Victorious by Yishai Sarid
New York. Restless Books. 2022. 288 pages.
MILITARY SERVICE IN ISRAEL is mandatory, although the ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis are exempt from conscription. The majority of young men who serve, as well as a growing number of women, do so in combat units. Training to serve in a combat unit takes a physical toll on recruits, but they pay a stiff psychological price as well.
In this novel, Abigail, an Israeli Defense Forces lieutenant colonel, serves as a mental health officer in her reserve duty. In this position, she has gained a “gateway into the soul of the military,” and she is well aware of how army commanders transform new recruits from young civilians into battle-ready machines, capable of anything, including killing. In fact, Abigail has become an “expert on the psychology of killing.” In a talk with young battalion commanders, she says: “You’re taking eighteen-year-old kids and turning them into soldiers through rituals, symbols, punishments, and all sorts of other enslaving techniques, taking advantage of their desire to be real men. You trick them and play with their minds to make them do things they never dreamed of. One of those things is killing.”
Abigail’s connection to the army is personal. Her son will soon complete his basic training, unaware that his father is the army’s chief of staff. Abigail’s father, a traditional psychotherapist, disapproves of her techniques, saying they don’t actually help the soldiers she counsels. “You stand on the sidelines, offering advice, and you think it makes a difference,” he says to her. But she thinks otherwise. “You break them down and then try to fix them . . . that’s what these kids want, and I’m helping them achieve their goals,” she tells herself. For Abigail, a complex protagonist who is both rational and cold-blooded, helping young soldiers ultimately leads to pulling the trigger with them when spotting an approaching enemy.
In his previous novel, The Memory Monster, the author addressed the painful subject of how the Holocaust affects the collective conscience of Jews worldwide. Victorious tackles another sacred cow in Israel. This thought-provoking novel questions the country’s reliance on the military to train, both physically and mentally, the uniformed young men and women entrusted to protect their nation.
Neve Ilan, Israel