An Evolving Epic
The Arab-Israeli Wars.
by Chaim Herzog.
Random House. 392 pp. $20.00.
The son of a distinguished British rabbi (later Chief Rabbi of Palestine), Chaim Herzog served with the British army during World War II and then with the new Israel Defense Forces, twice holding the position of director of Military Intelligence (1948-50 and 1959-62). In addition to being a soldier, he is a lawyer, a diplomat (having served as his country’s ambassador to the United Nations), and a journalist, the author of several books, and a well-known commentator in the Hebrew and English press. He is thus uniquely equipped to produce an enlightening survey of the Arab-Israeli military conflict. Unfortunately, however, this book is a disappointment.
The Arab-Israeli Wars offers a workmanlike narrative of the period from 1948 through 1982, including a hastily written chapter on the recent war in Lebanon. Herzog introduces each war with a brief prologue, no more than a half-dozen pages long, and then plunges immediately into a detailed but clearly written operational account of the major campaigns and battles. His book is amply supplied with maps, and provides enough of the political background of each war to make the history understandable. Herzog describes the strategic geography of the region clearly, and identifies the major personalities on either side.
Why, then, is this such an unsatisfying book? For one thing, although this is a handy summary, Herzog’s account provides no new information. Nor does it offer new insight into a remarkable thirty-five-year era of political and military history. Herzog’s emphasis on the fighting means that he gives little space to all the transformations of society, politics, and institutions—in both Israel and the Arab world—that occurred in the periods in between the episodes of fighting. This inevitably deprives his work of some value, for it is impossible fully to understand war except in the largest context. Thus, Herzog’s book lacks the depth of the now unfortunately outdated work of Nadav Safran, From War to War.
Yet even as a purely military history Herzog’s book falls below the standards we should hold him to. For instance, few of the many maps are anything more than crude, two-dimensional abstractions of the battlefield, and none approaches the sophistication and topographical detail of the average U.S. Geological Survey map, much less those in the U.S. Army’s Official History of World War II. This may seem to be a petty point, but in my judgment it reflects the suppressed—perhaps unconscious—disdain of the average military writer for the lay audience. Another example is the six batches of photographs included in the book, most of them of famous politicians or generals or equally well-known “human-interest” scenes. Pictures of the kind that might make the tactical descriptions more intelligible (as, again, can be found in the U.S. Army Official Histories) are completely lacking. The failing here is not, I hasten to add, Herzog’s alone, but rather a fault of the genre.
Herzog could have made this military history more interesting by pursuing any number of lines of inquiry. Rather than invoking the ghost of the English writer B.H. Liddell Hart to applaud the genius of the Israeli army, he might have told us whether the Israelis learned their style of war from Liddell Hart, from the Germans, or on their own. He might have discussed the evolution of the Israeli army—today’s citizen army is very different from the citizen army of 1948—and compared the new professional Israeli officer corps with its predecessors.
Herzog might also have looked more closely into the astonishing development of Arab forces, particularly those of Egypt and Syria. If the British had faced 9,000 Syrian rather than Argentine troops on East Falkland Island last summer, a very different outcome might have occurred there, a Gallipoli in the South Atlantic rather than the swift and relatively cheap triumph they had. Indeed, the transformation of the primitive, poorly officered, inadequately equipped and trained levies of Syria and Egypt into effective (if still inferior) military forces has been an impressive achievement that has still not been adequately explained. The history of the Egyptian army from 1967 to 1973 suggests that Soviet aid and advice alone do not account for this development. Neither is the answer to be found in some change in the nature of the societies opposing Israel. Many Israelis and Americans assumed in the aftermath of 1967 that an army is merely a reflection of the society from which it emerges, and that the Arabs were therefore doomed to perpetual military inferiority. The Israeli high command fell prey to this belief, and the Israel Defense Forces paid the penalty in the October 1973 war.
Israel’s struggle with the Arab world is an appropriate subject for an epic history. While it would be unreasonable to expect anyone to match the achievements of such master participant/historians as Polybius or Thucydides, one hoped for better from Chaim Herzog than what he has given us in this book.