the cowardly octogenarians and the brave combatants
First and foremost: there has been a tidal wave of new subscriptions in recent days and I want to thank each and every one of you for taking an interest in my eclectic - and often scattershot - musings. My father was a professional writer and I have published the odd article and essay in my day but it was only in March 2020 when my performing career came to a screeching halt that I felt the need to dive into writing more seriously. A paid subscription is always graciously welcome but my “Stack” remains open to all. Thank you again!
On October 6, 1973, on Yom Kippur, the most holy day of the Jewish calendar, the armies of Egypt (in the Sinai desert) and Syria (across the Golan Heights) initiated a massive coordinated attack on the State of Israel. The intent was the same as it had been in all previous conflicts: to wipe the Jewish state off the map. This time, the enemy came precariously close to achieving that contemptible intention.
I was 20 years old at the time, past the military induction age of 18, but since I was still in Israel on a “temporary resident” visa, unlike my high school peers, I had not been drafted. That would happen a couple of years later. I was majoring in English Literature at Bar Ilan University but most of my time was taken up by music and my girlfriend. Frankly, between her and my involvement with my band, my studies took a very distant back seat. Incidentally, this has been my lifelong problem. I do very well in anything independent and free-lance but cannot muster much interest when squeezed into a formal structure. Consequently, my band did great and my love life thrived but my grades were below par. “Someone of your talent and intelligence could do so much better, if only you applied yourself” I must have heard that a million times. That Yom Kippur, like all the ones before it, was an unwelcome interruption of life. For 24 hours, all activity came to a halt. People spent their time either in the synagogue or at home. Most Israelis - at least at the time - fasted from sundown to sundown. Having grown up in militantly atheist Prague, I considered fasting and most other religious customs and edicts an unnecessary burden. And so, while my parents would fast, I shamelessly made delicious sandwiches and munched on them in my room while playing the newest records by Jethro Tull or the Rolling Stones. Naturally, playing music in another activity strictly verboten on Yom Kippur. There was no traffic on the streets and kids took full opportunity of playing on wide open roadways - at least the non-observant kids. I assume religious kids were in shul with their parents.
October 6 that year started just like any other Yom Kippur: 12 hours of boredom stretched before me, all was silent except the occasional shriek of a kid playing soccer on the road outside my bedroom window. Then, I think it was around 2 in the afternoon, weird things started happening - weird for a Yom Kippur that is. There was suddenly traffic on the streets. The kids scattered and disappeared, replaced by throngs of young and not so young men hurrying in all directions, some in uniform. An incredible sense of foreboding descended on our house, on our neighborhood, on the whole city. Street activity on Yom Kippur? Inconceivable! Something awful was happening. A neighbor knocked on the door: “Turn on your radio immediately, we are at war” And indeed, it was true. Israel was at war. Those harried people on the streets were men rushing to join their military units. An immediate general mobilization was in progress. Later that afternoon, air raid sirens howled and we all crammed into our building bomb shelter - a room of whose existence I knew but never had suspected I would actually use. No one had any information whatever. Jets roared overhead and we hoped they were ours. The information coming from the radio was scant: mostly coded calls for soldiers joining units all across the country. Around 6pm, the Prime Minister, Golda Meir, finally came on the radio and confirmed what we already knew: the ceasefire had been violated and our borders had been breached by the armies of Egypt and Syria.
We all had great faith in the IDF and our faith proved to be well-founded. After the brutal and bloody initial battles, the IDF beat back the enemy in what is considered Israel’s greatest military triumph - we prevailed against truly crushing odds. But we felt instinctively on the first day, as we stood in the bomb shelter, some crying, some shaking, some boastful, some cocksure, but all of us confused, that Israel would never be the same. The war exacted an enormous toll in every aspect: almost 3 thousand combat deaths out of a population of 3.3 million. That would translate to over 300 thousand American combat deaths (in today’s population numbers) in 20 (!) days of fighting. An unthinkable number. None of my classmates were killed, though they had all seen death at close quarters and they were never the same: it took a generation to put the country back on even keel again. Despite the phenomenal victory, despite snatching an against-all-odds triumph from the jaws of defeat, a malaise such as Israel had never know descended upon the country
How was it possible to be taken so completely by surprise? How could the intelligence apparatus not have known? And if they knew, how come they did not alert the appropriate authorities in time? How could the undefeatable IDF come so close to defeat?
Questions such as these rocked the country for months. Screaming two-inch headlines of “FAILURE”, incessant probing, inquiries, questioning, doubting. The whole political establishment, the invincible Labor Party of Ben Gurion, of Levi Eshkol, of Golda Meir was thrown into chaos and she and the cabinet resigned in April 1974, a mere five months after the war had begun. Menachem Begin’s conservative Likud Party took over the reins in short order: they were elected with a majority in the fall of 1977. The war marked the beginning of a transformation of the country from a collectivist social democracy to a much more open free market economy - but that is not the focus of this piece.
What I am impressed with till this day - in addition to the unprecedented military triumph - is the speed with which those in power were held accountable. Practically the whole military top brass resigned, was re-assigned or fired. The political leadership changed within months. It was immediately recognized that terrible mistakes had been made and had to be rectified immediately, lest the country face a similar situation again.
Let’s briefly contrast that with what’s been going on in the US in the last two years. True, we were not faced with a lethal enemy on our border but we DID face an unprecedented disruption and upheaval of our society, starting in March 2020. This upheaval reverberates still and, if fact, our situation is more dire now than two years ago. And yet: I have not seen a single resignation, a single admission of guilt, in fact - not even a single admission that anything had been done wrong at all!! Think: two years of useless pandemic measures, two years of failed public policy, a year and a half of vaccine failure. Perhaps I should not be contrasting the Israeli situation in 1973, a life and death existential struggle, with America’s political/economic woes. But I cannot help but decry all the self-satisfied octogenarians who hold power in this country when compared with the swift recognition of fault and the resulting political price paid by Israel’s leaders in 1973. I’ll wait patiently for the commissions to form and for the guilty to pay the price here in the US. I have a hunch it’ll be a long wait.
Two more personal notes: my girlfriend’s brother David (“Dudu”) was killed in a fierce tank battle in the Sinai, in the initial days of the war. He was 23. Although my girlfriend and I continued to date for another year and a half, her brother’s death was a hit the relationship could not withstand: she became depressed and withdrawn, while I was suffering panic attacks and high anxiety at the time. We remain friends till this day and recognize what the Yom Kippur War did to us on a personal level.
Secondly, I know that my cousin in Israel, who fought like a lion on the Syrian front and who saw countless casualties and pitched bloody battles, reads this Substack (I don’t want to name him without his consent) T.S: if you would like to comment or expand on this piece, feel free. I can translate your comment if you wish.
P.S. The Israeli/HBO series “Valley of Tears” about the Yom Kippur War is a MUST WATCH. You will not see a more riveting dramatization of real war anywhere