisely because of what you’ve experienced – a political leadership that is unable to set coherent objectives, which creates a chaotic planning situation for military analysts. War is always messy and always bloody. This doesn’t mean we should not engage in it as a last resort, and plan for it with maximum diligence and professionalism.
    You are right, Justin, and I think very few would disagree with you, that the 2nd Leb war and the recent Gaza war seemed to have been launched with goals and objectives thrown together haphazardly, without a clear level of preparation for what kind of post-conflict environment we want to achieve, and how to achieve it. Instead, the confusion generated by the political leadership, added to a lack of preparation by the military, and compounded by the natural errors made in time of war, create a situation where the only conclusion someone watching from the sidelines can make is that Israel is purposely bombing civilians and acting with utmost cruelty.
    I know that this is not the case, that Jews never go to war with cruelty, but I have neither patience nor sympathy for those incompetents who allowed the perception of this – based on a lack of other information – to materialize.

  14. In other words, when no one sets rational, clear objectives, and our only options become “kill them all” or “let’s get out”, this is a failure at every level of leadership, and it is absolutely NOT how you wage a moral, just and effective war.

  15. I personally happen to be very jaded about war because of all the blood and death involved…
    Or can that also be avoided with proper planning?

  16. Well, Victor claims to be privy to some concept of “objectives” that, when properly pursued, will result in bloodless war. However, he hasn’t rightly been forthcoming with any details.

  17. I didn’t say bloodless.
    Kyleb, we’ve had this problem in the past. How do you expect to carry on a conversation with me when you repeatedly put words in my mouth?
    Balaam’s Donkey,
    War will always be bloody. But it can be Iran-Iraq bloody (meaningless war without purpose that drains the reserves of life and resources on all sides), or Six Day War bloody (clear objectives, competent implementation, saving lives on all sides by quickly ending the will of the enemy to carry on the fight. That can only be achieved with competent planning and clear political direction.
    Take the Six Day War in contrast to the Yom Kippur War, when the IDF was caught off guard (having thought that the Arabs would never attack again), and the political leadership was in denial and refused to order a mobilization until after Israel was experiencing invasion. The lack of preparation by the IDF and political leadership for the Yom Kippur War resulted in more protracted battle that caused far more loss of life before the IDF finally broke the enemy’s will to fight (and some would say not decisively).
    We are facing a situation where for decades politics in Israel has taken the place of careful planning and policy and competent implementation of that policy. I don’t blame some here for being pacifists (I’m not pointing fingers at anyone), given the failures in leadership we’ve seen. For those who still believe there comes a time when we must fight, then I say we must DEMAND competent planning and the setting of realistic, pragmatic objectives by both the military and political leadership.
    The 2006 Lebanon war was a disaster, and the only reason we feel better about the recent Gaza war were the few casualties the IDF incurred, thank G-d. But decreasing casualties is not a military objective, or it should not be. Low casualties should be a consequence of quickly meeting strategic or tactical objectives, thereby breaking the will of the enemy to fight, and thus ending the war.
    In the case of Gaza, it appears the leadership wanted so badly to recreate “deterrence”, that their entire planning for the war consisted of – let’s bomb the crap out of them, and if they don’t surrender let’s throw a few thousand troops at them, and if they don’t surrender… umm… umm… well, we can’t risk casualties and actually achieve an objective (like the removal of the Hamas regime, or the complete destruction of its military leadership), so let’s just pull out and call a ceasefire.
    This is not competent war planning. I’m thrilled that the IDF is able to protect its forces and suffer few casualties during sustained combat. However, the primary role of the military is to achieve nationally defined objectives. Force protection should come naturally.

  18. Just to explain further, rockets are falling today on Israeli cities. Didn’t we just fight a war to stop that? So what was the point of fighting it, if nothing has changed? No objectives were achieved. So what was gained? Deterrence? What deterrence?!
    By fighting half-hearted, poorly planned and poorly led wars, we’re only reinforcing the notion that we Jews should not be allowed to fight to defend ourselves, because we are incompetent at doing it. How can we expect support from abroad for our wars, if we can’t win our wars?! Why should the governments of France or Germany of the US stick their neck out for Israel, if Israel cannot finish the job?
    And I’m not even speaking of our enemies, and how emboldened they must feel by our lack of resolve and incompetent leadership. This is precisely the mentality that produces new wars, and leads to new bloodshed that was completely avoidable.
    I guarantee you that if Israel had been prepared to fight Hezbollah in 2006, and in a week broke its back of its missile teams in South Lebanon (numbering in just the hundreds) and created a real buffer up to the Litani, Hamas today would not be emboldened to pursue the Hezbollah rocket strategy.

  19. “When Israel goes to war, it must complete its objectives. This is the only pragmatic, as well as moral and bloodless way to fight a war.”
    You are accusing me of posting that under your name?

  20. Victor wrote extensive comments regarding the need for better planning and objectivity on the part of Israel’s military. Kyleb chimeed in by nitpicking words out of Victor’s comments to try to make a point. What is your point, Kyleb?

  21. My point is that he isn’t stating an objective, but rather dancing around the lack of one, along side the bloodshed he is calling for. I take you like to dance around such things too, eh?

  22. I am not a military analyst, Kyleb. It’s not my profession, but even I can see failure with my own eyes. What I demand, is that those for whom war is a profession or a tool of policy take their job seriously.
    Fighting a war with no clear objectives except retaliation, is obviously not how you fight a war. Leaving the troops outside Gaza city for a week while the politicians decided what to do is not how you fight a war.
    The political leadership is utterly confused. They are trapped in a paradigm they are afraid to break out of. Who leaves 1.5 million people stranded in a strip of land and then starts dropping bombs all around them?
    I remember reading those reports that Israel is making phone calls for people to leave their homes… and go where?! Everyone got those phone calls!
    If Barak had truly prepared for this war, like he claimed, he should have prepared an evacuation route for Palestinian civilians, invited the Red Cross/Crescent and aid agencies to set up a temporary shelter in the desert to get the civilians out of the way. This way you could have delivered all those aid supplies directly to them. There would have been a full accounting of the civilians, instead of now having to accept Hamas statistics for how many were killed.. The .
    This is how Jewish law says you fight a besieged city, and it is precisely what US Marines did in Fallujah. You leave a corridor open for civilians to leave. Then the IDF could have gone in and finished the job and actually achieved an objective – like the elimination of Hamas commanders, serious depletion of their fighting ranks, confiscation and destruction of weapon stores and ammunition dumps. Achieving any one of these could have forced Hamas to beg for peace – no one fights a battle they can’t win – and allowed us to shape the post-conflict environment.
    Every fighting force has one or more centers of gravity you can target that will break its will to fight. Finding those centers is the job of military analysts. Urban warfare is ugly and bloody, but it can be done successfully, and it is what we’ve been told the IDF has been training for the last ten years.
    Honestly, I think they barely prepared for the land invasion. I think the leadership thought Hamas would accept some sort of mediation or ceasefire after two weeks of air bombardment. And they certainly never expected Hamas to refuse surrender when surrounded by 20,000 IDF troops in Gaza city. They ran out of targets, which was why you saw Olmert declaring victory even as rockets were still falling on Israel. Because to truly stop those rockets, you had to go into Gaza city and engage the bulk of Hamas formations, which have gone largely unscathed.
    Think of the situation today had we achieved any one of the objectives I listed above. With Hamas broken, we could welcome reconstruction of Gaza, instead of keeping the population of Gaza in perpetual siege, which is what we’re doing today. That’s what happens when you achieve real objectives in war – you know it, and so does everyone else. You completely transform perception of power, dictate the terms of peace and mold the post-conflict environment. This is what Israel did for decades – win (really win) wars and reshape the region to one hospitable to a Jewish state. That’s how we must fight wars again.
    If we’re launching bloody wars to slap people on the hand, achieving nothing, something is very very wrong.

  23. If you kill off all of Hamas, more will rise to take their place. If you corrupt Hamas as Fatah has been, more will rise to take their place. Until Palestinians are free of subjugation under Israel, more will take their place. Your objectives only serve keep that uprising under control, but do nothing to resolve the motivation which drives it.

  24. Yes, this is a common lay theory of terrorism/resistance movements. You kill one and ten more will take their place. I don’t accept it.
    What does it mean for “more to take their place”? To conduct war, any war, you need a set of skills. Not just anyone can make rocket fuel in their basement, or machine metal, or direct units in the course of combat. Within the Hamas command structure is decades of combat and leadership experience. This experience cannot be replaced overnight, or a month or a year. Furthermore, not just anyone can learn these skills. You need talent, dedication, resources, a hospitable environment, etc. Then you need to find people who will find such talent and manage tens of such specialties in a coordinated manner – human resources, budget flows, raw materials, political program…
    We’ve seen what a successful war against al Qaeda has accomplished. There has not been a successful attack against the US, Europe or even in much of the Middle East in several years. New cadres can take the place of those killed, but they lack the experience and ability to function with the effectiveness of prior generations. Attrition of highly specialized skills – like bomb-making, or unit command – is not easily replaced, and results in degrading performance and even higher attrition rates.
    Furthermore, it’s not necessary to kill every Hamas member. As I said before, there are centers of gravity in any army. With the population safely out of the way, the IDF could have been free to target weapons and ammunition deposits, depriving the enemy of ammunition with which to continue the fight. Or perhaps their supplies of food or water could have been struck. Famished soldiers don’t fight.
    There is a way to do all this. It is not fantasy. It is called operational contingency planning, and there are people who devote their lives to it. But such planning is based on clear objectives. The government of Israel did not set objectives. It went to war without a plan how to win, or even what to win.
    Kyleb, you are saying it’s not possible.
    I’m saying it is possible, but it wasn’t even attempted.

  25. I am saying your objectives only serve keep that uprising under control, but do nothing to resolve the motivation which drives it.

  26. This post was about a movie made to demonstrate the senselessness of war. I rebuffed that we should stop fighting senseless wars, and when we must fight, we should prepare to break the enemy, not slap them on the wrist.
    Regarding the motivation of Palestinians to resist Jewish existence in the land… That we can get to in another post’s comment string.

  27. I am referring the motivation of Palestinians to resist subjugation under Jewish rule, an issue you obviously have no interest in resolving, and what has lead to much senseless war and continuing bloodshed in Israel’s refusal of Palestine’s right to exist.

  28. I don’t see a problem with Jewish rule in the land, including Judea and Samaria. If by “subjugation” you are referring to a state of siege imposed on the Palestinians for 40 years, I’ve written extensively my opposition to it.
    It’s disingenuous of you to claim I have no interest in resolving the situation, as every post I make is specifically about a durable, permanent solution that protects life on all sides and creates a home for both people in the land.

  29. Your suggestions put the protection of life on all sides only second to the protection of Jewish rule over the West Bank.

  30. Jewish rule over the West Bank can ensure protection of life on all sides. Palestinian rule has surely done a lousy job of doing so, wouldn’t you say?

  31. I say you are in denial over who has been rulling over Palestine these past four decades, and how that has cost many lives on all sides.

  32. Yes, yes, it’s all a Zionist conspiracy. The poor Palestinians are just innocent bystanders as fate swirls past them. Give me a break.

  33. Palestinians in the territories are granted limited sovereignty under Israeli rule, innocent or otherwise, as they have been for decades. That isn’t a conspiracy, it is plain as day.

  34. The Kurds in Iraq have limited sovereignty under Baghdadi rule. Native Americans have limited sovereignty in the US. Limited sovereignty is not a justification for murdering civilians.
    The Palestinians are very much in the driver’s seat of this conflict. To imply otherwise is either ignorant or propagandist.

  35. Kurds and Native Americans aren’t denied civil rights, and that is a huge difference which you obviously insist on pretending doesn’t exist.

  36. I have spoken to more than you could likely imagine, including my half Cherokee grandmother. I’m not saying it’s anything close to bed of roses for Native Americans here, but we all enjoy civil rights. The same holds true for Kurds in Iraq, but not the millions of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. There, Israel is violently oppressing those millions of people in denial of their civil rights, and has been for the past four decades. That is the situation which needs to be resolve to bring peace to the region, either though a single state solution or dividing the land into two states. ideally I’d prefer the former, but pragmatically I suggest the latter. My native American ancestors fought for over a century until their civil rights were recognized, and one can’t rightly expect anyone else to do any differently, Palestinians or otherwise.

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