Jerusalem.--FOR MANY, THE GREATEST danger of the Persian Gulf war is not the conventional warhead, chemical or nuclear warheads, or even the fear of warheads, but simply the "war head," the head-full-of-war: war radio and TV, war politics, war small talk, war games, war food and war protective plastic sheeting.
One becomes a war-head when one's mood and curiosity, one's every night and day, are swept up in The War. This, of course, is the collective victory of Saddam Hussein and George Bush. Each day that we await the sirens and unknown explosions from the sky, or at least an hourly news update, we feel the roots of our defeat. A defeat not of territory but of consciousness, yet a defeat with exciting consolation prizes.
I am one such victim, who, for lack of ability to concentrate on academic work, has chosen to describe this suspended reality. In so doing, I hope also to encourage people who are more physically removed than I (that is, whose bodies are outside of missile firing range) to consider today's war drama from a more personal perspective, that is, to test their own war heads.
Our Jerusalem apartment, perched on a hill near the president's house, overlooks the Israel Museum and the Knesset. Maria and I make sure we are home before dusk (from dusk to dawn being Saddam's preferred hours for launching missiles) to be with our nine-month old baby during raids.
When the shrill civil defense alarm is sounded, I pause for a few seconds by our picture window to watch the museum's lights extinguish and to absorb the sights and sounds of a nation running for cover. With the siren, the people-pulse quickens and the scuffle of Jerusalemites fleeing the streets can be heard from the streets three floors below. The few drivers on the roads frantically honk their horns and race to an appropriate place to pull over and seal the car windows and don their gas masks, as instructed by the civil defense authority; while others just speed home.
At the instant of the warning, our building of six apartments becomes alive with activity -- doors and windows slamming, feet scurrying, announcing that families and old folks are manning their airtight "sealed rooms."
Each home has one. For sake of convenience, we chose to seal the baby's room, but it's not hermetically sealed. We have done our best to block incoming air from the windows and external doors by fitting foam strips between the frames, taping over the cracks, and then covering the entire structure with thick, clear plastic which is taped to the wall inside the room, giving the appearance of a makeshift plastic bag with its own brown tape frame hanging over the windows.
In the Room we have a bucket of water, to soak a towel for the foot of the door (once we are closed inside) to block gas from coming under; a few days supply of canned food and milk for us and baby; sealed mineral water; equipment such as batteries, flashlight, candle, radio, pocket knife, etc.; our gas masks, the self-injectable Atropine doses (nerve gas antidote for adults and babies) and talc treatment for mustard gas burns; and, most important, baby's "mamat" or "infant survival carrier," in which infants and toddlers until the age of two or three are locked during each missile attack.
The mamat -- a transparent plastic box more than a yard long, with a filter system and a shoulder strap, supported by an aluminum frame -- is also a carrier which collapses in order to travel (with baby inside) to a hospital or bomb shelter if necessary. During daylight hours, one occasionally sees parents lugging the hefty unit in its cardboard box wherever baby must go, so baby will never be out of reach of her mamat, and that mommy and daddy will be a little less worried by the prospect that an attack would come while separated.
It's a strange burden, to drag masks, talc, injectors and the burly mamat anywhere and everywhere one goes: shopping, to a pizza parlor, a walk around the block. . . . The official instructions are to always take one's personal survival kit, though many people break the rules here and there. For example, our day baby-sitter has a sealed house (!), with every window and door in the ten-room villa individually insulated. Hence, confident that little Anitra would be amply protected from gas, we have taken the liberty to leave the mamat at home during the weekdays.
The mask and the mamat are among the symbolic centerpieces of the entire war ordeal as lived by Israelis. There is something particularly heart-rending about seeing an infant stare helplessly through the walls of the mamat, as if to ask: "Why am I here?" Caressing her with the internal plastic arm, as instructed in the manual, is of little consolation, difficult as it is to maneuver the mitten, with its stiff sharp edges, to pick up a pacifier or to give her a bottle.
The first time I approached to place her in the mamat, she looked up at me from her crib with wide eyes of worry, as if she didn't recognize me. Well, of course; I was wearing my gas mask!
I cannot help but see the theatrical side of our situation: Like 3 1/2 million others, we mechanically follow the same steps each time the piercing sirens wail: Stand up, grab the phone and radio and close ourselves into the baby's room, turn on the light and turn off her heater (for safety purposes), place Anitra into her mamat with toys, water and milk bottles and pacifier, put the wet towel at the foot of the door, don our gas masks, and tune the radio to the army station for further instruction.
Within a minute of the siren, we calmly sit at our ongoing card game beside the baby balloon, breathing with a hiss, eyeing each other through reinforced glass, attempting to talk in a muffled tone through the mask.
"We have located the missile," announces the army spokesman, "which has fallen on Israel. Those in Area A may now take off their masks, but must remain in their sealed rooms. People in Areas B, C and D may take off their masks and exit the sealed rooms, but please stay around the house. In Area E, you must remain in your sealed rooms, with your masks on, until further notice."
"I guess it fell in Area E," I shout through the rubber, over the radio, around the cards. We no longer need worry: Out comes the baby, masks back to their pegs on the wall, baby's light off, give her a bottle, back to sleep for the family.
Since the first attacks, we have never exactly "feared," although we have found it eerie to realize that there is someone out there who wants to kill us; who desperately wants to destroy our country and people. Our feelings about the war are rather convoluted, oscillating between apprehension (that war-mongers can bomb us and others and, worse, control our minds) and confidence (that we are, in all respects, protected from the world of war). We realize that the chances of a missile falling in our neighborhood are as remote as winning the lottery or being struck by lightning.
On the other hand, pictures of the total destruction caused by Iraqi missiles in the neighborhoods of our families, friends and acquaintances in Tel Aviv and Haifa are etched in our minds. We constantly remind ourselves that it is naive and presumptuous (though perhaps true) to always assume: "It can't happen to me." The missiles remain a this-world reminder that the enemy's fingers, though shaking and largely harmless, can touch our bodies.
No, we have never exactly feared the bombs, but we have been infused by War spirit, the master plans. "Saddam, Bush, Saddam, Bush, Saddam, Bush. . . ." We cannot escape them: The omnipotent decision-makers, messengers of "good" and "evil," redeemers of "believers" and "infidels," will of the living and the dead.
When I pause, on my way to the Room where Maria and the baby are preparing against gas, and watch the lights of the government buildings die, I sense the impact of these two men on our lives. That is when I most despise Saddam Hussein and George Bush for sending innocents to their deaths but, more so, for stubbornly, autonomously charting our lives, our history. Not that ruthless dictators shouldn't be defeated; but the question is how they are defeated, and which greater evils are erected in their name.
I believe that the war is wrong. (Everyone is for peace, after all). But it should be clear that I am not protesting the war. On the contrary, I and Israel have too much to gain from this war: vindication of political ideas, bubbling support from all corners of the globe, neutralization of an ominous Arab military force, postponement of any serious negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization or withdrawal from the occupied territories, and more.
I am too stimulated by the excitement to protest this war which, though forcing out the ordinary and sane, my scheduled programming for January and February, March and April, has filled my life with the spectacle of the day: fireworks over Baghdad and Tel Aviv, the collapse of giant edifices and giants themselves.
This war, my war, with my own role in the daily missile fiasco, is infinitely more electrifying than the mundane which came beforehand. I have lived through a war! ("Did I ever tell you about our experiences in the Gulf war, when Anitra was less than a year old? I could see the explosions, red and orange, from our balcony in Jerusalem.")
What of the unexpected, the surprise factors, the landscape when the smoke clears? I was relieved when an Israeli Jew was finally killed directly by a missile, "in combat," rather than from a heart attack, misplaced gas mask or the premature injection of Atropine, finally lending a sense of legitimacy to the Israeli role as victim. How could 30 missiles fall, damaging more than 3,000 apartments, and no dead? One dead at least illustrates that while we may be "chosen," enviable, the makers of miracles, we are also mortal.
Two weeks into the war and I want to sue for peace, for a step-by-step disengagement, with my war head.
I will take the spoils, my stripes and the conversation piece I have earned by just being here, by not running away, and hunker down for the long haul back to normalcy. Regroup and retake my consciousness. As such, Saddam Hussein and George Bush will possess but a part of my frontal lobe, just the corner of my eye, an occasional newscast.
And while lessening their victory, I must endure the hard work of resisting sensationalism: No more graphics or magazines, no more all-night news in bed, a war-head radio prisoner, or cruising with stealth cheerleaders (cost: $1 million a shot). Now I must dig in, before the ground assault and the broadcast of great leaders' jaded exhilaration at the sights and sounds of the ghastly torture of countless thousands.
Kevin Lourie teaches Middle Eastern anthropology and linguistics at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.