It has been ten years since Howard Blum wrote “Eve of Destruction”, a non-fiction account of the Yom Kippur War. Mr. Blum had one of his books turned into a motion picture and he seemed to have this in mind in writing this book. It reads like a screen-play. While more current histories are written in a narrative style, the author’s stylistic “historical fiction” makes you wonder where the dividing line is. The book is a page turner this despite this deficit.
There are general lessons to be learned from this book. Two that are illustrated are: the influence of internal and external politics on military strategy and outcome, and the risk of failure from complacency and arrogance.
Israel began to believe its own invincibility after the Six Day War. Before the Yom Kippur War its arab neighbors had negligible training and inferior weaponary. Both were improved by the time of the Yom Kippur War and the numerical superiority of Egypt and Syria continued to exist. Given Israel’s size and fighting population it cannot sustain a long war and its superiority is based on its air force. In time Israel’s superiority will further narrow, so having destablized neighbors engaged in in-fighting is temporarily beneficial to it.
The in-fighting amongst Israel’s general command before and during the Yom Kippur War is not unique to Israel. The military is a pathway to political power in Israel and both generals and politicians were at times as or more focused on their political career than on their mission. The more striking point in the book is the limitation of U.S. political support on Israeli military strategy. This too is not unknown, but the degree of it even in critical situations is remarkable. Israel had innumerable indications and warnings that its was to be attacked and could have taken pre-emptive action. Had it so acted the result would more likely have been like the Six Day War, if there would have been a war at all. Due to its fear of upsetting U.S. political support it waited until it was attacked. Israel’s complancency and arrogance lead it not to prepare and compounded its problem and near destruction. Nonetheless this second guessing of U.S. reaction is constantly in the minds of Israel’s leaders and its general command. It is an unhealthy dependency and one which is a double edged sword.
The book describes the Egyptian perspective, but perhaps due to the availability of sources, it is more focused on Israel’s. A question that the book leaves unanswered is the duplicity of cease-fire arrangements. There was a point during the Yom Kippur War that Israel believed it would be overrun. It had armed its nuclear warheads and Golda Meir had pills to commit suicide. Given its small land mass had Syria crossed the Jordan, as then seemed likely, any international effort to have a cease-fire would have been too late. The book does not address whether any such effort was being planned by the U.S., Russia and the U.N. It does not seemed to have been the case, although it is likely that both the U.S. and Russia would have known about the arming of the nuclear weapons. The book does note that after Israel started to bring more forces across the Suez into Egypt, a cease-fire resulted. It is not likely that Israel would have wanted to conquer Egypt as it could not sustain such a victory given differences in population and issues of supply lines. Egypt had no nuclear weapons to use, so why the cease-fire in one case and not the other. The book does not address this.
Given a historical mindset of persecution it is easy to understand in light of the Yom Kippur war why Israel does not place too much weight on the U.S. or any international body coming to its defense. This is not a healthy situation as increasingly it will become like a cornered animal. Both Israel and its arab neighbors remain pawns in an international game. They each bear responsibility for their predicament, but it increasingly seems less self-correcting. This October will be the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. I would not be surprised if there is unwanted pyrotechnics.
This is a book worth reading.