May 31, 2007
History surprises in new ‘67 War documentary
If the Americans or Russians had won such a war, they would have celebrated with a string of chest-thumping movies, with reckless John Wayne or his Russian counterpart leading his clean-cut soldiers to a glorious, permanent triumph.
Israelis made few such films, even in the immediate post-war months, and now a new documentary to mark the 40th anniversary of the Six-Day War conveys a sense of somber reflection, rather than patriotic elation.
"Six Days," an Israeli-Canadian-French co-production directed by Israeli filmmaker Ilan Ziv, is subtitled, "June 1967: 40 Years, New Revelations."
In fact, there are few startling surprises for anyone who has read any of the numerous post-mortems of the war.
What the film drives home are how vast are the miscalculations by fallible statesmen, how easy it is to arouse a people to a pitch of war fervor, and -- as every dogface in the trenches instinctively knows -- how laurel-wreathed generals, all "brilliant strategists," fly by the seat of their pants most of the time.
Not to go overboard entirely, the opening strike by the Israeli air force, which gambled every available plane to wipe out the Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian air forces, was a daring masterstroke.
Israeli troops on the ground fought bravely, intelligently and with high morale. And Israel's political leaders, aided by considerable luck, avoided being crushed between American and Soviet Cold War confrontations.
The biggest loser was Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who blindly believed his generals that they would "have lunch in Tel Aviv next week."
Nasser, who saw himself as the imminent leader of one great pan-Arab nation, learned that once having roused the masses to a hysterical pitch, he could not reverse himself when he wanted.
The second loser, according to the documentary, was Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, a prudent, sensible politician, whose hope for a diplomatic solution was foiled by his own generals' militancy, political pressures and the people's demand for a muscular, charismatic leader like Moshe Dayan.
As in any war, the 1967 conflict easily lends itself to an endless game of "what if?" -- with most of the questions aimed at the Arab side.
What if the Kremlin hadn't convinced Nasser in mid-May of the fabrication that Israeli troops were massing at the Syrian border?
What if King Hussein of Jordan, blinded by Egyptian boasts of smashing victories, had heeded Israeli warnings to stay out of the war?
What if Nasser had not called off his planned first strike against Israel nine days before the Israelis struck first?
But there are plenty of what-ifs on the Israeli side.
What if Chief-of-Staff Yitzhak Rabin had listened to his mentor, David Ben-Gurion, who was adamantly opposed to Rabin's pre-emptive war plans?
What if the Israeli Cabinet, which initially split evenly on whether to go to war, had tilted slightly the other way and avoided what no less a hawk than then-Gen. Ariel Sharon described subsequently as "a war of choice"?
And if you want to reverse the game, what if the Egyptian air force had struck first -- would the Tel Aviv parks consecrated as future mass graves have been filled up with Israeli corpses?
Yet the sense of foreboding about the aftermath of the war, expressed by Ben-Gurion and which pervades much of the film, has been largely justified by events.
The film posits that the euphoria of the victory and the defeat of Nasser turned a mainly secular conflict into an intractable religious one and spawned a costly and divisive occupation.
Perhaps the bitterest postscript of the war comes from Yossi Sarid, a veteran left-wing politician who served in 1967 as political adviser to Eshkol.
One need not agree with his lacerating words, but they are worth hearing: "So, all right, Nasser made a mistake and Hussein made a mistake. So why do we have to fall into the trap of their mistake and turn our lives into an ongoing hell?
Forty years, 40 years, we have been living in an ongoing hell because of this cursed occupation."
"Six Days" opens June 1 at Laemmle's Grande 4-Plex, 345 S. Figueroa St., downtown Los Angeles (213) 617-0268).