Israel's Swift Sword
This report on the people, the planning, and the mission of the Israeli armed forces comes with special appropriateness from the author of THE GUNS OF AUGUST,the memorable book about the opening of World War I. Mrs. Tuchman’s recounting of great plans gone awry and thousands sacrificed to human vanity and error in August, 1914‚ has become required reading among statesmen today. Some of its chapters were included, in training courses for the Israeli officers who engineered the victory over the Arabs. To compile this first of two articles for the ATLANTIC, Mrs. Tuchman went to Israel and interviewed Israeli officials and fighting men, from top commanders to privates.
A PEOPLE considered for centuries nonfighters carried out in June against long odds the most nearly perfect military operation in modern history. Surrounded on three sides, facing vast superiority in numbers and amount of armament‚ fighting alone against enemies supported and equipped by a major power‚ and having lost the advantage of surprise, they accomplished the rarest of military feats, the attainment of exact objectives — in this case the shattering of the enemy’s forces and the securing of defensible lines — within a given time and with absence of blunder. The war‚ which taken as a whole was the greatest battle ever fought in this area‚ shook the world, leaving local and international balances in new focus, incidentally rescuing the United States from a critical position, and, not the least of effects, exposing a profound failure of Russian calculations and presumably of military intelligence. That the armed forces who achieved this result drew on statehood of less than twenty years and on a population more than half immigrant raises questions about the components of effective military power. Who are the Israeli Defense Forces (I.D.F.), and how did they do it?
The fundamental components were, of course‚ motivation and compelling necessity, but all the will in the world would not have sufficed without capacity. What furnished capacity primarily was that the brainpower with which this people is endowed was channeled for the first time since the Exile into the military art in defense of their own homeland.
Second, they developed by conscious choice of their General Staff what it calls “the Israeli answer,” in tactics, weaponry, and training‚ to suit their own needs and people in the particular war they had to fight. Partly this was a military decision, partly it reflected political experience of disillusionment in reliance on others, basically it was temperamental‚ deriving from the enforced selfreliance of the early Zionist settlers from whom the higher-grade officers, largely native-born‚ descend.
The third component of capacity was development of a military doctrine based on absolute fulfillment of mission by all ranks under all circumstances and the fullest exploitation of every resource, particularly knowledge of the enemy and weapon capacity. A tank‚ plane, or gun in Israeli hands is expected to outperform its equal in other hands. The principle of exploitation is also applied to opportunities as they develop in battle‚ based on belief in improvisation‚ in action if not in plan.
Finally, the manpower of the nation, which up to the age of forty-nine constitutes the active reserve, was kept prepared through constant and rigorous exercises that were not always merely for training. A young reserve officer returning home after a brief call-up and asked by his parents what he had been doing, replied succinctly, “Shooting infiltrators.” What forged the Israeli armed forces was that the state had never known peace.
I hree conditions at the time the state came into being determined the kind of army it would have to create: absence of peace, limitations of geography‚ and limitations of manpower and money. A fourth, which was an advantage, was foreknowledge of a specific enemy, familiar and contiguous.
When the war of independence of 1948 was halted by armistice without a treaty, the battered defenders, taking stock, realized that they had won a state but not peace. Across an elongated unnatural border, curving in haphazard knobs and bulges that marked positions on the day of the truce, they faced frustrated, embittered neighbors subjected to a constant propaganda of revenge. Geography was against the Israelis: they had no natural obstacles on which to base a defense, no territory to yield, and no room to retreat. Unlike larger countries, they could not afford mistakes like that of France in 1914 or rebound from an initial disaster like Dunkirk or Pearl Harbor. This lact dictated a strategy, should it become necessary, of carrying war to the enemy, and the initial strike could not be allowed to fail. Other countries can face the possibility of defeat or invasion and expect to survive, with limited or lost independence. For Israel, its people believed, defeat would mean annihilation. Once inside Israel‚ said General Amos Horev, Deputy Chief Scientist of the I.D.F., the Arabs “would have cut us to ribbons.” As commander of a battalion in the fighting for Jerusalem in 1948, General Horev, who looks more like a Yale oarsman than a general officer, had had to leave his dead on the field and had come back next day to bury them. He found the bodies hacked into pieces, and with the help of another officer, matched up limbs and heads with torsos, knowing each of the dead personally, before burial. Many others knew from experience like that of the Hebron massacre of 1929 what it would mean if the Arabs were ever to gain the upper hand.
Limited manpower and money precluded a standing army adequate to the task of defense. The solution arrived at was dependence on a small professional career force which, together with each class of draftees serving their two and a hall years of military duty, would constitute a standing nucleus. The rest, amounting in the June war to about 80 percent of the total, must be drawn in emergency from a national reserve in civil life. The problem was how to organize, train, and keep up to date this reserve so that it would be mobilizable in twenty-four hours and able to take the field in forty-eight. This required an “Israeli answer‚” since no other country had the same problem under the same conditions. The United States counts on three weeks to put the Reserve into action. An adaptation of the Swiss system was worked out by which each locality formed its own brigade — except for special volunteer units like the paratroopers or the Air Force — thus saving time in assembly. Depots for the equipment of each unit are set up, with maintenance taken care of by the draftees and regulars.
Reservists are kept to the necessary degree of readiness and fitness, with one foot in the army, by annual training periods of a month for enlisted men and five or six weeks for officers, plus shorter call-ups of up to three days every three months, depending on type of unit and the need.
THE ESPRESSO GENERATION
The I.D.F. is the nation, not a section of it. Bus drivers became tank drivers and are now back on their local routes. A supermarket manager who commanded a battalion in Sinai and captured an Egyptian general, has returned to his groceries. Even one divisional commander was a reservist — General Avram Yoffe, who is Parks Commissioner in civil life. The kibbutzim, representing 6 to 7 percent of the population, with their long commitment to the land and strong ideological tradition, provided 50 percent of the officers and 25 percent of casualties. Virtually every family had connection with someone in the war. “My niece’s husband who captured Government House,” or “Jaacov’s brother on the PT boat,” is part of every conversation.
The surprise was the performance of the “espresso” generation in their twenties, mistrusted by their elders, who considered that they had discarded the old ideals and sat around in the cafés over espresso, long on apathy and short on dedication. In the test it was these young men who carried the bulk of the combat with a fierce commitment that was as important to the nation as the victory itself.
Regional organization of units gave added incentive in battle, as in the Northern Command, when men fighting the Syrians were defending or avenging their own frequently shelled villages. Wherever they came from‚ said one officer‚ “whether from the Galilee, Tel Aviv, or the Negev, each man fought as if everything depended on him.” In the general mobilization for the crisis, units often found themselves with 20 percent surplus. Men over-age or not called for some other reason appeared anyway‚ including a father in one brigade who joined his son, and were accepted as familiar faces by the company commander without too much question. He does not care who is surplus, General Chaim Barlev, Deputy Chief of Staff‚ explained: “Only the computer knows later.”
Units trained for years in terms of a particular terrain. All the relevant information that could be obtained before war was assembled and learned. The I.D.F. allotted a higher percentage of ammunition — up to 50 percent of total training ammunition — to actual tactical problems with fire rather than to range marksmanship as in other countries.
The I.D.F. does not believe in officers’ starting as officers but selects candidates for officer training from the draftees who show promise, after they have learned how it feels to serve as a private. Candidates must survive rigorous testing and pass through NCO school and service first. Reserve officers of company level and up are required to take three-month courses every two or three years or else give up their commissions.
Because of stringent budgets, officers’ training in Israel is more condensed than in any other country, lasting no more than six months for the ground forces. When they leave‚ according to General Uzi Narkis, chief of the Central Command, “they feel the gap between what they have learned and what they ought to know and so they try to learn more on their own.” A small, compact, brighteyed, serious man who established his headquarters in the Old City of Jerusalem after hostilities and drives there in his car unescorted‚ he talked sitting with one leg tucked under him, sipping the bottled orange drink on which the I.D.F. fought the war. The Jews’ intellectual curiosity, he said, was an important military asset. “They want to know why; why this hill‚ not the other, why this way rather than that. They are skeptical and critical. Israelis are critical of everything, all the time, of the government, the army, of themselves. It is important for an officer to be self-critical — and obstinate. He must be obstinate about sticking to his mission until it is carried out.” The three essentials for an officer, he said‚ are a spirit of inquiry‚ execution of mission, and orientation — to the terrain and the task. “And of course leadership and audacity‚ that is understood.” An officer is one who leads, and to lead he has to be ahead, “ahead too of what occurs.” Evidence that officers led their units during the six days of June was a casualty rate of 30 percent compared with less than 10 percent for the whole.
The officer class is young; youth is a fetish of the I.D.F. Yigael Yadin, now professor of archaeology and director of the historic Masada dig‚ was thirtythree as Chief of Operations in the war of 1948. The present Chief of Staff‚ General Itzhaak Rabin, now forty-six, was appointed at forty-three, and his staff on average is probably the youngest in the world. This is deliberate policy reflecting the military leaders’ tense consciousness that on them may depend at any moment the country’s continued existence. They are determined to maintain the I.D.F. primed to the last minute, never satisfied, constantly improving.
NO FOREIGN ADVISERS
For the General Staff and virtually all highergrade officers now over the age of forty, as well as many of the enlisted men, this is their fourth war. They fought in World War II as part of the British Army, in their own war of independence against the Arabs in 1948, and in the Sinai Campaign against Egypt in 1956. In 1941 when Palestine seemed in danger of invasion by Rommel’s forces in North Africa, its young Jewish citizens joined either the British Army or the Palmach, the professional nucleus of the Haganah, whose members were intensively trained for resistance to the expected invasion. It was then that their attention was first turned to the Sinai Peninsula‚ for that would have been Rommel’s route. After 1945 the Palmach gained another kind of military experience in the illegal struggle to bring in the refugees. Its seagoing and coastal operations in that effort provided the early experience of Israel’s Navy. Facing the coming showdown with the Arabs upon end of the Mandate, the Palmach began that systematic study of the enemy which was to give the I.D.F. of 1967 the most thorough and accurate information ever provided by any Intelligence to Operations.
The present Chief of Staff‚ the Deputy Chief‚ the Chiefs of Intelligence, of Operations, of the Air Force, and Armored Corps, as well as the three area commanders‚ are all veterans either of the British Army or the Palmach, and all but three are Palestine-born.
Most of the high command have studied briefly at the command and staff colleges in France, Britain, and the United States‚ but this is nothing they boast of; it has to be pried out of them. One theme they notably and unanimously maintain is refusal to acknowledge any debt to foreign methods or doctrines and insistence on their independent development. There are no foreign experts or advisers in the I.D.F.
The Israelis want to leave no doubt that they have grounded their armed forces on their own experience from the Palmach on. This effort too has been deliberate because, new to military endeavor and small in size, they have had to resist any temptation to follow some military father figure represented by one or another of the major powers. A deeper reason is the sense of uniqueness that has characterized the Jews since Abraham made his covenant with God. Recognizing both tendencies, General Ezer Weizmann, Chief of Operations of the I.D.F., said, “We had to guard against the extremes of being either too arrogant or too humble, saying ‘Oh, we are so tiny, tell us what to do.’” What influenced him at the Ecole de l’Etat Major, said General Aharon Yariv, Chief of Intelligence, was la méthods, a way of thinking and analyzing a problem, not the problem itself. He and his colleagues, when setting up their own General Staff school, “copied nothing.” Doctrine and methods had to be of practical value for local circumstances, not just repetitions of accepted principle, however classic.
These officers have in common a self-assurance so confident that it can afford to be quiet, if not exactly modest. There is no reluctance whatever to acknowledge, in the most charming and friendly way, that “we’re good” General Rabin, a subdued, thoughtful, intensely self-contained man and a chain smoker‚ conveying an impression of inner tension rigidly suppressed, is almost shy in company‚ but when talking on his subject, becomes magisterial. In all the staff and command officers an evident knowledge of their subject finds expression in readiness‚ even eagerness, to talk of it. They spill over with ideas. Because of the challenge and the need, the military profession in Israel can attract the finest energy of the country.
These are the officers and men who sprang into battle on June 5, who fought their way across Sinai almost without stopping for seventy-two hours except for refueling and one or two hours sleep; who in the case of one company of paratroopers fought on all three fronts, Sinai‚ Jerusalem, and Syria; who in the case of another unit continued to advance after all its officers one after the other were put out of action; who in the last two days plunged and scrambled up the Syrian heights against a position that even now‚ to anyone seeing its gun emplacements, lines of fire, cement bunkers, barbed wire and stone-lined trenches, seems impossible to have been taken by human assault.
The impetus and force that carried the Israelis forward through the six days cannot be understood separately from the period of crisis that preceded. The “tension,” as they call it, was the worst time, everyone agrees. The people at large, not sharing the high command’s exact knowledge of its own capacity, felt the enemy closing in. With Egyptian armor massing‚ the radios of Cairo, Damascus, and Amman bellowing annihilation, they saw the specter of genocide again. They knew they would have to fight alone if they fought at all. One by one the nations had dropped away from the proposed maritime armada to force the Gulf of Aqaba. The experience was familiar. Britain had closed the doors of Palestine to Jews seeking escape from Hitler. The UN after voting partition had left them to Arab attack, embargoing arms. The assurances of 1956 had not been honored. World indifference‚ they felt‚ was now repeating itself, leaving them to another “final solution.” The Nazi program to wipe out the Jews is never out of mind in Israel‚ and they lived with the knowledge that the Arabs who have adapted it to their purposes were now gathering for the attempt.
Alongside the fear and depression of some‚ a more resolute mood possessed others, a feeling that they had had enough of Arab belligerence, threats, sabotage, terrorists, and diversion of water‚ that this time they must make a thorough job of it. They had reached, in General Rabin’s words‚ “an accumulated frustration, because everybody felt that we had tried every way to avoid war but that now it was forced on us.”
For the high command the period of waiting was “agony,” for with each day that it was prolonged their war casualties would be that much greater. As compared with 1956, so they believed, they would be entering war at a greater disadvantage: this time the bulk of Egyptian force was already east of the Canal zone‚ with an enormous quantity of modern weapons and ten years of Soviet training they had lacked before. Israel would be advancing against them alone with no allies to pin down enemy planes; in addition it would be fighting on two, possibly three fronts instead of only in Sinai. Yet the alternative — acceptance of the blockade — would have been intolerable: “We would have been buried alive,” as one officer said. The decision had to be taken, for the choice, as summed up by the same man, was clear: “Not to be strong was to be smashed like a worm.” Held in restless waiting for three weeks‚ the I.D.F. shot forward as if released by a spring.
EIGHTEEN YEARS FOR EIGHTY MINUTES
Its spearhead was the Air Force, which established the conditions of victory — Air Chief General Mordecai Hod prefers to say “won the war,” but that seems unfair to the ground forces — in eighty minutes. “We planned and trained eighteen years for those eighty minutes,” he says, sparkling with pride. As commander of a performance of spectacular brilliance and sensational success he cannot hold in his delight. A smile quivers in his eyes and on his mouth as he talks, and breaks easily into a grin. He is brimming with happiness. Before succeeding to the command‚ Hod was for five years deputy commander under his no less exuberant predecessor, Ezer Weizmann‚ and they are much alike in style. Weizmann, nephew of Israel’s first President, was born in Tel Aviv and Hod in Israel’s oldest kibbutz‚ Degania A in the Galilee. At forty, he still flies every week with one of his squadrons, feeling that he must be able to do himself whatever he demands of them. It gives confidence in their orders to the fighter pilots‚ who start training at eighteen and whose average age is twenty-two to twenty-three.
The Air Force convinced its colleagues that though Israel might stand off the enemy, it could not win without air superiority. To create the perfect and infallible instrument for this purpose was the goal of Hod and Weizmann. Appointed to command the Air Force at thirty-four in 1958, Weizmann describes the following eight years until shifted to his present post as Chief of Operations as “the happiest of my life.” He was working on the frontiers of the jet age with knowledge of a vital task on which his country’s life depended.
Tall‚ slender‚ and voluble, with a small mustache and English-accented speech, Weizmann moves restlessly, flinging himself back in his chair, twisting his long legs over the arm, leaning forward to make a point, or striding up and down while rapid sentences tumble over each other in a losing race to keep up with his thoughts. He has a gift of distilled phrase. Speaking of the meaning of Jerusalem to a Jewish state‚ “I could not raise my children on the history of Tel Aviv.” Or on the incompatibility of national character as a factor in Russia’s imperfect success in training the Arabs, “What Ivan has in common with Muhamed‚ kill me if I know.” Because of the extraordinary record of the Air Force, he says, foreigners think it had some electronic, supersophistieated secret weapon, “something that whistles and sings the Hatikvah‚” but the answer was simpler than that: perfect command of the machine as redesigned and adapted to suit both the short distances of air war in the Middle East and Israel’s narrow means. In negotiating with the French, for instance, for purchase of Mirages in 1958-1959 the Israelis insisted on the plane’s having two cannon built into it although it was designed to carry only missiles. The French argued that with new sophisticated developments only missiles were needed in air-to-air combat, but the Israelis had a dual purpose in mind. They wanted to use the planes not only to intercept bombers and fight Mig 21’s, which carried missiles plus one cannon, but also to destroy planes on the ground, the essence of their strategy. Weizmann stuck to his guns and got them. “I wouldn’t have bought the planes without them.”
“We were fanatics in the Air Force,” he says. “We knew exactly what we wanted. We meant to rely on our own ideas and not be prisoners of computers.” This was the secret of their ultimate supreme confidence that “we could clobber the enemy,” even though the enemy represented the combined air forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Why? “Because the military world has become a victim of its own sophistication in weaponry‚ bewildered by the technology of the atom age. It has forgotten that brains, nerve, heart‚ and imagination are all beyond the capacity of the computer. No computer can go ‘beyond the call of duty‚’ but that is what medals are given for.”
The Air Force planned its weapons and trained its fliers in terms of an exact objective and the capacity of the enemy. On this problem Israel’s Intelligence forces went to work, collecting‚ piecing together, building up over months and years‚ by photo reconnaissance and other means, despite the disadvantage of having no military attachés or other representatives in the Arab countries‚ a complete picture of the enemy. “We knew everything about the Egyptian Air Force,” said Hod, “how they work, what was their training, where, when and how,” including exactly how long it took them to take to the air after an alert — up to twentyfive minutes on certain bases, in comparison to an Israeli figure which‚ though he would not disclose it, elicited from Hod his broadest smile.
No commander‚ he said, has ever been provided with better intelligence. So precise was his planning that he was able to take out the nearer Egyptian fighter bases before the more distant bombers and still reach the latter at the exact moment they were taxiing for the take-off.
The work of the Intelligence Corps is the ground on which the I.D.F. stands, and its chief‚ General Yariv, a spare‚ alert man in rolled-up sleeves and eyeglasses, is regarded by many as the key figure of the armed forces. Born in Latvia, he came to Palestine at fourteen, “young enough to be accepted by the Sabras‚ old enough to know the outside world.” He speaks six languages and is forty-six but looks ten years younger. To brief a roomful of 150 correspondents, covering the field from Kuwait to the Canal, discoursing on everything from weapons to politics, holding his auditors absorbed for over an hour while telling them nothing security would not permit them to know‚ fielding questions for another hour, and ending to spontaneous applause, immediately to be converged upon by a crowd eager for more — this was a bravura performance presented with the logic of a teacher and the instincts of an actor.
Israel’s Staff is exceedingly security-conscious, and nothing is to be learned of its intelligence methods. All that Yariv will say is that whatever means exist, “you can be sure we used all of them.” Meanwhile he has created a legend that has crossed the border. The Arab caretaker of an American institute in the Old City assured me that a knife-grinder of Bethany, living for seven years on a few piasters a day and posing as a kind of village jester dressed all in green, who told funny stories while turning his wheel outside the church door‚ was in reality an Intelligence agent and high officer of the Israeli Army. From this fairy tale he drew the not inappropriate moral, “It shows what they can do, and we have to learn.”
TO SEE AND TO SOLVE
In action the Israeli soldier demonstrated the basic precepts on which the I.D.F. was formed: the ability of the individual commander to see what in a situation could be exploited, and the flexibility to take advantage of the opportunity without referring to higher authority or sending for additional help—“to see and to solve,” as General Rabin puts it. Next, physical leadership by officers and in all ranks the spirit to carry out a given mission no matter what. In the desert a battalion, ordered to break through an Egyptian fortified position protected by a field solid with mines, failed and fell back, was ordered forward again, and with advance guards on hands and knees probing for the mines with steel wires, cleared a path and took the position. In the desperate rush to take the Syrian heights before cease-fire‚ men of one company flung their bodies on a barrier of barbed wire to let their fellows advance. In the unexpected battle for the heights outside Jerusalem when an artillery commander, lacking the necessary equipment, found himself unable to clear space for a gun emplacement, two reservists of his company who were residents of the city in the construction business offered to bring their own bulldozers and do the job, which they successfully accomplished. In Jerusalem, too‚ Colonel Motte Gur, commander of the paratroopers, personally led his troops in a charge through St. Stephen’s Gate against a barrier of an overturned Jordanian bus roaring in flames.
In initiative, persistence, and refusal of selfdeception the Israeli is the opposite of the Arab. The I.D.F., it must be remembered, does not exist in a vacuum; it is the obverse of its opponent, and any analysis of its performance must take the opponent into account. Where the Jew questions, the Arab dreams. To quote General Narkis, “The Arabs build castles in the air‚ and then become prisoners of their castles.” Where the Jew fights facts, the Arabs accept: it is the will of Allah.
Essentially the war was a conflict of societies whose terms can be seen any day on a road between Syria and Israel, literally brown on one side and green on the other. The Jews who made the state belong to the activist West, and through the Zionist experience of return, of colonizing and reviving the neglected land, of making it flourish and capable of supporting a modern nation‚ they have undergone a mental and emotional revolution. They have become masters of their fate instead of sufferers. Egypt and Syria, despite all the verbal socialism, have made no revolution‚ none that has reached down into the lives of the people. The Syrian peasant in a hovel on a miserable patch of ground‚ the Egyptian fellaheen of the delta with seven diseases per capita have no society so precious as to fight and die for.
Militarily the victory of two and a half million against fifty million was one of professionalism. The Egyptian officers, according to the Israelis, are not professionals at their job. They have no conception of precision, thoroughness of preparation‚ the obligations of leadership‚ or of the Israelis’ favorite tenet, “execution of mission.” When over a thousand years ago Arab conquerors swept triumphantly across North Africa they were fighting with their own weapons in their own tradition. Today, lacking the Israelis’ capacity to create their own armed forces, they are trying to operate in others’ terms. An Egyptian manual picked up in the desert still illustrates drill with drawings of flat-faced smiling Occidentals obviously taken from some British manual circa 1930. Jordan’s army is a British creation. Syrian Artillery listened to instructions in Russian. Egyptians were more dazed than aided by their Russian equipment. They fired not one — or possibly only one — missile from the twenty-odd SAM sites provided for them by the Russians. Their fighter pilots flew Mig’s but could not successfully fight in them. Their rocket crews lacked the accuracy to fire surface-to-surface missiles lest aiming at Tel Aviv they might leave Beirut in ruins. On the whole‚ as Nasser suspected, they are not yet fully capable of modern warfare. Nevertheless, their numbers, combined with Russian alliance, remain overwhelming and dangerous‚ and the Israeli command knows it can never succumb to the mood that says, “ The Arabs have surrounded us again, the poor bastards.”
Where the Israelis depend on mobility and penetration, the Arabs fight best from fortified positions. Scores of their Soviet heavy tanks were dug in for use as stationary artillery. They were captives of their wealth in manpower and armament. The Soviet-designed system, based on bands of entrenched positions and deep bunkers backed up to a depth of several kilometers, required enormous manpower to construct. “That’s for the rich,” say the Israelis. For all the Arabs’ deep resentment of the intruders in their world, and for all their pre-war threats and engineered orgies of hate, their cause against Israel is not for them a matter of life or death, and once they lost air cover they could neither advance nor hold their ground.
The Russians misjudged Arab capabilities — and Israel’s as well — perhaps because they are materialists, disinclined to give weight to imponderables. They ask scornfully, but doubtless in honest bewilderment, “How many divisions has the Pope?” The iron mass of armament they bestowed upon their clients, Mig’s, tanks, missile sites, rockets, anti-aircraft guns, half-tracks, tons and tons of other arms and ammunition, must have seemed to them certain to be decisive. They may have been misled too by customarily thinking of the Jews with contempt as victimized second-class citizens. They failed to recognize that the Israelis indeed possessed a secret weapon — a homeland.
THESE LIONS FOUGHT WITH TEARS
A final component of the I.D.F.’s capacity was the civil population — its other self. The outpouring of help, solicitude, and love in the form of letterwriting, home-baked cakes, sunburn cream, and other ministrations was phenomenal. The Israeli Air Force may have at this moment the finest combat fliers in the world, and the Israeli soldier may be the toughest fighter, but the campaign had its Jewish-mother aspect nevertheless. In Jerusalem a volunteer women’s organization came into being during the “tension,” starting from one soldier’s call home for mosquito repellent for his company. A campaign of collections from pharmacies, drug companies, and private homes, assembled and distributed by volunteers in their own cars, jumping army bureaucracy, succeeded in getting 8000 units to the soldiers within five hours.
From that moment there was no stopping them. Gripped by the national danger and a sense of the country facing its ultimate test of existence, everyone wanted to give something. Within three days the Jerusalem women’s group had 450 volunteers registered and card-indexed according to the kind of contribution each was prepared to make. Some served as baby-sitters where a wife was filling an absent husband’s job‚ some as messengers to take news of casualties to families. Some drove out along the roads to give lifts to soldiers trying to reach home on a twelve-hour leave during the “tension” or to bring them to homes which had offered bathtubs or showers for their use. A mere mention of home-baked cakes brought in 800 in one day, and a mention of wine, 500 bottles.
Schools organized a program to send a letter from each pupil enclosed with small gifts in a parcel from each family. After the war an armored corps corporal confessed that on the third day in the desert under fire, with the heat and deaths and burning metal, he was finished, shattered, unable to move, not caring whether he lived. One of these parcels was dropped on his bunk. He thought‚ “Some silly crap,” but caught sight of the letter and read it: “Dear Soldier, I am sending you this chewing gum. I am not afraid of bombs because I know you are out there protecting me and will not let anyone kill me.” He rose at once, the corporal said; “I felt like a lion.”
These lions fought with tears. A recurrent mention in the post-war talk is of weeping. “I was fighting and crying,” a reserve officer of field rank told me, “because I was shooting and killing.” The wife of a commander in the battle for the Old City, whose troops suffered excessive casualties because use of artillery was eschewed, told how he came home unwashed, unharmed, and apparently unchanged, and only after picking up his sleeping child, broke down and silently wept. A soldier in the North‚ suddenly confronted by a Syrian emerging from a trench six feet away, shot and killed him and then noticed a wedding ring on the dead man’s hand. The thought flooded his mind, “He has a wife and children,” and he felt the tears rise. Not everyone reacted that way. One wife said that while her husband brooded speechless for days after he returned, his brother reported killing as many Arabs as he could and was perfectly pleased with himself. Another who saw his tank crew blown up leaving him the only survivor thereafter turned his guns on the Egyptians and blasted his way through with savage satisfaction. Afterwards the amazing victory brought no parades or cheers or the usual celebrations of triumph. The emphasis was on the dead. Jubilation was missing. The old grieved and the young were somber, conscious of contemporaries maimed or killed. Memorial services and black-bordered announcements in the newspapers were almost a daily occurrence. Israel’s concentration on grief would have seemed exaggerated in another country, but the Jews have known many killed over the centuries and the 700 lost in this war could ill be spared. On a per capita basis a comparable loss to the United States would have been 60,000. The race against the stopwatch of the impending UN ceasefire required taking military risks which added to the casualties. To Israel as a nation, desperately concerned over its future as a Jewish state in a sea of Arabs‚ a Jewish life is not expendable. Each loss is a tragedy. But the feeling goes deeper than the loss to the state. It comes from an old inherited high value placed on human life.
No aspect of the I.D.F. is more striking than its concern for casualties. Every man wounded or dead is brought back regardless of cost, even that of mounting an offensive to recover the missing. In most cases the wounded were in hospitals within an hour, transported directly from the place they fell by helicopter, and the knowledge of this was a strong morale factor. A commanding officer or civilian employer attends the funeral of anyone lost from his outfit and pays the family a visit of condolence. The value of one man was deliberately dramatized when General Hod went to occupied Syria to attend the exchange of 550 Syrian POW’s for one Israeli flier and the bodies of two dead.
Yet it is not only for lives that Israel grieves; there is something more. Its people‚ so long and so often the victims of violence, have had to become, against their ethic, against the hope that brought them back to Zion‚ users of violence. They had to win the right to nationhood, like the United States, by force of arms, and now by the same means have reconfirmed it. Notwithstanding the pride of the I.D.F.—and even happiness of the Air Force — in a job well done, many people in Israel are profoundly troubled by their new role and their own success in it. From Auschwitz to Sinai and the recovery of Jerusalem has been barely a generation‚ and the transformation is almost too sudden. In less than a lifetime the Jews have come from persecution to rule over others.
General Rabin, the quiet thoughtful man who led the I.D.F. in this attainment, was the first to recognize its burden. In his speech on Mount Scopus after the victory, he said, “The Jewish people are not accustomed to conquest, and we receive it with mixed feelings.” What they will make of it and what conquest will make of them is the question that remains.