I suppose that each of us have a certain date in the calendar which elicits sadness.
For those of us who had the good fortune to know Zack Baumel before he vanished in eastern Lebanon on June 11, 1982, this time of year is fraught with unresolved agony. I last saw Zack while he was boarding a bus, on his way to the Lebanon front on June 6, 1982. We were both just about done with our time in Yeshiva. Zack was applying to business school for the rapidly approaching school term, finally able to turn to college after five years in study and military service. I had weaseled my way back to Gush Etzion for a brief month after having returned to America the year before to attend college.
The evening before he left, Zack and most of the other senior class at Gush had received "tzav shmonah", an emergency order to proceed directly to a muster point in the north. I had been tremping (hitchhiking) through central Israel that day, visiting some relatives before my planned trip back to the US, and had been stuck for a few hours along the main north-south coastal highway. Hour after hour, a solid line of eighteen wheel tank carriers barreled up the road, moving Israeli armor from the southern front to the north. My two years of study in the "Hezder" yeshiva system, in which students divided their time between Talmudic study and service in the "Shiryone" (Armored Corps), allowed me to identify some of the weaponry. Israeli made Merkava Tanks were in abundance, surprising since these tanks were in short supply compared to the older US made Pattons.
I knew that my friends preferred the innovative active armor of the Israel tanks over the sheer tonnage of the Pattons, and I tried to gauge the probability that they would be able to land an assignment in one. Just three weeks earlier, the graduating "Machzor" (class) had been discharged from active duty in the Israel Defense Forces. All of the boys who had reached the rank of tank commander, (an enlisted rank, since the yeshiva boys typically did not apply for officer training), were assigned to reserves in a "super corps" of tank crews in which each member of the four man tank team was an accomplished soldier in their own right. I don't think that anyone realized it at the time, but this provided the IDF with an armored shock force which could be rapidly deployed to the most tricky and dangerous assignments.
Israel had already pushed into Lebanon twice in the past few years. In each action, they had moved the PLO forces back a safe distance so that their rockets could not threaten northern Israel. Then, they had withdrawn. But the situation was deteriorating. Just a year before, Zack, me, and two other friends had backpacked through the Golan and experienced the weird mix of breath catching scenic beauty, poorly marked minefields, hospitality of the local Arabs and Druze and blasts of sudden air raid sirens. Even then, before the arrival of Russian T-72 tanks (much admired for their low profile and automated shell loading systems) in southern Lebanon and escalating attacks and incursions, the area seemed to be teetering between thriving human progress and devastating conflict.
Two weeks later, after the fateful battle, I was on an El Al flight back to New York. My trip, and precious air ticket, were obtained by arranging to accompany my ailing grandparents back to the US. My last three days in Israel were spent calling hospitals throughout the north and waiting in lines to speak to rude and impatient army information officers.
We didn't know very much of what had transpired. It was just "scuttlebutt". The only thing which was consistent about the news was that it was all contradictory and of questionable veracity. It's ironic, I suppose, that now, 24 years later, the information which we have about Zack's fate can be characterized in approximately the same terms. The endless comedy of intelligence and military errors, the disgusting hubris of politicians and military staff on all sides of the conflict, the tantalizing, problematic and contradictory evidence about Zack's fate, all of these have made it all but impossible to navigate with any certainty through the puzzle of the events of June 10/11, 1982.
Zack's mom, Miriam, (vivacious, creative, irreverently funny, and direct to the point of discomfort), once wrote a letter which came closest to my own haunting feelings about Zack. She writes (I'm paraphrasing from memory):
"Is he cold? Is he hurt? Is he hungry? "
"How does he cope? Does he have anything to occupy him through the long years? Does he have even a sidur, or an old newspaper?"
"Does he know that we are searching for him? That we love him? That we haven't forgotten him?"
I'm not a "Zack is Alive" fanatic, (a fact that I feel some guilt about). I don't know where he is or what fate befell him. I've read all of the things which are in the public domain, and I just don't know. It isn't that there is no information ,there is plenty, and all of it problematic. Many have told me that he died long ago, in the orange grove at Sultan Yaacob or in the frantic, brutal aftermath.
But in all of the long years since we hugged goodbye, through all of the many, many, days, there has not been a day in which I have not thought of him.
Faithful friend. Brave companion. Conscience and comic relief for his friends.
Once, staggering back to town from a harrowing series of misadventures - ragged, starving and completely broke - Zack pulled a 100 Shekel note from his shoe (a fortune, back then) and said, "this was in case we got into any real trouble". (We'd have beat the crap out of him, if we could only catch him.)
I've observed a certain universal fellowship among those who have sustained first hand loss from war. Mankind seems at times to be sleepwalking. War has become an accepted facet of civilization, and we abhore it with the passive indiference with which we great bad weather. But when tragity strikes, and the fog can lift, the full absurdity and immorality of the situation hits with full force.
And, in the throws of that clarity, we feel like taking the human race by the shoulders and shaking them hard until they wake up. We feel like shouting these words - again and again - until someone begins to listen:
"Conflict is human. War to resolve conflict is a moral travesty. Politicians who send our children to death and disfigurement to resolve their conflicts are criminals. Just as a civilization can not tolerate aggressive murder, so humanity can not tolerate aggressive war. "
One day perhaps not in our lifetimes - there will be a real and enforceable doctrine of International Law. A legal system in which national aggression will be dealt with in the same manner as criminal murder, in which national conflicts will be resolved in the same manner as individual conflicts - by courts of justice and by global peacekeepers. In which no nation will be able to attack, harass or persecute its neighbor without the certainty of consequences. In which all humans will be granted the basic protections of security, freedom and human rights. In which no nation will be allowed to pursue vigilante justice to resolve their grievances.
I miss my friend.