A Pantomimed Reckoning

Forty years after the catastrophic invasion of Lebanon, the films of Israel’s “Lebanon Trilogy”—often understood as works of “anti-war cinema”—appear instead as efforts to sidestep accountability.

Hazem Fahmy
November 10, 2022

Israeli soldiers patrol Beirut after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, on August 2nd, 1982.

AP Photo/Derek Ive

In the final scene of Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon, Chris, an infantryman played by Charlie Sheen, weeps as a helicopter carries him away from war. As the scorched earth of the previous night’s harrowing battle transforms beneath him into the verdant jungles of the Vietnamese–Cambodian borderlands, he reflects: “We did not fight the enemy; we fought ourselves. And the enemy was in us.” This iconic conclusion to one of the most lauded and lucrative films about the Vietnam War—winner of Academy Awards for best picture and best director—exemplifies its genre’s narcissism. Though the film depicts atrocities closely based on the US’s well-documented actions in Vietnam, Chris reframes the war crimes he witnessed as, at most, incidental to the conflict within the platoon. Never mind what we did to Vietnam, look at what we’ve done to ourselves.

“Not only will America go to your country and kill all your people,” the Scottish comedian Frankie Boyle once famously remarked, “but what’s worse . . . they’ll come back 20 years later and make a movie about how killing your people made their soldiers feel sad.” The great American war films––among them The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Full Metal Jacket (1987)––demonstrate Boyle’s point. Although the films attempt to grapple with the horrors of what was done in Vietnam and throughout the region, the Southeast Asian characters brutalized on screen serve as nothing but backdrops for the complicated feelings of the invaders who are murdering them. Certainly, they are never depicted as people struggling against an imperialist force, even though the United States did not seek to disguise the nature of the war: As President Lyndon B. Johnson put it, he deployed over three million personnel to Southeast Asia because he was simply not going to let the region go “the way [Communist] China went.” In American films—including more recent narratives about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq like The Hurt Locker (2009) and American Sniper (2014)—war is chaotic and horrifying but oddly apolitical: It is sad, but it signifies nothing about the nations that perpetrate it.

Israel’s catastrophic 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the 18 years of occupation that followed have often been compared to the US intervention in Vietnam. Just as the US vastly underestimated how difficult it would be to assert its will over Southeast Asia, Israel—which involved itself in the Lebanese Civil War with the stated aim of containing the advancement of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), then headquartered in Beirut—failed to foresee the way its violation of Lebanese sovereignty would spiral into a protracted conflict, with horrific results. Both wars were marked by brutal atrocities, most famously in Lebanon the Sabra and Shatila massacre, in which far-right Maronite militiamen, aided by the Israeli military, slaughtered the residents of Beirut’s Sabra neighborhood and the adjoining Shatila refugee camp, most of them Palestinians who had been displaced in 1948. Today, estimates place the number of casualties between 2,000 and 3,500 people. Much as the invasion of Vietnam had precipitated domestic backlash in the US, Israel’s devastating escalation of the war in Lebanon shook the Israeli public’s faith in the government and military, sparking a short-lived but highly visible anti-war movement.

Much like Hollywood, Israeli cinema has produced numerous high-profile, critically acclaimed films that depict the state’s disastrous military intervention from the perspective of the sensitive and traumatized veteran. In the mid-2000s, three such films, released in quick succession, came to be known as “The Lebanon Trilogy”: Joseph Cedar’s Beaufort (2007), Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir (2008), and Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon (2009). All three achieved massive critical success, premiering at major festivals (Berlin, Cannes, and Venice, respectively) and receiving accolades at the Israeli Academy Awards. Like American counterparts such as Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, they continue to be hailed as masterpieces of “anti-war” cinema: Just this year, Waltz appeared on a listicle of “unflinching anti-war films,” where it was praised for “unpack[ing] the psychological impact of war.”

But what are we to make of the enthusiasm with which these supposedly anti-war films were embraced by a nation that was in no way backing away from militarism? Although Israel ended its occupation of Lebanon in 2000, it reinvaded in 2006. The three films in the trilogy were released on the heels of that second war, and yet none of them—not even Waltz, a first-person documentary that looks back from the vantage of its filmmaker’s present—acknowledges the fact that Israeli intervention in Lebanon continued after 2000. In 2008, Israel submitted Beaufort as its nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, essentially choosing the work as the story it would tell about itself to the world. The next year, Waltz was selected for the same purpose. At the same time, Israel has continued to use its military might to impose its will upon the region, carrying out bombing campaigns of Syria since 2011, and, of course, forging ahead in its colonization of Palestinian land.

Revisiting the films of the trilogy 40 years after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it’s more evident than ever that they do not seek to oppose their nation’s wars so much as to absolve the soldiers who fight in them—who, they insist, are not to blame for the consequences of their country’s belligerence. Just as Platoon made Charlie Sheen’s Chris into a sweet kid caught up in an ugly conflict, so too do these films reimagine the Israeli soldier as an “innocent” bystander who is irrevocably damaged by the horrors of war––never mind what we did to Lebanon, look at what we’ve done to ourselves. They exemplify the power of war films produced in colonial countries—including both Israel and the US—to function as a release valve for guilt and moral injury, allowing the aggressor nation a narrative space in which to soothe its heavy conscience without damaging the national narrative.

In Modern Hebrew, the trope of the remorseful soldier is commonly summarized with the phrase “yorim ve’bochim,” or “shooting and crying.” Scholars such as Gil Hochberg have traced the origin of this motif to a particular novella, S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, written and published soon after the Nakba––the mass displacement and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that accompanied the establishment of the State of Israel. The book, which was introduced into Israeli high school curricula in 1964, depicts the expulsion of the residents of a fictionalized Palestinian village from the point of view of a conflicted soldier who, despite the pangs of his conscience, proceeds with the war crime anyway. The “crying” thus has no impact on the “shooting.” The trope has also frequently found its way into politics, reaching its grotesque zenith in Golda Meir’s notorious statement to Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat: “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.” To shoot and cry is not to deny that the atrocity in question happened, but to reject the idea that the soldier who fired the gun should in any way be held accountable for it.

The motif only made its way into Israeli film and television more recently. Movies made in the country in the 1950s and ’60s depicted the soldier as a graceful-yet-relentless warrior, uncompromising in his nationalist ideals and commitment to fighting the Arab enemy. Films like Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer from 1955, and Exodus, an American co-production released in 1960, completely ignored the Nakba, framing the events of 1948 as a glorious “War of Independence” that ended with the triumph of the noble Israeli military over the savage hordes of the invading Arab armies. Neither the dispersion of Palestinians nor the systematic ethnic cleansing that followed the establishment of the Israeli state was ever pictured in such productions. But starting in the 1990s, Israeli cinema grew steadily more comfortable depicting both historical and contemporary state violence and racism, whether towards Palestinians or Mizrahim. In a post-Oslo Israel where many liberals fervently believed that peace could be achieved without radically altering the nature of the state—despite fierce warnings to the contrary from Palestinian figures such as Edward Said—the heroic übermensch of early Israeli cinema began to seem out of step with the national mood. The ostensible “success” of the peace talks created a demand for a more liberal war hero—one who could recognize the humanity of the enemy while maintaining loyalty to the state.

At a time when Israeli history could no longer be told without including its victims, the films of the Lebanon trilogy reached for a new form of moral authority, emphasizing an essential, sensitive humanity over straightforward strength and courage. In Beaufort, the protagonist undergoes a transformation that mirrors the journey of the entire genre of Israeli war cinema. The film follows a group of soldiers in the eponymous Beaufort castle, the last base in the occupied “Israeli Security Zone” in Southern Lebanon, during the final months before Israel’s withdrawal in 2000. The central figure in the ensemble of characters, Lieutenant Commander Liraz Librati, seems at first to personify the classic hero of an Israeli war film. Despite being somewhat jaded about how long the war has lasted, he urges his superiors to give him the order to counterattack against Hezbollah, exhorting them to let his troops “fight like men.” But as his fellow soldiers start dying around him, Liraz grows more and more disillusioned. In a scene near the end of the film, a soldier who Liraz has commanded to climb a tower for guard duty collapses into sobs, admitting that he is too frightened to take the watch. Rather than assert his authority, Liraz embraces the soldier and relieves him of his duty. Liraz’s staunch, militaristic masculinity has given way to weary exhaustion with the war, which is intertwined in the film with a willingness to accept vulnerability in both himself and his fellow soldiers.

In all three films, the depiction of the soldiers’ humanity runs through their relationships with women. In Beaufort, the men constantly discuss their absent mothers and girlfriends in detail; their longing for feminine attention and care is offered as proof of their sensitivity. Beaufort is also full of references to women who have assumed symbolic importance in Israeli national life, especially the Arba Imahot, or Four Mothers, a movement founded in 1997 by the mothers of soldiers killed in action in Lebanon to advocate for Israel’s total withdrawal from the war. Liraz’s chauvinism is ultimately undone by a news segment on the recent losses at Beaufort, which includes an emotional interview with the father of one of the soldiers, who has joined Arba Imahot in the wake of his son’s death. In Waltz with Bashir, an animated documentary that follows director Ari Folman’s attempts to retrieve the suppressed memories of his participation in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Folman spends his leave trying—unsuccessfully—to win back his girlfriend. His preoccupation with romantic desire serves to emphasize his lack of interest in war.

But this more emotionally vulnerable archetype maintains its predecessor’s ideological commitment to the inherent nobility of the Israeli soldier. Waltz follows Folman’s gradual realization that his role as a flare man on the night of the Sabra and Shatila massacre directly aided the Phalangists—a Lebanese fascist party modeled on the paramilitary youth groups of Francisco Franco and Benito Mussolini––in murdering the area’s Palestinian and Lebanese residents. And yet, Folman seems to go back and forth on whether to accept his own epiphany: In a present-day conversation included near the end of the film, his friend and fellow filmmaker Ori Sivan reassures him, “You only lit the flare.” The final scene of Waltz begins with a flashback to Folman’s experience of the morning after the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when he witnessed a large group of grieving Palestinian women wailing as they left the camps. The frame lingers on the young Folman as he watches them, breathing heavily, his face distraught. Then the film cuts suddenly to its only live-action sequence, of archival footage from the morning after the massacre. While this effect communicates Folman’s grasp of the war’s horror—which is firmer than that of his peer filmmakers—the animation that frames the footage also focuses the viewer’s attention on Folman’s distress, inviting us to empathize with his pain as much as that of the massacre’s victims.

A crucial scene in Lebanon similarly provides superficial acknowledgment of the devastation of the war while exempting Israeli soldiers from accountability. The film, which is set almost entirely in an Israeli tank, begins on the morning of the 1982 invasion and follows a group of soldiers through several chaotic battles. In one scene, the crew of the tank enters a town that has been bombed by the Israeli Air Force with the aim of killing any remaining “terrorists.” (The film provides little in the way of context, but since the “terrorists” are wearing kufiyas, one can assume that they are meant to be PLO fighters.) The crew arrives to find an ongoing standoff between Israeli soldiers and a group of fighters who have taken a Christian Lebanese family hostage in their own home. In the chaos that ensues, the fighters murder the family before being shot themselves by the soldiers. Only one woman survives and emerges, shell-shocked, from the building. In a daze, she asks each soldier in turn if they have seen her daughter; the only one who responds insists in broken Arabic that she move away to safety, and when she flails toward him in distress, demanding an answer, he pushes her to the ground. In the next moment, a spark from a nearby fire lands on her dress and ignites. Seeing the woman ablaze, the Israeli soldier snatches her dress off while she screams. The camera lingers on her nude body until the same soldier finds a sheet and tenderly covers her up—though the sheet is so short and torn that the viewer can still see her nakedness.

It’s a moment of harrowing sexual humiliation for the Lebanese woman which functions mainly to highlight the soldier’s virtue. Implicitly, the scene contrasts the empathy of the Israeli soldier with the sadism of the PLO fighters who killed the woman’s family. Just as Waltz treats Folman’s collaboration in the massacres as ultimately separable from the actions of the Lebanese Phalangists it enabled—“You only lit the flare”—Lebanon treats the violence of the Israeli soldiers as accidental, different in kind from the brutality of the true “terrorists.” Both films make their Israeli subjects into what scholar Vassilis Kroustallis has called, in an essay on Waltz, “essentially ignorant perpetrators.”

In the 13 years since the last film of the trilogy was released, Israeli cinema has tended to focus on soldiers and security personnel within Palestine/Israel rather than those participating in foreign invasions; the 2013 film Bethlehem, for example, follows a secret service officer’s relationship with a Palestinian informant in the occupied West Bank, while the 2017 film Foxtrot tells the story of a young soldier’s death and its effect on his parents back in Tel Aviv. A notable exception is the 2021 documentary #Schoolyard: An Untold Story. While nowhere near as successful as Waltz, #Schoolyard is likewise an attempt to shed light on war crimes that occurred during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The film recounts the harrowing events that unfolded when Israeli soldiers held at least 1,000 detainees—most of them Palestinian and Lebanese civilians—for three days in a schoolyard in Sidon, in southern Lebanon, torturing and brutalizing them, and murdering at least seven. As Seth Anziska wrote in a recent critique of the film for +972, #Schoolyard amounts to yet another “search for exoneration without accountability” for Israeli perpetrators. Though, unlike Waltz, the film gives space for survivors to recount what happened, these testimonies remain without consequence: To this day, none of the perpetrators have been charged with a crime, even though their identities are public knowledge. Ultimately, Anziska sees the film as evidence that Israeli society has grown “more receptive” than it was in the days of the Lebanon trilogy to those who decide to “own up to a war crime.” The film “is a mirror to shifting societal norms, of a moral universe moving from angst and fear of persecution toward a willingness to disclose past indiscretions, even with pride,” he writes. “What may have been seen by some as a red line in the past can now be disclosed with full impunity, the fear of exposure giving way to a compulsive form of articulation.”

Despite receiving accolades, the films of the Lebanon trilogy were not without critics in their time: Waltz, in particular, was excoriated in both The Electronic Intifada and Haaretz for sidestepping questions of accountability. In The Electronic Intifada, Naira Antoun called the film an “evasion of responsibility,” “an act not of limited self-reflection but self-justification.” From this distance, the shooting and crying motif that figures in these films, despite ostensibly critiquing Israel’s national narrative, in fact ensures its continuity. The guilt of the Israeli soldiers is relieved by their self-flagellating empathy, delivering them—and, by extension, the Israeli audiences—to a feeling of catharsis that does not necessitate further reflection, let alone action. The films pantomime a reckoning even as they conclude that no reckoning is really necessary.

In these films, questions of guilt and redemption play out at the level of the individual. The stories’ very parameters tacitly insist that one can take the moral account of a person’s participation in a criminal invasion while bracketing the state project that their actions served. And yet, in these films, to redeem the soldier by some sleight of hand redeems the nation as well. In a 1971 address to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, future Secretary of State John Kerry said of the war in Vietnam: “We are fighting for the biggest nothing in history.” The line would be repeated eight years later to the protagonist of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now—played, as it happens, by Charlie Sheen’s father, Martin. Just like Charlie Sheen’s famous closing line in Platoon, released seven years later, it was a convenient fiction. The US fought in Vietnam for the preservation of its dominance across the world, just as Israel fought in Lebanon for its dominance over Palestinians and any local ally who dared to aid them. The sense of fighting for nothing emerged not from the belief that the atrocities were unjustifiable, but from the realization that no victory was coming to justify them. It was only when the wars proved unwinnable that the salvation of the aggressor’s own soldier became an end in itself in films like those of the Lebanon trilogy. As they screened to thunderous applause at festivals and arthouse theaters across Europe and the US, Israel continued to bomb Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians. In the space conjured by Israeli cinema, however, that fact was irrelevant: If there was healing to be done, it was for the traumatized veteran, not the victim of his gun.

Hazem Fahmy is a writer and critic from Cairo. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Mubi Notebook, Reverse Shot, Boston Review, and Prairie Schooner.