Happy Veterans Day, Gilad Shalit

Today is Veterans Day in America, observed as Remembrance Day or Armistice Day in much of the world, commemorating the  1918 armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany ending hostilities on the Western Front.  It is a day on which much of the free world honors the service and sacrifice of our veterans, both living and dead.

Primarily because 1918 pre-dated Israel's independent existence by 30 years, Israel does not have an official commemoration of the day. And that is unfortunate.  Especially for Gilad Shalit.

Currently Israel's best-known soldier, Shalit was ransomed just weeks ago from his Hamas kidnappers, after five years of isolation, in exchange for 1,027 convicted terrorists imprisoned by Israel.  The lopsided exchange prompted countless arguments, most of which boiled down to one question: what is the value of one man's life? 

Less-explored, however, was an additional question: how can that one man ever live up to such enormous sacrifice made for his life?

The moral mathematics of both questions were explored in Steven Spielberg's powerful Saving Private Ryan.  There, a team of eight American soldiers, fresh from surviving the Normandy invasion against daunting D-Day odds, are dispatched on an unusual mission: to pluck from the battlefield a single soldier, whose brothers have all fallen in battle, who the army has decided to send home to prevent the total decimation of his family.

Led by their orders-are-orders captain (Tom Hanks), the team goes forth, airing resentments that the life of this one soldier has, in effect, been deemed more valuable than theirs.  Hanks at first tells his team that he has led soldiers to death before, justifying the loss with the knowledge that their deaths will save others, or advance a critical mission.  But facing the loss of several soldiers to save one man turns that calculation upside-down.  Now, that man is the mission. 

At one difficult juncture, even the unflappable Hanks grouses, "Ryan better be worth it; he better go home and cure some disease or invent a new, longer-lasting lightbulb."  In the end, the team does find (and save) Private Ryan, but at the cost of six of their lives.  The last to die is Hanks; mortally wounded, he whispers in Ryan's ear: "Earn this.  Earn it."

Earn it?  For the rest of his life, Ryan is haunted by the question of whether he earned it.  How can anyone possibly "earn" the sacrifice of six men's lives -- including that of Tom Hanks?!  Even if he does invent that new light bulb?

Similar questions will haunt Shalit. How can he ever earn the sacrifice of the men killed while capturing terrorists now released for his freedom?  Or earn the injustice done to the families of terror victims by release of their murderers?  Or, most haunting of all, earn the lives of victims-to-be-named-later of future inevitable attacks enabled by this exchange?  (Terrorists released in the 1985 "Jibril Agreement," in which three Israeli POWs were freed in exchange for 1,150 terrorists, were later directly responsible for 178 Israeli terror deaths.)  How does a man carry such a crushing burden?

There are no perfect answers to those questions, but perhaps Veterans Day can provide some perspective.  The armistice we commemorate ended a war that cost the Allied Powers the lives of 6 million soldiers.  (France alone lost nearly 4% of its entire population in battle; another 11% was wounded.)  That "War to End All Wars" was followed scarcely 20 years later by World War II, which killed approximately 2.5% of the entire world's population.  The United States and United Kingdom each suffered approximately 400,000 combat deaths fighting Japanese and Nazi totalitarianism. 

Korea added another 37,000 the tally of America's war dead, and Vietnam another 58,000.  Iraq and Afghanistan have added 6,000 more. 

And tiny Israel has suffered over 22,000 killed in action, and over 55,000 wounded.

We in the free world, in Israel and America, owe an impossible debt to every one of those men.  But for their sacrifice, and that of millions of others lucky enough to return from battle, where would any of us be? 

Israeli proponents of the Shalit deal argued that "we are all Gilad Shalit."  That is truer than we realize: in fact, we all owe our existence and our freedom to the ultimate sacrifice of countless others every bit as much as Gilad Shalit owes his to the awful sacrifices made on his behalf.

The difference between us is that Shalit, like Ryan, knows exactly what those sacrifices for him have been.  We are oddly fortunate in that the vast majority of sacrifices are but abstractions to us -- statistics, ceremonies, or images of neat rows of crosses and Stars of David on the Normandy cliffs. 

And that is how it must be.  Constant awareness of the enormity of the sacrifices made on our behalf would paralyze us; we know we can never earn it.  So, we cope by compartmentalizing.   We go on living normally by not focusing on those sacrifices too much, yet not taking them for granted.  We in the free world carve out Veterans/Armistice Days to recognize our awesome debts, and designate moments of reflection, memory and honor of those who sacrificed so we can live.  And then we go back to the business of living.

Perhaps, one day, Gilad Shalit will be able to do the same.

Abe Katsman is an American attorney living in Israel.  He serves as Counsel to Republicans Abroad Israel.