Illustrative: Israeli snipers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza and the potential for demonstrators to try to breach the security fence on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces/File)
Illustrative: Israeli snipers prepare for massive protests by Palestinians in Gaza and the potential for demonstrators to try to breach the security fence on March 30, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces/File)
Interview'If war happens, I’d prefer our guys kill the enemy'

Israeli novelist explores painful psychological price paid by IDF soldiers

In ‘Victorious,’ Yishai Sarid tells the story of a military psychologist who believes her job is to teach young soldiers to kill. And then her son enlists in the paratroopers

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel

Victory – but at what cost?

A new novel by popular Israeli author Yishai Sarid explores the role of psychology in the Israel Defense Forces, how the military turns young men and women into hardened soldiers, and how they emerge from such an experience.

Victorious,” which hits shelves this week, tells the story of military psychologist Abigail, who is largely retired from active duty but called back to assist ahead of a prospective all-out war – just as her only child is enlisting in the Paratroopers Brigade.

The idea for the book, said Sarid, stemmed in part from “the idea of a combat soldier who is supposed to go to combat the next day – and drives away to his home and tells his mother, ‘Listen, I cannot do it, I’m so frightened, please hide me somewhere, help me.’”

But that imagined scenario, Sarid added in a recent interview with The Times of Israel, “doesn’t happen. I never heard of such a story, and it made me think why? Why doesn’t it happen?”

The novel – translated into English by Yardenne Greenspan – explores Abigail’s dual role: training young soldiers to head fearlessly into battle, and protecting them from the psychological damage of war.

“Human beings are tender-hearted,” Abigail tells a room of battalion commander trainees. “Most of them flinch at the thought of killing, except for the few who were born to do it, for whom killing comes naturally. The military’s purpose is to teach the soft majority how to kill.”

It’s easy to read “Victorious” as a damning indictment of war and of military culture – and even of the IDF itself. But Sarid, who served in the IDF for six years and in the reserves until he was 45 years old, rejects any such sweeping condemnations. Sarid’s daughter also recently completed a three-year stint in the IDF, something which undoubtedly weighed on his mind while writing.

“It’s part of our lives, we share the burden,” he said.

Author Yishai Sarid (Courtesy)

“Whenever there’s some military operation or war in Gaza… I feel like I belong to it, I take part, even if I’m not physically there,” said Sarid, who noted that when he is not himself participating, he feels some guilt “for not being there, because those guys are there for me.” As an Israeli living in Tel Aviv, he said, “for better or for worse, I participate in [such wars], I cannot just throw away my responsibility.”

Sarid says that no matter his political views, the fact that he is an Israeli and an IDF veteran play a prominent role in his writing.

Whenever there’s some military operation or war in Gaza… I feel like I belong to it, I take part, even if I’m not physically there

“I write about hurtful things, about things that hurt me, that cause me pain, but I’m not writing from the outside. I’m not from the UN or from Europe, I write from within,” he said. “So even if I oppose it and think it’s foolish etc., as long as I’m here [in Israel], I’m a part of it and I take responsibility for it.”

In subtle yet sharp dialogue, Sarid brings nuance to even the horrors of dead children, writing scenes bound to garner reactions that reveal more about the reader than the author.

In one scene, a young female IDF pilot tells Abigail that she cannot stop thinking about the 7-year-old boy she accidentally killed during a targeted airstrike of a high-ranking terrorist.

“You didn’t know there was a child there,” Abigail tells her. “You did the right thing. You probably saved civilian lives. It isn’t your fault that they don’t keep their children safe, involving them in wars. You’re absolutely not guilty of anything here.”

The young pilot says she cannot shake the feeling of guilt, and Abigail tells her: “Nobody cares but you. The boy is dead now, and he didn’t feel a thing. Get over it, Noga. This kind of thinking makes you dysfunctional. It’s over. Move on. Let’s talk about nice things.”

The English and Hebrew covers of Yishai Sarid’s novel ‘Victorious.’ (courtesy)

“Victorious” is the sixth novel from Sarid, a practicing lawyer and the son of the late Meretz politician Yossi Sarid. His last book, “The Memory Monster,” was a highly acclaimed novella that takes the form of a letter written by a concentration camp tour guide to the chairman of Yad Vashem.

In many ways, Sarid says, the trauma of persistent violence and war – similar to the trauma of the Holocaust – affects Israeli society as a whole.

“Living on your sword and living with such a long military and violent conflict – not just military but also terror, all of that we’re living in – of course it has a huge influence on our life,” he said. “It’s a society that lives side by side with violence every day.”

Psychology tells us that nobody can come out of the military as clean as he goes into it

With so many Israelis serving in the military, “psychology tells us that nobody can come out of it as clean as he goes into it,” Sarid added. “There’s always influence and damage – it can be minor and it can be very severe and [it could be along] all the spectrum in the middle. But of course it has a direct influence on many thousands of Israelis and their families.”

As a protagonist, Abigail is fairly easy to dislike – she engages in inappropriate relationships, crosses boundaries, and justifies all sorts of questionable behavior – a charge which somewhat irks Sarid.

“Abigail as a character drew opposite views from people, some of them liked her and some of them really thought she’s a monster,” he said. “I, by the way, like her, I think she’s doing her job. She’s not to be blamed for war, she tries the best she can to do her job and fulfill her mission.”

Illustrative. Female soldiers in the IDF during training, July 13, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90/File)

It is no surprise that Sarid identifies with Abigail, who serves as both the book’s chief protagonist and its first-person narrator.

“Abigail is not a fanatic, I don’t think she wants war, she’s not politically fanatic,” he said. “But this is her profession, and that’s the reality she lives in. She’s doing what she can in order for us to win and not the enemy. I’m the same way.”

Sarid, who like his father has long been associated with left-wing politics in Israel, noted that “of course I prefer there would be no wars – I think war is a crime and a tragedy, etc., but if it happens, I’d prefer our guys kill the enemy and not the enemy kill our guys.”

“Victorious” – which was released in Hebrew in 2020 – hit home with many Israelis, who serve in the IDF, send their children to the military and rely on its soldiers to keep them safe. But Sarid believes that recent world events have lent the book more resonance even abroad.

“When you look at it from the outside, it looks sometimes to readers from the Western world like some kind of exotic or strange or weird thing – where people are still fighting each other in such a way,” Sarid said. “But I think with the war in Ukraine, the perception that in the Western world or in Europe that war is over… people understand that war is not over yet.”

Beyond that, he added, “the issue of how we turn ordinary youngsters into killers is universal – it can happen anywhere.”

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