Book Review: Three Millennia of Wars

Gary L. Rashba's book is a readable history of the pivotal battles fought over the Holy Land.

January 24, 2012 21:27
Three Millennia of Wars

Three Millennia of Wars 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Gary L. Rashba knows his stuff. Learn from him.

The area around the gasoline station down the road from my house offers no clues that it was once the venue for one of the best known biblical stories, one that crossed cultures and religions, of that wonderful moment when the small triumphed over the mighty and the good guys foiled the bad.

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Yes, David fought Goliath, picking up stones for his sling from the Elah Stream that still flows not far from where I fill up on 95 octane today.

As fate would have it, another pivotal but less-known battle that changed the face of the Holy Land took place near this very same petrol station centuries later. The Battle of Ajnadayn, where the Muslims defeated the Byzantine army in 634 CE, ushering in Islamic rule over what is today Israel.

This is a small land but oh so attractive to conflict. Sometimes the same ground will run red with blood once, and again centuries later, and then again after that. There are not many places on earth that can boast this dubious claim.

The history of the Holy Land is mainly told according to the wars fought here.
The mysterious voids are filled in periodically by accounts of battles separated by voids of a century or more till the next civilization is vanquished and conqueror claims the land.  

Gary L. Rashba’s Holy Wars, 3000 Years of Battles in the Holy Land illuminates those major battles that shaped this part of the world for three millennia. It’s a colossal task, and it would have been easy, even excusable, for Rashba to have gotten bogged down in meaningless but famous battles.  Or to have told a good story, but leave the reader clueless about the significance of the bloodletting. With so many battles to choose from, it’s hard to narrow them down to a select group. But Rashba gets credit for choosing the 17 most crucial conflicts that any historian will tell you are a must for study.

Holy Wars begins with the Israelite conquest of Canaan and ends with the 1982 battle between the Israeli and Syrian air forces during the first Lebanon War that wiped out the latter’s air defense systems and led to the downing of over 80 Syrian aircraft.

When I first picked up Holy Wars I found myself skipping some of the periods I had little interest in, like the Mamluk’s wars against the Turks, and delved into battles I was keen on reading about. And that is the beauty of this book. Each chapter is self contained and that allows the reader to “choose a specific chapter for a snapshot of a particular period of interest without having to read the previous or subsequent chapters,” Rashba says.

What I found fascinating about Rashba’s book is his enormous knowledge of history and lucid accounts of tactics during the various periods. I admit I had been often confused about the various timelines of empires who ruled the Holy Land at which period? Did the Assyrians come before or after the Babylonians? Were the Mamluks predecessors of the Crusaders, or was it the other way around? After reading Rashba’s book I feel I’ve gone through a crash course in history. He’s crammed so much information into such a pleasant, lucid read; it should be a must for every journalists or diplomat stationed in the region.

One of my favorite chapters was the second, “Times of Trouble,” which tells of the battles of the Judges. One can read all about this in the Bible. But why get bogged down in the lists of cities Joshua captured and the borders of the lands allotted to the twelve tribes which takes up much of the book of Judges. Using his knowledge of period warfare and drawing from other sources, Rashba is able to transform a few paragraphs in the Bible into pages of compelling storytelling, even if he does take on a narrative non-fiction tone.

He tells the story of Sisera, commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin, as if he’s inside the man’s head. Fleeing the battlefield, Sisera finds refuge in the tent of Yael. “Physically and mentally exhausted from the sudden turn of events and his flight, Sisera desperately needed to rest. Drenched from both rain and sweat, the shivering general found the dry, warm tent very inviting.” Once asleep, Yael hammers a tent peg through his temple, thus denying Barak, leader of the Israelites, his coup de grace. 

Rashba writes that he is more of a storyteller than an historian. Maybe, and his accounts are enjoyable to read. But he is definitely a top notch writer who is able to organize his careful research over such a large time span into an easy-to-read and highly informative account of the conflicts.  It is more than just military history, it is insights into the people who have fought over this land and a good read.

I was particularly pleased to see that he devotes a chapter to the British battles for Gaza in the First World War and the subsequent conquest of the land from the Turks and Germans. Coming on the 100th anniversary of the Great War, we are likely to see more books and writing on it this decade.

For the Six Day War, Rashba wisely chose to tell the conquest of the Syrian bunkers by the Israeli army’s Golani brigade. This may have seemed odd, since the battles against the Egyptians or the conquest of Jerusalem beg to be in this book. But there are loads of books already written on these battles. His account of the hand-to-hand combat between Israeli and Syrian troops had me biting my nails. My only complaint, and this holds true for most of the chapters dealing with the Israeli Defense Forces, is the dearth of sources from the Arab side.

Also, I forgive his mistake of swapping the location of the Israelites and Philistines during the epic battle of David and Goliath. As one who lives there, we are brought up knowing the Philistines were at the hill of Azekah closer to their cities and the Israelites at Socoh closer to Judea and not as Rashba tells it.

After reading this book, I can only hope he will produce a sequel. Three thousand years of conflict leaves a lot of material to be covered and – given the unfortunate state of affairs today – plenty to write about in the future.

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