No grand panorama of an invasion armada. No generals in war rooms pointing at maps. No politicians posturing for the press.
The only thing we know is that it’s Lebanon, 1982. War has just been declared, and these young Israeli guys, all of whom are conscripted for mandatory two years service, suddenly find themselves inside a tank. It’s 3 a.m. on the frontier. Their orders are vague: find the dirt road and guard it. Fire warning shots first, and if they keep advancing, consider them the enemy, even if they look like civilians with their hands up. All we see is what they are seeing, like a blurry, limited view through a periscope. The tank is so loud when it’s moving they can’t hear each other. There’s water on the floor, and grime everywhere. Inexplicably, there’s also a big open sack of croutons, which soon spreads everywhere.
They find themselves in a village, where they are in support of some ground troops, but they’re being shot at from the buildings. They freeze the first time they see a car that looks like civilians waving, and it turns out to be the enemy in disguise, and they take a casualty. The next time someone advances toward them in a truck, they shoot, and wind up shooting the legs off an old chicken farmer who keeps saying “Peace, peace.”
Finally, through the sights, they see someone who looks like an enemy soldier, but wait, he’s holding a civilian hostage in front of him, a young woman, who is screaming, terrified, and their orders through their crackling headsets are to shoot, anyway. These are kids who are literally shaking with fright. They squabble about authority, because accepting orders without question is difficult for them when the orders don’t make sense, and they can’t see the larger picture. The thing is, they’ll never see the larger picture inside that slow-moving, loud, clanking box of iron.
In a moment of down time, they sneak a cigarette, they pee in the community portable toilet, they talk about how they’d like to get word to their Moms that they’re OK. One tells a sexually-charged story about a teacher in his high school. They’re not really friends, they don’t seem to know each other well, and none of them want to be there. They have no idea what’s going on around them. Somehow, they lose track of even their own troops, and find themselves taking fire. They’re not sure what to do next, or even which direction to go, but they just know they have to try to keep moving, even though the tank is damaged. It’s that or just die right there.
This film carries the full intensity of soldiers suddenly thrust into war when they are really civilians in uniform who have no idea what they’re doing, and when the shooting actually starts, all plans are out the window, anyway. It’s based on the producer’s own experience when he was 20, skinny and scared, and suddenly rolling toward a battle he didn’t understand and couldn’t see.
The difference is, when the 95 minutes that feels like forever is over, we get to walk out in the sunshine and go where we want, and they didn’t.
RONALD P. SALFEN is pastor of Grace Church, Greenville, Texas.