I, too, could have spoken up

This wound created by the Yom Kippur War is not yet healed. For weeks we have been scratching at the scab, and it is once again bleeding.

By
October 21, 2013 21:50
An abandoned Syrian tank on the Golan Heights

An abandoned Syrian tank on the Golan Heights 370. (photo credit: Seth J. Frantzman)

Iwould like to dedicate this article to the 2,569 IDF soldiers who lost their lives, the 7,251 who were wounded, the thousands of soldiers who’ve been suffering from shell shock and have not known a good night’s sleep for 40 years, and the tens of thousands of families who still suffer from heartache due to the Yom Kippur War.

This wound is not yet healed. For weeks we have been scratching at the scab, and it is once again bleeding.

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The numerous documentaries and personal stories that have been appearing on TV and the endless articles in the newspapers have transported us all back to those terrible days of war and uncertainty.

Every one of us is once again suffering his or her own private flashbacks.

My most vivid memory is from the end of December 1973. It was cold and rainy on the Golan Heights, and the War of Attrition with Syria had not yet ended. In the shade of a eucalyptus tree, I sat with Maj. Yoni Netanyahu, who had been a classmate of mine in school.

He was wearing an Armored Corps uniform.

He had fought with “the unit,” and now he was training in preparation for transferring to the Armored Corps; his goal was to create a new battalion with new commanders to replace the older generation that had died just three months prior in the Golan.

I looked at Yoni. He looked determined and confident, but also tired and sad – very tired and very sad.

We all were when the Yom Kippur War ended. My colleagues – the other military correspondents – and I had found ourselves in the office of the head of Military Intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Eli Zeira, where we were being briefed. It was here that we heard for the first time that war was about to break out. Someone had handed Zeira two small pieces of paper. After he read the first note, he told his subordinate that he did not want to be interrupted again, but after he read the second one, he turned and looked at us. Then he said, “Gentlemen, the war has begun,” and left the room.

The Yom Kippur War jolted the State of Israel out of its daydream. Six sweet years of bliss had passed since the Six Day War. The sensational victory had fooled all of us, both about our international and regional status, and about the quality of the IDF commanders. Israel was blinded by a sense of supreme confidence, and we believed that our situation had never been better and that it would always remain that way.

The Yom Kippur War shattered this illusion, and the war’s first blow brought us quickly back down to reality. I understood this fully on the first morning of the war when an IDF tank hit one of our cars, killing three of its passengers. As I watched the convoy traveling quickly – maybe even hysterically – southward toward the Egyptian border, I realized I was looking at a different IDF than the one I had known just a few years before.

I noticed this a few days later, too, in Maj.-Gen. Avraham Adan’s Armored Division, which had been involved in all the stages of battle in the South: containment, deployment, abortive attacks, redeployment, crossing the Suez Canal and then the quick and slightly liberating trek to a location only 101 kilometers from Cairo.

The Yom Kippur War was a watershed event for the State of Israel – a watershed event that showed us the difference between a war of choice and a war of no choice. Israel chose of its own volition not to carry out a preemptive strike and paid the price for this decision. Israel refused to start another war of choice, and thus the Yom Kippur War became a war of no choice. We learned from this war that there are no easy wars and no short wars. In every war, people who are dear to us die, and every war leaves a heavy imprint on all our hearts.

The Yom Kippur War was the last large-scale war in which the IDF fought against a regular Arab army.

In Lebanon, the IDF briefly clashed with the Syrian army, and since then we’ve only been attacked by terrorist organizations.

The Yom Kippur War set us on a path that led to political agreements.

This didn’t happen overnight; gradually we all began to understand that wars must end with a political agreement. This had not been the case in Israel’s previous wars, which had always ended with another round of fighting.

And so the signing of the first peace agreement between Israel and Egypt was the official end of the war. This created a new reality in the Middle East, which fortunately involved a subsequent peace agreement with Jordan and prepared the groundwork for other agreements that have not yet been achieved.

More than anything else, we learned from the Yom Kippur War that peace is preferable to war, and that war has no value if it does not end with a peace agreement.

Of course, we learned many other lessons from the war, too, some of which still guide us today. I hope that the country’s current political and military leadership and media are still thinking about these lessons.

Every single one of our leaders needs to remember that Israel rejected a peace treaty with Egypt before the first bullet was fired on October 6, 1973. I believe that it is preferable to have peace without Sharm e- Sheikh than to have Sharm e-Sheikh without peace.

The political leadership that failed us in 1973 was punished and sent on its way. This is a lesson that must resonate with each one of us living in Israel. The country’s military leadership back in 1973 smothered the vital internal discussion that was taking place behind closed doors.

Voices of criticism and skepticism were rejected – this was the old and familiar way of dealing with issues.

But with the advent of the Yom Kippur War, this method backfired and should never be used again.

Today, we know that the military leadership and political decisionmakers were all well aware of the situation, and yet were deaf to suggestions that the public deserved to be informed. The few individuals who struggled to make their opinions heard were silenced.

The IDF has been learning these lessons over a long period. Only recently did IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen. Benny Gantz decide that his office should reopen this issue for discussion.

Even the toughest, most hierarchical military framework needs to conduct open-minded dialogue with individuals who have differing opinions. Our military leadership needs to ask itself continually if the picture it believes to be crystal clear is indeed the true picture, or if it is perhaps possible that a completely different picture is hidden underneath.

Israel will not survive another surprise.

And to the media: My colleagues and I were also guilty of this oversight.

Of course, we, too, have tried to shake the blame from our shoulders, but have not succeeded. We, too, cooperated with our commanders and hid the truth about Israel’s weaknesses from the public and failed to warn the people.

The media took these tremendous feelings of guilt and poured their energy into the next war – the First Lebanon War. No longer was the media willing to toe the line or say that a war of choice was really a war of no choice.

Since then, the Israeli media has focused on exposing the reality in Israel. Some media forms no longer exist, while others have taken their place. New advanced communication technologies pop up every day, and journalists’ motivation has intensified. The media is harsh, critical and opinionated. And it is one of the foundations of Israeli democracy.

Sometimes I wonder how today’s media would have reacted back then. I’m sure it wouldn’t have let political leaders shirk their responsibility.

I’d like to think that it would not have compromised or carried out anything less than a fully comprehensive examination of the entire war, including its greatest achievements and not only of the first few days of fighting.

But we cannot turn back the wheel of time.

The songs that have been composed in the aftermaths of Israeli wars have reflected as well as shaped the reality of the times. One song in particular comes to mind as I think about the Yom Kippur War. It’s called “Winter of ’73”:

“When we were born, Israel was wounded and sad
You looked upon us, you hugged us, you tried to find comfort
When we were born, the older people blessed us with tears in their eyes
They said, God willing, these children will not have to serve in the army
The expressions on your faces in the old photographs prove that you were speaking from the heart
When you promised to do everything in your power to turn enemies into allies Now it’s time to fulfill your promise.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

The author is a member of Knesset for the Labor party.


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