The Best Book Ever Written About the Israeli Army

'The Tanks of Tammuz,' Shabtai Teveth’s reporting on the Six-Day War, tells the story of the officers and soldiers who endured real fighting, no walkover — and of the triumphant atmosphere that followed

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
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Israeli forces during the Six-Day War, 1967.
Israeli forces during the Six-Day War, 1967.Credit: AP / The original black and white image has been colorized
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

“Exposed in the Turret,” a reissuing of the 1968 book published in English as ‘The Tanks of Tammuz,’ Kinneret Zmora-Bitan, 432 pages, 96 shekels ($27).

My hand reached almost automatically for the bookstore’s history shelf when I saw the new edition of “The Tanks of Tammuz.” I had been wondering if Shabtai Teveth’s 1968 work would reappear for the Six-Day War’s 50th anniversary, and here it was before me, an arm’s length away, with Paul Kor’s iconic cover in the Armored Corps’ green and black.

Leafing through the book the heroes of my childhood reading came to life: Maj. Gen. Israel Tal and Col. Shmuel Gorodish (Gonen), Lt. Col. Ehud Elad and Maj. Shamai Kaplan, Biro the regiment commander and Nati the company commander. And there were all the commanders and combatants who achieved the victory in the Sinai and Golan alongside their comrades who never returned, the widows and orphans, the wounded and crippled. Through them, Teveth documented the formation of the Israeli tank force from its beginnings to its bloody breakthroughs on the way to the Suez Canal and the slopes of Mount Hermon.

An old cover of Shabtai Teveth's book.Credit: Courtesy

Reading it again after many years, I still have no doubt that “The Tanks of Tammuz” is the best book ever about the Israel Defense Forces and the country’s wars. First, because Teveth is a marvelous storyteller. Before the television era, Israeli writers would write what the Americans call nonfiction novels, documentary dramas. Teveth, a Haaretz correspondent, was the best in the genre. This writing evolved a long time ago into television docudramas where the money, awards and chance of success abroad lay.

Second, the timing. Teveth wrote from the scene, when Israel’s biggest victory wasn’t yet doubted in retrospect and only a few understood the danger in occupying the territories. He preserved the intoxication of success and the sorrow of bereavement, when the IDF seemed omnipotent and nobody knew expressions like “shortcoming” or “commission of inquiry.” Anyone who wants to understand and feel the atmosphere in the triumphant Israel of 1967 will find it in every line of “The Tanks of Tammuz.”

But the book isn’t another victory album. Teveth exposed the fundamental conflict in Israel’s military culture – the contradiction between planning, orders and discipline, which are vital to operating an armored force in training and at war, and improvisation, personal risk and flouting orders that characterize the IDF’s ground commanders at crucial times. The book’s ironic name in Hebrew, “Exposed in the Turret,” was a brilliant choice, showing the conflict in all its nakedness.

The tank was a weapon that demands of its crew qualities that aren’t common among Israelis, Teveth explains in the introduction. But as he puts it, the affinity to the tank wasn’t forged willingly, or out of love, but out of the necessity to survive.

The book’s main hero is Tal, who shaped the Armored Corps’ image and commanded the division that did the heavy lifting in conquering Sinai during the Six-Day War. Teveth was there as a journalist and a soldier in the reserves. To this day, Talik, as Tal was known, is identified with his life’s project, the Merkava tank, which came into being in the years after “The Tanks of Tammuz.”

But he was, and still is, the theoretician with the most influence on Israeli military thought, the leading spokesman of the “ground maneuver school” that preaches occupation of the enemy’s territory as a lever for victory in war. He’s also the most severe opponent of the “blast school” that relies on the air force. His outlook reverberates in every discussion of the IDF’s structure and its operational doctrine.

"The Tanks of Tammuz" author Shabtai Teveth: a marvelous storyteller.Credit: Tali Shani

Teveth describes Tal as a philosopher-officer who enjoyed discussions about Spinoza, nature and God. (His close friend Amos Oz helped him formulate the command at the outbreak of the Six-Day War.) The general explained his theory to one of his young officers. As Teveth puts it, Tal told his subordinate that nationalism, “as symbolized by flag, hymn and national tradition, was the cause of wars, evil and disaster . [t]he world was still a society of nation-states and Israel had no option but to be one herself, the more so because its people, who surely had suffered more than any other, were once more threatened with annihilation.”

In essence, Tal said, “To save my children, I am ready to destroy the whole world.” He felt the Holocaust acutely, Teveth writes, like many Jews in Israel, and he had no doubt that the Arabs intended to destroy Israel’s Jewish inhabitants.

Today this worldview is identified with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was conscripted into the army shortly after the Six-Day War. “The Tanks of Tammuz” teaches that this isn’t a right-wing ideology or nationalist position that Netanyahu received from his dominant father, as is often thought. This is the basic position of the Israeli mainstream, and it’s good to discover it in a book written 50 years ago in order to remember anew its deep roots in what is known today as “the center-left” and was known then as “the ruling party.”

To understand the Israelis’ identification with Netanyahu’s views, even when they’re disgusted by his personal conduct, one has to read Teveth. The author, too, thoroughly identifies with this position: He attributes the Israeli determination to fight in 1967 to the horrifying shadow of the Holocaust. He hasn’t the slightest doubt about the justness of the war, and he casts all the blame for its outbreak on the Arab side.

Teveth describes the apprehension he felt facing the massive concentration of Egyptian troops in Sinai and amid the world powers’ abandonment of Israel. The certainty of victory was instilled in Teveth by Ehud Elad, the tank regiment commander who would be killed in battle in northern Sinai. “Never have I been so inspired with confidence as by Major Elad. For me, he became the symbol of the men of Zahal’s combat units whose spirit inspired us all,” Teveth wrote at the start of the book.

Killing prisoners

Teveth also adopts without question the IDF’s self-image as a moral army. His heroes honor the Geneva Convention, take proper care of prisoners and absolutely forbid looting. But today we know — even with strict military censorship — that during the Six-Day War Israeli officers and soldiers (though not specifically under Tal’s command) killed scores of prisoners of war in a number of shocking acts of slaughter. In “The Tanks of Tammuz” there’s not even a hint of this. I don’t know if Teveth had any knowledge of them, if he censored himself or tried to publish something about them and was censored. In any case, the result mars the reliability of his story.

The Israeli army in the desert during the Six-Day War, June 1967.Credit: Fondation Gilles CARON / Gamma-

Tal, who received his military education in the British Army’s Jewish Brigade during World War II, was appointed commander of the Armored Corps in 1964 and tried to instill strict discipline there in accordance with the principle that “an order is obeyed because it is an order.”

This wasn’t simple; disobedience and rebellion were still strong in the minds of Israeli Jews, as Teveth explains. He devotes many pages to his hero’s conception of command and his relations with his subordinates, toward whom he behaved like a worried and strict father. He prettifies the picture to some extent; everyone who knew Talik knew his two weaknesses: public humiliation of his subordinates (which Teveth mentions, but delicately) and his love of publicity, whose greatest achievement is his starring role in “The Tanks of Tammuz.” The best-seller firmly established the general’s reputation.

But for all Teveth’s enthusiasm about Tal the ideologue and the builder of the Armored Corps, and however much he praises the achievements of his division against a larger Egyptian force, Teveth also presents the greatest failure of the Israeli “Mr. Tank”: The moment the shooting began, his discipline and orders were cast aside and replaced by scorn for the enemy, risk-taking and the ignoring of orders. The results were seen in the military cemeteries — just as Talik had warned his commanders and his fighters, and they didn’t listen to him.

The disarray began with the start of the war, even before the crossing of the border, when a tank driver backed up and ran over and killed the driver of the jeep behind him. As the fighting continued, the discipline crumbled and the corpses piled up.

The book’s strongest chapters describe, in the days of waiting before the war, the farewell moments between the commanders who would be killed in battle and their wives and children — the dreams that never came true, the baby born an orphan, the wife who begged the regiment commander to shut himself in the turret and was falsely assured she had nothing to worry about; the tank would protect him. Some of these men and women got to know each other in what today would be described as “prohibited consensual sexual relations.” The pet name “Doll” that Tal gave his female bureau chief also sounds jarring and chauvinist today. That’s how they spoke and behaved back then.

Teveth doesn’t spare readers descriptions of his protagonists’ fatal mistakes. One of them ignored an order not to go beyond the range of radio communications; he rushed to the finish line at the Suez Canal with a small force and fell into an ambush from which he didn’t return. Another thought that, during the fighting, he could train an experienced soldier as a loader. His lack of professionalism exacted a price: A shell hit the barrel during battle; the commander stuck his head out of the turret to see what had happened and was killed immediately. Another lit a flare to search for the enemy at night and took a direct hit. (The army, in the way of all armies, awarded them posthumous decorations.) Another abandoned a wounded soldier to his death when his tank crew fled.

The heroes who returned alive also courted death with unrestrained irresponsibility, above all the commander of the 7th Brigade, Gorodish, who during battle rode in an unarmored and unaccompanied jeep into the depths of the area held by the Egyptians in Rafah.

Israel’s village idiots

Teveth has an explanation for this behavior. When the IDF reserves are called up, Israel becomes the IDF and Israel looks like a village where a bunch of its young people are trying to relieve the boredom by jumping off the water tower. The main thing is to prove one’s courage. In other words, Tal and Gorodish are responsible for the achievements, and the responsibility for the failures lies with their soldiers’ deficient character. The Israeli character is the antagonist in this story, not the enemy armies.

Kinneret Zmora-Bitan and Teveth’s family (he died in 2014) have chosen to publish the new edition in its original form (the 1968 Hebrew version was published by Schocken). They merely added an introduction by current Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, words of praise from some former chiefs of staff and an updated list of Armored Corps commanders.

The reissue cover of Shabtai Teveth's "Exposed in the Turret" (known in English as "The Tanks of Tammuz").Credit: Hakibbutz Hameuchad

It’s possible to justify keeping the text as originally published, but the book cries out for an epilogue. First, such an addition could fill in details that had been eliminated by the military censor, above all the full names of the officers who were serving in the career army and appeared in the book only under their first names. Even Gorodish’s name was censored.

This would let readers know, for example, that 1st. Lt. Amram from Ehud Elad’s tank is now a former opposition leader, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amram Mitzna, and that other junior officers whose stories are told in “The Tanks of Tammuz” wound up in senior positions in the army and public life. Others were killed in subsequent wars or in accidents and deserve credit. Anyone who reads the book today but isn’t conversant enough to figure out who’s being discussed misses out on part of the contemporary context of “The Tanks of Tammuz.”

More importantly, today we know the bleak end of the story. Six years after the huge victory of “The Tanks of Tammuz,” the same protagonists led the IDF into the disaster of the Yom Kippur War. Tal, Gorodish and their minions in the top brass truly believed that the solution to Israel’s security problems lay in tank assaults. They emaciated the infantry in the years after 1967, ignored the acquisition of anti-tank missiles in the Egyptian army and forgot – or never understood – that in 1967 they were fighting an army that had lost its air power in the opening blow, its senior command had collapsed, and even in its hopeless condition had caused severe losses to the IDF.

It didn’t occur to them that the Arab losers would study the IDF’s weak points and find an operational and tactical response. The result is engraved on the hundreds of tombstones of the dead in the holding actions in 1973 trying to push back the Egyptians crossing the Suez Canal and the Syrians invading the Golan Heights — and were themselves pushed back.

Maj. Gen. Israel Tal. Commanded the division that did the heavy lifting in conquering Sinai during the Six-Day War in June 1967.Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO

Teveth, of course, isn’t responsible for the military command’s failures, but “The Tanks of Tammuz” strengthened the image of its protagonists as military geniuses whose achievements surpassed those of the glorious tank officers of World War II. Apparently he believed this. Thus he contributed to the Israeli hubris between the two wars. It’s a pity he didn’t write a sequel with a reckoning of conscience and lessons learned after the Yom Kippur War.

Ultimately, and after several more less successful wars and operations, the Armored Corps was restored to the role it played in its earliest days, as ancillary firepower to support the infantry. That’s the mission that was fulfilled by the tanks in Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip three years ago. The battlefields of today in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza aren’t suited to an Armored Corps attack like the expanses of Sinai were, and the government fears ground battles that lead to many losses and diplomatic problems; it prefers to play the more certain card of the air force.

Still, despite the current misgivings about assaults by the Armored Corps, the spirit of the heroes of “The Tanks of Tammuz” still hovers over Israel’s military headquarters and training bases. Anyone interested in the roots of Israel’s military record mustn’t miss this reissued book.

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