In The Memory Monster, Israeli novelist Yishai Sarid explored the difficulties inherent in explaining the history and sustaining the memory of the Holocaust as the era fades from living memory. In Victorious he trains the same trenchant eye on the psychology of warfare, through the bloody and fraught lens of the Israel Defense Forces.
Resistance Is Futile
The novel takes the perspective of one middle-aged army psychologist, patriot, and single mother, Abigail. She has ostensibly retired to private practice. But as she is the country’s foremost expert on the psychology of soldiers in combat, the military keeps calling her back. Her former lover, now the army’s Chief of Staff, continues to call on her expertise at keeping fighters focused and psychologically prepared to do what’s necessary on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, Abigail’s son is undergoing military training and will soon see his first action.
The people she calls friends seem to all come from the world of the military. A young woman she helped get over a training trauma has become a friend and begun to shine in her own military career. An older friend has never fully gotten over a past wartime trauma.
These characters may sound a bit too neatly representative of how war affects the frail human psyche. But the novel skillfully gives us a deep connection with Abigail, enough to paint her world of friends, family and associates with the palette of truth.
A Romance with Killing
Interestingly, with one exception, the story hews strictly to the perspective of the Israeli military. The “enemy” remains faceless. The author takes no obvious position on the rightness (or righteousness) of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, who are never even named as such in the book. Rather, the story is a focused dive into Abigail’s approach and attitude toward her work, and the problems she faces.
Addressing a class of officers-in-training, she recounts her start in her specialty:
[H]e invited me to his office and asked me a very direct question: how could I help him make the soldiers better fighters? I asked what being better fighters meant. He explained: functioning better in battle, with minimal hesitation and fear. I asked: Do you mean you want them to be able to kill more easily? He answered simply, Yes.…Thus began my romance with the psychology of killing.
Only her father, a traditional psychotherapist, disapproves. Teary-eyed she asks him if he has “any idea what kind of poor souls I treat…How many lives I try to save?…Or the price I pay in order to hear them out?” “That’s admirable, of course,” he replies, “but it’s pointless, because you yourself are a part of this machine, which continues to breed more and more misery.”
Part of the novel’s effectiveness lies in its oblique approach to that misery. As a psychologist, Abigail is an apt medium through which to view this topic: She’s a sensitive human being – even prone to physical manifestations of anxiety – but also a dispassionate observer. Her duty, she believes, is to treat the soldiers and help them win.
A Battle for Mental Health
When another mental health officer argues that winning isn’t part of mental health officers’ responsibility, that their role is just to “keep them sane,” Abigail retorts, “Nothing is more damaging to a soldier’s mental health than defeat.” The irony of the book’s title, Victorious, is all too obvious.
The narrator’s opinions aside, the story shows that troops need not be “defeated” to suffer mentally. Held back, in part, by the country’s divisive politics, the IDF’s military actions are bogging down into stalemates and disappointments. From the novel’s sensible perspective, no amount of mental health support can prevent combat from causing psychological damage, whatever the outcome on the field.
With Victorious, Yishai Sarid, a former IDF intelligence officer, has given us a cool-headed glimpse behind the scenes of military life in a small, troubled nation with a unique origin and history. Yardenne Greenspan’s straightforward translation preserves the tidy style that helps gives this novel its subtle power.
Victorious is available September 20, 2022 from Restless Books.