Forty-five years ago, on that ill-fated Saturday afternoon, the piercing sirens shattered our lives. I know this is a well-trodden cliché but this is how it happened. My brother and I were at our mother’s flat in Haifa, rejoicing over the birth of his firstborn son on that morning when the sirens blew and he, a wounded Golani veteran of the Six Day War only said: “they got us with our pants down!” We shook hands and rushed to our respective battalions (this was another cliché, which really took place on that day). We met again some two months later, when both of us decided independently to sign in for regular service because of the imperative and obvious needs of the army. I abandoned my plans to go to school in England and he just left his civilian job to rejoin the army.
I did my initial military service of nearly four years during the “Phony Years” between 1967 and 1973. I cannot say that my generation had ever given a thought to the possibility of a successful Arab surprise attack. It was the time of “we had never had it so good” or “it’s better to have Sharm al-Sheik without peace than peace without Sharm al-Sheik”, as Moshe Dayan put it. I cannot even say that my generation knew much about, or cared for the various political initiatives, from the Gunnar Jarring plan to the William Rogers imitative. They were just news items on a TV screen and thus not a real part of our lives.
Consequently, when the war did come we were taken by surprise. I was shocked to witness an Israeli F-4 Phantom shot down, crashing ablaze into a barren hill. The large numbers of casualties and the pictures of Israeli prisoners of war took us aback violently. We were short of equipment and of operational ideas. In my unit we only had a few bazooka recoilless anti-tank rocket launchers with which we were supposed to stop the Arab Legion. Still, my CO, a gallant “war horse” of previous campaigns, was very eager to enroll us in real fighting; any fighting. Luckily, the Jordanians did not attack us.
Our spirits held up, though, and I think that, as an army we lived up to the spirit of Douglas Haig’s ‘With our Backs to the Wall’ communiqué of the spring of 1918, or, closer to home, to the desperate determination of our parents in the 1948 War of Independence.
We came out of the Yom Kippur war a scarred and angry generation. We bitterly blamed Prime Minister Golda Meir for “not advancing the tools” as Menachem Begin bellowed on the Knesset floor. We took to the streets in the name of our fallen friends and could not comprehend why Golda did not order a 1967-style preemptive strike.
I am older now and perhaps a little wiser so I can empathize with her dilemma. She could not risk losing the international and especially the American understanding and she did not, or maybe could not, know how hollow the military upper echelon were. Was she a part of the overall national hubris? Maybe she never even guessed the real problem, which to me today was not the failure of intelligence gathering or analysis but the emptiness of our conceptual military and political frameworks.
In 1973, we closed our eyes to the gathering military storm. This may be the reason why I shudder now when I hear some lofty talking heads echoing the mantra that there is no challenge to Israel and no coalition that could endanger us. They remind me of the pre-1973 euphoria, hubris and concept. Do we close our eyes now to the rolling political and diplomatic thunder? I am impressed by the lavish support of the United States and I am grateful. However, how long will this continue? I listen to my old commanding officer at the National Defense College, General Yitzhak Brik, who rings the alarm bells over the military readiness situation and make them toll for me on the diplo-political level as well.
We should listen to the concerned voices. We should check carefully politicians’ statements bragging over dubious partnerships with non-liberal Europe. We should balance coolly our international situation and rebuild the Foreign Ministry as the national agency entrusted with disturbing phenomena like the BDS movement and the entire global arena. This should help in preventing a state of national witlessness such as we were drenched in before 1973. This should also help us identify signals of of peace, should they present themselves. Above all, we should never stick to our intellectual comfort zone and succumb to complacency, be it political, social or military. We should stay alert, warn against the return of hubris and always prepare for conflict — and for peace.