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Diplomatic history nerds (and their denied cousins, the military history nerds) know, in outline, about the Six Day War: the Israelis launch a pre-emptive strike, destroy the Egyptian air force on the ground, and proceed to walk all over Arab armies several times their size and expand their country to its present borders, in six days, kicking off the perpetual Middle East "peace" process. This book gave a lot of substance to that outline - it's a pretty interesting story.

Six Days of War is a political history - it writes about decisionmakers and strategy. About as much space is devoted to examining the context that led up to the war, and its aftermath, as to the actual war. Unsurprisingly, it is very detailed about Israeli internal dynamics, political and military (the writer is now Israel's ambassador to the United States), and it has decent coverage about Egypt's senior leadership as well (a lot of archives have been opened). It is not so good with Syria and Jordan, which are both more secretive.

Generally, it is extremely well written, and gives a good feel for what was a very tense and emotional atmosphere - Oren was born in New Jersey and an American academic, in between being a paratrooper and diplomat.

The throughness and magnitude of the Israeli victory in the war can leave (as it did with me) a misleading impression - that it was meticulously planned, carefully and calmly prepared for. Nothing can be further from the truth - politically, the whole thing was a chaotic, unplanned mess. This was a war neither side particularly wanted, that the superpowers tried to discourage, marked by Polonius-like indecisions and mental breakdowns, alternating with decisions made by committees engaged in shouting matches. I have occasionally wondered how the very ... spirited Israeli cabinet made decisions about war in a crisis, and the answer is: with great chaos and messiness, but they got the job done. As for the Egyptians, Nasser had a serious case of Emperor Derangement Syndrome: he was so used to being god he behaved recklessly with complete self-assurance, even as he and Field Marshal Amer tried to shadowbox each other and hide information while egging each other on to war. The Israelis may have been screaming hysterically at each other, but the Egyptian leadership was lying to each other and issuing contradictory orders.

The US and the Soviet Union do not come off well. The American ambassador failed to deliver a handwritten note from King Hussein to the Israeli government until it was too late to do any good. LBJ was much too clever by half, trying to have his cake and eat it too - he wanted to court the Jewish vote, but not weaken his domestic position with another foreign adventure. His response to the whole crisis seems to have been to sit around and hope it would go away, delivering ambiguous messages from a position of ostentatious weakness. It was darkly humorous to watch the Israelis try to parse reassurance or other meaning out of the situation, but eventually they figured out LBJ couldn't or wouldn't do anything for them. The Russians sent the Arabs incredibly contradictory messages, mainly because they were engaged in one of their factional struggles, and the KGB (with whatever political agenda was theirs) jumped in at various points with completely false and bullshitted intelligence "estimates" of impending war, mobilizations, etc. Nobody was better than the KGB at planting spies in other governments, but few major services in the Cold War were worse at actually delivering reliable warnings and estimates.

The traditional impression of the war was much more accurate militarily. The IDF was well-trained, with strong unit cohesion and a good grasp of operational art and combined arms, and complete dominance of the air following their successful first strike. The Jordanian Army was good on a unit-by-unit basis, but lacked good direction from above, and was overwhelmed piecemeal, without real air cover. The Egyptian and Syrian militaries were screwed up beyond any modern conception of a military - entire command staffs deserted their posts, promotion was for political reliability rather than any semblance of capability, deliberate lies were passed up the chain of command (as if the chaos and confusion of war were not enough), conscripts were shoved to the battlefield without ammunition and cursory training. The whole thing brought de Atkine's essay "Why Arabs Lose Wars to mind, very forcibly. To top it off, with only the forward positions lost, Nasser and Amer completely lost their heads and ordered a general retreat, which with their army turned into a complete rout.
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August 2013

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