The Number in the Darkness


On the night of August 9, 2006, our unit was ordered to cross the border and  commence an operation into Marj Ayoun and El Khiam.  It was the conclusion of a period of several days in which we had waited on the border, in the sweltering heat of early August.  Three times the mission had been cancelled.  There would be no fourth cancellation.

As is now clear, these cancellations formed a part of a more general policy of flailing uncertainty which characterized the management of the 2006 Lebanon war from the Israeli side.  However, this has been written about extensively (including by me), and is not my focus here.  I want, rather, to recall the minutiae of a particular incident, which remains in my mind ten years on.

One of the main challenges to armored units across the border at that time was the presence of anti-tank mines, seeded by Hizballah at various points precisely to impede an Israeli advance.  I was particularly apprehensive at the thought of these mines.  The thing that occupied my mind, for some reason, in the days spent waiting to cross the border, was the question as to whether if one hit one of these mines, there would be time to know what had happened before one’s own death, or whether there would simply be a kind of switching off.

To get to the area of Marjayoun, we were required to undertake a slow and systematic journey, in column formation, in the pitch darkness.  The engineers had supposedly plotted a course that would avoid areas where there was a danger of mines.

As the driver of a Merkava 3 tank, my task was fairly simple.  In order to ensure that we remained on course, I needed to make sure that through my episcopes, into the darkness of the night, I could at all times make out the number ‘2’, on the back of our platoon commander’s tank, a few meters ahead of us.  This sounds easy, of course, but in the pitch dark, and through the rough and uneven countryside of south Lebanon, it was a task not without the possibility of complication.

The problem was not in the particular difficulty of the task, but rather in the potentially serious implications of failing to carry it out.  If we veered off course, this would mean we would be drifting blindly through the countryside and the blackness, far away from any course plotted to ensure our safety, and perhaps in the direction of a mined area.

This was compounded by an additional element – I was at the best of times not an especially good tank driver. And I had in any case taken part in a training exercise on tanks precisely once in the five years preceding our entry into Lebanon that night.

The first fact perhaps requires some additional detail.  Operating tanks, like anything else, is a skill for which some people have an aptitude, and others do not.  A tank is a large machine. Operating it effectively requires a certain base level feel for machinery and its operation and an interest and connection to technical issues.  I possess neither attribute.  I found myself in the tank corps because in my family, if one joins the armed forces, one goes into a frontline unit.  And the infantry units in which I was interested were closed to me because of my poor eyesight.

In any case, as a result of all this, I found myself on that night heading into Lebanon, with a responsibility not only for my own life, but also for three additional men in our crew, and with an uncertainty in my own  ability to carry out the task at hand.

As the hours wore on, we moved, slowly and grindingly, into Lebanon.  There was a sense of having entered an entirely different dimension of reality.  Just the sound of the engine and the crackle of the internal communications.  We could see fires in the distance, lighting up the night at certain points.  At all times, I kept the white symbol in the center of my episcope. Roi’s tank,  number 2, the platoon commander. This was the talisman telling us we were still on course.

Then, suddenly, the symbol disappeared. Nothing but the black expanse in all three episcopes.  I had glanced away for a moment and he must have turned, and now there was nothing.  For a few seconds, we just kept moving.  Maoz, our commander, asked me, as he did every few minutes, ‘is everything ok? Can you see Roi?’  ‘Now I can’t see him,’ I replied.

What was odd about this moment was that I wasn’t especially concerned.  Rather, it struck me as an interesting puzzle that would in a moment make itself clear.  Had we lost him for good, or would the number re-appear?  I had no thoughts at all about the mines or the lives which my own mistake had now potentially placed at risk, alongside my own.  Instead, with my mind blank, I watched the black episcopes intently for a sign that he had reappeared, and that we were still on the course.  Nothing.

After a minute or so, Maoz asked me again, this time with a little more urgency in his voice, ‘Can you see him now?’

‘I can’t see him,’ I said.  ‘Now I can’t see him.’

Then, after about another minute, in the right episcope, very reduced in size, there was the white painted ‘2’ symbol.  ‘Now I see him,’ I said.  We were back on the course.  I felt no particular relief, and mildly admonished myself not to lose him again, which I did not.

I recall this episode because it reminds me of  the way in which death quietly appears in wartime, considers for a moment, and then departs.  It is a process quite without drama, without musical accompaniment, or very great emotion.  It is played in the key of silence, and something very close to banality.

I assume that my own lack of emotion and failure to think very much about the possible implications of my own error at that moment was itself an item of evolutionary worth, the better to keep me focused on the task at hand.  But it also seemed and seems to me to represent a somehow appropriate response to the true scale of things.  This small episode offers a kind of window, a glimpse into some other level of consciousness, a place of stillness which is to be found, perhaps only found, at the very eye of a raging storm.

I realize in writing these words that I am failing to convey the flavor of this, and I am aware that I could write paragraphs more and still fail to do so.  Suffice it therefore to say that much else happened in the 2006 war to myself and my unit, and much of it I am not particularly proud of.  But I have been, since 2006, looking for that particular strand of consciousness that I experienced in the minutes described above.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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3 Responses to The Number in the Darkness

  1. Jonathan Karmi says:

    Jonathan, you describe this experience very vividly, brilliantly in fact. Struggling with one’s own doubts and weaknesses is the essence of life, certainly of mine. I have just one ignorant question – was there no communication with Roi’s tank? I served in something much more modest a good few years before you. I was in Anti-Aircraft as an operator on the Chaparral medium-range missile system. I remember on exercises a member of another crew had a problem with the diesel pump not working. He looked down the nozzle and of course that’s precisely when the diesel flew out, so his eyes were full of the stuff. I was on another M113 platform and was the first to notice what had happened. I ran over, grabbed a jerrycan of water, told the guy to lean back and hold his eyes open while I tried to pour as much water as possible into them to flush away the fuel. I did this quickly and in total calmness. It was like your sense of quiet focus after losing your ‘number 2’. You just go onto auto-pilot. He was then carted off to the medics and was fine afterwards.

  2. Pingback: The Number in the Darkness - Israel News

  3. Ruth Hirt says:

    That’s a real chill … Those are golden moments to think back on cherished life, liberty and ease. Security forces, land, air and sea could have been ushered into seeking refuge into the Holds of The ALMIGHTY, not compromising any faith about HIM.

    The perils of evil have not been quenched, to be on the secured side, mankind should be groping or fumbling to flee from being part of it. I believe so.

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