The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East by Abraham Rabinovich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was one of the better military history books I've ever read, and I've read a LOT of them over the years. I've long heard of the Yom Kippur War, but didn't really know any significant details, other than the combatants and the outcome (which turned out to be wrong; the outcome was much more complex than I had believed). This book not only filled in the gaps, but had so much detail and even minutiae, that the author really took you into the tanks where shell shocked men survived amidst corpses of their friends and into the foxholes of paratroopers and commandos, and into the the minds and strategies of the two primary countries' leaders, both political and military. The author, Abraham Rabinovich, is a very talented writer with a gift for both prosaic writing and an eye for detail. And while the bulk of this book is told from the Israeli perspective -- in part, because Israel has released historical and former secret documents about the war, while the Arab countries involved largely have not -- it's about as balanced an account as could be, considering it's told largely from the perspective of one of the major combatants, Israel. We are given numerous scenes and dialogue amongst the Egyptians, and less so among the Syrians, but what truly distinguishes this book is the political detail, with Henry Kissinger's strong arm tactics with both the Soviets and Israel to force a peace agreement and to put America in the driver's seat in the Middle East, supplanting Russia and its influence, at least with Egypt, the reigning Arab power.
The Yom Kippur War itself was as dramatic a war as any others to that point in the modern Middle East. Just six years before, Israel had won one of the most convincing military victories that practically any modern country has ever experienced; it had captured some 42,000 square miles in the Six Day War, enlarging the country by roughly 350% of its original size. As a result of this easy victory, Israel was led to self-satisfaction bordering on basic hubris, as well as complacency, concerning its military and the surrounding Arab countries. Israel's military intelligence assumed in 1973 that the Arabs would be crazy to attack again any time in the near future, and certainly not without long-range weapons to threaten Israel's cities, which they didn't have. And both politicians and military commanders assumed that if Egypt and Syria, in particular, did attack, they would easily be beaten again by the superiority of their high quality but numerically inferior forces without not only not losing any territory, but not even having to retreat. They had a series of forts and outposts along the borders manned by anywhere from platoons to companies and possibly several tanks each, KNOWING these would be enough to withstand and ultimately defeat vastly numerically superior Arab armies potentially attacking. I believe the author relates that one general was told Syria had some 800 tanks massed on Israel's borders and stated that their 100 tanks would guarantee victory against those odds. And it was this thinking that led Israel to some of its hardest and darkest periods in its short history, as not only did the politicians and military believe this, but intelligence did as well and all told, the general public did too, assured constantly that they could and would easily whip the Arabs again, just like in the Six Year War, because Arabs were soft, they couldn't fight, and they didn't have "real" soldiers. As a result, the Israelis suffered a series of near-catastrophic disasters and early defeats when Egypt and Syria simultaneously launched a Soviet-armed dual front invasion, before finally turning the tables with some truly awesome and heroic feats of military and individual prowess. The stories of sacrifice told in this book are written so well that you almost want to cry along with the soldiers experiencing mutilation, death, and destruction, but ultimately some satisfaction for not only Israel and its military, but even Egypt and Saddat, who emerged as a victor of honor in recapturing land lost in The Six Year War and going toe to toe with the Israelis for weeks without blinking or retreat. But the author focuses largely on Israel, and its military victory came at a heavy cost: Israel suffered casualties that, on a per capita basis, were equivalent to three U.S. Vietnams -- and in only three weeks' time! I had always heard that Israel "heroically" withstood a tremendous invasion and saved itself through bravery, courage, and with a smaller but superior military, beat the invasions back and ended up with a huge military victory. And to a degree, that's true. But the author makes it clear that there were other winners besides Israel, and argues that Egypt was actually the biggest winner, because it accomplished regaining the honor it had lost in The Six Year War, regained land, and its leader emerged as the Arab leader first to make peace with small, yet formidable Israel, which unfortunately would cost him his life just several years later. But he was viewed now as a statesmen, while Israel was left scrambling at how to explain how unprepared they were, how badly their intelligence had failed them, how mistaken their assumptions were, etc, so even though they technically "won" militarily, Egypt came out ahead, because they regained their prestige while Israel's military and intelligence prestige took such a heavy hit, that it took years to overcome it. And America, thanks to Kissinger, was also a winner, as the hard line peace broker who forced a peace, and then would lead the two countries to sign treaties, although Syria was not party to such, as they could barely tolerate peace with Israel. However, it was Egypt who was the important Arab player in this story, and the author gives us a very balanced and objective analysis of the outcome for all countries, but needless to say, I had not ever heard the perspective that Egypt won anything, let alone came out on top, in this war, and bear in mind that, I believe, the author is Jewish, so it's not like an anti-Semite is writing this. For a Jewish author to state such things, when much of the world and the history most of us know, asserts that Israel was the sole victor by a large margin in this war, is a brave, courageous, and admirable thing to do, because he's giving us an unbiased analysis of the outcome regarding all of the players (including the Soviets), even if it partially stains Israel's historical reputation regarding the outcome. Chalk one up for Rabinovich. That takes guts.
This book is full of tactical detail, political intrigue, and awesome battle scenes, especially armor battle scenes, as this was the overall biggest tank battle in history, aside from perhaps the Allied invasion of Europe in WWII. Thousands of tanks were involved and thousands were destroyed and tens of thousands of men were killed and wounded. The end of the book tells the tales of some Israeli survivors, their feelings of guilt, hatred, bitterness, sadness, etc. It's heartbreaking and touching in many ways, in part, because I know that our U.S. military veterans who have been in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 15 years have also suffered what we now called PTSD, and I think it's damned tragic for any soldier of any nation.
This was truly an excellent book, and not only told a fascinating part of history that I lacked sufficient knowledge of, but also described compelling battle scenes and, again, tales of heroism and courage. Five stars, easily, and strongly recommended to ALL!
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