A People’s History of 1948

Three recent studies enrich the historiography of the 1948 War and its aftermath, by moving away from state-centered policies and focusing on the lived experiences of ordinary individuals.

History is commonly understood as the past constructed through the lens of the present. Given that much of the present in Israel/Palestine remains unsettled and contested, we can expect further waves of revisionist historiography in the decades to come. But sticking to the present, through new sources and methodologies, the three works reviewed in this essay contest popular perceptions and address overlooked facets relating to Israel’s birth and formative years, filling gaps left by previous generations of scholars. These gaps includes the firsthand accounts of Arabs and Jews who participated in the 1948 War firsthand, and the experiences of two marginalized groups, Palestinians and Iraqi Jews. One outcome of the war was the very different integration of these communities into the new Israeli state, irrevocably altering their social and national identities in the process. In addition to their shared periodization, the three books all attempt to untie hitherto static conceptions of national identity, explicating how “Arab” and “Jew” came to form mutually exclusive categories. Hazkani, Robinson, and Bashkin continue the rich body of literature referred to as the “relational paradigm,” which is committed to analyzing how Arabs and Jews in Mandatory Palestine and post-1948 had an influence on one another, and how their identities were shaped precisely through a complex web of social, economic, cultural, and political interactions. This strand of history emerged in response to the functionalist approach to the history of the period, which views the development of Zionism and the Israeli state exclusively through the lens of Jewish actions.

Several factors underscore the expediency of this new wave of scholarship. These include the increasing salience and public awareness of the Nakba; application of the settler colonialism paradigm to understanding Israel’s ongoing attempts to displace Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem; stresses on the multiethnic fabric of Israeli society; and the specter of the annexation of territories in the West Bank. These works assess crucial and defining narratives of 1948 and the foundation of Israel’s state and society: from the myths that absolve the Jewish community of responsibility for the war and its repercussions, to how new citizens and subjects—Palestinian refugees and immigrant Iraqi Jews—negotiated their identity and rights in a state and society structured along strict ethnic lines. This history exposes how previously open categories of “Jewish” and “Arab,” which had undergone processes of definition and modification across the first half of the twentieth century, became solidified after the establishment of the modern State of Israel. The insights that these revisions portend are no less consequential than the aims of the New Historians. Challenging received Zionist narratives still offers radical potential, even at a time when the political and social horizons are bleak.

If two distinct nationalist aspirations, that of the Jews and that of the Palestinians, are to co-exist in the same space, the Israeli demos must first come to terms with itself. These studies do not claim to offer political prescriptions; but by viewing these developments side-by-side, we are afforded a wider perspective on the complex relationships that formed between Palestinians and Jews, and where the intertwining of disparate identities—Israeli, Arab, Palestinian, Iraqi and Mizrahi—either coalesced or were challenged.

The New Historians, a self-proclaimed group of Israeli scholars in the 1980s and 1990s armed with access to (then) recently declassified state archival materials, challenged the standard narrative of the 1948 Palestine War, most notably the claim that 750,000 Palestinian Arabs had fled their homes on the orders of their leaders, with the expectation of an imminent return. This point had immense political repercussions in the backlash that ensued, precisely because as New Historian Benny Morris posited, “how one perceives 1948 bears heavily on how one perceives the whole Zionist experience.” The question became particularly pertinent in the context of the ongoing final-status negotiations of the period, forcing Israeli society to face the question of responsibility for the continuing Palestinian refugee crisis.

The Zionist narrative of the origins of the Palestinian refugee crisis was exposed as a falsehood. Palestinian leaders had not called for their people to leave their homes en masse. There was no blanket order, whether issued or carried out by the Israeli forces, for the systemic expulsion of Palestinians. These conclusions continue to drive scholarly debates. Mainstream Israeli Jewish society has begun to view the expulsions as a necessary precondition for the establishment of the state, a right-wing politician recently lamenting (publicly) the fact that more Palestinians had not been expelled. Western, Arab, and Israeli scholars subsequently critiqued Morris for not engaging with Arab sources, letting Israel off the hook in the face of incriminating evidence, and for allowing the rank and file to remain silent; to be merely acted upon, and deprived of agency.

Hazkani rejects all this as a foregone conclusion, filling in the gaps with the help of a newly uncovered set of sources, including letters written by soldiers during the war—both of the Haganah, which later morphed into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and of the Arab Liberation Army (ALA), a volunteer army of Arab recruits from half a dozen Arab states fighting against the partition of Palestine. Beyond providing a voice to the hitherto silent masses, Hazkani’s social history approach forces the reader to see the “Jew versus Arab” binary as superimposed identities, a narrative serving nationalist goals. At each stage of the war—from the mobilization, indoctrination, and battlefield wins and losses, to the post-war reality—Jews and Arabs were pitted against one another, sometimes for the first time. Hazkani’s nuanced and synchronistic approach traces the variegations in identity formation that were underway in the lead up to the 1948 war. Robinson and Bashkin, for their part, carry us through the end of the war, the Arab defeat and Zionist triumph; showing how individual identifications hardened and how state policies, both concerted and inadvertent, were responsible for rendering these identities salient.

Following the 1948 War, the Arab versus Jew binary was brought to its conclusion through the integration of new subjects into the nascent Israeli state. This included the mass immigration of Jews from the Middle East, as well as the need to determine the fate of the 125,000 Palestinians who had remained within the armistice lines. While public perception and prior histories have preferred to treat the “question of Palestine” as distinct from the “question of the Arab Jew,” these two dynamics are undeniably interlinked. Ella Shohat elucidated on how, historically and conceptually, these questions are embedded within one another. A decade after Edward Said’s “Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims,” (1979) Shohat provided the rubric for a generation of Oriental Jews to identify as victims of Zionism. Displaced from their home countries and brought to Israel following the partition of Palestine, they were linked to the dispossession and expulsion of Palestinians from their property and homes through the same historical processes. The expulsion of indigenous Palestinians from their land is viewed as collateral damage to the European “Jewish question,” answered through Zionism; it subsequently altered the status of Jews from Muslim societies, through the formation of the mutually exclusive categories of Arab and Jew.

In popular discourse, these histories and identities are commonly deployed against each other: the Nakba versus the expatriation of Jews from Muslim countries, and the Arab versus the Jew. The former creates a path for evading responsibility for the dislocation of the Palestinian population; the latter provides a binary, with one cancelling out the other. Robinson and Bashkin incorporate Shohat’s conclusions, adding new shades of meaning to a simplified liberal Zionist narrative which engaged with pre-1967 history through a liberal, ethical lens: a fledgling state obsessed with survival, forced into defensive wars, and accommodating successive waves of migration. By foregrounding the experiences of Palestinians who remained in Israel and would become citizens in 1952, and of Iraqi Jews who have largely been written out of the historical record of the early-state period, the logic of Israeli policy appears as decisively guided by racial and ethno-national logic. The outcome was discrimination, mistreatment, and neglect.

Hazkani, Robinson, and Bashkin move away from the state-centered approach, which has stifled the voices and lived experiences of individuals and their tactics of struggle and survival. This more humanist approach illuminates a diverse set of realities for Arabs, Jews, women and children, examining how their identities took shape domestically, socially, politically, and economically—both in times of war and under the adverse and harsh conditions imposed upon them by the Israeli state.

Hazkani is explicit about his intention to disrupt the traditional nationalist lens imposed upon the history of Israel/Palestine, denying the dynamism experienced by the historical actors. In four tightly-knit chapters, utilizing previously untapped materials, Hakazni recreates a narrative driven by individual and collective stories that depart from the respective nationalist camp, offering glimpses into the spaces where these identities formed. These sources include the letters and diaries of ALA volunteers, part of the “Palestinian archive,” including documents stolen by Israel during the 1948 war and onwards, housed within the IDF archives. In addition to reports from Israel’s postal censorship bureau—a holdover of the British Imperial Censorship in Palestine – where staff secretly copied letters written by Israelis and Palestinians. They were subsequently compiled into classified reports used in assessing the mood of soldiers. Alongside these sources, Hazkani reviews an extensive collection of the propaganda materials used to galvanize (and indoctrinate) Jewish and Arab soldiers into joining the war effort. Accentuating the impressions of some Jewish and Arab soldiers and civilians as the war unfolded “reveals important and enduring fissures in the ideological edifices of Middle Eastern nationalisms precisely at the moment when, by most accounts, these conceptions of nationalism crystallize.” Hazkani’s emphasis on how certain individual experiences deviated from and transcended nationalist constraints isn’t the only historiographical re-framing. Through his juxtaposition of the two camps, we see what elements they shared.

Many of the soldiers’ and civilians’ experiences contrast starkly with portrayals in Zionist and Arab historiography. Some Jewish soldiers, for one thing, questioned the relationship between Judaism and the use of force. Referred to as “muscular Judaism,” Jewish commanders promoted this ideal as a way to fashion Jews into “a nation like all other nations.” The attempt to normalize the use of force according to Jewish precepts wasn’t accepted wholesale by the recruits. Hazkani finds evidence that following the war, large numbers of North African recruits questioned the presumption that the practice of Zionism truly represented the ingathering of exiles, while challenging the narrative that conflated “Arab” and the enemy. Many dreamt of returning to their countries of origin.

Arab and Jewish soldiers were incentivized to join the war effort in Palestine through adoption of a masculine militarist culture, a way of overcoming the insipid European racial stereotyping that had imbued the First World War, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, and finally the rise of Nazism. Jews were affected by the trope of the “degenerate Jew,” and too their Orientalist stereotyping at the hands of the European colonizers of Arab lands. These two groups were mobilized from parallel impulses; similar symbols were employed in their recruitment and indoctrination, from Pan-Arabism to pan-Judaic sentiment.

The ALA and the IDF had to tread a thin line; the ALA was constrained by the ambiguities and complications thrown up by these nationalist groups fighting for Arab Palestine’s independence. Some elites saw in it a way to atone for collaborating with the Zionists by selling their lands; for the masses, however, this was part of a larger struggle against Western colonialism and the corrupt Arab regimes who worked alongside them. Some ALA soldiers sent to Palestine did indeed make this connection, most notably the Iraqis, who saw the conflict in Palestine as an extension of the fight against colonialist collaboration back home. In parallel, IDF attempts to portray Arabs as descendants of Amalek, the Jew’s historical archenemy, did not always assuage the doubts of Jewish recruits about the moral rectitude of their conduct. North American Jews brought their idealism to the battlefield, a predilection that the Yishuv was aware of, and attempted to stifle. This pacifism interfered with the celebration of the physical force deemed necessary to conquer Palestine, and to bring about Zionism’s promise of a “return to history.” A particular strength in Hazkani’s book can be seen here, in revealing the successes—as well as the limitations—of the indoctrination protocols of the two sides. This is a key element of the war, that has gone until now largely overlooked.

While the persuasiveness of indoctrination efforts may not have greatly altered the results of the war, they did have critical implications for the future of Zionism and Israel, and for the strength and salience of Pan-Arabism. Already by the end of the war, Zionist educational pamphlets were promoting the new Israeli narrative, “clearly stating that ‘Arabs of Israel left the country not under Jewish pressure’, and more important, that Israel would refuse to allow the return of the refugees.” But the soldiers’ letters give us hints of a more skeptical stance, questioning the inevitability of the violence that accompanied the conquests of war—confiscation of Arab lands and homes, massacres, and looting. Zionist indoctrination has portrayed these acts as a necessary evil, the “violence of victory” required to turn the Jews into a “nation like all other nations.” The “negation of exile,” achieved through the struggle for Jewish political sovereignty in Palestine, required the creation of a Jewish army. Micha Berdichevsky, one of the first Hebrew essayists, advocated for a change in Jewish values, away from the cowardice and weakness of rabbinic Judaism and in favor of the heroism and militarism evidenced in the Bible. But not all soldiers were convinced that this was how Judaism should be expressed in a national era. In these disagreements amongst Zionism’s “most prized subjects,” we witness the first illustrations of disunity amongst the nascent Israeli-Jewish national identity—an identity that was, and remains, far from uniform.

Despite Zionist claims that the ALA was set on annihilating Palestine’s Jews in a systematic and organized manner, Hazkani finds no mention of this in their propaganda materials. He asserts that to the contrary, the ALA was extremely prudent about what it allowed in its propaganda. References to “colonialism” were banned, for fear that soldiers would connect the dots between it and the colonial regimes in their home states. Additionally, in the immediate aftermath of the Nabka, Palestinian elites did cast a critical eye on the failures of the Arab states, as well as their own actions. One prominent Palestinian Christian leader declared, after being expelled from East Jerusalem, that “we should not condemn anyone but ourselves because we talk but do not do anything…Because we relied on Arab governments who are themselves in need of an iron fist which will rescue them from this enslavement.” This point is especially noteworthy, as Israeli historiography claims that the Palestinian leadership and public have never accepted any responsibility for the Nakba.

Hazkani’s claims for a new narrative do not rely on reconstructions of individual experiences deviating from the binary logic of nationalist sentiments alone. By juxtaposing the opposing narratives side by side, he argues for a more comprehensive assessment of how Zionist identity was constituted and challenged. Robinson’s and Bashkin’s works, individually and when read together, succeed in accomplishing the same goal in the period that immediately succeeded the 1948 War.

From the standpoint of the Palestinians who remained within the newly established borders of Israel, and the Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel between 1949 and 1951, we are given a novel prism through which to examine the creation of what Robinson calls the “liberal settler state.” Absent from mainstream Zionist historiography is the state’s complex and often contradictory relationship with its new subjects. Intent on meeting nascent international standards of democratic representation, political inclusion, and minority rights, Israel also had to balance these aspirations against the presence of these two new populations; one whom they were actively seeking to dispossess, and one whom which they didn’t understand, looked down upon, and often were simply disinterested in helping.

Robinson and Bashkin investigate how Israel’s process of state formation was mutually constitutive to its relationship with these sectors. Israel’s most fundamental legal and political decisions, those that came to define and shape Israel’s trajectory, were forged in response to the actions and needs of these communities. In highlighting these two marginalized populations, a new picture emerges: one where the ethnonational character of the Jewish state relegates other values to a secondary status. Iraqi Jews and Palestinian Arabs experienced similar mistreatment, including state neglect, police brutality, and poor living conditions. Treated respectively as second and third-class citizens, they have often been written out of the historical record.

Significant methodological questions arise in any comparison of the Palestinian refugees of 1948 to the incoming Middle Eastern Jewish migrants. While Shohat’s framework has spawned the rich, new discipline of Mizrahi Studies, the category of “Arab Jew” remains largely an academic and intellectual project: marginal, if not completely irrelevant, for the overwhelming majority of Middle Eastern Jews inside and outside of Israel, despite consistent efforts to mobilize politically around this identity.

Public conception of Mizrahi Jews as “refugees” has gained purchase in recent years largely thanks to right-wing organizations who insist on inserting the issue into any future peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, demanding compensation for the Jews who were expelled from or left their countries in the wake of the 1948 War—a balance to Palestinian claims for compensation. Finally, whereas Palestinians inside Israel were denied citizenship until 1952 and lived under military occupation until 1966, Iraqi migrants to Israel were granted citizenship, and have since largely overcome their alienation from mainstream Israeli society by embracing a unique and enduring form of Israeli patriotism.

Robinson’s historical intervention lies in the detailed account of the development of a government ostensibly built on the tenets of liberalism and democracy, while simultaneously employing a military regime restricting Palestinians’ basic rights and claims to land: “…granting Palestinians the right to vote in the midst of its ongoing conquest for their land.” Robinson’s framework succeeds in moving “beyond the conceptual straitjacket” that tends to trap other studies that examine Zionism purely as a purely settler-colonial movement, precluding any attempts to examine Israel as part of the global history of liberalism. We are encouraged not to view these currents as mutually exclusive; Israeli policies of early statehood encompassed elements of both settler colonialism and liberal democracy. Blaming a “myopic treatment of colonialism,” Robinson contends that scholars have refrained—incorrectly—from expounding on the complexities of the Palestinian experience within the state framework.

We see the strengths of the relational framework in the third chapter of of Robinson’s book, which deals with a central paradox of Israel’s liberal settler state: citizenship determined “not by an ideal vision of whom to include but rather by the stark imperative of whom to keep out.” The chapter chronicles the determined struggle of Palestinians to receive legal recognition within an administrative, military, and legislative regime intent on limiting their civil rights. Following the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians, the state engaged in what was known as the “War on Return” (Ben Gurion called it the “War on Infiltration”), aimed at preventing Palestinians from returning to their homes and expelling and deporting as many as possible. The codification of the legal categories of citizenship and (as opposed to) nationality is an outcome of Israel’s refusal to allowing thousands of Palestinians to return to their homes or be granted the full civil rights the state owed them. In 1950, Israel passed the “Law of Return,” which severed the link between nation and state by granting Jewish Israelis preferential treatment regarding citizenship—even as the Palestinians’ legal status remained ambiguous. A complicated and contested mechanism required for movement, the Temporary Residency Permit was created to obfuscate the goals of the government’s War on Infiltration by creating a new avenue for deporting Palestinians. With the 1952 “Nationality Law,” 180,000 Palestinians were officially granted citizenship status: but there remained a category higher than citizenship, which meant Jews would always be privileged over Arabs.

Bashkin’s monograph on Jewish Iraqi migrants follows her earlier scholarship on Iraqi history. The Other Iraq: Pluralism and Culture in Hashemite Iraq and New Babylonians: A History of Jews in Modern Iraq (2012) explores the evolution of the new Iraqi nation and the role the Jewish community played within it. In Impossible Exodus, Bashkin traces how Iraqi Jews who immigrated to Israel were integrated within the state through a process of “social engineering.” Drawing from an extensive range of source material, including letters, novels, and memoirs in both Hebrew and Arabic, alongside archival reports and newspaper articles, Bashkin documents how the adoption of Israeli citizenship was a traumatic and painful process, leading inevitably to the dislocation and alienation of Iraqi Jews from their Iraqi and Arab cultures. As with Robinson, Bashkin highlights the spaces of resistance. The state didn’t merely act upon its citizens, but was engaged in a dialectical process of dehumanization and “rehumanization”—the victories in daily and public battles to maintain human dignity that the Iraqis managed to secure.

The arrival of the Iraqi Jews to Israel offered elites an opportunity to embed their image of what the “New Jew” should look like. Those responsible for settling Iraqi immigrants would later hold some of the highest positions in Israeli government. Levi Eshkol came up with the concept of the transit camps, ma’abarot, where incoming immigrants were settled until they could be moved into proper houses; Yitzhak Rabin volunteered in the ma’abarot during his early years as an officer in the IDF; and Golda Meir served as Minister of Labor in the 1950s. Bashkin, however, is less interested in state policies, instead foregrounding the voices and daily experiences of the new migrants: how Iraqi Jews accommodated to a new mode of life, the traumas of discrimination and migration, the hardships of raising a family in wooden shacks and tents, and coping with being uprooted from their culture and language.

Unfortunately, individual instances of Mizrahi and Palestinian cooperation are overshadowed by the animosity and aversion that developed between the two populations. The state, unsurprisingly, played a role in these divisions. The transit camps were built on the lands of former Palestinian villages, and “abandoned” Arab houses were repopulated with incoming immigrants. In the urban context, Mizrahim were offered low-income housing in Arab neighborhoods, which became slums. The settlement of Iraqi Jews in transit camps was directly linked to the project of “Israelizing” former Palestinian territories. These policies were also responsible for the immense suffering experienced by tens of thousands of migrants, who languished in appalling conditions in the camps, often lacking adequate housing, access to health care, basic nutrition, or access to employment.

Bashkin dedicates her final two chapters to spaces of resistance through political action. In the 1950s, Iraqi Jews were the largest subgroup represented in demonstrations and government petitions—the latter filed in both Hebrew and Arabic. Political alliances between Palestinians and Iraqi Jews flourished in the Communist Party of Israel, MAKI. But the party ultimately failed to become an effective political force in addressing Iraqi grievances, due to disagreements within party leadership—an overwhelmingly Ashkenazi group that insisted that class, rather than race, was the real source of discrimination in Israel. MAKI, notwithstanding, would become the leading party in the struggle for the rights of Israel’s Palestinian minority, and sought to build Jewish-Arab solidarity on a class basis.

Until just a few years ago, the narrative of Jewish history and Zionism taught in Israeli schools largely reflected the Ashkenazi experience. When it did engage with Sephardi or Mizrahi history, it was to highlight the achievements of the Israeli melting pot, the “ingathering of exiles” whereby myriad Jewish cultures merged to form the new national Israeli culture. Following Israeli poet Erez Biton’s Knesset-appointed committee, established in 2014 and tasked with “empowering the identity of Mizrahi Jewry,” the Israeli school curriculum now includes narratives of the Mizrahi Jewish experience in the Middle East prior to the creation of Israel, as well as the history of their arrival to Israel and assimilation into society. Not surprisingly, this new history largely affirms the Jewish nationalist discourse, presenting the Jewish political and material right to self-determination as representative of all Jewish values and interests for Jews worldwide. The examples provided by Hazkani and Bashkin, of Moroccan and Iraqi Jews during the 1948 War who wished to return to their countries, is unlikely to make it into the sanctioned school curriculum, as these narratives highlight all too plainly the discrimination that they faced at the hands of the dominant Ashkenazi elites.

Following massacres of Jews in Oujda and Jerad, Zionists recruited Moroccan Jewish youth to serve in the IDF and fight in the 1948 War as part of the Gahal (giyus huts l’aretz: recruitment outside Israel) program But as Hazkani details, North African Gahal soldiers were often unable to muster the necessary hatred of Arabs that their IDF commanders tried to inspire, and they harbored bitterness against the Ashkenazi establishment for the racism and disdain that they themselves encountered.

The military postal censor picked up on this hostility in a March 1949 report, commenting that the North Africans suffered from an “inferiority complex.” In one letter, a solider goes as far to say “they treated us like savages, or unwelcomed elements. Bloodline rules here,” comparing Ashkenazi treatment of North Africans to Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews. Examining 950 letters by North African soldiers sent in July 1949, the censorship bureau reported that close to fifty percent advised their relatives not to immigrate at all, with fifty-five percent of soldiers expressing the desire to permanently return to North Africa. Hazkani deduces that over seventy percent of Moroccan soldiers from this time wanted to return home, after including those who asked their family to provide them with birth certificates—a requirement imposed by the French before being granted permission to return to Morocco. This sentiment was imminently clear to the censor; even Ben Gurion discussed it in his diary. According to French census data, 2,466 Moroccans returned to Morocco after having emigrated to Israel, approximately six percent of the 40,000 Moroccans in Israel at the time.

The poverty and discrimination that North Africans faced thanks to the indifference of the dominant Ashkenazi elite mirrors the disdain with which the latter engaged with Iraqi Jews. The hardships they faced in the transit camps, and their estrangement from other Mizrahi communities, were reasons that prompted some Iraqis to try and to return home. Part of the disenchantment stemmed from the wide gulf between their expectations and the reality of life in the ma’abarot. Israel painted itself as a land of progress in contrast to the primitivism of the Orient. But many Iraqis felt the opposite. In Iraq, they had enjoyed a higher standard of living; nostalgia for Iraq, the land of plenty, contrasted starkly with the desert of Israel. Bashkin cites the famed Iraqi writer, Samir Naqqash, whose family emigrated when he was 12, and who continued to write in Arabic as he emerged as a literary giant extolled in the Arab world while remaining relatively unknown in Israel. Bashkin’s project is humanistic at its core, weaving together both their sufferings and their triumphs in fighting marginality and asserting their Mizrahiyut in a system that denied them a voice and recognition.

*Shay Hazkani, Dear Palestine: A Social History of the 1948 War, Stanford University Press, 2021, pp. 352

*Shira Robinson, Citizen Strangers: Palestinians and the Birth of the Israeli-Settler State, Stanford University Press, 2014, pp. 352

*Orit Bashkin, Impossible Exodus: Iraqi Jews in Israel, Stanford University Press, 2017, pp. 320

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