Yom Kippur War: Who Really Won in the End?
Only through learning the past can we truly understand the present. 20 days in 1973 have shaped the course of millions of lives for almost 4 decades and still dominate the headlines today. This is the story of the Yom Kippur war that took place between Israel and Syria and Egypt. This one war, and it was a war even if lasting less than a month, used more mechanized armor (tanks) than any conflict in the history of mankind. This story, regardless of your perspective or 'side' will be a rollercoaster of emotions as one side and then another gets the upper hand in a fight that for some was a fight for survival. Who was right? Who truly won? Well that is left for you to decide.
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A brief description of the world before the war
In 1967 (6 years before the Yom Kippur war), in a war that later became known as the 6 day war, Israel not only held off an offensive by the countries of Egypt, Syria and Jordan as well as fighters from Iraq, Saudia Arabia, Algeria, Libya, Kuwait, Tunisia, Sudan and the PLO, but were able to massively route these armies driving them back with apparent ease. Without recounting the entire war the result was an almost unimaginable victory by Israel. In only 6 days they virtually destroyed a total military more than twice its size, with three times as many tanks and as many fighter planes. So astronomical was the victory (46 Israeli planes shot down versus 452 Arab planes, 15 captured soldiers versus 5,500+) that the Israeli military held complete disdain for the Arab military. They believed them to be poorly trained, poorly supplied and lacking motivation and discipline for real combat.
Thus, while Israel knew it had to build a strong military and strong borders, it held a feeling of tremendous superiority against the Arabs believing any one Israeli soldier or tank was better than at least 5 or 6 Arabs. So strong was this belief that even though the Soviet Union spent millions of dollars (rubles) building and training an extremely powerful military in both Egypt and Syria, Israel believed itself invincible. This set the stage for 20 days that would change the region and the world for the foreseeable future.
The worst trait in any person is to get so entrenched in an opinion or mindset that no matter what new data is presented you refuse to reexamine your beliefs and perhaps change your mind (remind us of any political figures recently?). In this case even though intelligence and even the president of Jordan himself point blank warned Israel that both Egypt and Syria were going to attack it, Israel believed it to be a false alarm. Even when hundreds of tanks, tens of thousands of soldiers and countless other preparations were being made by both counties yards away from Israel, still they convinced themselves it was only an exercise. As more signs appeared there was talk of calling up the reserves and getting ready for a possible attack. This might have taken place if it was not Yom Kippur, the most holy of days for Jews. Military and Political leaders feared that a false call-up on the most holy of days would lead to disastrous political and emotional repercussions. Instead they waited.
Too late they realized this was not an exercise and did start emergency preparations in some cases only hours before the first attack took place that would later encompass more mechanized hardware than had ever been used in warfare in the history of the world. Thousands of tanks, Armored Personnel Carriers, Surface to Air Missiles, not to mention fighter planes, helicopters and tens of thousands of troops poured out from Egypt and Syria into Israel. Years of planning and training paid off for the Arabs who knew all of Israel’s defenses, strongholds and tactics. Artillery destroyed large number of strongholds while new weapons include RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades) were used by foot soldiers to destroy and incapacitate tanks by the dozens, the backbone of the Israeli military. Surprise was achieve and very soon so was military superiority on the ground.
To understand the battle, one needs to understand a little more of the mentality that Israeli’s lived under (and to some extent still live under). There were 3 million people living in a tiny tract of land called Israel surrounded by 80 million Arabs, whose leaders did not only call for the destruction of Israel but also the annihilation of everyone who lived there. The military in Israel knew it was not only protecting its borders but only a short time after the Holocaust, the very lives of everyone in the country. It can not be overstated the feeling that this was the only place where Jews truly felt safe after the Holocaust and they would defend every inch as if it was the most precious piece of soil.
With that mentality in mind, military leaders first adopted a military tactic of throwing everything they had against the onslaught coming at them. Every reserve unit that was mustered was thrown into the battle with little thought to tactics or forming larger divisions. Communication was spotty at best; supplies were in even worse shape with most reserve units rushing to the front without full weapons or supplies. For the first few days this legendary military suffered defeat after defeat. So great was the defeat that military leaders thought for a short time that the entire country was in danger of being overrun. Yet with the odds greatly against them, with new weapons being deployed against them by the thousands, Israel was able to orchestrate one of the greatest turn-arounds in military history. Not only beating back the onslaught but actually driving deep into Syria in range of their capital of Damascus, and on the Egyptian side able to cross the Suez canal for the first time in history (hence the controversy over the ‘west bank’ of the Suez canal).
One of the most interesting parts of this war to me was actually its necessity in building ironically a stronger relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors. With three wars in 6 years, this entire region was spending more money on its military and defenses rather than building their economies and standard of living. Jordan already was working on building a better relationship with Israel (proven by the president of Jordan flying to Israel to try and warn of the impending surprise attack), but all the other countries had no desire to even recognize Israel as a country. Later Egypt spoke both during and after the war of only wanting to recover its national pride after having been decimated in two earlier skirmishes, enabling Sadat (president of Egypt) to actually negotiate with Israel without losing face and faith by his own people. Things unheard of prior to the war took place including the first ever face-to-face negotiation following the cessation of fighting, and even the visit of an Arab country leader to Israel. Even recognizing Israel as a country was considered forbidden during the time for Arab states, and here was a country looking to build some official relations. However before it could do this, it had to restore pride in itself by its population. By the same token Israel would never have been able to negotiate if it hadn’t had a dose of humility that they took at the price of thousands of lives during the course of the war.
However these were not the only countries who got involved. There was a greater fight being waged on a global scale. The Soviet Union, who was supplying and training the Arab countries before and during the war, was waging a shadow war with the United States who was supplying Israel. Here were the two great super powers testing their weapons and tactics through proxy countries. Thankfully, neither super power wanted to get into an all-out fight and thus were able to keep it as a contained region war (with the exception of one extremely tense moment when it looked like they would come to direct blows). And finally a completely unexpected result was Egypt shrugging off the support of the Soviet Union and turning to the United States for support and loyalty to negotiate the peace and come to advise them for decades to come.
The End Game
While there was no lacking in unresolved issues after the war and by no means has the region been swathed in stability, since this one war there has been a greater degree of stability than ever thought possible. Jordan and Israel have built one of the most consistent and safest border crossings with near normalized relations between an Arab and Jewish state. Egypt and Israel have had one of the most open relationships including of course the Camp David accords between the two. Alas with Sadat’s assassination 4 years after the end of the war, there is no telling how much further relations might have made. While Syria still refused to acknowledge the state of Israel the return of the land that was taken during the war has created one of the most stable borders with an Arab neighbor.
The United States of course became a major arbiter in the region, helping to negotiate numerous peace deals and ended up building stronger more prosperous countries and economies on both sides of the equation.
In fact with the exception of much smaller skirmishes, there has not been a major war between Arab countries and Israel even though several still call for the complete annihilation of the state of Israel. This stability was something few would have ever thought possible when thousands of tanks were pointing at each other.
Sadly as far as we have progressed, it is not nearly far enough. We still see countries with barely veiled hostile intentions that have the potential to destabilize the entire region. Iran’s mission to get nuclear weapons is one such example. Thinking through the history of this war, I find it a bit more understandable the almost unshakable trepidation that Israel has to one of their neighbors who has sent weapons (including chemical weapons) and soldiers in over a dozen engagements now with one of the most powerful weapons ever invented by mankind. Can you fault a country for being tempted to take preventive actions?
Perhaps this also explains why the US has been so heavily involved in the region, trying to keep a peace. While oil was and will always be a certain factor in our policy, there are other factors as well. Trying to encourage moderate governments that prefer to focus on their own economy and prosperity more than attacking their neighbors certainly has been a factor. Unfortunately, that has also meant backing some truly terrible leaders who have waged internal battles and activities against their own people.
To this day the impacts of this war are still being felt. The support of the government of Egypt by the United States that was actually requested by the Egyptian president, has turned into a massive source of anger since that same government led a repressive regime against their own people. Was this support to secure the overall region from larger wars for the better? Everyone has their own opinion.
Do you think Israel should give back more land to the Arab neighbors?
What we can learn from this story
By its very nature there are morals for world leaders and military leaders alike, but what about for the everyday citizen of the world? I will share that I read this book amidst a minor crisis taking place in the Middle East. A movie trailer (a fake one as it later turns out) that mocks the prophet Mohammad has sparked protests and unfortunately killings throughout the region. Reading this book it is hard not to be angered by the audacity of the Arab countries that attacked a neighbor bent on full annihilation, followed by surprising pride when the forces are turned and then are driven back by superior tactics and discipline. Seeing the violence that pervades the population in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Iran and Libya to name a few, it is horrifyingly easy to blame it on the religion. What else can it be since Israel is in the same region and doesn’t share the same propensity for violence in its borders (not that it is without faults by any means)?
Yet there is something deeper we need to look at. This is a region that has been acted upon by super powers since the beginning of modern history. From the British carving out Palestine, to the Germans using this as an early place to wage war during WWII and of course the proxy battle during the cold war. This is a region that has rarely had the ability to decide their own destiny even the ability to pick their own leaders for decades. The anger at being lectured and ordered around by powers thousands of miles away cannot be easy. Perhaps this is the adolescence that these countries have to go through as they experience their own growth as a mature country. Hopefully they can go through this journey to maturity with a little less senseless violence. And perhaps we can use a little restraint and understanding knowing a bit more of their history.
Overall review of this book
Military books for those who are not military enthusiasts are generally difficult to read, and in many cases this book is no exception. Going into excruciating detail on the tactics and the minute by minute events in battles throughout the war can be complex for many readers. However, the personal stories from both sides of the war, as well as the larger implications far make up for those details. This book will bring about more insights into the region and the origins of so many prejudices that you will find yourself reading newspaper articles about the region with a new perspective. This was not a small incident with limited implications, this was a war that has profound impacts in our lives today that all of us would be well served to learn. Do not be put off by the size of this book, it is a great read and a must for ever voter in this country.
Learn more from the BBC
The book that inspired this article
An amazing book that helps to explain so much of the prevailing feelings in the region. Strongly recommend for anyone who votes or has an opinion in politics.