Merkava

Merkava

A new award-winning film called ‘Lebanon’ is out. Directed by Samuel Maoz, it portrays twenty four hours of toil, sweat, and fear in the life of an Israeli tank crew during the Lebanese war of 1982-83. Here, James Shepherd-Barron, himself once a tank commander in the British military, recounts his brush with one such crew while he was ‘Operations Officer’ for the British contingent of the international peace-keeping force in Beirut.

Tanks, like ships, are always female. Like ships, they have names, which crews paint discreetly yet lovingly in black camouflage paint on the turret, and which, as with ships, it is bad luck to change. This one was called, “Misha”.

    Misha was a ‘Merkava’. One mean ‘mother’ of a tank. Her low silhouette menaced like the crouching leopard in a way that her taller and less gainly French counterpart patrolling the ‘Green Line’ in downtown Beirut could never do. Her frontal armour glassis plates are better angled and better protected, sprouting bolt-on blocks of additional ‘chobham’ armour like so much ‘bling’ jewellry. Short chains dangle from the exposed rear of her turret protecting the weaker points of the turret ring below. Bars extend down her flanks to disrupt the rocket propelled grenades that come her way from time to time. Like all dangerous women, she looks like she knows how to attract attention, and then deal with it. To be shot at, even.

The blood red dust of Sabra and Chatilla, the two infamous Palestinian refugee ‘camps’ so recently the scene of mass murder, hung in the quieting evening air. Our flimsy base sat squeezed on a hillock in the shell of an abandoned tobacco factory between the airport down on the thin strip of land below and the steeply rising Chouf mountains just behind. We sweated together in the duplicitous Mediterranean sunset.

The Israeli tank appeared without warning and ground up the incline to our right in a cloud of yet more choking dust, seemingly oblivious to our presence and executed a deft ‘neutral’ turn opposite our green metal gate to hunker, hull down, behind the mounds of earth and rock we had moved with a ‘borrowed’ bulldozer only yesterday. The driver, invisible below the frontal armour, manoeuvred the fifty tons of metal in short sharp movements. She settled, engine rumbling quietly, alert and ready to pounce.

Closed down, all hatches shut tight from within, the turret traversed left and right, its electric motor whining, in search of its arcs of fire. The cupola mounted machine gun swung the other way in a sure sign of professional competence. ‘These guys know what it means to be shot at,’ is what it told me.

The turning stopped and the barrel could just be seen making a series of tiny adjustments to compensate for distance, wind, air pressure, and humidity, information being fed to its onboard firing computer via the high tech probe stabbing stiffly from the turret roof. Left and right. Up and down. Then still. Target acquired. All one hundred and thirty of us knew what was coming next.

Without further warning, she reared sharply up and back, dust and gun smoke merging in the deafening shock wave that has unleashed one round of high explosive on an unsuspecting target. With my vantage point on the roof, I peered above the dust and smoke to see what she is firing at. About three kilometres away, moving slowly southwards down the main road out of Beirut’s southern suburbs, along a normally deserted road that follows the gentle curve of the bay, a lone, vulnerable and completely unsuspecting little red car disintegrates into a million pieces of shrapnel. I could clearly see the engine block arcing high through the evening sky, silhouetted against the shimmering gold-flecked sea. The sound of the explosion arrived later, watery and surreal. A thin, far away cheer could be heard from the tank crew encased within this monster. A hit.

That the occupants of this little car were probably doing nothing more than escaping the overcrowded and dreadful conditions of the camps for a snatched kiss and a cuddle away from the confines of their faith and their families was clearly of little concern to this crew. To them, an order had been received to protect their army’s main supply route and that is what they were now doing, carrying out their orders. To them, the occupants were probably Hezbollah ‘terrorists’. But it didn’t matter much as, if they weren’t, they were “Palestinians anyway and therefore just as bad”. Another shred of morality, another sliver of decency evaporated along with the car and the lovers in it.

Bob Bellis, a trusted corporal who had been with me through all two years of counter-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland, was the first to speak. “Boss, you had better do something about this bastard … or he’ll get us all killed !”

The British contingent of the multi-national peace keeping force in the Lebanon, of which I was Operations Officer, was only a hundred and thirty strong, and dwarfed by the contingents of France, Italy and the US, each of whom had many thousands of troops in the Capital. Our position overlooked the main supply routes of the Israeli Defence Forces coming up from the South. It also sat slap bang between the various Druze and other militias occupying the Chouf mountain range directly behind us to the East. We were in effect sitting ducks between the multiple warring factions of Muslim and Christian splinter groups. And they all had reason to hate the Israeli “occupier” now sitting just metres away.

As with our French colleagues, our task was to patrol the ‘Green Line’ that effectively partitioned the city and prevent further outbreaks of bloodshed; a task that was not seen by all with the neutrality we had hoped for. This Israeli tank, blasting off at anything it saw as a threat to its army of occupation, was now posing a real and present danger to us all, and it was only a matter of time before it attracted retaliation. And we were in the line of fire.

Not sure of quite the proper procedures and armed only with a holstered pistol and my ‘yellow card’ rules of engagement, I donned my flak jacket and stepped out across the road, my back covered by thirty or so troopers of A Squadron 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards. Sauntering as relaxed and officer-like as I could across to the parked and now silent tank, I wondered how I was going to attract the attention of the crew inside. Unlike their British equivalents, I could see no obvious tank telephone at the back with which I could speak to the commander. Instead, I climbed up onto the turret hoping that they would somehow see me. At that moment, another round was launched. The shock wave blew me off me feet and, with ears ringing, I tumbled in an ungainly heap off the vehicle. There is nothing a British squaddie likes better than to see one of their officers humiliated, but this was a serious situation and nobody was sniggering over the sights of their weapons now.

Picking up a stone, I climbed back up onto the track and hammered on the turret roof. All that happened was that I hurt my hand. There was no response from within. In frustration, I looked around to find something more solid. There, in front of me, nestling in one of the side bins was a short handled sledge hammer, a basic bit of equipment needed to remove the pins which hold the track links together. I picked it up. As I did so, I remembered that there is nothing a closed down tank crew fears more than the rhythmic sound of three or four bullets bouncing of the exterior armour. The metallic sound inside the turret, while not particularly loud, is unmistakeable and usually means that another tank has spotted you and has used its coaxial machine gun to establish the range to target. Normally, this would be time to move, and move fast.

I hit the hatch of the commander’s cupola as hard as I could half a dozen times as rapidly as possible. This emulated the frequency with which machine gun rounds are fired. Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang …. bang. I waited, half hanging off the turret listening to the low growl of the engines ticking over below my feet.

Slowly the commander’s hatch inched open and two white eyes peered at me, aggressive and nervous out of a grimy and bearded face.

“Excuse me”, I ventured in what I hoped was my best Sandhurst-trained voice of authority, “I am the commanding officer of the British Peacekeeping Force (I wasn’t, but this wasn’t the time for niceties). Your tank is endangering our mission, so please move it … and move it now!”.

The eyes continued to stare at me blankly for a moment. I wasn’t sure if this dirty, hairy and unshevelled dwarf could understand English, so, in the usual way of the British abroad, I began to say it again, but louder. “Excuse me but …”.

The dirty dwarf interrupted me, and in a broad Liverpuddlian accent spat, “Fuck off you posh British twat !” and with that, slammed the hatch shut again.

Like walking round a corner to find a dozing lion in the African bush, I don’t know who was the more surprised. What was an Israeli tank commander from Liverpool doing shooting anything that moved on the outskirts of Beirut ? And a ‘chippy’ one at that.

Just as I was about to hammer on the turret roof one more time, the engines roared into life belching black diesel fumes all over me in the process. I hopped off the track on which I had been balancing just in time. The tank reversed suddenly in a storm of dust and diesel fumes, spun another ‘neutral’ and drove off at high speed back down the way it had come some ten minutes earlier. I could hear the collective sigh of relief from my ‘boys’ in the Sangars across the road as they re-engaged their safety catches.

“Well done, Sir”, said Corporal Bellis as I re-entered the Ops Room and with that he turned to continue issuing instructions to one of our patrols over the radio. All in a day’s work. Soldiers who deploy on operations as boys return as men. Corporals deploy as men and return as leaders. Young officers just remain confused. At least that’s the way it has always been. Here, in my confusion, I had done what officers are supposed to do. Get on with it, try not to do something stupid, and act as if nothing has happened when you do. Leadership is defined, and respect is earned in ways as ridiculous and simple as this.

In the film, ‘Lebanon’, the director, who was himself a tank commander at that time in Beirut – perhaps the very same tank commander who had shouted at me – showed what life as a tank crew during combat operations was like. What it doesn’t tell you is that the so-called Israeli Defence Forces were doing anything but ‘defending’. They were shooting up anything that moved. And doing it in a country that was not their own with conscripts and volunteers from all over the Jewish world.

In the claustrophobic atmosphere of a closed down tank, there is no ‘other’, only ‘self’. If that ‘self’ has been indoctrinated by political or, as in this case, religious idealism, the ‘other’ has little chance to become anything more than ‘the enemy’. Especially if they are Palestinian. Surviving tank crews get little chance to distinguish and don’t get to see the destruction left in their tracks. They don’t get to hear the pathetic bleats of a dying run-over sheep, or the wailing of a mother whose daughter has just been blown apart by one of their shells fired with nonchalant indifference as she kissed her boyfriend in a little red car just because they can. What value has life when viewed only through the cross-hair of a sight? Their only reality, a British Army Officer, equally displaced, and equally sure of his duty, brandishing a hammer in the heat and dust of a Beirut sunset.

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