Talking to the Dead in the Yom Kippur War

Hose in hand and cigarette in mouth, the orderly washed away the tissue and blood while humming a tune: 24 hours had gone by and we had moved to another planet.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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IDF soldiers and two M113 APCs in the Sinai Peninsula, 1973.Credit: IDF Spokesman
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

This article on originally published on September 12, 2013, on the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War.

The M-113 armored personnel carrier was parked at an awkward angle, its motor running, a few feet away from the sand colored tent that served as the battalion triage station. I waited until the latest wave of wounded soldiers had been dealt with and the din of frantic doctors and medics died down before pointing at the APC and asking, “What is that doing here?”

A few soldiers raised their heads, looked at the vehicle, and then, warily, at each other. “Someone drove it in here a few hours ago at breakneck speed and stopped abruptly,” one of the doctors replied, “Then he ran off into the desert. We were too tired and too busy to ask why.”

The APC was a little burned but seemed otherwise intact. One of the medics approached it to take a closer look, and then, pointing at the side of the vehicle, he cried out “there’s a hole here”.

“It’s one of those Saggers,” someone said quietly, referring to the Soviet-made anti-tank missile with which Egyptian soldiers had been methodically destroying Israeli tanks. “No, it’s an RPG,” another non-expert chimed in, preferring the rocket propelled grenade that could also penetrate the APC’s thin armor.

By now most everyone had stopped what they were doing. The heavy silence that fell on the medical tent in the middle of the Sinai Desert included the half-dozen wounded soldiers who stopped groaning and were craning their necks to have a look. After a few seconds that truly seemed like an eternity, one of the doctors stepped up to the door on the left side of the rear cargo hatch of the American-made APC. He turned the handle, peered inside, lurched back and let out an unearthly wail, the likes of which I’d never heard before and haven’t heard since.
He pleaded for us to stay away, but we couldn’t.

This was the Southern Front, Sunday, October 7, 1973. The Yom Kippur War was barely 24-hours-old. On its race to the front, my brigade had been broken up into battalions, and then into companies, and then into platoons, dispersed among other armored units desperately flinging themselves at the masses of Egyptian soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles that had broached the Suez line.

I had been sent to go up and down the road from a god-forsaken base called Tasa to an equally wretched base called Baluza, near the Mediterranean coast, to try and locate casualties from our unit. “Someone says there are Egyptian commandos all over the place,” one of the operations room sergeants told me, though he didn’t sound convinced.

I traveled north, up the eerily abandoned Lateral Road, accompanied by the steady thump of artillery shells, the muffled din of battles raging nearby and occasional sightings of groups of soldiers walking in the desert whose nationality I didn’t stay to ascertain. When I reached Baluza - the once proud Egyptian and Roman city of Pelusium, where Pompey the Great was assassinated – the gates were wide open, the base seemingly abandoned, the air filled with a kind of yellow smoke that had been mistaken for a chemical weapon that had sent the entire base, as it turned out, to frantically seek shelter.

Eventually I spotted a soldier wandering aimlessly near the edge of the camp and told him what I was looking for. They landed commandos in the nearby outpost at Romani, he said, pointing vaguely in the direction of one of the buildings. I thought he was sending me to the infirmary or to the adjutant’s office, so nothing prepared me for the sights and smells that assaulted me when I opened the door to what turned out to be a makeshift morgue: there were bodies, so many bodies for such a short time, all in uniform, lying there, unattended, on the floors and on the chairs and on the tables.

I stepped out quickly, then slowly back in. I spent long minutes peering at their faces, some of which were disfigured and others in perfect shape, reading whatever halves of dog tags remained on their necks. Then I went back and started all over again, gazing at them anew, even after I realized that none of them were from my unit.

There were young soldiers among them, but mostly older reservists, some short, some tall, some slim, some fat, all very silent. I started guessing who they were, what they did, where they came from, who would miss them. Finally, an angry officer burst into the room, shouting at me to get out at once. He was gruff and I was grateful.

Memories of my travel back down from Baluza remain blurred. The road was a few kilometers away from the battles, but it was no longer empty: tank and infantry vehicles were parked on both sides of the road, some damaged, others disabled, the crews dirty, haggard, often burned and wounded, their faces locked in shock and dismay.

Whatever I was seeing was nothing compared to what they had just been through, I told myself, certain that after the gruesome scene at Baluza, things could hardly get worse. That was when I saw the APC standing strangely next to the medical station, north of Tasa, and decided to stop and take a look around.

The hole at the side of the American-made M-113 was caused by something known as the Munroe effect, named for one Charles Munroe, a Massachusetts-born Harvard graduate who worked at the Naval Torpedo Station and War College in Newport Rhode Island in the late 19th century. The Munroe effect is the discovery that enabled the development of the so-called “shape charge”, which is the centerpiece of the High Explosive Anti Tank warhead known as HEAT. It has a conical shape that focuses the energy of the explosives in it to the tip of the warhead, creating a small hole through which a powerful stream of high-energy TNT is injected to explode inside an armored vehicle. It is destructively deadly, of course, especially in closed quarters.

We stood there, with our backs turned, as a team of medics removed what remained of the four or five soldiers who had been trapped inside. When I looked again, a few minutes later, one of the orderlies walked towards the APC, a cigarette at the corner of his mouth, and calmly hosed away the remaining blood and tissue. And he was humming a tune.

Less than a day had gone by, I told myself, and we had descended to hell, or traveled to another planet.

Throughout the next several days I saw scores of dead bodies and hundreds of wounded, disfigured soldiers. By now I was already encountering dead casualties from my unit, along with others that I knew from different stations in my life. I cried on October 15, when someone told me that one of my best friends had been killed nearby, but that may have been because I received the bad news by word of mouth rather than seeing it with my own two eyes.

Other than that, by the end of the war I was emulating the soldier with the hose: with a Marlboro cigarette sent by caring American mothers perpetually hanging at the corner of my mouth, I nonchalantly continued my voyage in and out of the land of the dead, looking at faces, meeting new people, humming a song every so often to cheer us all up.

Two decades later, I told Edna Lomsky-Feder, then a psychology post-grad who was researching the effects of the 1973 war on soldiers who had participated in it: “The experience was so terrible that there was no way of coming to terms with it. It wasn’t that we didn’t talk about the war, because we did, but emotionally, I don’t think we ever really confronted it.”

She disagreed. After quoting my remarks in her book – appropriately titled “As If There Was No War” – she noted that “even a repressed experience is often a dynamic process, transforming to a conscious presence later in life, often as a result of psychological treatment.”

And so it has become, at least for me, not only a conscious presence but also a constant one that actually seems to be expanding in recent years, as it recedes from the collective consciousness of Israel as a whole. It’s a natural progression, I guess, that the traumatic and surrealistic events that were seared into our memories are as stark today as they were 40 years ago, while they turn into dusty, irrelevant, black and white photos for most of the population.

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old/Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn”, as World War I poet Laurence Binyon wrote in the remarkable fourth stanza of For the Fallen, later incorporated as the official Ode to Remembrance of the Australia and New Zealand ANZAC forces.

That definitely works for me, as I often find myself peering at those grainy photos in the military memorial books, many of them now online, trying to match them with the people that I got to know 40 years ago as flesh and blood, before or after their death.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning
/We will remember them,” Binyon wrote.

Sometimes, I admit, I take things one step further and try to pick up our conversations from where we left off.