The Six Day War: Now it’s July

Soldiers’ Talk – later retitled The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War – caused quite a furor.

Ernest Hemingway (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ernest Hemingway
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Everything that can possibly be said or written about war was said and written long ago. There is nothing new, only variations on an indescribable theme.
Nothing new – unless the words refer to your own experience of war. Then they become unique, your property, to do with as you will. Oblivion must have its share. Silence has many uses. So do the word-barrages one encounters occasionally, usually prefaced by “If you haven’t experienced it yourself, you can’t understand.”
But what is it that makes us human, if not our ability to understand, even if incompletely, what we have not experienced? And if we can’t understand, why bother to pay attention?
The 50th anniversary of the Six Day War has come and gone. For those who remember, it was only yesterday; for those who don’t, ancient history. I did not write about it last month, because I expected the media to be over-full and, more importantly, because it was not my war.
I remember. I was a young American college student, debating aliya. I didn’t go then because my imminent fatherin- law, a high-decibel Zionist who chanted Ben-Gurion’s dictum that every American family should send one child to Israel, reacted mightily. “Not with my daughter.” So aliya got put off a few decades.
In truth, I’ve never much cared for commemorations and memorials and the gummy rhetoric they seem to require. Hemingway got it right in A Farewell to Arms:
“There were many words you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallowed were obscene....”
True enough. But in Israel, true in a different way. There is a unique patriotism here, a complex of emotions and memories and anticipations, that, at its best, is somber, grieving, silent. Or when it is expressed, it is done with quiet thoughtfulness and dignity, in remembrance of the horrific price paid for existence.
In late 1967, a book of such expression appeared in Israel. Soldiers’ Talk – later retitled The Seventh Day: Soldiers’ Talk about the Six-Day War – caused quite a furor.
The Seventh Day began life as a series of impromptu group discussions among kibbutznik combat veterans in the summer of 1967. They spoke to one another and to the informal moderators/interviewers (themselves kibbutznik veterans) about their experiences, feelings and perceptions of past and future. In October 1967, an edited volume appeared, intended for private circulation. It quickly found its way to the general public and became a national must-read. A general edition followed and quickly sold out. An English edition appeared in 1970.
Reading it now, three things come through.
The first is that, despite layers of editing, the young men appear as thoughtful individuals, not icons or heroes all. If they can be called idealistic, that’s because they lived their ideals in close companionship with their families and communities. But their idealism was grounded in reality: kibbutz, country, Jewish people, and how this sacred grouping led them to accept war and prevail, and then live with the pain.
Editing, to be of high quality, must start with a decent text. The editorial board (which included luminaries such as Amos Oz and Abba Kovner) worked with the expressions of soldiers who, although few had university training, were intelligent and articulate.
Words that in the mouths of others could sound obscene, in their mouths did not.
The second was an almost complete omission of comment on those who didn’t, or couldn’t, measure up in combat. I take this less as contempt than as a soldierly sympathy for the ones – and there were doubtless more than a few – who broke. And for the special pain they carry.
The third item was also an omission. No one advocated settlement of Judea and Samaria; no one saw the war as some enabling prelude to “Final Redemption.”
The omission was deliberate. Haaretz, as part of a Six Day War retrospective, devoted a feature to revealing that, after the kibbutz interviews were completed, the editors sought out a group of yeshiva students who had fought. The editors found their attitude so arrogant and their comments so noxiously triumphalist that they were excised entirely. A legitimate editorial decision, not to give publicity to that which you abhor. But perhaps, in this context, not entirely wise.
(Amos Oz describes some of this tension in his 1983 book In the Land of Israel.)
But the ultimate value of the book does not reside on its pages. It’s found in the reader’s reaction after 50 years. You can’t help but wonder. How many of those young men fell in 1973, or 1982, or at other times? What were their names, dates, places, numbers?
Perhaps someone might write a book about that. It would be a fitting sequel.