Like every other 18-year-old, Rafi had no choice but to enlist. But he had not been required to go through the grueling selection process to be chosen for the special forces, or the year of masochistic training that followed; nor had it been required, after completing three years of necessary service, to sign on for another two years as an officer. Yet it had always been Rafi’s understanding with himself that he would serve in the special forces, in a unit that would push him to the furthest limits of his physical and mental capacity. That he would become an animal, but a pure animal that operates on instinct alone, like the flying tiger, which was the symbol of the Sayeret Golani, and which its commandos received during the induction ceremony in the form of a small metal pin.
“There would be a field of thorns,” Rafi told her, “and you’d have to cross it. And to do so, your mind simply has to refuse to consider the pain. To think only about getting across, to make the pain irrelevant.” Or there was Hunger Week, during which the recruits were not allowed to eat or sleep for seven days. Each evening, the officers would make a barbecue next to the starving recruits. They would grill steaks, lay out a feast, and then say to the recruits, “Come, why don’t you eat with us?” And if someone gave in to his hunger and ate, that was the end: Just like that, he’d fallen, and that same day he was sent back to the regular infantry. Once, the officers gave out chocolate balls. “Just a small treat,” they said. “We’ll all eat them together.” And on the count of three the soldiers put them in their mouths and bit down on what turned out to be balls of goat shit.
Of course he had been ready to die for his country, Rafi told her. To believe that one was willing to die for one’s country was the bare minimum required to even enter into the selection process, though along the way many boys or men discovered that they were too afraid to die or to suffer, that they couldn’t dissolve their fear so that it seeped out like an odor from the pores of their skin, and the moment this was detected, they were immediately disqualified. It was not until later, after Rafi was discharged from the army and fell in love, that he came to see the grotesqueness and absurdity of dying for one’s country, of dying and also being willing to kill.
In the back seat, their boys became quiet: The oldest one, the only one with a phone, had taken it out, and the others were leaning in to see.
It had happened when he was an officer, during the years that Israel had occupied southern Lebanon. His unit was given the assignment to kill the Hezbollah leader in the region. Intelligence knew that every single day at 6:30 a.m. sharp, the Hezbollah chief left the house and got into his car, and their instructions were to rig the engine with a bomb. There were 15 men in Rafi’s unit, and they were carried over the border by helicopter and dropped at a mountain hideout. At 10 p.m., they set out crawling down the mountain and through the fields. For four hours they dragged themselves along on their stomachs until finally they arrived at the village. A UN convoy was there, and the peacemakers were up laughing and drinking, because the UN people are always happy, Rafi said, for them, it’s just one long party. The unit slid past the UN tent on their stomachs and surrounded the house of the Hezbollah leader. As the officer of his unit, Rafi was positioned near the front door, and it was then, lying on his stomach with his gun trained on it while the explosion specialist disappeared under the car, that he noticed the pairs of children’s shoes. Three or four pairs lined up at the entrance, little rubber sandals just like he and his brothers used to wear on the moshav, when they wore shoes at all. No one had mentioned any children. Though why would they have? Children had no value in the calculus of military operations or wars. And in all of his nearly five years in the army, no one had ever told him anything beyond what he needed to know, and he hadn’t asked. About civilians, the question had only ever been: Should you encounter one in your mission, what will you do? Of which the only three options were: kidnap, kill, or let them go, and no answer was right or good. And yet the fact that Rafi had not known about the children and now was lying 10 meters from their sandals disturbed him. At that moment he felt a tap on his shoulder and, lifting his eye from the crosshairs of his gun, he saw the face of the explosion specialist, painted dark green like his. The specialist gave him the thumbs-up: The bomb was in place, rigged to go off the moment the Hezbollah chief touched his foot to the gas pedal. Rafi signaled to his men to retreat, and for four hours they crawled back on their stomachs to the mountain hideout, where they collapsed in exhaustion.