The Good War | The Nation


The Good War

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Rabinovich's The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter That Transformed the Middle East is by far the more serious of the two books. As one might expect from a former reporter for the Jerusalem Post, the book is highly Israel-centered. Perhaps I betray my training as a professional historian by confessing that I am repeatedly astounded by the audacity of those who presume to write credibly about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing both Hebrew and Arabic. Rabinovich's lack of Arabic means that he has no access to the Arabic press and memoirs of the war, except for items translated into Hebrew or English. They would present a rather different perspective than the Hebrew press and memoirs of Israeli military and political figures, which are among his principal sources. Lack of knowledge of Arabic also results in basic journalistic errors, like rendering the name of Egyptian Gen. Fuad Huwaydi as Havidi, following a report in the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv. (Hebrew often uses a "v" where Arabic employs a "w," and in both Hebrew and Arabic, vowels are usually not transcribed.)

About the Author

Joel Beinin
Joel Beinin is the Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and a professor of Middle East history at Stanford...

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Rabinovich also has a weak grasp of Arab history. He claims that Egypt's crossing of the Suez Canal was an unprecedented feat of Arab arms since Saladin's reconquest of Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. Saladin was a Kurd, and many of his soldiers were not Arabs. An Egyptian Mamluk army defeated the Mongols in Palestine in 1260--a legendary battle in the Egyptian national imagination. The sixteenth-century naval exploits of the Tunisian-based Khayr al-Din Barbarossa and other corsairs are legendary. The armies of the Egyptian Pasha, Mehmed Ali, conquered much of what is now Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in the 1830s, and in 1839 reached far into the Anatolian Peninsula. So, despite Rabinovich's criticisms of the Israeli general staff for underestimating Arab military capabilities in 1973, he himself is a victim of the same historical shortsightedness that led to this miscalculation.

The Yom Kippur War offers us numerous vignettes of Israeli soldiers of various ranks and very effectively humanizes Israel's armed forces, especially the tank corps, which bore the brunt of the fighting. In contrast, the only substantial representation of an Arab soldier in the field is that of Egyptian Sgt. Mahmud Nadeh, using Hebrew excerpts from his diary published in the daily Yediot Aharonot. The book is profusely illustrated, but only three of the photos portray Arabs: two of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, a "good Arab" who signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and one of Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy, the Egyptian chief of operations.

All of the predictable stereotypes about the Arab-Israeli conflict are rehearsed. Despite what we now know of US and Israeli intelligence estimates predicting an easy Israeli victory in the 1967 war, the massing of Arab armies on Israel's borders in 1967 "appeared to pose an existential threat." Despite the overwhelming strategic superiority confirmed by the outcome of that war, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains a struggle of David and Goliath; the overall ratio of Arab to Israeli forces in 1973 was 3:1. In 1973 Israel faced the "prospect of national annihilation." The presence of Moroccan and Iraqi units on the Golan Heights means that the 1973 war was between Israel and the entire Arab world. Rabinovich misses no opportunity to note that a soldier or his parents are Holocaust survivors.

Israeli soldiers and officers are depicted throughout as heroic, self-sacrificing, magnanimous, professional and highly motivated. In fact, the Israeli army was led by senior officers whose vision was clouded by arrogance and contempt for Arab military capacity and whose incompetence verged on criminal. Chief of Staff Dado Elazar thought that 100 Israeli tanks facing Syria's 800 on the Golan Heights "ought to be enough." The commander of the southern front, Gen. Shmuel Gonen, and chief of military intelligence, Meir Zeira, come off as particularly incompetent. Nonetheless, Israel won the war thanks to the qualities of its soldiers and midlevel officers.

To his credit, Rabinovich clearly explains that his purpose in writing his book is to capture the epic quality of the war and to understand it as a coherent narrative. Those objectives lead directly to the book's most salient flaws. Portraying war as an epic tips the story in the direction of the heroic feats of the victor. And war is, as Joseph Heller's exemplary novel Catch-22 attests, not a coherent experience. Combat is often shaped by confusion on the battlefield, failure to receive or carry out orders, unanticipated circumstances of all sorts, accidents and personality quirks. Ultimately, as happened in 1973, the strategically stronger side generally prevails. Therefore, it should be no surprise that despite the initial successes of the Arab side, Israel was the military victor and could easily have gone on to occupy Cairo and Damascus had a cease-fire not been imposed.

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