Today was the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war. What follows is a review I wrote last year of Michael Oren’s book about the 1967 war. I am posting it today to commemorate the anniversary, and to think about what has changed, and what has not, about the equation between the “Muslim world” and its more modern competitors.
To the extent that it existed, this sense of the Muslim world being one of several “competitors” in a war of civilizations existed mostly in the Muslim world in the last 100 years; and even there, mostly in the minds of religious fanatics such as Maudoodi or Sayyed Qutb or modern Islamists such as the Indian Islamist Mohammed Iqbal. Most Western, Chinese or Japanese thinkers were unlikely to have something called “The Muslim World” on their list of civilizations competing in the modern world. This has certainly changed in recent time, with at least the Right wing of Western Civ and (and to a lesser extent, of Chinese and Japanese Civ) becoming almost hysterical about the threat posed by Islam. But has the balance of power changed? and if it has, has it changed enough? I think today’s drama in the GCC (among many things) indicates that the balance on the ground has not changed by much. The Muslim world is richer, and some countries (Turkey, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Indonesia) are more powerful than they were in 1967; Pakistan is even a nuclear power (and in the minds of many of its own citizens, if not all its power brokers, an “Islamic nuclear power”), but in many other ways the dreams of May 1967 were the high point of (delusional) confidence in the Muslim core region. In that year, many, perhaps most, in the Muslim street were eager to believe that their armies could, if given the opportunity, annihilate the “Zionist entity”. Which is why so many spent the first few hours of the war celebrating what their leaders were describing as “great successes”; that reaction seems unlikely today. If there were a new war, and Arab radio stations claimed the Israelis were losing, most people would not believe it, even if the Israelis really WERE losing.
Anyway, on to the review. And don’t miss the documentary at the end.
An excellent history of the 1967 war, this books is even more useful in its coverage of the months leading up to the war. While it is written from a pro-Israeli perspective, the facts are not cherry-picked or outright falsified (as is common in more ideological books, from both the Left and the Right). Every important detail (and some unimportant ones..the book is long) is covered and the bias is usually limited to careful word choice or perspective, and does not extend to misreporting the “hard facts”. For example, the attack on the USS Liberty is presented accurately but it is clear that the order and tone in which the facts are presented is consciously meant to justify the Israeli story (which I personally think is likely to be close to the truth in any case, so there is always that).
Of course the author believes Israel has every right to exist in that region, and his Arab (and increasingly, his Western SJW) critics start from the assumption that the attempt to create a Jewish state where Ottoman Palestine and its inhabitants already existed was illegal and immoral from the git go… If one starts from the second position then the significance and valence of the Arab and Israeli positions in the lead up to the war and the way one sees the war itself can become very different. But at the same time, those events themselves did take place more or less as described. The significance and moral valence are yours to judge.
One laughs (or cries, it depends) at the yawning gap between the Arab leaders grandiose and extravagant claims and military moves in the months prior to the war (whether they meant any of it or not is almost besides the point; they probably did not, but they all said it, and they, especially the Egyptians, moved troops around as if they meant it) and the actual abilities of their tinpot regimes. The lower level Arab units were brave enough, but the senior echelons (except in the relatively competent Jordanian army) were sub-standard and the top leadership was criminally incompetent and utterly buffoonish. Whether Israel laid a trap and they fell into it, or it was a series of accidents and bad decisions, or something in between, the bare facts are brutal. Perhaps the best way to look at it is to note that the gap between the two cultures was just too great; the Arab buffoonery and grandstanding itself being just one manifestation of that tremendous cultural gap. And 15-20,000 ordinary soldiers and junior officers paid the ultimate penalty for it.
The book includes extensive quotes from both Israeli and Arab sources and fully captures the flavor of the time and the participants hopes and expectations at each stage. The self-doubt and arguments within the Israeli leadership are interesting, but perhaps a bit overplayed in an attempt to counter those who say it was all a premeditated Israeli trap. These arguments will no doubt continue.
It is fascinating to read what all the Arab leaders thought of each other..and how the “street” and their own delusions forced each country to join a “coalition” that was too united to avoid joint disaster and too disunited to do anything seriously coordinated…The way Egypt misled its own “ally” Jordan to sucker them into the war and how Syria lied to everyone from day one to day six are classics in the annals of useless alliances. There may be other examples like this somewhere in history, but offhand I cannot think of another example of a multi-national “coalition” as inept and self-defeating as this one.
Of course, one cannot fail to be impressed by the chutzpah, initiative, courage and competence of Israel’s citizen army. At the same time, their undoubtedly impressive performance was greatly enhanced by buffoonery and incompetence at the highest levels of the Egyptian and Syrian armies. The Egyptian army could well have stood and fought a much bloodier and longer battle in the Sinai if “Field Marshal” Amer had not ordered them into headlong retreat after he personally fell to pieces on the second day of the war. And the Syrian collapse in the Golan was no less dramatic (and also caused partly by the high command losing its nerve). But while the overall picture is well presented and ground level anecdotes are aplenty (and not just from the Israeli side, though naturally, Israeli exploits get more play), this is not a “military history” book. If you are into the kind of book that shows countless maps and arrows and individual units and their maneuvers, you will need to add another book to this one.
Overall, well worth a read.
PS: I mentioned to a friend about how celebrations broke out across the Arab world on the first day of the war, as the population imagined that the long promised “march to Tel Aviv” had begun (and as their own radio related tales of great victories). This friend reminded me that such demonstrations did not just happen in the Arab world, they also took place in far away Pakistan. He recalled that in his locality in Karachi, people came out on the streets and distributed sweets (no doubt having heard, as radio Cairo was claiming, that hundreds of Israeli planes had been downed and the Egyptian army was marching into Negev). By the second day, some of the better informed had figured out (presumably from listening to the BBC) that the Arabs were actually losing, but most people refused to believe them. By the third day, general depression had set in. I am sure this patterns was repeated across the Muslim world.