Soldiers probe a national trauma
"Eileh Ha'akhim Sheli" ("These Are My Brothers") by Ori Orr, Yedioth Ahronoth, 255 pages, NIS 88
"Indianim Al Giva 16" ("Indians on Hill 16") by Avihai Becker, Ministry of Defense, 88 pages, NIS 65
"Ha'erev Bishesh Tifrotz Milhama" ("A War Will Break Out at Six P.M.") by Motti Ashkenazi with Baruch Nevo and Nurit Ashkenazi, Hakibbutz Hameuhad, 222 pages, NIS 75
"Ekhai Giborei Hate'ala" ("My Comrades, Heroes of Suez") by Ilan Kfir, Yedioth Ahronoth, 350 pages, NIS 88
Thirty years after the most traumatic war in the history of the state, it is beginning to assume its proper place on the bookshelf. If, five years ago, around the time of its 25th anniversary, there was only one rather conventional book on the Yom Kippur War, this year at least a dozen new books have come out.
The four books reviewed here portray the war from different angles. In all of them, the authors or narrators have a direct connection to the events they describe. Two are about the fighting in the north: Ori Orr, commander of Reserve Brigade 679, focuses on the battles fought by his brigade on the Golan Heights during the first week of the war, and Avihai Becker offers a deft portrait of Company C of the Golani Brigade's 51st Battalion from the outbreak of the war until the separation of forces in the north, the action peaking with the battle for Mt. Hermon.
The other two explore the battles on the southern front: One is the story of the war and its aftermath by Motti Ashkenazi, commander of Budapest, the army outpost on the Suez Canal that stood its ground and did not surrender to the invading Egyptian forces. The other is Ilan Kfir's largely unsuccessful attempt to present a panoramic picture of the fighting in the south.
In October 1973, Ori Orr was the commander of a brigade of old-model Centurion tanks waiting to be upgraded with diesel engines and a new transmission system. As a result, these tanks had many mechanical problems and maneuverability was not up to par. Orr was a young officer who had gone within six years from heading a Brigade 7 reconnaissance unit in the Six-Day War to commanding an armored brigade.
On the eve of the war, after returning from a training course in the United States, he was promoted to colonel and appointed commander of Brigade 679. It was not a "rapid call-up" brigade - the kind that deploys within 18 hours and is on the battlefield a few hours after that. However, the reality of the Yom Kippur War threw all the old plans on the junk pile. The mobilization of the brigade began quietly on Yom Kippur day at 10 A.M., and within 14 hours, the first tanks set off for battle. Twelve hours into the war, they were already confronting Syrian troops.
The ability to mobilize reserve soldiers living all over the country, round them up at an army base and send them into battle within a few hours was the product of something the Israel Defense Force had in abundance during the 1973 war: high motivation, professionalism and above all, a knack for improvising. Contrary to all advance planning, Orr ordered the tanks into battle with hastily assembled crews, using armor that had undergone minimal preparation and was stocked with half the normal quantity of ammunition (the tanks were kept in one camp and the ammunition in another). On top of that, very partial data was available about what was happening on the battlefield, the communications system was malfunctioning and many vital preparatory procedures had not been carried out.
That is not the way one goes to war. But taken by surprise, Orr and his men (and most of the other reserve units) ignored everything they had ever learned in order to rush reinforcements to the Golan Heights, the southern part of which had already been taken by the Syrians in the early hours of the morning of October 7.
There was a price to pay, of course. Haim Sabato, a young tank operator in Orr's brigade, offers a realistic description of what it was like for a gunner to go into battle without "adjusting sights," as he called the book he wrote about the war. At the command level, the disorganized rush into battle was exemplified by a hasty meeting outside army headquarters in Nafah at around 7 A.M. with the division commander, Rafael Eitan.
Eitan, who was not aware of the growing Syrian threat from the south, ordered Orr to prepare for a nonexistent threat at the entrance to Quneitra. Shortly after that, the commander of Brigade 7, Avigdor Ben-Gal advised Ori Orr to mount a counterattack to the east. But it soon emerged that the Syrians were advancing in the south, and the tanks of Brigade 679 left their positions to wage a fierce battle against the Syrian force that was moving along the route of the oil pipeline and had already burst through the perimeter fence of Nafah camp.
Orr ably describes the exploits of his brigade, which played a major role in the defensive campaigns on the Golan and afterward the attack on the Syrian enclave. Over and over, Orr extols not only the heroism and professionalism of the troops but also the improvising skills of those in the rear, who managed to get 50 to 60 tanks to him, complete with tank crews, on each day of battle, when no more than 30 tanks were still in commission by nightfall. Orr's love and appreciation of his soldiers, most of whom he got to know for the first time during the war, comes through very clearly, and it seems the feelings were mutual.
One of the most moving parts in Sabato's book is his account of how Orr approached his tank in the middle of the night, after a day of heavy fighting, quietly introduced himself, handed out chocolate to the crew members and spoke to them at eye level about the military difficulties Israel was facing and the battle of the coming day. For these soldiers, Orr represented a different kind of commander - calm and humane - the very opposite of the fearsome stereotype best exemplified by Shmuel Gorodish.
"These Are My Brothers" is a fine book, but is flawed in one respect. For some incomprehensible reason, Orr decided to end the book with the story of how he became a persona non grata in the Labor party in 1998 (after making derogatory remarks about Moroccan Jews in an interview with Daniel Ben-Simon). He tries unsuccessfully to combine this story with the story of the war, which is a shame. At issue are two entirely separate battles, and Orr would have done better to leave out the political intrigues, however painful, and concentrate on the military.
If Orr's book portrays the battles of an almost anonymous reserve brigade in the Golan, Motti Ashkenazi homes in on two famous myths of the war: the outpost that refused to surrender and the demonstrator who toppled the government. Ashkenazi did not actually write the book. He told the story from his perspective to Baruch Nevo, who put it into writing (assisted by Nurit Ashkenazi). In the interests of proper disclosure, let it be said that I know Baruch Nevo - a professor of psychology at Haifa University for whom I have great esteem.
Ashkenazi's story begins on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, when he was called up for reserve duty as the commander of the Budapest outpost, north of the Sinai border. In the days leading up to the war, he detected signs of military preparations under way on the Egyptian side. Like many good people, he tried to sound the alarm. But like them, his voice also went unheard. Ashkenazi, a "born skeptic" by his own definition, readied his outpost as best he could, but these preparations proved insufficient when the war erupted.
Budapest remained the only outpost that did not fall, and for two reasons. One is that it was not an integral part of the Bar Lev line. It was situated on a sandbank several kilometers east of Orkal - the northernmost outpost on the line. The only vehicular access to it was a 100-meter stretch of road, with the sea to the north and salt marshes to the south, and there was no way to encircle it. Any attack had to be a head-on offensive, which could be blocked by effective fire. In this respect, Budapest was easier to defend than other outposts.
The second reason is that as the war began and the invading Egyptian force was within 800 meters of the outpost, two tanks from the 9th Battalion of Brigade 41 were sent out to meet them on the road of plastic sheeting leading to up to it. Within minutes, they wiped out a large part of the invading force and caused it to withdraw. After that, there were no serious attempts to storm this outpost. Nevertheless, it was held under siege for five days by 200 Egyptian commandos stationed on a sandbank to the east. All endeavors to eliminate this force failed, and many Israeli soldiers were killed in the process.
Eventually, the commandos pulled back because there was no way for them to receive supplies and reinforcements. On October 10, after heavy bombardment and shelling, the siege of Budapest was lifted, and thus ended the war of Ashkenazi and his men, who managed to operate as a fighting force even under the most difficult conditions.
Ashkenazi displayed not only impressive leadership capabilities, but personal courage. Running under heavy fire to the tanks guarding the outpost; the long minutes he spent straddling the tank - not sticking his head out of the turret, but actually on top of it - adjusting the gun sights; his unloading of ammunition in the midst of shelling when reinforcements arrived - actions like these make us wonder why he has never won a medal. The answer is probably hidden in the second part of the book.
A few months after the war, upon his release from reserve duty, Ashkenazi commenced his next war: a stubborn campaign from which he eventually emerged victorious. His solo demonstration in front of the Prime Minister's Office demanding the resignation of Moshe Dayan was the start of a process that peaked with a mass rally of 25,000 people and ended with Golda Meir and her government stepping down.
Ashkenazi's account of this political battle is muted in tone and far from aggressive. He sounds almost skeptical about the whole thing. His meeting with Dayan, who tried to figure out what made him tick, and his testimony before the Agranat Commission, come across as a kind of lackluster confrontation between someone who personally experienced war and loss, and people far removed from the new reality created in October 1973. Ashkenazi's tone of voice, mildly skeptical of the personal role he played in setting historical processes in motion, actually adds credibility to his fascinating story.
Avichai Becker's book also addresses a mythological subject - the battle for Mt. Hermon - but in a down-to-earth fashion. Becker, a company commander in the Golani Brigade's 21st Battalion, documents the experiences of one company - Company C of the 51st Battalion - whose soldiers, led by Lieutenant Yigal Fasso, took Hill 16 in the battle for the Hermon and paid a bloody price for it.
This is a short book - 83 pages in all. There are no maps, no photographs, no strategic debates, no feuding generals. But it has something that is lacking in many other books: an authentic account of the Yom Kippur War from the perspective of a Golani rifleman who was in and out of military prison in ordinary times, but turned out to be a man among men in wartime. Becker knows him well, and his book is one of the most accurate depictions of the war.
As befitting a Golani soldier, Becker is not afraid of anyone. Orr and Ashkenazi vaguely mention soldiers who shirked their duties during the war, but their identities are not disclosed. Becker, on the other hand, describes the call-up of Company C with complete frankness, actually naming those who dodged the draft - openly, secretly or by shooting themselves in the hand. This is an embarrassing and painful truth that very few who write about the war have dared to discuss. Neither does Becker hesitate to describe Golan riflemen plundering the corpses of Syrian commandos or executing a prisoner when the battle was over, or older company members sending younger soldiers ahead to fight in their place in a combat situation that seemed more threatening than it really was. Even the top chain of command and strategic planners are not spared: They fired up the soldiers with pep-talks, but preparations for the battle itself were "less rigorous than a platoon exercise in Hushniya."
As the story moves to its climax - the battle for Hill 16 through the eyes of Private David Tsarfaty - Becker builds up a whole array of earthy characters: Yigal Fasso, the company commander who has a hard time fitting into the shoes of Shmaryahu Winik (who was promoted to commander of the Sayeret); Hatuka, Tsarfaty's platoon commander, who finds himself pitted against a group of old-timers; Suissa, the company hulk; Selektor the bazooka man; Ohali the naval commando; Hanan Melker the 90-pound weakling; Peretz the NCO; and many more. None of them (with the exception of Winik, whose soldiers saw him as an Israeli version of Patrick Kim) would have rated a second glance if they were walking down the street.
But under fire on Hill 16, when they were put to the test, the "Indians" of Company C showed what they were made of: "They dug their heels in, and without a leader, without discussing it between themselves, it was plain to one and all that they were not budging from this spot, no matter what. They could easily have rolled backward two meters, out of the line of fire, and saved themselves. But they chose to stay, God knows until when."
By the end of this battle, the brigade lost 52 men. Forty-three were from the 51st Battalion. Without saying it in so many words, and without getting emotional, Becker's book is a modest, genuine and fitting tribute to those who died.
Everything Becker's book has is missing from Ilan Kfir's pompous book on the war on the southern front. Kfir, a medic in the Paratrooper Brigade and one of the first to cross the canal on the night of October 15-16, says that he has been walking around with this book inside him for 30 years. Too bad he didn't put those years to use to produce a better book. The one he has written has so many shortcomings it is almost a pity it came into the world at all.
First there are factual errors. He writes, for example, that the BBC did not report the tense situation on Yom Kippur, while in fact it did; that the Sagger is an antipersonnel missile instead of an antitank missile; that the Egyptians thought they could spring a total surprise on Israel, whereas they actually figured that Israel would discover their plans at least four days in advance; that the Egyptians had data showing an early sunrise and sunset on the day of the Suez Canal crossing (a modern-day recurrence of the sun at Givon standing still); that Colonel Yona Bandman was an intelligence officer of the Southern Command, while he was head of Branch 6 in the research department of the Military Intelligence corps.
Kfir's book is also poorly organized and edited. In his eagerness to tell the story of the war in full, from individual soldier to top brass, he mixes up dates and levels of command, connects things that are not connected, overemphasizes minor incidents at the expense of crucial ones, has a hard time understanding and explaining the logic (or illogic) of IDF commanders and the political echelon, and lumps events together like some kind of shopping list. On a page that mentions September 11, for example, he also touches on the growing threat to Sharon's division, two MIGs downed in the Kalman Magen sector, the IDF's offensive on the Golan Heights and the air force's bombing of Damascus, Sharon's prediction of a shift on the southern front, the 189th Battalion having seven tanks left, the cabinet's decision to release particulars about IDF losses, the atmosphere of shock and gloom on the home front and the battlefield, and pilots being among the missing.
Kfir is capable of doing better. He spends 24 pages on the battle at the Chinese Farm, and it is one of the best parts of the book. Even here, however, much of it reads like a first draft in need of thorough editing.
A third and very basic problem with the book is the lack of objectivity. Kfir, who finds it hard to distinguish between his personal experiences in the war and his account of events at the high command level, ignores everything that has been written to date about the functioning of the generals. He describes the chief of staff, David Elazar, as depressed and pessimistic; Dayan as sensible and skillful at reading the map; Shmuel Gorodish as an envious man who came up with "crazy" proposals just to thwart Sharon. He also mentions Bar-Lev, Avraham Adan, Kelman Magen, Albert Mendler and others, most of whom he treats with respect. But above all, he reveres Arik King of Israel. In Kfir's eyes, not only is Sharon in the same league as Montgomery, Zhukov and Eisenhower. He has the charisma of Gary Cooper (whose appearance on the screen conveyed the message that all would end well) and the strength of Samson, kept from an even greater victory by his shackles (imposed by Gorodish, Bar-Lev and Elazar).
Sharon is a talented general, but the blind admiration of followers who see in him no wrong will not guarantee him a place in the history books. Kfir also spends a relatively large part of the book extolling the performance of the paratroopers on the southern front. Their contribution was unquestionably a valuable one, and they lost many men, but other army units, among them artillery, engineering and mechanized infantry, contributed and suffered losses, although Kfir hardly mentions them (presumably because Kfir is a paratrooper, not a gunner).
What is right for Orr, Ashkenazi and Becker, who profile the war experiences of a single unit, is not appropriate for someone who claims to be writing about an entire front.
In this respect, "My Comrades, Heroes of Suez" is little more than an impressionistic collection of war stories, some of them very inaccurate. Paradoxically, the book that tries to describe the Yom Kippur War from the broadest perspective is the one that is least valuable in helping us understand it.
These four books, as we have said, represent only a fraction of the recent literary output on the October war. This is an important body of literature not only for documentary reasons, but because it reminds us of that war's horrors. The minister of defense recently said the Yom Kippur War was a war of choice. These books, and others like them, help us visualize the steep price we paid for that choice.
Dr. Uri Bar-Joseph teaches international relations at Haifa University.
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