Review: The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War

Avi Shlaim a Marxist historian at Oxford in England has said about the 1948 Israel War of Independence, one of his favorite writing subjects:

<<<<<<<<Most of the voluminous literature on the war was written not by professional historians but by participants, by politicians, soldiers, official historians, and a large host of sympathetic chroniclers, journalists, biographers, and hagiographers and should therefore be rejected.>>>>>>>>>>>>

Shlaim’s dismissal here of all but official government documents to write history could be just as easily said about the Six Day War of 1967 as 1948.

Thankfully, writers like Steven Pressfield are not listening to Shlaim and others who would throw out valuable historical documentation of these other accounts, in this case  soldiers talking about their experiences after the fact. Yes, sometimes it becomes distorted. Memories become blurred, what happened the night before really happened on the day after, a week ago, or remembered just differently. But, for those accounts which are accurate and even for those that are not, to entirely dismiss this as non history is to deny historians a window into the past which can give a personal meaning to war, its effects and its legacy.

Steven Pressfield’s expose of the Six Day War in June of 1967, is written this way, from the point of view of the Israelis who fought it. (The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Line of the Six Day War, published by Sentinel, New York: 2014.)

Pressfield makes very clear from his introduction to dissuade Shliam’s narrowed view of collecting history:

<<<<<<<”It is not a comprehensive history of the Six Day War. Entire battles have been left out. Critical contextual material such as the international diplomatic and political state of affairs prior to the war, the point of view of the Arabs, even the history of the Jewish people has been included only as it touches upon the testimony of the central personalities of this piece, the war veterans themselves.”>>>>>>>>>>>

Pressfield wanted to give the reader a different experience. He was fascinated by the “subjected immediacy of the event.” He wanted a sense of being “in the cockpit, inside the tank , under the helmet.” This reviewer believes he accomplished that.

He conducted over 60 interviews for this book from 2011-2012 talking to soldiers from the United States, France and Israel. For those who are already past, and who could not for various reasons sit down for interviews, he did, with their permission and permission from their estates take excerpts from past writings and worked them into the narrative.

The pilots who flew the now famous preemptive strike on the Egyptian air fields that June 5 morning describe in detail their approach, their kill shots, and their returns, a perspective you can’t get from after action, battlefield or situation reports. The anguish they felt when one of their squadron was lost, and how they would return to fly sortie after sortie, in Sinai, in the West Bank and the Golan Heights for the duration of the war.

Named “Operation Moked” actually began as the brainchild of Ezer Weizmann, the commander of the Israel Air Force, in 1962. It came out of contingency plans for total war, against Syria, Egypt and Jordan, as the Soviet Union continually armed the Arab States giving them a massive quantitative edge. By the time of implementation on the morning of June 5, 1967, the Israelis knew exactly what they were doing. Some have said and Pressfield brings this up in his book, that the war was won during those first few hours of destroying most of the Arab air force. The rest was “mop up.”

But, maybe the most compelling part of that war and Pressfield’s compilation of it was the taking of Jerusalem. On the day the war started the battle plan was to leave Jerusalem and the West Bank out of it. The Israelis told King Hussein if he stays out of the conflict Israel will not attack his territory. That all changed at about 10:30 that first morning when the Jordanians began shelling into Jewish Jerusalem.

The Paratroopers, a generation of young soldiers who had never been to the “Old City” didn’t even know where The Wall (Ha Kotel) was.  When they reached it and secured the position some cried and others prayed at it, even while there was sporadic fighting throughout the city. The sacrifice of battalion 66 at Ammunition Hill  (Givat HaTachmoshet) and the changed look on Ariel Sharon’s face hundreds of miles away in Sinai when he heard over the radio and told his officers, “Jerusalem is in our hands.” All of this being told by the soldiers themselves, who were there, and who experienced it.  If you are supporter of Israel you cannot get through these passages without being moved by them. It is, and will remain one of the most emotional moments in Jewish history.

Pressfield does pay some homages to the past. Joseph Trumpeldor, one of the legendary Jewish heroes even before the mandate who was killed fighting Arab marauders at Tel Hai in 1920. Captain Orde Wingate, one of the few British mandate soldiers assigned to Palestine who actually supported the Zionist cause and was responsible for many of the tactics employed by the IDF in its early years.

He dedicates the book to Lou Lenart who was one of the original Mitnadvim (foreign volunteers) who made up the IAF in the 1948 war. He also includes a chapter on Lenart’s history in that war. It’s a break from the 1967 action. Some might find it distracting but to Israeli history hounds like myself, I loved every minute of it. I know exactly where Pressfield was coming from by adding it.

Also included, was the Sinai campaign of which many of those officers who fought the Six Day War, were soldiers eleven years earlier in 1956. That perspective plays an important role on their thinking in Pressfield’s IDF narratives for the next war.

One other homage was a little less obvious, but nonetheless extremely poignant. It was added as a postscript.  A book published in English in 1970, “The Seventh Day,” is set up the same way as Pressfield’s work. The difference is most of the interviews and discussions in that book are how they felt about the war, during and after it, their hopes and fears for the future.  Although some battle scenes are presented it is mostly philosophy and was conducted exclusively with Kibbutzniks, a past Israel when the Kibbutz, its people, and its symbol of Jewish liberty were the socialist democracy that prevailed within the State.

Pressfield’s work includes the kibbutz but is not exclusive to those participants, which makes his work more metropolitan in design, a more modern look at the State from a 21st century example. Pressfield differs from “The Seventh Day” in that his interviews were less about the philosophical and more about the soldier in the field, doing what soldiers do in war—killing the enemy.

The postscipt in “The Lion’s Gate,” can be found in “The Seventh Day” from Abba Kovner, of Kibbutz Ein Hachoresch. Kovner described watching Israel mobilize from a civilian to a military country within hours before the war actually started. The newsstand owner, the sales girl across the street, the butcher next door, and a group of young men huddled around a transistor radio down the block, peeling off one by one as each heard the code name for their unit’s mobilization. “A silence like no other silence enveloped the city.”

Pressfield credits “After These Things” a different publication where Kovner’s description is rewritten. It doesn’t appear in the bibliography but added as a postscript there probably wasn’t time. I only know about Kovner’s entry because I have “The Seventh Day” in my personal library and it was a passage that has stuck with me over the years.

The Israelis lost approximately 800 soldiers in that war with thousands more injured. That is far cry from the 6000 deaths they had experienced nineteen years earlier in their War of Independence but still, the pain of losing loved ones, friends, sons, daughters, husbands, uncles, fathers, that pain is not reduced by lesser casualties for those who experience it. Several passages in the book the soldiers describe how all they want is revenge for the way their buddies who were killed in battle, giving further confirmation of a true band of brothers’ mentality in war. As described here by the Israeli soldiers who fought it, you will not get a closer examination into fighting war and how it is perceived in real time than Steven Pressfield’s “The Lion’s Gate.”

About the Author
Larry Hart has been writing and commenting on Jewish issues since 1985. His body is in the U.S., but his heart is in Israel.