In the fall of 1984, a new roommate was assigned to share my concrete dorm room. Ted was freshly discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps, 23 years old and carrying vivid memories of his year-earlier deployment in Beirut. He sported tattoos, muscles, and a voice like bullhorn. Two stories he told about his service to our nation remain with me. The first described a fellow Marine who, to allay boredom, would sit on the step outside the mess hall with his .45 and shoot the feral cats that prowled for handouts. The second involved Ted's decision, while on patrol in the desert, to machine-gun a horse his squad happened across. Ted told this as a funny.
The horse came with a farmer, who was devastated. Ted's commanding officer was also displeased. Cash compensation was paid to the farmer and Ted's squad ordered to bury the horse. "But the ground was too hard," Ted recalled, reaching for the punch line. "So we blew the horse up with grenades."
Ted's stories came back as I read Waltz With Bashir, the graphic novel released this week as the animated movie of the same name hits a local theater. Nominally a story of the infamous massacre of Palestinian refugees in West Beruit's Sabra and Shatila camp, Ari Folman's recovered memoir of his own role in this war crime is more truly a meditation on the young mind at war and the terrified contortions it makes to bury the truth.
The story begins with the killing of animals, the dogs a young soldier shot to keep them from alerting the village his platoon was about to attack. Decades later, the soldier-Folman's friend, Boaz-suffers nightmares in which 26 hell hounds return to his home, demanding his head in revenge. "How do you know it's 26 and not 30," Folman asks.
"Believe me, I know," Boaz replies. "These dreams don't come from nowhere." He remembers the face of every dog he shot with his silenced rifle.
Boaz's story jars Folman's memory, and Folman, now an acclaimed Israeli filmmaker, sets off on a journey to recover his own repressed memories of the 1982 war. He tracks down long-forgotten buddies, most of whom claim their own memory losses. Folman pieces the story together through the vivid, breakthrough scenes he and his fellow soldiers are able to recall: the dead dogs, the murder by dozens of soldiers of a random family in a Mercedes, a boy firing a rocket-propelled grenade, the shooting for shooting's sake, the dumping of bodies at "the light" Folman is told to follow like the North Star.
One of the most powerful of these scenes is told second-hand by Prof. Zehava Solomon, a combat trauma expert Folman consults. She tells of a war photographer who emotionally distanced himself through his lens. He functioned perfectly until he happened on a massacre of Arabian horses. "He had been pulled into the picture," she says. "And then he lost his mind."
David Polonsky's heavy-lined drawings mix real and surreal details: The backward lettering of an early-'80s arcade game called "Defender," the appearance in a carnival snapshot of what looks like Malcolm McDowell's Alex from A Clockwork Orange. His is a dark and terrible dreamworld that shocks us with the flash realization that it is our own.
If you don't know the story of Sabra and Shatila, Wiki it. It's not the reason Arabs and Palestinians hate Israelis and Americans. It's just one reason. One of Folman's correspondents paints the two-day massacre of hundreds of--or maybe more than 3,000--refugees at an act of collective punishment by the Christian Phalangist militia for the murder of Bashir Gemayel, the movement's leader. But the reasons for the massacre, and Folman's role in it, don't matter any more than my old roommate Ted's reason-never articulated for killing that horse.
"You know why Marines are called jarheads?" Ted said: "Because our heads are like an empty jar."
In the book Jarhead, former Marine Anthony Swofford relates his Gulf War platoon's delight in the Vietnam war movies of the 1970s and '80s, and posits that all of these, regardless of their producers' intentions, glorify war. Waltz With Bashir might be the exception to the Jarhead rule.