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Book Review: The Yom Kippur War


In honor of Yom Kippur, and the 34th anniversary of the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, I think it’s appropriate to review Abraham Rabinovich’s The Yom Kippur War. Rabinovich is a journalist and US Army veteran who has written several books on Jewish and Israeli history. The Yom Kippur War is one half of an excellent military history. Unfortunately, wars typically have two or more sides, and Rabinovich fails utterly to say anything new or useful about Syrian or Egyptian participation in the October conflict.

Good military history, especially the history of an entire war, includes accounts of the political, strategic, operational, and tactical levels. The last often suffers, because it’s not easy to understand the micro-foundations of military behavior. The great German military historian Hans Delbruck made the point that understanding the success of the Roman Legion required an account of how the phalanx worked and evolved over the centuries, and that such an account required an understanding of how individual soldiers behaved within the phalanx. If you don’t know that soldiers in a phalanx tend to lean to their right (to stay under the protection of the shield of their neighbor), then you miss out on a huge part of the evolution of ancient warfare. I’m in the midst of Andrew Gordon’s masterful Rules of the Game, an account of British performance at Jutland, a book which is notable for its micro-level explanations of the poor gunnery and disastrous damage control procedures of Beatty’s battlecruiser squadron.

For those unfamiliar with the conflict, a brief outline is in order. The war began with a Syrian and Egyptian surprise attack on Yom Kippur in 1973. The Syrians attacked into the Golan Heights with a traditional, if intense, armor assault. The Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal under the cover of a SAM umbrella, and quickly overwhelmed Israeli border forts. The Israelis launched a series of poorly coordinated counter-offensives against Egypt, but surprisingly these were turned back by Egyptian infantry wielding anti-tank missiles. In the north, the IDF stopped the Syrian assault with heavy losses, then launched a counter-offensive into Syrian territory. In the south, the Egyptians moved slowly into the Sinai, but gave no indication of launching a wider offensive. Finally they did launch an armored assault, which was repulsed and helped lead to an Israeli counter-offensive that crossed the Suez and surrounded two Egyptian armies. The superpowers then enforced a peace agreement.

Rabinovich has an excellent discussion of the state of the IDF in 1973, and of its reaction to the Egyptian challenge in the Sinai. Unlike some other historians of the war, Rabinovich is quite explicit in his dissection of how Israelis viewed armored warfare after 1967. The Israelis were quite aware that their version of armored warfare (which concentrated on shock and good gunnery to destroy or encircle enemy formations before they knew what was going on, and didn’t use much dismounted infantry or artillery) would be disastrous against a competent foe. The Russians, Germans, or Americans, for example, would have destroyed the exposed Israeli tanks without difficulty. The Israelis also knew, however, that they weren’t fighting the Germans; they were fighting mass conscript armies which lacked both gunnery skill and social capital. Against these forces, the tactics of the IDF were quite appropriate. Unfortunately, Israeli success bred arrogance, and the IDF failed to sufficiently account either for improvements in the training and cohesion of the Egyptian Army, or for the deployment of Egyptian surface-to-air and anti-tank missiles. This failure led to disaster in the first days of the conflict, and nearly cost the Israelis the war.

Rabinovich’s account of Israeli performance is excellent at all levels. He details the Israeli political and intelligence failures in the lead up to the war, and the shock and terror in its first few days. He has a particularly good discussion of how the IDF reacted to the first blows of the war, and especially of how it turned itself around, restructured its tactics and operations, and moved on the offensive in both the Golan and the Sinai. There are some out-sized personalities in the narrative, and many of them don’t come off well. Rabinovich has an excellent micro-level discussion of Israeli tactics, detailing how Israeli tankers changed their behavior in reaction to Egyptian missiles, and how Israelis on the Golan Heights dealt with what appeared to be an impossible situations. Rabinovich tells a number of stories about individual Israelis, including what they did and who they knew. This served an important purpose, as it reminded me that the IDF really was a very small organization in which personal relationships had a tremendous amount of meaning. The stories of soldiers who continued to fight after the deaths of their brothers and friends also had meaning beyond sentimentality; this is what it is to fight for a small nation that needs to be concerned about casualties for strategic rather than political reasons.

This tendency, however, uncovers the great flaw in the book. After the tenth example of a familial or personal tie in the IDF affecting how the battle was fought, I started to wonder whether any of the soldiers in those six Syrian tanks that just got plugged had any friends or relatives of their own. It is possible to write an excellent military history while concentrating on only one side of the war. As noted above, Andrew Gordon wrote a wonderfully detailed account of Royal Navy command behavior at Jutland without needing to delve too deeply into the German side of the battle. Had Rabinovich attempted a more modest effort that focused specifically on the performance of the Israeli military, he might well have succeeded in making an impressive contribution. Unfortunately, he titled his book “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East.”

On the Egyptian side, we get the familiar story of how Sadat conceived of the war as a means of pressing for a political settlement, of how the Egyptians developed their strategy, of Sadat’s betrayal of Assad, and of the decisions that led to the collapse of the Egyptian position in Sinai. For what it’s worth, Ken Pollack did a much better job on Egyptian strategy, tactics, and performance in Arabs at War than Rabinovich offers here. Of the actual war through Egyptian eyes we get very little beyond a decent operational account of the canal crossings on the first day. Indeed, even Rabinovich’s narrative of the Egyptian decision to go on the offensive late in the war is quite weak. In contrast to Rabinovich’s treatment of the IDF, we get almost no sense of how the war played out from the perspective of Egyptian soldiers or junior officers.

Rabinovich’s treatment of the Egyptians is positively encyclopedic compared to his account of Syria’s participation in the war. He doesn’t give us that much at the strategic or political level to explain why Syria went to war, what it thought it might get, or how it reacted to Egypt’s behavior. At the operational level we get a bare sketch of Syrian aims on the Golan. At the tactical we get virtually nothing at all. In the end, the Syrians end up being not much more than a horde of Orcs driving T-62s, a horde that pushed the Israelis to the brink, but that in the end was happy to serve as a shooting gallery for the IDF. It would have been nice to know what all those Syrian tankers were thinking (both as soldiers and human beings) as they went to their doom, just as it would have been nice to have some exploration of why the Syrian Army couldn’t manage to produce any decent dismounted infantry.

I’ll happily acknowledge that it’s easier for a guy named Rabinovich with the priors of the author to access Israeli sources than Arab. However, other scholars have managed to get ahold of Syrian and Egyptian sources, and their accounts of the battle are much fuller for it. Moreover, it would not have been difficult at all for Rabinovich to find actual, living examples of Syrians and Egyptians who participated in the war. Rabinovich not only finds such a perspective useful for the Israeli side, but in fact allows one Egyptian voice; he regularly cites from the diary of an Egyptian soldier who died during the war. The Syrian and Egyptian forces were mass conscript armies whose soldiers and junior officers are now, by and large, in their fifties and sixties. Traveling to Syria is difficult, but not impossible. Traveling to Egypt isn’t hard at all. Traveling to New York City is very easy indeed, and I’m willing to bet that you could wander into an Egyptian cafe in the city, throw a rock, and hit someone who either was in uniform in October 1973 or knows someone who was. This probably isn’t the best way to track down interview subjects, but you catch my drift. Rabinovich thought that it was important to include a micro-level understanding of how the IDF performed in 1973, and he was right. He didn’t extend this courtesy to the Syrians or Egyptians, and the narrative suffers badly.

The Yom Kippur War is a remarkably important conflict, and Rabinovich does a good job of illuminating many of its aspects. The international impact of the conflict was immense. The story of how the war changed the political calculus of peace in Egypt is quite familiar. It’s interesting, in the contemporary context, to remember that peace between Egypt and Israel was possible only after the Egyptians were able to negotiate from some strength and the Israelis from some vulnerability. The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel remains the cornerstone of Israeli security to this day. The war also had a major impact on military doctrine in the United States. Fearing that the war demonstrated the obsolescence of the tank, the United States Army moved to “Active Defense”, a doctrine which emphasized the defensive use of precision munitions in response to a Soviet invasion of Germany. I’m less familiar with the effect of the war on Soviet doctrine, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it had an impact. As I said, Rabinovich tells some of this story well. Unfortunately, he completely ignores much of the rest. While the volume has some value, I have to conclude that it is essentially a failure; we still lack a comprehensive one volume account of the war.

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