The soldier shall make use of his weaponry and power only of the fulfillment of the mission and solely to the extent required; he will maintain his humanity even in combat. The soldier shall not employ his weaponry and power in order to harm non-combatants or prisoners of war, and shall do all he can to avoid harming their lives, body, honor and property.
—The Spirit of the IDF, Israel Defense Forces official doctrine of ethics
Corporal Wolf is a creature of habit. Before he feels human he needs a glass of sweet coffee spiced with cardamom, and at least twenty minutes alone in the toilet with the newspaper. This morning he has received neither. He sits in the caged cockpit of an armoured bulldozer, M16 assault rifle across his lap, a quarter of a litre of mineral water in a transparent plastic bottle in his dirty hand. A further quarter litre sluices freely about the floor. While fumbling for a magazine in his thigh pocket, Wolf placed the open bottle between his feet with predictable results. Without the magazine his semi-automatic weapon is just an expensive walking stick. Wolf would still rather have the water than the cartridges.
Wolf’s boots form black islands in the cocktail of dirty water and dried mud on the floor of the cockpit. “Hardly worth the effort”, he thinks of the time spent polishing them on his bunk in the tent reeking of paraffin and cigarette smoke. He forces an oily finger into the rim of each boot, pushing into the space between the smooth leather and the wool of his socks. Feeling the slots in the lining, his fingertips stroke the rough edge of the square metal identity tags inserted there.
A delicate rain begins to fall, slowly turning the village paths to mud. The staccato drumming on the roof of the cockpit picks up pace as the weather turns harsh.
The village sits on the side of a steep hill, cut into the face like an unfinished staircase. The hill tapers out into ditches overgrown with weeds and scrub. In heavy rain, the collected detritus of the village flows out from the ditches, decorating the wire fence at the bottom of the hill with a collage of plastic bottles, cigarette packets, used nappies and chicken bones. Beyond the fence lies the main road running east and west, built to bypass the village.
Further up the hill stand clusters of two-storey houses, geometric concrete blocks with flat roofs. Through square windows women and children pull wet clothes from impromptu wire washing lines. Walls, once smooth and white, are cracked and dirty. Fallen plaster reveals bare masonry; mosaics with missing pieces.
In the piebald waste ground between houses stunted bushes barely conceal a treasure of rusted and dented finjans, oil cans with necks stuffed with rags and sand, and discarded gas containers.
Roofs enclosed by low walls create makeshift storerooms. From below you can see a broom handle pointing to the sky, or the rusted handlebars of a bicycle like the horns of a bull.
From a distance the buildings look like headstones scattered about a neglected graveyard.
Wolf swigs from his bottle and watches fearless crows pecking at the wet earth among empty cigarette packets and tin cans. He hangs his head and rubs an eye with the ball of his free hand. The crows scatter to the sky, following the curve of the main road to the west.
Mid-morning and Wolf has been at work in his bulldozer cage for several hours. The early shift provides a relief from the crush and bustle of the tent he shares with eleven other soldiers, finding their enthusiasm for the work an alien culture. “They live like pigs, so let’s treat them like pigs” one said recently. Wolf had to leave the tent just to stay calm. “Pigs indeed”, he said quietly. There are other compensations too: the energizing chill of damp air, the freedom to think, a chance to soar high above the village.
Wolf leans forward supporting his head under his jaw, elbows on knees. His fingers press against his cheeks, taut and straight, the space between them compressed to nothing. He stares at his boots. He wants no more of this. He has already destroyed two houses today. He can’t stand the fear. Everyone here has the fear: troops, villagers, families praying nightly for the safe return of their sons or fathers or brothers. They arrive in the village in the early hours, force an entry into the target’s home, remove the occupants and demolish the building. If the target is unlucky enough be present, they make him watch his life disappear before arresting him.
Wolf leaps from the cockpit. The officer glares, not expecting to see him at ground level.
“You’ve still got one more to do, now get back up on that bloody thing and don’t come down till we’re finished”.
“Why do I have to drive?” He knows the job is a punishment. They think he’s a coward, a weak link in their chain, a bad influence on morale.
“Because I’m telling you to. Got a problem with that?”
“I’ve had enough of this. Find someone else to do this. I’ve risked my neck enough today”.
Wolf has a point. The houses are often booby-trapped. You never know until the bulldozer starts turning kitchens, living rooms, toilets into debris. He has seen too many fall to give any one the benefit of the doubt.
“I’ve got my orders and you’ve got yours,” snorts his officer. “Finish the job and don’t bloody well speak to me like that again. Any more of your crap and there’ll be a hearing, got it?”
Hearings usually mean a few weeks in jail, sometimes months. The time you spend as a prisoner is then added back on to your period of service. “Prisoner twice over”, surmises Wolf but he knows what the alternatives are. He has to be careful. They live squashed together like cattle. They depend on each other for their lives. Dissent brings contempt. Weak links find their socks filled with sand and their shampoo with urine. They sleep in the cold by the tent flaps. They eat alone.
Wolf’s jaws press together. He trembles, head twitching on hunched shoulders. He must stay calm. Hold it together. Inside unconsciously clenched fists, he squeezes his thumbs.
“Right, where’s the next one?” calls the officer, checking his map. “Over here, gentlemen. Check this one. See if our rat is in his hole.”
Five soldiers approach the house.
“Quiet up there,” the officer calls up the hill to ring of troops separating the villagers from the house. Only the soldiers obey. Further up, a bell tinkles around a goat’s neck. Overhead a crow screeches.
A soldier hacks at the lock on the door with the butt of his rifle, each swing drawing a sparse thud. The wood, soft around the lock, warps then spits splinters at its assailant like arrows. The soldier prods open the door with a foot. He enters crouching, tightly coiled, primed to sink bullets into any lurking foe.
It’s all over in a few minutes. His four colleagues follow him in, met only by the elderly and young of the family. The target absent, the family is ushered up the hill and penned back by the ring of troops. From here they observe the familiar denouement to the drama below.
“No little piggy at home?” sneers the officer. “OK Wolf, blow the fucking house down.”
The all-clear sounds. Wolf on the bulldozer is sweating. His feet twitch on the pedals, neck and arms stiff with tension. His fingers clench the throttle, the tips red and sore exposed by rutted nails. He is staring over the house at a darkening sky. The tachometer needle rises and falls, quivering as slave to the jerking of his boots. The crankshaft spins in time to his breathing, exhaust fumes obscuring vision and poisoning the air.
“OK, one more time. Then I’m putting in for a transfer,” he whispers. He congratulates himself on his decision. Tomorrow some other poor bastard will have the pleasure. Wolf on the bulldozer fires the ignition.
He puts the machine into gear and lets it creep forward slowly. The wall offers feeble resistance to the blade, confident metal breaching defiant concrete and flimsy plaster. The bulldozer continues its incursion into the interior of the structure, wrecking and crushing without prejudice. Up the hill soldiers flinch, villagers rage in silence, former dwellers wail. Higher still bleat the goats, undisturbed by clouds of dust billowing from below.
Do we hear the explosion before we see it? Do the sound waves hammer our ears before the flames seer our eyes? Do we hear screaming before you see body parts? Do the laws of anatomy still apply when the body is in shreds? Is a piece of thigh with knee and foot attached still a leg? Can we say that a nose and mouth constitute a face when no eyes or forehead or ears are present? What will we call the charred debris that Wolf’s comrades are going to find in the remains of that structure?
The officer has his orders. Through a shroud of dust he must wait for the burning skeleton of the bulldozer to cool, he must allow the wind to disperse the acrid smoke of burning rubber; he must remain in control until more troops vacate tents stinking of kerosene and cigarettes to reach the village.
Only then can he command the search for a pair of boots, each containing a small square of metal and perhaps a foot. Only then might he hear the squawk of a crow flying east, following the main road out of the village.