The Dilemmas of Victory

Yishai Sarid's new novel about an Israeli military psychologist raises important questions about honor, loyalty, and truth.

What defines the Israeli experience? Ever since we immigrated as newlyweds over two decades ago, my husband and I have undergone each of the self-defined rites of passage that confirm our bona-fide Israeliness: presenting the blue passport at an airport; standing in the middle of a highway during the Yom Hazikaron siren; the missile siren warning that wasn’t a drill; and as parents, each of our children’s graduation ceremonies, from kindergarten through high school.

I’ve been pondering these milestones lately, especially because the next one, most likely the most significant of all, is fast approaching. In a few weeks, our oldest son will enlist in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Like most immigrants to Israel who came here as adults and did not serve in the IDF, the army’s jargon, closed-mindedness, and complex hierarchy render it nothing less than a black hole. We gain glimpses from the counsel of well-intentioned friends (“get ready for laundry” and “basic training will be a shock”) and through no shortage of books, TV dramas, and movies. Still, no matter how much we educate ourselves about the experience, try to learn the jargon, and memorize the acronyms for the ranks, we only succeed in increasing the sense of dread about what is to come. “You won’t sleep for a few years,” a work colleague said recently. “Consider asking your son to only update you after he’s back from a mission, not before he’s sent out.”

We meet Abigail, the middle-aged protagonist of Yishai Sarid’s Victorious, at a similar point in her life: her son, Shauli, is about to be drafted to a combat unit. As I read the scene in which she drives her son to the recruitment center, I found it easy to imagine myself in Abigail’s shoes: a mother wistfully looking at her son, searching for pearls of wisdom to offer him at that very liminal stage between mothering a child and handing him over to the military and its unknowns. As readers, we can almost feel the last scrap of the umbilical cord wither and fall to the curb as the army bus pulls away with the new recruits, teary-eyed parents waving after them in solemn resignation.

This, ostensibly, is where the similarities between us end. Unlike me, Abigail is the ultimate insider:  a native Israeli, a lieutenant colonel in reserve duty, a person that intimately knows the corridors of power. In fact, the novel opens with Abigail being summoned by the newly minted Commander in Chief, Lieutenant General Rosolio, to his office in the Tel Aviv army headquarters.

Abigail had an illustrious career as an army mental health officer. Being an army psychologist, many of us presume, mainly involves treating traumatized soldiers, and hopefully preventing trauma in the first place. But Abigail immediately challenges our understanding of this role because, as she proudly states, her specialty is the psychology of killing.  She studies ways for soldiers to be more effective; that is, to kill more effectively. Smart and ambitious, Abigail had declared to her father her desire to apply to psychology studies as part of her military service. A renowned psychoanalyst, he had tried to talk her out of it. Abigail can still recall how her dad, who remains unnamed in the novel but serves as its moral compass, warned of the dangerous combination of the army and psychology, deeming it “the greatest contradiction imaginable.”  “The military is a totalitarian cohesion that erases the individual, and in our profession the individual is all that exists, and your loyalty towards them must be absolute,” he declares, before asking, in no uncertain terms: “What are you trying to achieve?”

This is precisely the question we consider and reconsider for the rest of the book. What is Abigail trying to achieve? And for whose benefit?

Sarid’s choice to make Abigail a first-person narrator creates the illusion that we really know her, down to the level of her ticks and her fantasies. This does help us see her flaws, though: her vanity, her sense of superiority, her willingness to cross even the most sacred boundaries. As readers, we find ourselves identifying with her, and at times, even admiring her, which makes it even more unsettling when we are forced to confront her behavior, what is she really trying to achieve?

Victorious highlights some of the issues troubling contemporary Israeli society. These include its sexism and ageism, and the increasing gap between the haves and have-nots, the former using their connections to have their children recruited into cushy intelligence jobs, the latter resigned to seeing them sent to vulnerable combat positions.

The novel also tackles generational differences. There is the conflict of values between Abigail and her father, but also differences of perspective between Abigail and young army officers, who are portrayed as more idealistic, or perhaps more naïve.  A key intra-generational gap is raised by Lt. General Rosolio in the opening scene of the book, when he meets Abigail to enlist her help in reforming the army. Despite its superiority in air and sea, Rosolio laments, the army is losing ground on land, particularly in face-to-face combat, where soldiers are getting killed or abducted. “These are gentle kids; we never taught them how to kill.” In response, Abigail lectures him on the nature of Gen Z—kids who play video games, who don’t get into fights, who can do anything from a distance with the touch of a button but can’t hurt people up close. And then she adds, half-jokingly: “Sometimes I think we should have taught them to slaughter a chicken or break someone’s nose before expecting them to go off and kill another human being.”

Despite the explicit violence in these statements, and the fact that a large part of the novel is set in the military establishment, Sarid’s book upends what one might expect from a “war novel.” Most of the conflict that propels the novel forward happens in settings away from the battlefield: in training grounds, in clinics, in classrooms, inside the characters’ psyches. It also devotes little room to “the enemy.” There is the lurking sense of an existential threat, but no explicit mention of Iran or Syria or Hezbollah or Hamas. In addition, there is barely any mention of other factors shaping the conflict, such as national politics or the highs and lows of public opinion.  As a result, it almost feels as though we, the readers, are too experiencing the reality of living in a conflict zone from a distance, from inside the bubble of a military apparatus, looking out through a filter—or as Lt. General Rosolio would likely chide us, through a video screen. Eventually, as part of an escalation in a military operation, Abigail will have to face the ultimate test of loyalty: helping the war effort or helping her son. Which role will she play? And which role does her son need her to play? Just when we thought we knew the “right” answer, we are forced to think again.

The key theme in Victorious, however, is power. The major and minor rituals of power fill its pages with detail: the assumptions of gatekeepers at an army base, the importance of dress, the mannerisms of the potbellied commanders,  the design of pilot-training simulations, the transmission of knowledge, the outcome of sexual conquests. But with each of these examples, power is also challenged—and sometimes even usurped. As Lord Acton wrote over a century ago, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Wherever power is concentrated in the hands of a privileged few, whether it’s the commander in chief, a young officer, or an army psychologist, lines are bound to be crossed.

Who has power and who lacks it? Who does it serve? How powerful are individuals to influence the outcome of things – for better, or worse? And, ultimately, who are the winners and losers in a society so heavily reliant on its military establishment?  These questions accompany the reader throughout the book. And while there aren’t always clear answers, the author may have given us a clue—or a red herring—in its title. The Hebrew title of the book, “Menatzachat,” can be translated as both the female form of the adjective “victorious,” or as the female version of the noun “orchestrator” or “conductor.”

Things happen quickly in Victorious; much of the plotline unfolds in its first few pages. It’s easy to get swallowed up in the story, written in clear, unadorned prose made up of short sentences and dialogue.  Still, the book is not without its faults. While characters like Abigail’s father hold a strong presence, others, like a female pilot cadet, feel flat or underdeveloped.  There are also a couple of unnecessary detours, almost as if the author were trying to fatten up the book to reach a certain page count. And for a novel with so much psychological drama, my main quibble was the incongruent behavior of some of the characters, including, at times, Abigail herself. These actions, perhaps intended to surprise or entertain the reader, may very well leave them befuddled instead.

Despite these misgivings, I finished the novel in a single sitting, thanks in part to the fresh perspective from this unconventional protagonist, and to the barrage of moral and ethical dilemmas that challenge the reader to think. Above all, in the weeks since first reading the novel, I’ve found myself pondering many of the themes that Sarid raises in Victorious: honor, responsibility, loyalty, truth. I have a feeling that this, more than telling an entertaining tale, is precisely what he was trying to achieve.

*Yishai Sarid, Victorious, Restless Books, 2022, pp. 288.

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