Today on the civilian calendar marks 40 years to the Yom Kippur War. While we in Israel have already been marking this occasion since Yom Kippur on the Jewish calendar a few weeks ago, today is the day the rest of the world recalls this watershed event in both our history and that of the Middle East. A phenomenon that has surfaced during this period is that veterans are telling their stories. Little known details of amazing valor during battles, previously unpublished transcripts of a desperate dialogue between military and political leaders, the unreal accomplishments of men and units in incredibly difficult situations, are all coming out now. The press has given this phenomenon attention. It is almost as if the 40th anniversary signaled the moment to let out what has been kept quiet for so long.
Desperate situations, especially in battle, tend to bring out the best in people. Heroes and legends are born. Some of these people we know about. Many we only learn about after many years. Many of these heroic stories we will never hear about, as there is no one to tell them.
When growing up in the United States, I was drawn, like many others, to the American Civil War. I visited most of the battlefields with my parents as a child and continued my fascination with the subject to this day. I’m not the only one. These past two years and the next two, mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. This past July 1-3 marked the 150th anniversary of the greatest battle ever fought on the American continent – Gettysburg. Some 300,000 people attended the commemoration and 10,000 people participated in the reenactment of the battle. That’s some serious interest. (Check out this article from CNN on the subject http://edition.cnn.com/2013/06/28/travel/gettysburg-anniversary/index.html )
When I made Aliyah back in 1988, I began to connect with our own military history in Israel. I never participated in a reenactment, but I did serve for many years in the IDF (and still proudly serve in the reserves to this day). One of the people I had the honor of working with in a fantastic program called “In the Footseps of Warriors” (which brings high school students to the Golan to learn about the battles fought there in 1967 and 1973) was Avigdor Kahalani, the hero of the battle of the Valley of Tears in the Golan Heights during the Yom Kippur War. For many years when I served in the IDF Spokesman’s Unit and would take American visitors to the Valley of Tears battlefield, I couldn’t help but make the comparison to the battle of Gettysburg, which though fought 150 years ago and with different technology, was almost the same battle, with the same dire consequences on the line and a similar result at the end.
I have always found this comparison fascinating and feel it appropriate to share as we mark the 40th and 150th anniversaries, respectively, of the battles of the Valley of Tears and Gettysburg.
The southern invasion of the north could have ended the war in the South’s favor, had they won a decisive victory at Gettysburg. On the second day of that great battle that cost 50,000 casualties, the Union Army was sitting pretty on the high ground. General Robert E. Lee tried to flank the Union lines by a courageous attack on a hill called Little Round Top. Only moments before the Southerners charged up the hill, the Northerners realized there wasn’t anyone manning this critical position and rushed as many people as could be rounded up to defend the hill at all costs. The last men in line were under the command of Lt. Col. Joshua Chamberlain. If the Confederates got past them, there was no one behind them. The Union lines would be cut off from Washington. Under Chamberlain’s direction, the line held against charge after charge until finally, there was no ammunition left. Chamberlain ordered a counter charge down the hill with bayonets and this, after more than 10 Southern charges, is what finally settled the manner. This forced Lee’s hand the next day to gamble on what became Pickett’s Charge, a final, desperate charge of 12,000 people across a one mile open field into the waiting Union cannon and rifles. They never had a chance. That was the turning point of the war.
Fast forward to 1973. On the third day of fighting in the northern sector of the Golan Heights, while the regular Israeli forces were holding the lines until the reserves could arrive, the situation became desperate. The Syrians had overrun the Israeli positions in the southern Golan and were now poised to do the same in the northern sector. If they succeeded, there would be nothing stopping them from continuing across the narrow state, some 50 miles to Haifa, effectively cutting Israel in two. What stood between the were the remnants of the 77th brigade of the 7th Division fighting on the Golan, commanded by Lt. Col. Avigdor Kahalani. Several hundred Syrian tanks were quickly moving across the valley. Some 40 Israeli tanks were all that stood in their way. The Israeli tanks, some without ammunition, feared being exposed by advancing towards the rampart from where they would control the valley below. But Kahalani pushed, bullied, threatened, did whatever necessary to push them, ultimately saying he was going himself, that everyone who could should follow. And slowly they did. It was a race to the high ground (just like at Little Round Top) but once the Israeli tanks reached the rampart, they controlled everything below and one by one, as if in a shooting gallery, destroyed the Syrian tanks. By battle’s end, some 70 had been destroyed, the Israeli position had held, the Syrian attack had faltered. A couple of days later, with the arrival of the reserves, the Israeli army counterattacked into Syria and as we say, the rest (huge Israeli victory) is history
Two different battles celebrating landmark occasions this year fought 110 years apart, yet so similar in nature. So similar in the heroism displayed. So similar in the potential consequence of failure and so similar in the consequence of the success. While I remain a buff of the Civil War, the heroic tales of our own wars is far closer to home, especially with a son in the army. And like the rest of Israel, I pay tribute to all those who fought and to those who fell, with a solemn salute.