When Soldiers Kiss

In the photograph, she holds on to him, arms tightly wrapped around his neck, drawing him near, as though fearing this might be the last time they will kiss. Hands at his side, he appears casual, too casual, as though to assuage her fear, and his own. This kiss, his stance suggests, is like any other kiss. Any other kiss on any other day, in front of his buddies. Meanwhile, his buddies sit patiently in the bus waiting for the kissing to end. War is suspended as we are reminded what really matters. We are fighting so we can kiss. The caption reads, “An Israeli soldier kissed his girlfriend as reservists sat on a bus in Tel Aviv before deploying to the south of the country.”

The picture is striking. Not because it is new. If anything, the picture of the kissing and the kissable solider is ubiquitous. Soldiers kiss. In our edited versions of military service, we live for the moments when soldiers kiss as they leave for war and kiss when they come back. The kiss seals something, helps to edit something. We are fine with soldiers as long as they can kiss.

This “we” is a fantasy, of course. But a useful one. And one, I would argue, with a particular U.S. resonance. Soldiers kiss all over the world, I’d guess, but soldiers kissing has a peculiar force in the U.S. We want soldiers to kiss. We desire their kisses. Before they are covered in gore and after they are covered in gore or even if they evade gore, we crave their kissing. As image, as sensation, as memory, as aspiration.

It means something, then, when an Israeli soldier is depicted kissing his “girlfriend.” In the slide show where this image appeared when I first saw it, this was the final image. The kiss before war that is also the kiss hoped for after war. The kiss as a promise of other kisses to come. If we are to mourn this soldier’s loss, we will mourn the unfulfilled promise of that kiss: that other kisses will follow.
At a moment when others are writing about global protests against this war and registering their exhaustion and anger with it, it seems beyond frivolous to insist on the meaningfulness of a single image depicting a kissing couple. Surely, doing so registers a deep disconnection from the world of things that really matter and emotions that really count. Indeed, registering grief, anger, rage, helplessness might better fit our contemporary sensorium. Far better than focusing on a single image of a kiss.

But I want to dwell on and with this kiss for a moment. From Laura Wexler, I have learned how to think about the politics of intimacy, how such scenes take hold of our imaginations, provide us with a sense of attachment to those we send to war and those we can and should care for. Kissing, images of kissing soldiers, provide a cross-cultural glue that attaches us to others. We value those who kiss. We value those who kiss framed by the urgencies of war—in the image of the buddies who wait patiently—and the romantic promise of the softly lit night that extends in the background, where electric lighting shades into the green promise of lush trees.

The kiss takes hold, roots in us, nudges us to root for these lovers. We want this soldier to come home. To complete the promise of the kiss. Rooting for the soldier, we might stand against the state that compels service, the state that demands he stop the kiss, climb on to the bus, join his buddies, and head into active military service. After all, as the caption continues, “Defense Minister Ehud Barak had authorized the military to call up 75,000 reservists if necessary.”

The kiss must be defended.

But how is one to defend the kiss? And what might it mean to figure defense of the kiss as one entry into thinking about this war? Perhaps as one’s only entry.
This semester I’ve been asking my students to think about literary analysis as paying attention to patterns and anomalies in works. What repeats? What breaks the frame? This, I think, is a useful way to approach formal questions.

The kiss catches my attention because it is an anomaly. The 12 images that precede it mark more vividly the devastation of war: loss of life, destruction of property, grief over loss, intensified militarization. And while the picture of the kiss has all these elements, or hints at them, it also suggests there might be a life of the intimate divorced from war and loss. It promises a life to come, a future suspended, yet hoped for.

Given vigorous, ongoing debates over pinkwashing, it’s not surprising that the photograph does not feature a same-sex couple, though I suspect that might show up eventually. And while I do not want to dwell on sexuality, it’s worth remembering Lee Edelman’s useful work on the problem of hetero-futurity. War’s promise is incarnated (via fantasy) in the image of the hetero-reproductive couple. If there is to be an after, it’s anchored in our fantasy that those lives lost will be replaced when the kissing couple complete their hetero-reproductive duty to the state. Which is to say, this image must come last in this slide show as it anchors us in the hope of a tomorrow for which the kiss is a promissory note.

Yet, if the kiss promises, it is also a threatened promise. Look again at the first sentence of the caption, written in the past tense. This happened. It is not happening. The promise was made. And now we are in the indefinite temporality of war, a moment when new intimacies are forged, old ones refigured, others made impossible. They “kissed.” Something was sealed and something else unsealed. Something was released into the world. And we are asked to feel about this kiss.

To mourn that it might not be repeated. To hope that it will be repeated. To imagine the cost of its repetition. To (un)imagine the cost of its non-repetition.

A kiss happened.

And war proceeds.