History,  Israel,  War etc

Saturday 6th October, 1973

Guest post by Sackcloth and Ashes

At 2 pm on this day, forty years ago, Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and the Golan Heights were subjected to an overwhelming surprise attack by Israel’s Arab enemies. The Egyptians stormed across the canal, captured the East Bank, and over the course of 48 hours they successfully resisted repeated IDF counter-attacks against their defensive positions. On the Golan, two Israeli brigades (188th Armoured and the Golani) were assailed by a Syrian force that outnumbered them by 10:1 in soldiers, 12:1 in armour, and 20:1 in artillery guns. So began a war which lasted 19 days, and in which over 2,500 Israeli soldiers and up to 18,000 Arab troops (mainly Egyptians and Syrians) were killed. The legacy of this war still hangs over the Middle East today.

This piece is not here to give readers a blow-by-blow account of the Yom Kippur War. You can get several accounts of this conflict, mainly from the Israeli perspective (with a handful of Egyptian sources), although I would personally point to books by Abraham Rabinovich and Kenneth Pollack for their scholarship and utility. What I want to do is pass on my tuppence worth about what this war means to me.

The first point to emphasise is the sheer ferocity of the combat – the storming of the Canal, the Syrian attack on the Golan and the desperate Israeli defence, the IDF counter-attack towards Damascus, the failed Egyptian offensive towards the Gidi and Mitla passes, the battle of Chinese Farm, and the Israeli assault across the Canal, which ended up with one of Egypt’s two field armies being encircled. The war appears to be one of those ‘high-intensity’ inter-state conflicts of tank-on-tank, and plane-on-plane, which General Sir Rupert Smith assures us are a relic of the past. I would not necessarily assume that the good general is right, particularly given the potential for the current civil war in Syria to metastasise across its borders.

The second point is the essential differences between Anwar Sadat and Hafez al-Assad’s decisions to resort to war. Whilst the latter was still committed to Israel’s destruction, Sadat is a rarity in history, and there is indeed something bizarrely paradoxical about an autocratic President who commits his country to war with an enemy he ultimately intends to make peace with. But there it is. Egypt’s President wanted to reverse the humiliation suffered due to his predecessor’s folly in the summer of 1967, and did not want to negotiate from a position of weakness. His attempts to secure a ‘land for peace’ deal in which he recovered the Sinai in 1971 were snubbed by then-prime minister Golda Meir. The problem now is a similar one, because with the entrenched mistrust between Israel and its Arab foes it is all too easy for the former to overlook genuine peace proposals. Yet it is also important to note that Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian moderates do not exactly help the cause of peace by alternating between declarations of intent to negotiate with established anti-Israeli (and indeed anti-Semitic) rhetoric.

The third point is the failure of Israeli military intelligence (AMAN) to anticipate the Arab attack, which was partly a product of excellent operational security on the part of the Egyptians and Syrians, partly due to the repeated alerts and false alarms preceding the outbreak of war, but also to an ethnocentric arrogance on the part of IDF intelligence officers, who assumed that the Six Day War of 1967 proved that ‘Arabs couldn’t fight’. They would have done well to remember Carl von Clausewitz’s point that ‘the final decision of a whole war is not always to be regarded as absolute’, as the defeated party usually prepares for a rematch.

The fourth point is the effect of the Arab oil embargo on the USA and Western Europe (17th October 1973), and the disturbing vulnerability of Western governments and elites to economic and financial blackmail from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Whether we are talking about aid to the Taliban, the founding of al-Qaeda, or the spreading of Wahhabi propaganda across the globe, the pernicious effect of riyalpolitik remains with us to day.

The fifth point is the psychological shock of the war on Israeli opinion. Even though they were eventual winners, Israelis were appalled by the manpower losses they had suffered, and the Agranat Commission of Enquiry into the outbreak of the conflict finished the careers of Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. Israel’s strategic culture of pre-emption was born of the afternoon of 6th October 1973, as was a sense of contempt for foreign critics who complain about Israeli ‘over-reaction’ and ‘escalation’.

Finally, it is worth commemorating here the courage of the IDF soldiers involved in this bitter war. The fight for the Golan Heights between 6th-8th October is a prime example of desperate defence against overwhelming odds. Before they were relieved by reinforcements the Golani Brigade and 188th Armoured had to fight off repeated waves of Syrian attacks. Indeed, the latter formation was effectively destroyed during the battle, although even with the destruction of its headquarters individual tank crews fought on without orders or direction, literally to the last round. To quote one veteran cited in Rabinovich’s book:

‘You have a choice. To succumb to shock or to become a tiger. It became clear in the first hour that the battle had been left to the company and platoon commanders and individual tank commanders. The adrenaline rush was tremendous. Orders from some officer in the rear didn’t matter much. We were alone and we made the decisions’.

What is even more remarkable is that many of the tank crews consisted of hurriedly-mobilised men, and that drivers, gunners and commanders had often not trained with each other. Military historians and analysts usually state that the experience of training builds unit cohesion and confidence, and that hastily thrown-together formations usually perform badly in combat. The opposite was true on the Golan, as the wreckage of 1,150 Soviet-built tanks demonstrated.

In a sense it’s unfair to pick out one name amongst many, but if obliged to do so I would point to the example set by the reservist Lieutenant Zvi Greengold, who for 20 hours in the battle was defending the ‘Tapline’ – the gap between the two Israeli brigades – with just his tank. Greengold held the line, and almost succumbed to his injuries when he was finally relieved by his colleagues. For his valour in battle, Lt Greengold won the Ot Hagvura, the IDF’s equivalent of the Victoria Cross or the Congressional Medal of Honour.

Zvi Greengold’s parents were Holocaust survivors. Their son – and thousands more like him – were prepared to fight to the death to prevent Baathist Syria from succeeding where Nazi Germany failed. All honour to them.