As a child growing up, one of my most vivid memories was that of my father, of blessed memory, showing me pictures of himself dressed in his Navy uniform in World War I. Coming to the United States as a young teenager fleeing the pogroms of Russia, he felt a great debt of gratitude to America and enlisted in the Navy. That time in the Navy was very special for him, and I remember him often marching in the local Memorial Day parade which honored the men of the Armed Forces. This love for America made us a very patriotic family. The thought of purchasing a foreign car was an anathema. We would buy only American.
As a recent oleh in Israel, I have again become very conscious of the military. I see soldiers daily and I feel safer in their presence and appreciate and value their holy work of defending the land. On the Sabbath, I notice a few worshippers in the synagogue carrying weapons, reminding me of the terrorist uncertainty that is part of the landscape in Israel. I also observe congregants who disappear for weeks at a time and then resurface at the daily minyan. This is because they are on active reserve duty, which requires them to separate from their families in order to protect the country.
All these thoughts came to mind as I watched We Were Soldiers, the story of one of the first major battles of the Vietnam war. It is a violent movie, with graphic scenes of warfare. However, there are aspects to We Were Soldiers that transcend the gory content. It is a film about disparate men becoming a family unit, protecting one another in times of extraordinary danger and crisis.
Two vignettes that do not take place on the battlefield convey a powerful message about the emotional bonds that are created between people when they face a common threat. As I watched these scenes, I thought of Gilad Shalit for whom we all prayed and I thought of the other soldiers who are still missing for many years and for whom we still pray.
On the eve of their departure from Ft. Benning, Georgia, to Vietnam, Colonel Hal Moore, played by Mel Gibson, addresses his men in a stirring and memorable speech: “We’re moving into the valley of the shadow of death. I can’t promise you that I will bring you all home. But this I swear before Almighty God, that when we go into battle, I will be the first to set foot on the field and I will be the last to step off and I will leave no one behind. Dead or alive, we will all come home together.”
This is a prelude to a soundless pre-dawn departure in which the men bid farewell to their wives and children and then assemble in the darkness waiting for transport to Vietnam. It is a quiet moment filled with apprehension and uncertainty, and we can feel the emotional stress of the soldiers and especially their loved ones as they take leave of one another to face an uncertain future.
As I reflected on the film, I felt reverence for those soldiers, both in America and Israel, who put their lives on the line for us. They teach us a valuable life lesson: all of humanity is interconnected. We are created in God’s image, and we are all part of the family of mankind. Family members care for one another, sacrifice for one another, and feel responsible for one another. At times of crisis, no family member, no one, should be left behind because, in the divine scheme of things, we all will come home together.