Michael B. Oren's "Six Days of War"

Israeli soldiers at the Wailing Wall
Israeli soldiers at the Wailing Wall | Source
Historian and Ambassador Michael B. Oren
Historian and Ambassador Michael B. Oren

Michael B. Oren as Historian

The authors of historical writing are undoubtedly influenced by their respective contexts and time periods, but they are also influenced by those preceding authors who have espoused or neglected the principles of viable historical study. These principles include the importance of objectivity, exploring causation, the use of valid sources, and a historical imagination that attempts to convey context while staying within the confines of that which is factual. It is these principles that have been developed, endorsed and refined by Voltaire, Ranke, Butterfield, Smith and Beard, whose writings will provide the lens through which this paper will approach the historical principles adhered to and neglected by Michael B. Oren’s Six Days of War. Written at the turn of the twenty-first century, this contemporary history covers the Six Day war of 1967, and while this recency may act as an obstacle to objectivity, it may also be viewed as an asset to the question of context. In the following pages and paragraphs, this essay will attempt to show that Six Days of War is largely in line with the standards set forth by the aforementioned historians, and that it is a principled work of historical writing.

In Six Days of War, Oren essentially argues that the causations and contexts of the conflict are inexorably tied closely together. The manner in which he approaches causation and context seems to be in line with both Voltaire and Butterfield. In his “Observations on History”, Voltaire develops a philosophy of history in which multiple causation and the analysis of causation are heavily emphasized. In regards to context, Butterfield’s Whig Interpretation of History argues that rather than viewing the context of the past as monolithic, the historian should instead identify the separate contexts of the past. Oren masterfully engages the questions of context and causation, favoring depth and breadth rather than oversimplification and generalization in his explanation. He provides a fifty-year context, from the Balfour Declaration of 1917, on through World War Two, the Holocaust, the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Suez Crisis of 1956, and the political realities of the 1950s and 1960s that produced the crisis that produced the conflict. It is within this exploration of the differing political realities that Oren engages the idea of separate contexts.

In his exploration of the separate contexts, Oren does not simply divide the contexts into the spheres of Israel and the Arab world; he instead engages the political context of each respective nation-state directly or indirectly involved in the conflict (e.g. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Israel, the United States, and the USSR). For instance, Oren explores the vast differences and grudges held between Egypt’s Nasser and Jordan’s King Hussein, and expounds upon the distinct situations and motivations of the two figures and their populations (e.g. Jordan’s Palestinian population, Egypt’s involvement in the Suez Crisis, the friction between Nasser and general Amer). Accordingly, he does not approach Israel as a monolithic entity, focusing on the weaknesses of the Eshkol government, which resulted in the ascendency of Moshe Dayan to Defense Minister. Oren also provides an international context that transcends the Middle East, such as pointing out the United States’ diplomatic preoccupation with Vietnam and the Soviet Union’s support for Egypt and Syria. It is this comprehensive approach to contextualizing the causes that makes “the past our present and attempting to see life with the eyes of another [decade] than our own” (Butterfield).

In the spirit of Voltaire, Oren does not make the mistake of designating one event as the singular cause of the crisis and ensuing conflict. Instead, Oren uses the creative “well-known image of the butterfly, with a mere flap of its wings, triggers a thunderstorm. Starting in November 1966, the Middle East would witness many such ‘flaps’” (Oren 312). Oren argues that the Six Day War was the result of a long list of events and sentiments: the inadvertent clash of Israeli and Jordanian forces at Samu’, Palestinian guerilla raids and Israeli retaliations, Nasser’s expulsion of the UNEF from the Sinai Peninsula, the personal and diplomatic “elements of honor and chauvinism and fear”, the Syrian shelling of kibbutzim from the Golan Heights, the Soviets disseminating false information about Israeli troop buildups to the Arab powers, and Jordan’s urge to prove itself to its Arab neighbors. If one had to extract one overarching thematic cause for the Six Day War, it would probably be Oren’s targeting of the unfortunate reality of miscommunication in the months leading up to the conflict (e.g. letters of condolences not being relayed between Israel and Jordan). It should be stated that Oren does not write his history through the lens of the inevitability of the conflict, instead he seems to paint the conflict as the result of numerous diplomatic missteps on the part of all parties involved (the U.S. and USSR included).

Leopold von Ranke
Leopold von Ranke

Oren and Ranke: Objectivity and Intellectual Honesty

Similar to Ranke, Oren’s in-depth analysis of causation was not the result of historical deduction alone, but instead had much to owe to the wide-range of sources he was able to access. One of the major contributions that Ranke made to the realm of historical writing was a new emphasis and approach to sources. He was able to gain access to a large amount of diverse primary sources and archives for his History of the Popes, and developed the idea of discussing where one found those sources and how those sources were used. Similarly, Oren’s use and treatment of his primary sources seems to be one of the outstanding virtues ofSix Days of War. Oren was able to gain access to recently declassified documents from the U.S., Israel, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and Canada; and utilized twenty-one archives in those countries to ensure that “whether it is called the Six-Day or the June War, my goal is that it never be seen the same way again” (xv). A parallel can also be drawn between Ranke and Oren in regards to what sources the two historians did not use. In his History of the Popes, Ranke’s sources are found blatantly lacking by the fact that he was unable to access the Vatican archives. Similarly, in writing about a conflict that shaped the Palestinian issue, Oren’s list of sources is found lacking by the fact that he used one Palestinian source (an oral interview). While this may be the result of a lack of distinctly Palestinian resources, (unlike Ranke) Oren does not acknowledge this ostensible oversight.

Ranke is also known for his utilization of a strong narrative driven by historical imagination, but kept within the confines of known facts. Oren seems to execute this quality very well, using language that engenders a sense of suspense and at some times, awe (e.g. his treatment of the Sinai offensive and the siege of the Old City), all the while assuring the reader of the validity of his statements through extensive footnotes. In fact, one-quarter of the book’s 450 pages are devoted to footnotes and bibliography. This evidently heavy reliance on such a large number of sources brings a high level of credibility to the body of the work.

As with any other historian, Michael B. Oren’s life undoubtedly shapes the manner in which he views the world and the biases that he holds. It should be noted that Oren is an American-Israeli who was an IDF officer in the Lebanon War, an adviser to Primer Minister Yitzhak Rabin, an adviser to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations and is currently the Israeli ambassador to the United States. In his Foreword, Oren acknowledges that he has opinions pertaining to the conflict, but states that he views “these preconceptions as obstacles to be overcome rather than as convictions to confirm and indulge. Even if the truth can never fully be ascertained, I believe every effort must nevertheless be exerted in seeking it” (xiv). Oren’s views on his own objectivity can easily be related to the debate between Smith and Beard concerning whether or not true objectivity can exist.

While the body of the work is notably objective, there are a few examples of Oren’s bias and lack of objectivity scattered throughout the pages of Six Days of War. Oren’s coverage of Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian perspectives brings a high level of objectivity to the work through the avoidance of approaching events from the Israeli perspective. His aforementioned lack of Palestinian sources leads to a work that doesn’t fully engage the Palestinian perspective. And while he does explore the Palestinian question in his analysis, this incomplete coverage of such a relevant perspective seems to reduce Oren’s overall objectivity. For example, when writing about the Palestinians who fled the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Oren asserts that “Israel did little to precipitate this flight” (306), although I would assume that a few of those Palestinians would have had a different take on the causation for their emigration. This lack of objectivity is also found in the few instances in which Oren uses language that seems to reveal his bias. For example, when referring to downed Israeli Air Force pilots killed by Syrian civilians, Oren writes that they were “butchered by Syrian villagers” (195). The more neutral word “killed” could have easily been substituted, but by using this language, Oren seems to portray the Syrians in a harshly negative light. So in these instances, it seems that Oren’s reduced objectivity sits astride the arguments of Smith and Beard. While his introductory sentence praises the pursuit of truth (i.e. Smith), his work seems to reflect Beard’s argument that while true objectivity should be the goal, the historian can never truly achieve this goal. Oren does make a small number of missteps in regard to objectivity, but his engagement of the complexities and nuances of the conflict seems to override these oversights.

In his treatment of the Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Ranke emphasizes Ignatius’ personal background and experiences in order to give the reader a better understanding for the motivations and characteristics of the historical figure. Similarly, Oren’s treatment of historical figures as human beings with varying biographies and backgrounds is another virtue of Six Days of War. When Oren introduces a major historical actor into his narrative, he gives the reader a succinct biography of that actor, paying special attention to his/her motivations and characteristics. His treatment of King Hussein of Jordan, Levi Eshkol and Moshe Dayan of Israel, and Gamal Abdel Nasser and Abdel Hakim Amer of Egypt are particularly in-depth, and provide a context of the individual which allows the reader better understand their respective motivations. For example, Oren does not take the simplistic approach to Moshe Dayan as a Defense Minister eager to eradicate the Arab forces. He instead approaches Dayan as rather enigmatic and characteristically nuanced, noting that “Dayan was a classic man of contradictions…he professed deep respect for the Arabs… [but also pursued] a retaliation policy” (148-149). Oren even seems to portray Dayan as rather reconciliatory-minded in the aftermath of the war, pointing out that Dayan joined “4,000 Muslim worshipers for Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque” (307).

Oren also focuses on the significance of the interplay and relationships between historical actors. His treatment of the complex relationship between Nasser and Amer is particularly interesting because it engages the questions of friendship and allegiance in the context of the conflict. Oren argues that Egypt’s defeat was in large part the result of Nasser’s inability to remove the unstable and ill-prepared Amer because of the long-standing friendship between the two. Oren argues that because of that friendship, Nasser overlooked Amer’s corruption and his shortcomings displayed in the Yemen War (1962-1967). This attention to the complex nature of human characteristics and relationships allows the reader to attain a greater grasp on the complexities of the conflict as a whole.

Herbert Butterfield
Herbert Butterfield

Herbert Butterfield: Not Just a Great Name

In his Whig Interpretation of History, Butterfield argues that in order to understand the complexities of past events, historians should not project (modern) moral judgments onto the contexts of the past. Oren addresses the problematic use of hindsight bias in the opening pages of his work, “Employ hindsight but humbly, remembering that life and death decisions are made by leaders in real-time, and not by historians in retrospect” (xiv). Throughout the work, Oren does display a high level of adherence to his own instructions. As an author, he does not explicitly rationalize or denounce events or decisions; instead he relies on the facts and the reader’s interpretation of them to impart moral judgments accordingly (e.g. the IAF “accidental” attack on the U.S.S. Liberty). Oren also highlights the two approaches taken by historians when dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict, “self-styled ‘new historians’” who impart moral judgment onto one of the parties involved in the conflict (e.g. Israel), and the more traditional historians who write a less judgmental or polarized history (Oren himself falls into this second category).

Butterfield also argues that while it may be easy to simply divide historical actors and forces into two camps (e.g. “progressive and reactionary”), this oversimplification will result in a history lacking complexity, in which the historian and reader “are likely to beg fewer questions”. In continuation, Butterfield argues that historians should acknowledge that good men exists on both sides of every conflict, and that conflicts cannot be so easily compartmentalized into the forces of good and evil. Through his exploration of multiple causation and the multiple motivations of the figures and nations involved, Oren does a very good job of acknowledging the good and the bad within all parties involved in the conflict. For example, while his biases could easily allow him to cast Gamal Abdel Nasser and King Hussein as the villains attempting to destroy the heroic Israelis – Oren’s portrayal of the contexts allows the readers to see that within those separate contexts, the actions taken on all sides can be seen as justifiable.

The historical conflict itself is known as the “Arab-Israeli conflict”, terminology that could undoubtedly advance the notion that it is one monolithic people group versus another. Oren practices good skills as a historian by not falling into this trap. His coverage of the separate contexts within the Arab nations/forces and Israel itself highlight the complex and diverse nature of the decision-making process. Oren identifies war hawks and peace doves within the respective societies and governments. For example, Oren’s uses his exploration of the great differences between the Arab-leaning U.S. State Department and pro-Israeli Johnson administration to highlight the divisions within the government of Israel’s main ally. Similarly, Oren’s portrayal of the seemingly hesitant and capricious support for the Arabs by the Soviet Union is much more nuanced than simply identifying the Soviets as stalwart allies. Oren’s explorations of the decision-making processes of the Eshkol government are even more enlightening in regard to complexity. Oren shows that within the Eshkol administration there were those that favored preemptive war (e.g. Begin, Peres, Rabin), and those that did not (e.g. Eshkol himself), which highlights the uncertainties and diversity in opinions involved in decision-making processes. In essence, Oren does not divide the conflict into two parties, but instead uses the term “Arab-Israeli conflict” to act as an umbrella for the large number of parties with differing nationalities and motivations.

Butterfield warns against an overreliance on relating the present to the past, while Voltaire stresses the need for written histories to be relevant to the present. Six Days of War adheres very well to both of these principles. Due to the recency of his subject matter, Oren does not find the need to relate the present to the past, but instead argues that much of the complexities of the present conflict are the result of the complexities of this past conflict. In the closing chapter of the work, Oren even traces the repercussions of the 1967 war on into the twenty-first century (e.g. Camp David Accords, Oslo Accords, the Intifadas, and 9/11). Voltaire argues that history should not merely be a collection of facts, but should also bring an analysis of said facts. Oren excels in this regard; his techniques of analysis and extrapolation convincingly convey the relevance and significance that the conflict should maintain in the present discussion. For example, he writes that the original intent of the Israelis was to gain territory in order to later exchange it for peace (e.g. Camp David Accords), but argues that the settlement programs in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have complicated this process. He identifies the Six Day War as the symbolic demise of secular pan-Arabism (e.g. United Arab Republic), a movement that would soon be replaced by Islamist political movements that still hold major relevance today (e.g. Hamas, Iranian Revolution).

A Sound Modern History

Oren’s ability to relate the past to the present is one of many historical principles adhered to by Six Days of War. His virtues as a historian can be traced to those authors who developed and promoted the principles of sound historical writing. Oren’s ability to identify multiple and complex causations is in keeping with the writings of Voltaire, and his engagement of separate and distinct contexts is well within the instructions of Butterfield. Oren’s strong narrative and heavy reliance on a whole host of sources are reminiscent of Ranke, as well as his neglect of sources that may have improved the work’s objectivity (i.e. more Palestinian sources).

Oren acknowledges his biases as an American-Israeli, and seems to partially overcome them in order to produce a rather objective history, which does little to settle the debate between Smith and Beard. His focus on the historical figures as human beings with allegiances and relationships is particularly enlightening, and once more a parallel between Oren and Ranke can be drawn. Essentially, Butterfield argues that written history should attempt to convey the intricacies of history, and Oren accomplishes this quite well through his avoidance of moral judgment, portrayal of diversity within decision-making, and ability to allow the facts and the reader impart judgment on the past. Oren’s purpose in writing Six Days of War was to offer a history that would cause the reader to never view the conflict in the same light again. Through his objectivity, attention to detail, use of new sources, and overall approach to the conflict, it is this writer’s opinion that Oren accomplishes this goal.

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