September 23, 2004
The Lessons We Learned in 1973
"The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East" by Abraham Rabinovich. (Schocken, $27.50).
In a reflective moment toward the end of the Yom Kippur War, then-Defense Minister Moshe Dayan told a confounded and confused Israeli Cabinet: "We generally understand these things a generation later."
Throughout his career, Dayan certainly made his share of mistakes, but as his remark reveals, he was usually among the most farsighted leaders Israel ever had.
Books about the devastating 1973 surprise attack against Israel began to appear almost as soon as the smoke had cleared. But it is only now, a generation after the war, that we have anything like full-scale, analytical and interpretive accounts. In recent months, at least three Yom Kippur War books have appeared in English, but Abraham Rabinovich's is surely the best. The veteran reporter, born in New York but living most of his life in Jerusalem, based his book on official Israel Defense Forces (IDF) archives, the recently declassified 2,000-page Agranat Commission inquiry into the war, numerous other documentary sources and more than 130 personal interviews.
[Personal disclosure: Bumie Rabinovich and your reviewer for many years were colleagues and friends at The Jerusalem Post. Further disclosure: As a new Israeli who, in 1973, had just finished his basic training in the IDF, your reviewer was mobilized on the first day of the Yom Kippur War and was even more shocked and disoriented by the surprise attack than his native-born comrades in arms; after all these years I'm grateful to Bumie for finally making sense of those traumatic days.]
Still, in a world of dizzying change, the Yom Kippur War today seems ancient history, as distant and half-remembered as those figures who like Dayan played such major roles in the event: Golda Meir, Anwar Sadat, David Elazar, Haim Bar-Lev, Henry Kissinger, Leonid Brezhnev. This was the era of Watergate and of the Cold War and of the still raging conflict in Vietnam. Since the Yom Kippur War, Israel has signed peace treaties (Egypt and Jordan), engaged in new wars (Lebanon) and faced different assaults (Iraqi Scuds, Palestinian terrorists). Why should Americans care about bygone battles?
Three reasons immediately come to mind.
The first is that the surprise attack on Oct. 6, 1973, succeeded largely because of a massive Israeli intelligence failure. Massive American intelligence failure, it is becoming increasingly clear, is precisely what allowed the Sept. 11 attacks, and the public response, official inquiries and the political fallout that followed the Yom Kippur War in this regard are instructive. A second reason is the light it shines on the sole principal player who is still very much on the scene. As Rabinovich documents it, Ariel Sharon was deservedly a hero of the war, but far from the only one, and his superiors considered Sharon so dangerous he was almost relieved of his command.
But the third, and most compelling, reason for reading "The Yom Kippur War" is that it is, at the same time, a heart-breaking and enthralling narrative. The story is wrenching of course because of the fate of those poorly prepared and shabbily equipped soldiers who had to bear the brunt of the attack behind ill-conceived and criminally neglected defense lines. The story is enthralling because the endless instances of Israeli courage and tenacity almost beggar belief. On that fateful Day of Atonement, the Israelis were outnumbered and outgunned by staggering margins. In Sinai, for example, exactly 450 Israeli troops faced an invading force of 100,000 Egyptians, who enjoyed a superiority in artillery of 40-1 and a force of 1,350 tanks against Israel's 91. On the Golan, the Syrians had eight tanks for every Israeli tank, and even higher ratios of troops, guns and planes; later the Syrians would be bolstered by contingents of Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Saudi Arabians, Kuwaitis and Moroccans. In addition, the Arabs were equipped with the latest in Soviet rocketry, against which Israel had virtually no defense.
How the IDF roused itself; how Israel's armored corps improvised to cope with a forest of Sagger missiles; how Israel's air force, momentarily rendered useless by the SAM-6 umbrella, learned, on the job as it were, new formulas for aerial warfare, and, above all, how Israel's young sons held their ground and then went on the attack with the ferocity of mother lions -- all of it seems the stuff of Hollywood.
Yet even the most imaginative of scriptwriters would be hard pressed to top, say, Zvika Greengold, the young son of Holocaust survivors who day after day and night after night virtually single-handedly destroyed scores of Syrian tanks. Or Lt. Col. Eliashiv Shimshi, who grimly accepted orders to lead a suicidal armored counterattack in Sinai that rivaled the Charge of the Light Brigade. Or the "retired" air force pilot who leaped into the cockpit of a jet fighter, roared off to the Golan, downed four enemy aircraft and returned to base -- all in 20 minutes, while the regular pilot was away from the tarmac answering a call of nature.
These are just a few hints of what a spectacular story this is. And Rabinovich has told it spectacularly well.