I look around the truck’s cabin, with its stark, harsh interior. I see the grim faces of the men. Below us, the armored personnel carrier is shaking violently as it moves through the rough terrain. The truck’s wheels, suspension and frame seem to conduct the force of every pebble through to our spines. And we’re driving over a lot more than pebbles. The APC has no windows and so we can’t see anything. But I do have a view of the battlefield. This isn’t a normal APC. It is a mobile command post and in front of each of the men there is a bank of monitors, providing real-time information about the world around us.
Five minutes ago, the men had been the nexus of an effort to systematically take apart our enemy’s military operations. Everything had been laid out years before. It was an awesome battle plan, and I was proud to have developed it. It was also classic. The enemy would attack and we would retreat under their assault. They would rush into the vacuum and we would surround them and eliminate their army. And I would watch and manage everything from the back of the battlefield, off to the side of that central thrust, and well away from the enemy.
But the enemy, somehow, noticed where my command was based. They worked out my strategy. They only feinted down the middle, triggering our excessively eager retreat. My pincers moved into an encircling stance – turning all their efforts towards the central cavity. And then the enemy launched their primary assault. They attacked one side of the pincer, from what was now their side.
Their assault moved remarkably quickly, rolling through a third of my army. Tanks, infantry and anti-missile units were caught unawares. Everything had turned in an instant. They were only minutes from my mobile command facility itself.
I had a choice then; I could have run, fleeing with my commanders and yielding to the enemy. Or I could turn and somehow try to hold off the assault.
I decided on the latter.
There was a ridge-line between us and the enemy. It wasn’t much, but I thought that just maybe my small contingent of infantry, armor and anti-aircraft systems could hold it long enough to keep the enemy at bay. Maybe we could guide a response. And so my men, officers and analysts who were most comfortable behind a screen, were now rushing into combat.
It was dangerous, almost suicidal, but I really had no choice.
Now, I’m feeling every shock and vibration. The sounds of explosives are getting closer. And then, suddenly, the truck rocks violently to the left. It doesn’t take much to realize a shell has landed next to us. And then exploded. The vehicle grinds to a halt. The driver calls out for orders; the truck is incapacitated. And I make the call. I tell him to open the doors. He does and as a blast of hot and dust-filled air rushes into the APC, my men rise as one and run out the door. They are as smooth and efficient as the best-trained infantry. And they move fearlessly into whatever fate has waiting for them.
And I am right behind them.
But I wonder, as I leap from the back of the truck, whether I have just built my entire life around a single terrible mistake.
I hadn’t always been a military commander, of course. I had, at one point, simply been a child. My father had been a Staff Sergeant in the Army and my mother was a school teacher. And I was their brilliant son. It was my brilliance that brought me into another world. Instead of hanging around with other children of the middle classes, I was thrust out of my world. My academic acumen pushed me up and out. And soon I was surrounded by the children of tycoons, generals and members of Parliament.
And all of them had things I did not have. They had wealth. They had glory. And they had power.
All I had was brains. Brains and a desperate desire to fit in with the children of the elite.
My parents weren’t the types to reassure me that I was somehow on par with these other children. They didn’t see it that way. They weren’t comfortable with their relative position; they didn’t proudly accept their accomplishments within the limits of their lives. Instead, they were jealous. They wanted what the elites had. And they wanted me to get it for them. They wanted me to get them what they could not get for themselves.
I saw things the same way they did. I wanted what the others had. They knew it. And like children everywhere, they used it to their advantage. They would taunt me with their phones and clothes. They would taunt me with stories of their parents’ achievements and prides. And I couldn’t answer them with anything. I would sulk, angry and frustrated. And I would destroy them in the classroom. But they didn’t care about that. My grades earned me no jealous resentment from my peers.
As I grew older, the national educational system recognized my unique capabilities. And I was offered a coveted spot in a military academy. It was almost a unique offer. Half of my education would be at the military academy itself. And half would be at the nation’s best technical university. I would graduate a Lieutenant, but so much more was expected of me. And I expected so much more of myself.
That was the first time others were jealous of me. It was subtle. A few of the children of the great ones were in my program. But they knew strings had been pulled for them to get there. They knew I was the one who deserved to be there. They were jealous. And I loved it.
I piled it on from there on, glorying in every promotion and rubbing every success in their noses. My peers may have hated me, but my superior officers loved me. And I did what I could to climb the ranks. Soon, my peers were not the sons of the great but the officers who had once commanded me. I had thrust myself forward and I reveled in my success.
Shortly after my 43rd birthday, I became the youngest commander of my nation’s military.
But I had not yet acquired what the sons of the great had. I did not have wealth. I did not have glory. And the only power I had was within the military itself.
And that was when I conceived of this war.
We’d long had tensions with a neighboring country. And I realized it would be simple enough to escalate those tensions. I’d be able to suck our neighbor into a war. I’d be able to stealthily undermine peace talks. And I’d be able to make it look like they were the aggressor. And they were a natural aggressor. Their army was larger than ours and they had a history of belligerence.
But when they attacked, I knew I’d be able to outsmart them. I would rescue my people. We would have glory, power and wealth. And I would adopt all three, responsible for the blessings my country had earned.
I’d worked for years on this plan. And now, it is all unraveling.
As we race out of the APC, the smoke chokes our lungs. Even though the visibility is almost zero, I can see the crater where the shell struck. A few feet over and we wouldn’t have survived. It had been day when I set up the command post, and now it is night. But I know the terrain. I’ve memorized every detail. And I know where the ridgeline is. And so, I call my men, over the din of low-flying aircraft, machine guns and high explosives. I call them and rally them – my little team of analysts and armchair soldiers. And they follow me up that hill. And behind them I can hear the rumbling of our few remaining tracked vehicles: tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft hardware.
I can’t retreat, though. People might discover what I had done, risking the country for my own honor. And they would circle on me and destroy me. My parents’ position would have seemed elevated then.
We bunker down on the face of that ridge. And I can see the enemy approaching. I ask a fellow officer for his laser designator. And I watch the enemy. I don’t want to fire yet, they don’t necessarily know we are here. But before long, I know which vehicles contain their commanders. I know which are scouts, designated to warn of our other pincer moving in from their side. And I know which form key parts of their attack formations. I use the designator to point them out one, one by one.
And the artillery from across the battlefield begins to fire.
Even though the attack formations threaten us most directly, I designate the Commanders first. And then the scouts. And then the loci of their formations. I leave them for last because without the commanders and scouts, our enemy will be dumb and blind. They will not be able to resist us.
My calculations are correct. The enemy’s advance falters. And the other side of my army turns and attacks. The enemy does not see them coming and does not react cohesively when they do.
And in under an hour, it is over.
In under an hour, I have achieved everything I wanted. Not only have I won glory for my people, I was myself a courageous key to the success of the battle.
I am wrapped in glory and honor and respect.
I know I will be Prime Minister and my children will grow up wrapped in all the wealth, power and glory I did not have. I know that as time passes, my name will be the names of my country’s schoolchildren. But then I realize that it will be remembered in the histories of my enemies.
I gloat. For a time.
And then I hear the distant artillery again.
And I realize, in a moment of abject terror, what I will never have.
And then, through the haze, I realize somebody is knocking.
“Sir!” I hear a voice call. It is my Chief of Staff. I had been dreaming.
Slowly, I tear apart the threads of fantasy from those of reality. I am the child of a Sergeant and a teacher. I did climb the ranks. And I have been picking a fight with a neighbor. All of that is real.
But the war has not yet come.
Today is the day of the critical negotiations. Today is a day I have long planned. Like Bismarck, I will draw my enemies into battle and then embarrass and destroy them.
Today is the linchpin of my life’s strategy.
But, now, something is wrong.
I rise from my couch and fetch my cap.
I have work to do.
But as I enter the negotiation room, my dream nags at me. If that shell had landed only a few feet over, I would have been forgotten and my enemies would have been honored.
The difference was not of my own making.
I would have taken all of those risks, and all of those lives would have been lost, and for what? The glory of my people?
I take my seat at the table. The others are already there. There are wealthy Diplomats, there are glorious Generals and there are powerful Ministers. These are the great ones of our peoples. And all of us are seeking honor and glory.
But in reality, what we are doing is destroying each other – and then gloating over our portion of what remains.
Our Foreign Secretary is about to speak, but I cut him off.
“Let’s exchange spies,” I say.
Everyone looks at me, befuddled.
“You’ll take my spies and put them in your border region. You will place my radars near your Air Force bases. And I’ll do the same with your spies and your radars. And we’ll both be pretty certain neither side is trying anything tricky.”
“But what about our dispute?” asks one of the enemy.
“None of our fundamental needs are incompatible. We can resolve our issues. Think about it, if we go to war, history may glorify the winners. The winners might claim the wealth of their enemies. They might claim power over them. But they won’t have added anything to the world. They will just have shifted the cards between them. But with peace, think of the lives we can save, the hopes we can enable others to realize. To quote an ancient source, think of the vineyards to be planted, of the marriages to be established and of the houses to be built.”
My own side looks at me, as if I’ve betrayed them. And the enemy does not look satisfied.
And I realize I must say more.
“We will respect your borders and you will respect ours. We will come to an agreement. But you must understand, if there must be war, it will not be driven by our quest for glory, money or power. It will be driven by yours. And we will teach the world the cost of such motivations. We will use you as an example. We will not be driven by circumstance, but by cold consistency. Our war will be a holy war, and you will be made an example of. You will be destroyed.”
I see fear now, in their faces. And I see satisfaction in the eyes of my own people. And I see a growing acceptance among them all.
I know then that we in that room will not be wrapped in glory.
But we come to a peace and our actions will be woven, silently, into the future of our peoples.
The Torah reading of Shoftim features a stock speech for war. It basically says: “Don’t be afraid, G-d is on your side.” It seems odd for two reasons. First, it is a stock speech; it says nothing about the causes of a particular conflict. And second, how do you know G-d is on your side?
The answer comes earlier in the reading. Earlier, we are told we can choose a King. A King is not simply a ruler. Any old dictator can have power, but only a King is honored. It is an honor to serve a King. When this reading tells us what kind of King to choose, we learn about the national values we should aspire to.
The naughty list includes the pursuit of horses (aka military glory), women and money. These pursuits guided the sons of the mighty (binai Elohim) before the flood. They corrupt mankind. Thankfully, the Torah leaves us with a contrary list. It includes brotherly love, self-control, humility and an awareness of G-d’s commands. These are the national values we must honor.
But the reading does not stop there. We learn other keys to self-regulation. We learn of the priests and judges settling disputes. They are the forces of conservatism. And we learn of the prophets providing Divine guidance; theirs are the voices of change. All their claims to power are overlapping, set up in opposition to each other. They represent a balance. We learn of the cities of refuge, which provide a damper to our bloodlust. The reward for these cities is more cities. This is how we grow as a people. We learn that we must respect our neighbor’s borders, as defined prior to entering the land. The family borders are not established – this concept is tribal and national in character. And then we learn of the stock speech for war and the concept of total wars of annihilation in which only trees are spared.
Only a nation that does not serve glory, that controls its own passions, that is open to the guidance of G-d and respects the borders of its neighbors may practice this form of war. In fact, when an enemy has no justification for attack (think Nazi Germany against the United States), that sort of war has a moral objective. A lesson was made when German cities were carpet-bombed. The lesson was that not only the military was guilty of the sins of the nation. But even in the case of such terrible war, we preserve the trees – we preserve the legacies of those who came before the current generation of zero-sum antagonists.
The Torah portion brings it all together in the end with the case of unsolved murder. We are a people that preserves life and potential above all else. When a life is lost and the killer is not punished, we must nationally atone for our failure. To do this, we cut the back of the neck of a heifer (egla). The male calf represents us, as seen with the sin of the Calf. By cutting the neck, a symbol of our stiff-necked pride, we recognize we have no claim to pride if our land is a land of destruction and not of creation.
The path to glory starts with a chip on one’s shoulder. Not long ago, Israel was–just like the commander in this story – surrounded by nations that could lay claim to power, money and glory. The Jewish people themselves had none of the above. We wanted to fit in with the elite, and we had the talents necessary to compete. We have done admirably. But we must always remember our past. In our past, we have pursued glory and power. It earned us nothing but brief spasms of honor. Now, we have aged. We have had an opportunity to internalize the lessons of this reading. While we must defend ourselves, we must also remember that it is not an honor to serve the glory, wealth or power of our nation. Our honor comes from greater ambitions.
If we practice the values that run through this reading, our example can spread throughout the world and forever undermine the spirits of corruption that threaten the human race.
Joseph Cox lives in Modiin, Israel and is the author of City on the Heights, a thriller about finding hope in war.