In Censored Voices, a film by young Israeli director Mor Loushy, we listen to testimonials from Israeli soldiers of their experiences in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Fellow kibbutzniks Avraham Shapira and the now-renowned Israeli novelist Amos Oz lead the discussions. It turns out that the soldiers, who returned from the war to a euphoric homeland, didn’t feel they deserved to be hailed as heroes.
Recorded only weeks after the war ended, the testimonials capture brutally honest accounts of atrocities, introspection, and a surprisingly prescient understanding of how the war complicated their country’s hopes for a peaceful existence.
Years later, Loushy tracked down the men whose voices the film centres on, and we watch them react to the words of their younger selves. They give up little about how their words strike them today, a nod here and a shake there.
The film incorporates footage from the war to help animate the scenes the soldiers describe. Old CBS reporting helps situate us in the conflict. One dispatch from just before the war broke out tells of a vastly outnumbered Israeli army and a far-from-certain outcome.
The kibbutznik soldiers spoke of their pre-war anxieties, believing that their country truly faced an existential threat. They recounted the gallows humour of the night before they left the kibbutz to fight a war they weren’t sure they could win.
On June 5, Israel pre-emptively struck the Egyptian air force. Six days later, Israel controlled three times the land it had had before the war.
In the first account, we hear from one soldier who says he was not part of any triumphant conquests. The closest he got to any action, he says, was when a rifle in his truck discharged after a looted bike was thrown on top of it. When he says the bullet hit his superior in the butt, all the kibbutzniks sitting around the voice recorder laugh.
The accounts that follow grow increasingly gruesome. One soldier tells of mowing down Egyptian soldiers as the Israeli army cut through the Sinai. Another describes hunting the scattered Egyptian soldiers left behind after their army’s chaotic retreat; they did not take prisoners.
“We always regarded ourselves as weak, but like David. We were always David.” Explains one Israeli soldier of his feeling upon reaching the Suez Canal. “Weak but, we’re victors, because we’re right, we’re pure, we’re honest, we always compare ourselves to the Maccabees. Whereas now, we’re suddenly the strong ones.”
One of the kibbutzniks describe his morale collapsing after seeing the broken and dehydrated Egyptian soldiers up close. Some had urine in their canteens and vomited when they gave them water.
There were losses on the Israeli side too. One of the kibbutzniks recalls how everyone tried to console the mother of his dead friend Mishi by telling her that he did not die in vain since they captured the Temple Mount. She said the Temple Mount wasn’t worth one of Mishi’s fingernails. The soldier agrees, saying he would gladly give up the Temple Mount if it meant life for his friend Mishi.
The stories become more incriminating as the kibbutzniks describe the first stages of their country’s long occupation of the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank. One soldier tells of a group of villagers walking down a road, whom they inspected. After they let them go, another group of soldiers stops them, separates the men from the women and children and executes the men.
But one of the most heart-wrenching accounts is, surprisingly, one of the least gruesome. A soldier recounts the process of expelling Palestinian villagers from their homes. He talks of an old man who, with his belongings, turns back, looks at his house, and begins to weep.
“I had a feeling I was evil,” said the soldier, describing the scene, guessing that the old man had lived there for his whole life. “Nothing can make that feeling go away.”
Only two decades removed from World War II, one of the soldiers recounts identifying with his so-called enemies. “I could see myself in those kids who were carried in their parents’ arms, when my father carried me,” he says.
The veterans sit around the recorder and discuss the implications this latest war will have on the region’s politics.
“I don’t believe this is the last time we’ll have to wear uniforms. I always have a feeling that the next round will be much crueller because we have become a conquering army,” says one of the men. “This is actual occupation.”
Censored Voices, directed by Mor Loushy, runs at the Irish Film Institute from 16 October.