The Real Story
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From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life distributed by Public Radio International.
My [UNINTELLIGIBLE] sergeant put me on a deployment roster to go to the Middle East. And I was told to go to a pre-deployment brief.
This guy's a Lance Corporal from the Marines' Eight Communication Battalion at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. At his pre-deployment briefing to go overseas for whatever is going to happen next in Iraq, there were maybe 300 Marines.
You know, folding chairs. There was a projection screen being used to show us the plan of attack.
OK, this is where we're going to be landing. And then we're going to travel here. You'll be wearing this type of gear. They also taught us about Saddam Hussein's military. You know, how much he has. And after that, this other speaker came out speaking about the Arab culture. He was a sergeant and how the Marine Corps works per se, this guy is not specializing in Arab culture. You know, he was probably asked to do a course on Arab culture two weeks prior to the situation. He did some research, per se, and gave the class.
In the class, the sergeant explained what Arabs eat. That it gets to 140 degrees in the desert. The different ethnic groups.
Then he said to us, when you go over there, make sure you do not shake an Arab with your left hand. And we're all wondering, why? So he says and the reason is because over in Iraq, over in the Middle East, they wipe their asses with their left hand because they don't have any toilet paper. And so I'm standing there and I could see people's faces. And they were like in disgust. They're like, "Oh man. Wow. That's just nasty."
This Marine told us that he thought the only reason the sergeant said that was to make the soldiers think that Arabs are disgusting, to make them hate. Who knows? Honestly, who knows? We checked into it and it's true. Lots of people in Iraq and Pakistan, and lots of other countries near there, do not use toilet paper. People wash their hands. But that sergeant really might have been trying to teach them how to be sensitive to local customs, just didn't do the very best job of it.
Once there's a war going on, everyone is suspicious of the information they're getting. Nothing is trustworthy. And when a war is over, it's still hard to tell what the truth was. For instance, the number of Iraqi deaths in the Persian Gulf War back in 1991, do you know? No one knows. Just after the war, the US Defense Intelligence Agency made a very rough estimate of 100,000. The British government says 30,000. The US House Armed Services Committee estimated 9,000. The PBS show Frontline estimated maybe 27,000.
Well today on our program, we bring you three stories, each one from a different war. Each one trying to get you the real true story behind that war.
Act One of our show, Jarheads. In that act, a marine reminds us just how scary it was to fight against Saddam Hussein the last time around if you weren't just watching on TV.
Act Two, what's the truth good for anyway. An act which asked the question, if Israelis looked back at their war of independence and decided that maybe they shared some blame for Palestinians having their country, would it change anything?
Act Three, Jar Jar Heads. In that act, one brave and funny man doesn't simply try to rewrite the history of a war, he tries to rewrite the movie of the history of the war. Stay with us.
Act One. Jarhead.
I'm Anthony Swofford and I served in the US Marine Corps from December of 1988 through December of 1992. And when I left the Marine Corps I was a corporal.
And Anthony Swofford is here because he agreed to read an excerpt from his memoir, Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles.
And Anthony, before we start, I want to do a quick rundown of some of the words that are going to appear here and there during the readings so nobody gets lost. Give me just quick definitions to these. Ruck.
Ruck is a pack, like a knapsack.
Well, dope is any sort of information that helps you at all in the field, such as the distance you are from a target, or the wind speed.
Or any kind of intelligence, yes.
Freqs. That's F-R-E-Q-S.
Those are the radio frequencies that are being used on the battlefield.
A grand is one kilometer.
STA. That's S-T-A. It appears all through this story.
STA is the acronym for the platoon I served in. It stands for Surveillance and Target Acquisition.
I hope this next one isn't too naive. Click. This is one that I feel like I've seen in a million war movies and they always say, go three clicks over, or five clicks over. And I've always wondered, how far is a click?
Yeah, a click is one kilometer. A thousand meters.
Well, with that preparation, here then is Anthony Swofford, reading from his memoir of the Persian Gulf War.
The oven heat of the Arabian Desert grips my throat. In the distance, the wind blows sand from the tops of dunes, beige waves that billow through the mirage. Just beyond the tarmac, artillery batteries point their guns east and north. Fighter jets patrol the sky.
Our days consist of sand and water and sweat and piss. We look north toward what we're told is a menacing military, 400,000 or more of war torn and war savvy men. Some of the Iraqi soldiers who fought during the eight year war with Iran got their first taste of combat when we were 10 years old.
While fighting Iran, the Iraqis became experts at fortifying their border with mines and obstacles, such as the 30 kilometer long lake they created to defend the city of Basra. We're forced to wonder what the Iraqis are preparing for us at the Saudi-Kuwaiti border.
In 1983 and 1984, they use mustard and nerve gas against the Iranians. And since then, they've dropped nerve gas on the Iraqi Kurds. We believe they'll do the same to us. We wait for the Iraqi army. This is our labor, we wait.
Knowing the reporters will arrive soon, we shave for the first time in a week. Our chief scout sniper gathers the platoon in a school circle under the plastic infrared cover. He has already recited a list of unacceptable topics. He's ordered us to act like top Marines, patriots, the best of the battalion.
We're prohibited from divulging to the press data concerning the capabilities of our sniper rifles or optics and the length and intensity of our training. Basically, don't get specific, he says. Say you can shoot from far away. Say you're highly trained. That there are no better shooters in the world than marine snipers. Say you're excited to be here and you believe we'll annihilate the Iraqis. Take off your shirts and show your muscles.
The reporters arrive at 09, 9 o'clock. The man is from the New York Times and the woman is from the Boston Globe. They shake our hands and urge us to speak freely.
Yes ma'am, we believe in our mission, we say. We will quickly win this war and send the enemy crawling home. We can shoot out someone's eyeball from a click away.
One reporter has brought a football. On seeing it, the press pool colonel instructs our staff sergeant that we should play football for the reporters, wearing our full MOPP gear with gas masks. The MOPP suit is supposed to protect us from skin contamination during a chemical attack. They weigh 10 pounds and after 6 weeks in our rucks, most of them aren't in their original packaging, but are bound together with duct tape and nylon ripcord. We're happy to use them for this game because now they'll really be useless. We'll burn them in the straddle trench and it will take supply months to issue replacements.
Doc John Duncan, our navy corpsman, reports the temperatures has reached 112 degrees. We pull our masks on and tie the hoods. Five gallon water jugs mark the goals. My team makes 10 yards. [? Coumbes ?] and Johnny Rotten get into a pushing match, and a few of us pull them apart. The drama of the scene is catching. The reporters are taking notes.
The gas mask and hood cause your hearing to lengthen and stretch, so that words enter your brain in slow motion. At some point, I hear the staff sergeant calling for halftime, telling the reporters that our gas masks are high tech pieces of equipment. That outfitted in the MOPP suits, we are an unstoppable fighting force. That the only chance the Iraqis have is to drop an a-bomb on us.
When the show game is over, [? Keen ?] douses the suits with fuel and strikes a match. He says, may God please save us because these MOPP suits won't.
One night on the headquarters roof, Johnny notices that we can see straight into the general's office. And that if we use binoculars, we can read his wall map. Every symbol that reflects troop strength and movement, both enemy and friendly. And so we construct our own model of what will occur at the border.
After three nights of transcribing the general's maps, we're sure that we'll soon be dead. Johnny does the math and he has us out-manned at the infantry level three to one.
The war begins. Within hours of the first US bombs being dropped on Iraqi forces in Kuwait and Iraq, the Iraqi air force threat is demolished. On the eighth of February, we move to the berm, the obstacle made of sand, an unstable material that will make futile all endeavour. That follows roughly the Kuwaiti-Saudi border.
Shortly after arriving at the bivouac site, we receive incoming artillery rounds. Johnny is the first to yell, "Incoming." And we crouch in our half-dug hole.
The rounds explode beautifully and the desert opens like a flower of sand. As the rounds hit, they make a sound of exhalation, as though air is being forced out of the earth. Sand rains into our hole.
More rounds land nearby and someone yells, "Gas. Gas. Gas." We don and clear our gas masks. More rounds hit and these explosions too, look beautiful and beat the earth, seeming to force air out of it. And I cry inside my mask because I'm finally in combat.
I piss my pants. My heart rate climbs. My breathing becomes shallow in the mask. I can't hear very well. Johnny and I look at each other and around our defensive position. More shells explode near us.
If the Iraqis have competent forward observers, they will adjust their fire 100 feet north and land rounds directly on the commanding officer and executive officer of the Second Battalion Seventh and Marines. But this is unlikely. They aren't competent. The assault ends.
We begin to look for an enemy observation post and the bastards who called in the rounds toward our command post. We scoured the biblical range 2,000 yards to our east, our bellies flat to the sand. Johnny is first to notice the enemy position. With his direction, I also make out the physical structure of the observation post dug into the side of the range like a wound into the ribs of a martyr. Those sons of bitches.
Johnny dials the air freqs and I work the coordinates. We accomplish our map work like the experts we are, while all around us marines yell that they're OK, that they haven't been hit, and let's drop some [BLEEP] on those rag head mother [BLEEP].
Johnny asks and I tell him that I think the best bomb cocktail would be a combination of smoke for obscuration and marking, and anti-bunker for killing. He gives me the handset and says, [BLEEP] them up, Swoff.
A captain from S3 appears and pulls rank, insisting that he direct the fire mission. Not me, not STA, even though Johnny has located the enemy position, and I have acquired the coordinates. The captain has even carried a field chair over. He explains that he has bad knees from college football and that if he lies prone in the sand it will take about three STA Marines to peel him from the deck.
Johnny takes the handset from me and gives it to the captain. And we crawl backward a few feet and listen to the captain call in the planes. A minute later, I watched the devastation through my spotter scope. I saw thousands of bombs land on targets while I was in training, buildings constructed for the purpose of being bombed turning to dust, and the hulks of decommissioned vehicles becoming twisted piles of steel. But I've never witnessed the extermination of human life.
Through my scope the explosions look about the same size as the artillery explosions that just hit the sand directly in front of me. The bombs make a quiet thud, like one of our small, folding shovels striking a skull. Another jet bombs the enemy position and we return to digging our holes.
We have just experienced a formal exchange of fire. The reports will be forwarded to regimental and division S1. We've earned our combat action ribbons.
At battalion, we learned that the final final deadlines for complete withdrawal from Kuwait are being issued to Saddam Hussein. And that the real battle, the mother of the mother's, is about to begin, within hours or the day. My battalion is one of four marine task forces from the First Marine Division crossing into Kuwait today. Our staff sergeant advises us to remove any foreign matter from our rucks. By foreign matter, he means letters from women other than our wives or girlfriends, and also pornography or other profane materials that wives and girlfriends and mothers might not like to receive after our deaths when our personal effects will be shipped to the states.
Johnny tells us to dig shallow shelters. [? Keen ?] complains about the heat. Doc John quizzes us on inserting breathing tubes, treating sucking chest wounds, and administering IVs. The Boot says something about missing his Harley-Davidson. And only feet above our heads, the sky splits open as a round passes over. The sound is like a thousand bolts of lightning striking at once. [? Keen ?] yells, what the [BLEEP] was that? Stay down, Johnny yells. [? Swoffe, ?] get me visual.
Rounds pass directly over our heads while I get my scope. As they pass over, it's as though all sound and time and space is sucked into the rounds. A five ton truck blows 100 yards behind us. Its water buffalo also blows into a large bloom of 500 gallons of water. Another five ton takes a hit.
I gain visual. The tank shooting at us are M60A1s. I yell to Johnny, it's our own tanks. He gets belly down on the deck and looks through my scope and says, it's friendlies.
The tank battalion is northeast of our position and even with their naked eyeballs, two grand out, they should have known we were friendly. Unlike the minor enemy assaults with artillery and rockets we've experienced, we know that our own guys will not stop until the entire convoy and all nearby personnel are annihilated because that is the way of the marine corps. We are fighting ourselves, but we can't shoot back.
More rounds pass over. Johnny dials the battalion's executive officer and asks, who the [BLEEP] do your tanks think they're shooting at to their southwest? It's [BLEEP] friendlies. It's me. It's my team you're shooting at. And our battalion, and the god damn supply convoy, you lousy [BLEEP].
Johnny continues to scream and I hear in his voice astonishment and rage. Because of all the things that Johnny believes in, first he believes in the marine corps, and that the marine corps takes care of its own. As in doesn't kill its own.
Word is that only two men died and six were injured at the hands of the trigger happy and blind tankers. I don't believe this because the damage is extreme. Three five tons and a humvee are burning. Lieutenants and sergeants are yelling up and down the ranks for us to start moving forward. The carnage is 100 yards behind me, but now my job is to forget it. There's still the god damn war here that we need to win.
Johnny and I are attached to Fox company in order to take part in the Third Battalion and Seventh Marines assault on Ahmed Al Jaber Airfield. The air control tower's our main target of interest. I read it at 800 yards and Johnny agrees. Enemy soldiers are moving inside the air control tower. An argument is occurring between two commanders. They point at each other's faces and gesture toward the enemy troops-- us. And I'm sure one man wants to fight and die and the other man wants to not fight and not die. The men scuffle and their troops pull them apart.
I request permission to take shots. The men in the tower are perfect targets. The windows are blown out of the tower and the men are standing. And I know that I can make a head shot. Johnny has already called the dope for the shot. He thinks I could take two people out in succession, the commander who wants to fight and one of his lieutenants. He thinks that the remaining men in the tower will surrender, plus however many soldiers are under that command. Perhaps the entire defensive posture at the airfield.
The Fox company commander tells me over their freq, negative sierra tango one. Break. Negative on permission to shoot. Break. If their buddies next to them. Break. Start taking rounds in the head. Break. They won't surrender. Copy.
I want to say, screw you, sir. Copy. But I reply, roger, roger.
I can't help but assume that certain commanders at the company level don't want to use us because they know that two snipers with two of the finest rifles in the world and a few hundred rounds between them, will in a short time devastate the enemy, causing the entire airfield to surrender. The captains want war as badly as we do and they must know that the possibilities are dwindling.
Also, the same as us, the captains want no war. But here it is. And when you're a captain with a company to command and two snipers want to take a dozen easy shots and try to call it a day, of course you tell them no. Because you are a captain and you have a company of infantry and what you need is some war ink spilled on your service record book.
The combat engineers blow two breaches in the eastern fence line. And as the dark oil fire smoke gets darker, and the sky blackens like midnight even though it's only 1700, the infantry assault companies enter the airfield and we watch. We watched the grunts moving like mules. We watch the smoke. And we hear the resulting confusion over the freq.
At the fence line nearest us, a platoon of Iraqis appears waving white towels and smiling. There's no one there to accept them and the men push themselves against the fence, as writers might at a soccer match. They then sit and stretch out in the sand, as though the war is over.
No one has called Johnny and me for hours. The airfield assault continues and the fence line platoon of surrendering Iraqis remains. Some of the men smoking casually and eating canned rations.
Because I'm angry and frustrated over being ignored, I tell Johnny I want to shoot one of the Iraqis and I spend half an hour hopping from head to head with my cross hairs yelling, bang, bang. You're a dead [BLEEP] Iraqi.
We hear medevac requests over the freq and mortars are called in to support the grunts. And in a few hours, the assault is over and I've remained a spectator.
After a few days, the war ends. The cleanup mission is a freelance operation. We gear up in our three humvees and head out each morning from the battalion bivouac. We run with glee through the enemy positions, noting the hundreds of different ways a man might die when 500 pound bombs are dropped on his badly fortified position.
Some of the corpses in the bunkers are hunched over, hands covering their ears, as though they had been waiting in dread. Many seemed to have died not from shrapnel, but concussion. And dried, discolored blood gathers around their eyes and ears and noses and mouths. No obvious trauma to their bodies.
A few weeks into the air campaign, the United States rolled out the daisy cutter bomb. The daisy cutter spread a mixture of ammonium nitrate and aluminum over the target area, and then ignited the cloud. If you were within two acres and exposed above ground, or even in a barricaded bunker, you were sure to die.
The infantry positions looked like daisy cutter test areas. The mouths of the dead men remain open in agony.
After our battalion gets its turn at a victory lap around Kuwait City, the captain from S3 suggests STA get together with him and the few enlisted marines from his shop and that we all fire the weapons that STA has gathered from the enemy positions. Our cache is 400 to 500 AKs and 3 dozen RPGs.
The Iraqi soldiers took poor care of their rifles. We've pried some of the weapons from the hands of dead men, and the pitiful state of the weapons, the rust, the filthy barrels, and the sand filled trigger mechanisms, now leads us to curse the men and their sloppy soldiering.
We stand in a firing line and shoot the AKs. I feel like a traitor holding the enemy's weapon. Now firing the enemy's weapon, the snap, snap, snap of the firing pin piercing the shell. The projectiles screaming down range. I don't care what I hit: desert, tanks, bunkers, troop carriers. And still in some of the carriers: corpses.
Next to me, my platoon mates also fire from the hip with no precision, as though we're famous and immortal, and we burn through the magazines.
It's a factory of firepower. The fierce scream of metal down range and discharged cartridges and sand flying everywhere. Now all of us shooting in the air, shooting straight up and dancing in circles, with the mad idea that the rounds will not descend. Screaming. Screaming at ourselves and one another and the dead Iraqis surrounding us. Screaming at ourselves, the corpses surrounding us, and the dead world.
Anthony Swofford reading from his memoir about the 1991 Persian Gulf War. It's called Jarhead. It comes out in March.
Coming up, John Hodgman solves a problem that's been bothering millions-- millions-- including maybe, I think, maybe just you. That's in a minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two. What's The Truth Good For, Anyway?
It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, The Real Story. In war of course, the first casualty is truth. We bring you four stories of what really happened in four different wars. We've arrived at act two of our program. Act two, What's the Truth Got to Do With It?
This is one of those stories that people who closely follow this kind of thing have known for years. If you're a regular public radio listener you may have heard of this. But if you're like me, your sense of it has always been kind of vague.
I turned a corner on this story a couple months ago when I met this Israeli named BZ Goldberg. And he started telling me about how, not too long back, he read one of these new histories about the state of Israel. There are these books written by Israelis that go back and take a look at what the Jews did in the early days of their country.
It was like reading a suspense novel because I would read through it and on one page he would say something and I would say, no. No, that's not-- no, no, no. And I would go to the next page and say, no, that didn't-- no. No, that's not what I learned in grade school.
One story that struck him hard reading these books, there was proof that back in the '40s, Israeli soldiers sometimes forced Arabs off their land and out of the country, keeping the land for Jews. That is pretty much exactly the opposite of the story that BZ heard back in school.
I remember this teacher I had in junior high school who told us how the Israeli forces went from Arab village to Arab village trying to convince the local Arabs to stay. And the idea was they said, please, we want to be your neighbors. Don't leave. And we begged them. We asked them. We pleaded.
And that was something I believed until I was in my 20s, or maybe 30s even.
Just a few weeks after I met BZ, I traveled to Israel to do some stories for our radio show. And one of the things I looked into was these historians. I picked up their books. I talked to some people. I wanted to finally understand once and for all, what happened between the Israelis and the Arabs back when Israel became a state?
Roughly 700,000 out of 800,000 Arabs left their homes, abandoned their country in less than a year. Why? It was like the back story to today's politics between Israelis and Palestinians that nobody ever really bothers to explain.
We did not have history, we had indoctrination. We had mythology.
Tom Segev is the man who wrote the first of these new histories, or as they're better known in Israel, revisionist histories. He says it wasn't possible to write a real history of Israel until the early 1980s when under Israeli law, the state archives released most of the government documents from Israel's early years. Among the findings there for historians, the diaries of David Ben-Gurion, the man who founded the modern state of Israel.
The diary of Ben-Gurion is an incredible document. In that Ben-Gurion wrote every day. In fact, every hour. He wrote his diary during meetings, even with people. He wrote down everything he heard and everything he thought. It's an incredible diary. He did that since the age of 14 or 15, I think, to the very end of his life. And in little notebooks. And at the end of each notebook, he would prepare an index for that particular notebook.
Some of the things that Segev and the other historians found was surprising. Not only because they had happened, but because somebody had actually put them down on paper.
I remember that I was shocked and I also know that one of the chapters that actually shocked people was a detailed account of how Israelis looted Arab property. I mean, in some way, this makes it more concrete than just talking about 700,000 people left their houses. When you ask, so what happened to the carpets? What happened to the radio sets? What happened to the chairs and where did all this go? And I found documents about that as well. I mean, very, very critical reports written by government officials at the time.
Some quick background might be useful before we go any further into this. All the events that led to the Arabs evacuating Israel happened in just a few months. At the beginning of the war, the Israelis call the War of Independence and the Arabs call the Disaster of the Catastrophe.
Before the war, Jews had been steadily emigrating to the country for decades, living side by side with the Arabs. Though, sometimes not too peacefully.
In 1947, the UN proposed a way that everybody could get along. Divide the territory into two separate countries, one Jewish, one Arab. The Jews said sure. They were lucky to get this much. The Arabs said never, thinking that it was on its face outrageous that these newcomers should get anything. And then the Arabs launched a war against the Jews.
If you want the big picture on why most of the Arab population of the country left Israel during that war, the best book is probably by Benny Morris, a book with a very dry sounding title The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem 1947-1949.
It is kind of an amazing book, starting with the maps right at the front, where Morris annotates what happened to the Arabs in 369 different villages that he's researched one by one.
What happened he said is complicated. And he says it changes over time. Sometimes Arabs ran away on their own, sometimes Arabs were forcibly expelled. Sometimes Arabs were encouraged to run away by the Israelis. But at the beginning of the war-- Benny Morris is quite clear on this. At the beginning of the war, there was no grand Jewish plan to expel Arabs from their homes.
There wasn't a general plan. There wasn't a master plan. And there wasn't even in the course of '48, a policy to expel Arabs. Though Arab propagandists and historians, or so-called historians, still tout this same Arab version. Official Zionist policy, and this was also the policy carried out in the field by the Jewish troops, was to leave the Arab population in place.
And that was true until the Israelis started losing the war in March of 1948. Things were looking bad for them and they knew that they were going to get a lot worse. That Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Transjordan and Iraq were all about to invade with their armies. So the Israelis went on the offense, attacking Arab villages, Arab towns, Arab neighborhoods.
In one operation called Plan D, the idea was simply to clear away Arabs who were sniping at roads and at supply routes that the Jews were using in the growing war. But Jewish troops discovered, and records showed that they were truly surprised at this. That whenever they would move into an area, the Arabs would just flee en masse.
And most of the populations in fact, fled as battle approached, and as the Jews began to attack. Most Arabs fled so there wasn't even a need to expel them in the sense of a unit moving into a village and ordering the population out. The population fled before the unit entered the village.
I was talking to an Israeli who told me that he remembers being taught in school as a kid. The teacher said, the Israeli army went from village to village and begged the Arabs to stay. Please stay. Please be our neighbors. Did that happen in places?
It did happen, but what happens in collective memory and in official memory, is that things are telescoped. In other words, what happened in one or two villages at certain points in time, and actually also in city of Haifa on the 22 of April, where Jewish officials asked neighboring Arabs to stay, it's telescoped and expanded to cover the whole range of the war and all various different places. But it only happened in specific places and specific times at the beginning of the war. By the end of April, basically, there was a consensus on the Jewish side, it's best that the Arabs leave. And nobody asked Arabs to stay after the end of April. Anywhere.
In fact, by the end of April, once they saw how quickly the Arabs had fled, and how much easier things were for the Jews with them gone, the Jews started to realize that they could end up with something that they had never dared to dream of when the war began. A new state that was nearly entirely Jewish, with very few Arabs in it. And they started to lay the groundwork for that to happen.
When Arabs started asking if they could return to their homes-- and they started asking just weeks after they left. The war was still going on. Arab farmers wanted to get to their fields and orchards. People wanted to get to their houses now that they knew that the shooting had stopped in some areas. The Zionist leaders told them no, you can't come back.
And the thinking was really very simple. Militarily, it was understood that these Arabs would launch the war against Israel and we're supporting the Arab states in their invasion of Palestine, which was aimed basically at stopping the emergence of a Jewish state. These Arabs were a fifth column. If they were allowed back, they would be a fifth column, undermining, subverting, and perhaps, attacking the state from within. This was clear to everybody.
Once the Arabs had fled, they said, well, that's it. They attacked us. They fled. This is justice. Had the Arabs not launched a war there would have been no refugee problem. We will not let them back. Letting them back in would be putting a time bomb in our midst. That's how they saw it.
And all that made sense while Israel was still openly at war. It was at the end of the war that the Jews made what Benny Morris calls, "A morally questionable decision" to never let the Arabs come back.
They leveled Arab towns, took Arab fields, took Arab houses because they wanted all that for the new Jewish state. This would allow settlements to expand. They would make more room for immigrants. And it would mean that Jews would be a solid majority in the Jewish state.
One person who saw all this happen was Ahmun Hadari.
There's a very nice village on the shore, an Arab village, a large one called Achziv. We found it empty. Everybody had run away. All the Palestinians had run away.
At the age of 19 in 1948, Ahmun fought in Israel's War of Independence. And that same year, he was also one of the founders of a Jewish settlement called Gesher Haziv, up near the Lebanese border, by this abandoned town of Achziv. Achziv, he tells me, is mentioned in the Bible as one of the towns that the ancient Israelites were never able to capture from the local population. Now there's a Club Med there, by the way.
Ahmun pulls out a snapshot of himself from 1948, lean and young, standing in the sun.
Now, not where I'm standing, but a little in my background there, it was an Arab village. You don't see the village, but these were its fields. What we got when we settled there was a piece of very fertile ground that had already been worked for quite-- I don't know how many years. Probably hundreds.
At the time, we did not feel that there was anything really drastically wrong with that. About a year after we settled, some old and decrepit and sick Palestinians-- they didn't call themselves Palestinians in those days-- had come back and were now living at the outskirts of town. And there was a call up by the local military commander, one of the members of the kibbutz, taking 12 or 15 young men with rifles down there to chase them away. They chased them away and the next night they were back again. So the night after that, we brought a truck. Or they brought a truck, I wasn't there. They put them on the truck and they took them all the way up to the Lebanese border. And told them, OK, find a way of infiltrating back into Lebanon. That was that.
So how is it that living on that kibbutz with the village always standing there by the beach where you were going to swim, how was it that you didn't think about it all the time, oh, we took this from other people?
Let me sound like a demagogue for just one minute. You're from Chicago? You know of Fort Dearborn? When you go to Fort Dearborn, do you see Indians being slaughtered by white people from Europe with muskets? It just doesn't enter into the equation.
In every war, there are winners and losers. The winners, in order to feel like they're winners, try not to think too much about the losers.
Lots of Israelis, especially the religious half of the population, still believe that God gave this land to the Jews just like it says in the Bible and the events 50 years ago really don't change anything for them. Polls show that 40% of Israeli Jews think they have a right, even to the occupied territories. Still, these revisionist histories have been around since the late '80s. There have been TV reports and specials. The findings have trickled into high school textbooks. How much has it penetrated into the way that Israelis think about their country? Do many Israelis ever think about it?
Take one of the most disturbing and best known incidents that happened during the war in '48. At two towns, right near the airport when you fly into Israel, Lod and Ramle, the largest mass eviction of Arabs came from there. And we know about it partly because Yitzhak Rabin, the architect of the Oslo Peace Accords, one of Israel's prime ministers, wrote about it in his autobiography. Again, historian Tom Segev.
He tells a story of how he really didn't know what to do when he headed the forces who occupied these two towns. He really didn't know what to do with the population, and so we went to David Ben-Gurion himself and asked him, what do we do with these people? And Ben-Gurion made some gesture with his hand.
A gesture in midair, like somebody briskly sweeping away some crumbs.
Which Rabin interpreted as meaning, get rid of them. Expel them. And this is exactly what happened.
It looks like an old house, or just this stone, very long stone wall with arches inside and windows, but it's completely overgrown with weeds.
While I was in Israel, I visited Lod and Ramle with Adam Davidson. If you heard our show from Israel, you probably recognize Adam, a regular contributor to our program. He's half Israeli and half American, fluent in Hebrew.
We asked a taxi to drive us around. Arabs still live here, some of them descendants of the few hundred Arabs left behind in 1948. As we drive, Adam asks our cab driver if he's heard the story about the expulsion. The cab driver who's Jewish says that that story is impossible.
He said that it's always been Jews here. It's always been Jew. And how is that possible that people would be kicked out? It doesn't make sense.
But Rabin wrote it himself in his biography.
He says it didn't happen. He doesn't believe it could happen because they were part of us. We lived here together. We were all unified.
The cab driver goes on like this, incredulous. He thinks Adam and I are just terribly misinformed. We keep driving, looking for a shopping mall where we can interview people about the town's history. Our cab driver knows about one, but he cannot find it. And he keeps pulling over asking for directions from people on the street. Every time he does this, the same thing happens.
First, he rolls down his window and he asks about the mall.
Then, after he gets directions, he asks them, have you heard this story about 1948 and Rabin?
A Jewish woman scolds us. Keep going, get out of here. A man shakes his head.
He said, leave me alone in quiet. Leave me in quiet, my brother.
When we get to the mall and out on the street afterwards, we talk with Arabs and Jews. Every Arab we meet in Lod and Ramle had heard the story of how Arabs were expelled in 1948. Nearly none of the Jews knew this story. This Jewish man used to teach high school history.
He says he's taught a lot of course and given a lot of lectures about war and he's never heard this in his life. Maybe he has and he forgot, but he doesn't think he has.
We kind of live this double life. On the one hand we know all this and at the other hand, we ignore it, or we don't want to know it.
Here's BZ Goldberg, the Israeli who got me into all this in the first place. He says those stories that he heard back in school were really nice stories.
Because I was, I guess, young when I heard this, there's still something in me that wants to believe that actually, that that really happened, that story that I heard. That we did beg them to stay.
That's funny, like there's a part of you that kind of believes the storybook version.
There's a part of me that desperately wants to believe the storybook version. We desperately want to believe that we're good. We want to do the right thing and we want to believe that we have been doing the right thing.
There's a political side to this too. Officially, the Israeli government denies that it was responsible for Arabs leaving the country in 1948. Because if it admitted any responsibility, the Arabs who left, and their kids and grandkids, basically all the people who today we know as the Palestinians, they would try to use that to make Israel let them back in. Barely any Israelis want to see that.
Even historian Benny Morris, who believes the Israelis do bear some responsibility for the existence of the refugees, who literally wrote the book on it, even he does not want to let the Palestinians back in.
If they are allowed back into the country, if Israel admits, agrees to the right of return, which the Palestinians demand, this will mean that Israel will be inundated, flooded by Palestinian refugees, and instantly become a country with a Jewish minority. It will cease being a Jewish state. It means in fact, self destruction. It means suicide. So I think Israel must refuse to accept responsibility and the right of return.
It seems that you're put into the position though, where as a historian, in a way, you're endorsing the government officially denying part of the truth of its own history?
No, I don't do that. I've always professed and that's what drove me and still drives me in my historical writing that people should know the truth about their past. But it's not necessary to translate truth into policy. There's no one to one connection between truth and policy.
When I first started talking to Israelis about this, I expected these histories might have led at least some of them to acknowledge that the Palestinians today have some kind of moral right to be in Israel. None of them saw it this way. Sure, they thought the Palestinians should be treated fairly. That the Palestinians should have their own state. Some thought that there could be reparations. Money. But it didn't lead anybody to question the Israeli's right to keep what they had taken.
What else can we do? Benny Morris asked me. If you're suggesting Israelis get on a plane and move back to Poland, that's not really an option.
[MUSIC- "IN THE REAL WORLD" BY ROY ORBISON]
Act Three. Jar Jar Head.
Act Three. Well, there's a military cliche that says something like, generals always re-fight the last war over and over. This next story is an illustration of that principle, even though it is a very different kind of war than the ones you've heard about so far on today's show. Jon Hodgman tells the sorry tale.
Here is something I'm not quick to admit even to close friends, never mind on the radio. Every day for the past several years, I have been working on a screenplay. This of course, is shameful on its face. But it gets worse, believe me.
Working on my screenplay has been very hard because the story I'm telling is long and complex and important. It's also difficult because I'm not actually writing anything down. Until recently, I would only think about it, night after night, lying in bed, rewriting my screenplay in my head. And as this process tends to make me sleepy, I've actually not gotten very far.
I began my screenplay on May 19, 1999, a date that may resonate with some of you who may already guess at the other main challenge of my project, the one that lends it the extra measure of sad delusion and ultimate futility that accompanies the writing of any screenplay. And that is that my screenplay has already been written by someone else and it is called Star Wars: Episode I- The Phantom Menace.
You will recognize this music, of course. For many people, the opening fanfare embodies just about the sum total of what the Phantom Menace got right. Next, the familiar text crawls up and out into the galaxy. The taxation of outlying trade routes is in dispute we're told. And with this particularly rousing line of exposition, the bewilderment and shock and sadness begins.
We know this now. But think back to the peculiar exciting year that was 1999. Slightly crazed by the end of the Millennium, we impeached a president for the first time in 131 years. We started paying English majors huge sums of money to create something called content. And in a still disturbing bout of mass hysteria, every American man grew at least one kind of goatee, and we waited for the Phantom Menace.
This was when the internet was at its peak. Still, largely ruled by passion more than commerce. And in many ways, it had found its perfect expression in sites like theforce.net and Starkiller- The Jedi Bendu Script Site, anarchic collaborative communities of information obsessives building a model of what this new Star Wars movie would look like only from rumors, stolen photographs, and leaked script passages. And it somehow felt important that I spend at least an hour a day looking at them. And not just insane.
Well, this wasn't always a good thing. When I first downloaded an unofficial audio clip of Jar Jar Binks's quasi-Caribbean Stepin Fetchit whining, I spent a long moment staring doubtfully out the window before quietly deleting the file. But still I had hope.
Jump to early May 1999. I saw the Phantom Menace first at a private press screening thanks to a journalist friend of mine who either sympathized with my obsession, or feared what would happen if he did not indulge it. It was probably the first time in history one could go to a new movie, as I did, knowing every scene, every line front to back.
As the lights went down, there was a feeling of joy and imminence in the room. The nation was prosperous and relatively peaceful. I was sitting next to the movie star, Jon Favreau, and Star Wars was coming to fulfill a promise it had made 22 years ago to a generation now coming into its own.
When the lights came up though, something had changed. Something had broken and I couldn't put my finger on what it was. The ideas were good, I kept saying as we left the theater and drank, for hours, afterward. There was so much promise there. How could it have all gone so wrong so quickly?
I started revising that night. First of all, I thought, Anakin Skywalker would have to at least be a teenager. What made George Lucas think we would be OK with the idea of an elderly man taking a nine year old boy away from his mother, Jedi master or no. And that's just creepy.
And one of the great pleasures of any Star Wars movie was always the one planet, one climate concept. You had your desert planet, your ice planet, your swamp planet, your cloud planet. Yes, the Phantom Menace had a city planet, but that had already been done with the death star, don't you think? So what is it? What comes after cloud planet?
Occasionally, I would sneak away from my desk and call my friends. I found a solution to the Jar Jar problem, I would say.
But mainly, I would lie awake at night, alone, and ponder the big questions. What does Darth Sidious want with Naboo in the first place? What were those glowing purple balls of energy the Gungans were always tossing around? And of course, Obi-Wan Kenobi knows R2-D2 from the Phantom Menace, why doesn't he recognize him in Star Wars?
At this point, you will want to know, what is the solution to the Jar Jar problem? I understand, everyone hates Jar Jar. In fact, everything in my screenplay flows from this very simple fix. And that is, replace him with Sebulba.
OK, Sebulba. You remember the villain in the pod race, the cranky, Joe Camel looking thing in the World War I goggles who walked around on his hands and almost beat Anakin? Switch that guy, Sebulba, with Jar Jar, and what you get is an angrier, more interesting character, who accidentally gets his life saved by Obi-Wan Kenobi during the invasion of Naboo.
Then this hybrid character, let's call him Jarbulba, he now has to follow Obi-Wan around until he has a chance to save Obi-Wan's life. It could take years, Jarbulba would explain, to their mutual dismay. But for now, they're stuck with each other. Obi-Wan, the snobby, young Jedi from the big city, and Jarbulba, the bitter malcontent with the heart of gold. Like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones.
This is a good change for three reasons. One, Jarbulba becomes the cynical Han Solo figure the film so desperately needs. Two, he actually has a reason to go on the rest of the adventure. And three, creatures walking on their hands are cool. But this is only the beginning.
In the actual Phantom Menace, the Gungans, Jar Jar's people, have no real purpose in the story. In my screenplay, they do. In my screenplay, it turns out that they're preternaturally sensitive to the Force. And Darth Sidious, the bad guy, needs them like bloodhounds to track down this powerful new concentration in the Force he's been sensing somewhere on the edge of the galaxy. But Jarbulba is a Gungan and he leads our heroes to this concentration first, which turns out to be a teenager on Tatooine, Anakin Skywalker, who uses the Force to win the pod race and is then accused of cheating. Thus having to flee with our heroes who need his skills as a pilot. And so, as act one concludes, Obi-Wan is captain of a crew he can't stand, bound by fate to a strange hand-walking freak, and forced to watch as the dashing and not nine year old, Anakin, captures the heart of the queen that Obi-Wan secretly pines for himself. I will stop talking now.
This is the moment in discussing my screenplay that I begin to feel more and more like someone standing on a cold corner mumbling to himself. And also, this is as far as I've gotten. It's been 31 months. Some 960 days of work and I've only made it to the end of act one. Long after Episode II has come and gone, I'm still trying to get Episode I down. Even though I know I never will. Because even in the midst of my mania, I know I'm trying to repair something more than a script.
The Phantom Menace was the beginning of the end. Think about it. It came out in May 1999. Was it a coincidence that the economy then collapsed? That all the promise and light of that time went with it? That my mother became suddenly sick and soon died? That our country was attacked? That we went to war? Well, probably it was a coincidence.
But there's a reason I would work on my screenplay while falling asleep. At night, dozing in the hospital while my mother was dying, or when I was awake in bed in October 2001, listening for planes over New York City, when all daylight and distractions were exhausted. Instead of feeling angry or panicked or sad, I could ask myself, what if?
What if Jar Jar and Sebulba switched places? What if Naboo were a sunken planet, where all that was left of a once great world, a shining civilization, were the tips of mountains, the tallest spires of the cities just poking up above the water's dark surface? Is that what comes after a cloud planet?
It's an odd compulsion to tell a story correctly. We feel it every time we tell a joke or interrupt our spouse in the middle of the one about the time we drunkenly broke into the London Zoo. Wait, go back, you say. Wait, go back and start over.
And maybe this is not really borne of a desire to get the beginning right, but to avoid ever having to come to the end. I know it's futile to go on with my screenplay. And to tell the truth, it isn't offering me the same kind of comfort that it used to. The story will end the way it ends. All I really needed was to get this far. As Obi-Wan and Jarbulba, Anakin and the queen fly off in the desert planet, the point where the adventure is just starting, with everything still promised and unknown. Because beginnings are really the only happy endings.
John Hodgman in New York City.
Well, our program was produced today by Diane Cook and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, Dave Kestenbaum, and Starlee Kine. Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Jane Golombisky, and Mr. Jorge Just in a special cameo.
BZ Goldberg who you heard in our Israel story is one of the creators of a great film about Israeli and Palestinian kids. If you want to know more about that visit promisesproject.org.
If you'd like to buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago or visit our web site, www.thisamericanlife.org.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.
WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who says it is not easy wearing a Darth Vader costume everywhere.
I piss my pants. My heart rate climbs. My breathing becomes shallow in the mask.
I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.
PRI, Public Radio International.