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from the December 2006 issue

The Ambush

© 2006 by Yishay Garbasz. All rights reserved.

When Dudu Rotem was still a corporal, the squad of five he commanded was assigned to set up an ambush south of the Dead Sea. This squad commander, then a kid of twenty and a complete schmuck, was not happy with the location of the ambush as designated by senior military command; it was clear to him that his superiors had no strategic sense, and his unit had no prospect of success in prosecuting their mission. Naturally, he didn't say a word to his troops about the stupidity of their superior officers. Even back then he ranked himself among the army's top brass. Though he was careful to remain guarded in his opinions at all times—especially around the men who were about a year younger than him—he still decided to take matters into his own hands, which is why Dudu instructed his nineteen-year-old troops, from the very first night of operations, and in complete contravention of orders, to move and take up their positions somewhere else, a long way from where they had been commanded to bed down for the ambush. Since, on that first night, they captured not one single infiltrator, nor, in fact, even caught sight of the enemy on the tangle of dirt roads, he decided to change their location the next night and proceeded to do the same thing, night after night.

And that's how the ambush got started. On top of the four heavy rifles that they unloaded each night from the commando car, there was an even heavier submachine gun, a mortar launcher, a radio device, and plenty of blankets, much to Dudu's disgust—he did not approve of coddling them, not at their age. He himself surveyed the territory like a cautious desert cat, searching for hideout positions from where they could lash out at the enemy, guns ablaze, he stood with his left hand resting on his hips—a stance he later made famous as general in that well-known photo of himself standing next to Prime Minister Shlomo Parkinson, his right hand on his stomach, as if steeling himself for the rush of battle yet to come. When he found a perfect strategic location he would have his men hunker down in an instant, thus hoodwinking the enemy, so he told them. Through his extraordinary vigilance, they would obliterate those enemy infiltrators! The five men under Dudu's command listened in silence, mostly because they were utterly exhausted. Who could sleep all afternoon, and stay awake all night?

Night after night, for a period of two weeks, the unit of six went through the motions of setting things up, waiting until the heavy commando car left its official position—one designated for them by a senile military command. Then, under the orders of a twenty-year-old, and in a flagrant act of disobedience, they moved the ambush to an entirely different location. This wasn't because the then-corporal Dudu Rotem—later general—liked to disobey orders. He alone knew best: intuiting the spirit of the command rather than its dead letter.

On the last night of their tour of duty the men were in a partying mood. Even Dudu was caught up in the spirit of it all, and for once they stayed put, bedded down in their official position, the one decided by senior military command. This was a kind of reckless farewell party, with all army protocol thrown aside: they smoked, talked loudly, joked around, pounced on each other in gleeful anticipation of the night to come on the streets of Tel Aviv. That was precisely the night that an enemy platoon passed by their position from the previous night, and in quick succession blew up three wells, their concrete supports, and, lastly, an entire storehouse of grain at a local farm. The bewildered soldiers were crouched down in their ambush position, their eyes stung from exhaustion, but who could sleep with this dazzling sight to behold? The wells and granary soared upward like fountains of fire, scattering into the air and glibly sinking into the darkness, as if nothing had happened. There was complete silence. The smell of smoke filled their nostrils like a pungent and delicious perfume. It was obvious that there was nothing they could do, and consequently, that is what they did. They lay on the ground, silently watching and breathing in the fragrant air as if they were at an open-air movie or at an out-of-doors gathering.

There were six of them, as mentioned, and it was unlikely that they all felt the same way at that moment. No one spoke. Even those callow young men who were at the point of deciding if they preferred their women fat or thin, as sexual firebrands or dedicated prudes, as young girls or mature women, even they were able to stay silent, to let this memory burn itself forever into the mind's eye. Their bodies felt heavy, no doubt, and their minds tired. At least one of the men had an erection from lying down too long on his front and from a nervous up-and-down motion he made against his blanket, out of fear, perhaps. Others were scared for sure, and even at this distance from the explosion, they kept stock-still. Even the unit commander, the reticent Dudu, our future general, didn't move a muscle.

Early the next morning, after the saboteurs had crossed back over the border, the colonel came to their tent for a debriefing. From what the scouts could gather during a reconnaissance mission in which one of them had been captured trying to filch a discarded enemy knapsack, and then killed—by a Bedouin, obviously—the enemy outfit had consisted of twenty-one men and a camel to carry their explosives. The debriefing continued. To the best of the communication officer's knowledge, they had been armed with automatic rifles, two types of grenades. In short, the enemy unit could easily have outgunned the six soldiers who had been hunkered down at a distance, powerless to do anything but alive and well nonetheless. In the usual war story, an entire unit is wiped out except for one soldier, who survives to tell the tale, to receive a commendation or a promotion from the ranks, and maybe, later on, after a career of active service, is awarded the Israel Security Prize in hush-hush ceremonials. This case was exceptional: all six were saved precisely because they obeyed orders.

The corporal took a shine to one of the six men, private Gadi Servadio. The two grinned at each other—homosexuality was still unknown back then—in any case, Gadi was asked his name with a smile, and he responded with a smile; a further inquiry was made, smiling, as to where Gadi's parents were from, if it was Padua, or Genoa, and because, as it turns out, they were from Sienna, and perhaps, on account of a love for Tuscany or by virtue of his magnetic smile, the way was open for Gadi to exploit his vaguely exotic origins, not to mention the sexual ardor of the colonel, in order to clarify, with a severe rebuke aimed at Dudu of course—even though Servadio admired Dudu a great deal—why he had bedded them down at a location from which they could not possibly defend the three wells or the granary; was it their fault if they had survived without injury, without even a scratch, while the vision of the fire, in all its glory, remained etched into their mind's eye?

"Servadio, that's Ovadia in Hebrew, right?"

"Yes, Sir, but I asked you . . ."

"Servadio, my dear friend, please understand: you weren't meant to be guarding the wells, or the granary, and certainly nothing to the south. Your orders were to stand guard on the road that led up to the processing plant, a long way off toward the north. Don't you see? You did what you were supposed to do. The plant remained intact, not a single injury there, thanks to you. You accomplished your mission. No hard feelings, all right?"

The soldiers' glances followed the officer's plump finger as it gestured northward, toward the potash factories, on the shores of that ever-shrinking Dead Sea, about to vanish off the face of the earth. He cut a ridiculous figure, that colonel. He was in love with the company clerk, Vered Tzela. Although he lavished a great deal of attention on her, she never paid him any mind, and never even gave it a thought. In the middle of conversation with his fellow officers, or with her, he would sometimes meow like a cat in a desperate effort to play the clown. By all accounts, the soldiers of the ambush squad should have felt pleased knowing that they had successfully protected the road leading to the potash processing plant. But they were not pleased, not in the slightest bit.

It wasn't their consciences that bothered them, because they had failed to protect the farm, for example, or because they hadn't managed to take down a single enemy trooper.

They were consumed with a venomous anger toward Dudu, their squad corporal. His failure on the battlefield had saved most of their lives. Just suppose they had thrown their grenades in enough time, or supposing that their Belgian FN semi-automatic rifle—a military purchase made without a thought for real conditions of use in terms of climate or geography-had worked . . . Or if their guns hadn't malfunctioned because of the sand, and what if they had even taken the enemy platoon and its camel by surprise, and had, in that instant, prevented the enemy from throwing its grenades, they all still would have died in the second round of fire. That is, if they hadn't perished in the first place, after heroically polishing off three or four of the enemy. The previous two weeks' nightly maneuvers seemed, if truth be told, utterly meaningless to them.

The wells and farm didn't really trouble the conscience of the squad corporal either, though he was sorry about the lost opportunity, the fight that had slipped through his fingers because he let his guard down on the last night. His men gave him the cold shoulder. They glowered at him accusingly, even Gadi, his greatest admirer, but they didn't turn him in. They didn't dare tell the colonel what they'd really been doing night after night. Undoubtedly they forgot about the ambush as the years went by, as they raised children, and giving the army its due, sent them into its bosom. Above all, they were proud that they had been the first under Dudu's command, the man who had since risen to the rank of general. Yet what also slipped out of the mind's eye were all life's moments when the boundary between Being and Nothingness was as thin as the membranous skin stretched over pulsating veins.

One of them, Oded was his name, was killed in a different battle a year later, when a grenade thrown out of the darkness from a convoy put two gaping wounds in his thigh below the groin. His shoes filled with blood and his last words were, "Take me out of here!" His parents died a thousand deaths at the well-attended shiva. His mother turned silent. His father sobbed each time they went to visit the grave site. Kindergarteners from our neighborhood also visited Oded's grave each year, on Memorial Day for the Fallen, to brush away the needles that the old pine trees had dropped onto his stone. The other five, including Dudu, went on with their lives: Gadi Servadio became a military correspondent, after that a senior figure in electronic media; Alon became a tourist guide; the other two, whose names have already been forgotten, raised children, one of whom, Oren, contracted meningitis at age three and went deaf. Only Dudu, the corporal, acquired some degree of fame as a general, and it was later on, as a general, that he died.

Once, General Dudu slept with the self-same Vered Tzela, the platoon commander whom the corporal had once loved dearly, but to no avail (Vered was already a bitter divorcée, an object of loathing to her children, and for good reason). He was frightened by her sharp fragrance, her embrace: he found it all a bit repulsive. The two of them reminisced about the night of the ambush. What was the connection between their chance meeting and that particular night? None whatsoever.

He lay in the arms of Vered, the psychologist, irritated because she was stroking him lovingly after they'd had sex—he just wanted to be left alone. They'd bumped into each other an hour before at a Jerusalem café not far from his hotel. She was reading a foreign novel; he was licking the foam from the bottom of his cup with a spoon. She told him drowsily about the corporal, who had fallen head over heels in love with her, making himself into a laughingstock while she, as she said herself, never loved men who loved her more than she loved them. It's doubtful that Dudu remembered her from back then. Doubtful if Vered remembered him. He was trying to come up with something to say. He wanted to tell her about his life, not exactly to whisper it into her ears, though she was right there, and he could have done just that. His life had no beginning at that moment, in that bed, in the sadness that engulfed them and separated them both. Which is why he started to tell the story of his life from the moment of the ambush. He talked and talked without stopping. At first Vered was happy that he was talking to her, not just fucking her and falling asleep. Dudu thought that as a young commander he had been cleverer than those his senior, and as a senior commander, cleverer than those his junior. A week after that, and quite by accident, he was killed in a car crash. Vered Tzela kept the story of the ambush to herself, just as Dudu, the senior officer—now deceased—had told it to her. She has however long since forgotten his exact version of events, though she'd promised faithfully she would remember. She has also forgotten the smell of his body, though she did recall, at least, that he smelt odd. She was a discreet lady, that Vered Tzela. After the general was killed she went to the funeral, glanced over at his wife, and shed a few tears.

Copyright Yitzhak Laor. Translation copyright 2006 Gina Glasman. All rights reserved.

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