Global opinion towards Israel reached its nadir in 1982, when the country invaded Lebanon and stormed through Beirut on a questionable pretext. Hundreds of Israeli soldiers were killed along with thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians, mainly civilians. Israel’s ostensible aim was to purge the region of an increasingly belligerent Palestinian Liberation Organization. But it soon emerged that several hundred Palestinians were brutally massacred at Sabra and Shatila by Lebanese Christians – while Israel looked on. The Defense Minister in charge was no less than Ariel Sharon.
Waltz with Bashir revisits this troubling episode through the eyes of a former soldier. Part memoir, part creative masterwork, the graphic novel depicts Ari Folman’s difficult attempt to recreate his own role in the conflict.
Folman was present at the massacre but his memory of it mysteriously vanished. The story unfolds as he speaks with former members of his regiment, patching together the disjointed fragments of his military service. He quickly discovers that he was not the only one to have repressed memories of the incursion into Lebanon. Each encounter draws Folman closer to the disturbing realization that he may have been involved in the massacre – and he may have even been a perpetrator.
This graphic novel is an adaptation of the animated feature film by the same name. Most of the images in the film were shot in live action and then painstakingly redrawn by David Polonsky and combined with CGI. The effect laced the film with hard-boiled shadows, and the CGI lent fluidity to the onscreen action. But graphic novel adaptations of films are inherently risky. They often fail to stand on their own and merely serve as merchandising, because the printed page can only serve as a pale, static imitation of the moving image.
Waltz with Bashir avoids such cheap commodifying. It is not a compilation of still shots from the film, but a composition of beautiful, vibrant original artwork. This laborious creative effort allows the book to feel complete on its own.
Folman’s investigations into his past reveal several startling truths about lost loves, his actions under gunfire and his leadership abilities. He discovers that he is not alone in questioning his role in the war and that some of his old buddies were equally scarred. Phantasmagoric memories of snipers shooting dogs in sneak attacks are interlaced with sultry images of his old girlfriend, who dumped him just before the war. Each discussion with his comrades-at-arms weaves another patch in Folman’s quilted memory until he relives the massacres at Sabra and Shatila.
History tells us that the Phalangists – an armed group of Lebanese Christians – directly massacred the Palestinians in the refugee camps. However, the Palestinians were prevented from fleeing the camp by the Israeli army, who also provided logistical support. The Israeli role underscores the importance of the doctrine of “effective control” in international law – that a party can only be held responsible for actions over which it can exert its will. From what we know of the event, the massacre ended as soon as the Israelis ordered it to stop. Waltz with Bashir strongly suggests that Israel did exert effective control over the Phalangists and should have been held responsible for their actions under the law. This did not happen. The United Nations Security Council was paralyzed by the Cold War at the time and the General Assembly made some typically ineffectual declarations. Defense Minister Ariel Sharon was stripped of office immediately afterwards – only to become President nearly two decades later.
But Waltz with Bashir is not a political rant. The story is ultimately concerned with the common footsoldier’s attempt to reconstruct a fragmented life. The graphic novel succeeds because it manages to balance the intensely intrapersonal conflict of an individual with the international conflict of war. In exploring himself, Folman also explores the history of his country and the near impossibility of reconciling modern warfare with everyday life. In his words:
“Having made Waltz with Bashir from the point of view of a common soldier, I’ve come to one conclusion: war is so useless that it‘s unbelievable. It’s nothing like you’ve seen in American movies. No glam, no glory. Just very young men going nowhere, shooting at no-one they know, getting shot by no-one they know, then going home and trying to forget. Sometimes they can. Most of the time they cannot.”
Review written by and used with the permission of Deji Olukotun, who reviews stories about human rights at FictionThatMatters.org