Lasting peace ultimate victor of Yom Kippur War
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, which began on 6 October 1973, otherwise known as the Ramadan or October War. On that day, Syria and Egypt caught the Israel Defense Forces unaware with a co-ordinated, well-planned, surprise attack. Israel, at significant cost, eventually managed to fend off the Syrians, who had penetrated deep into the Golan Heights, threatening the Israeli heartland.
Thereafter, Israel launched a counter-attack against the Egyptians, who had conquered a swathe of Sinai in a daring crossing of the Suez Canal. The culmination of the Israeli counter-attack took it into Africa and brough it to the gates of city of Suez, effectively surrounding the Egyptian Third Army.
Much of what we know about the Yom Kippur War comes from the hundreds of books authored by Israelis and Americans or other Western sources. Books representing the Arab or Egyptian point of view are few and far between. Ironically, one of the better books on Egyptian operations from its point of view, The Egyptian Strategy for the Yom Kippur War: An Analysis, is authored by an Israeli, Dani Asher, who was a brigade intelligence officer at the time and derived many of his sources from captured Egyptian documents.
The most comprehensive Egyptian account, The Crossing of the Suez, comes from General Saad el-Shazly, chief of staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces during the Yom Kippur War. Few other Egyptians have ventured to account for their side of the events. The lack of material from “the other side of the hill” creates a lacuna in a balanced assessment of this critical event in military history.
Fifty years have passed, and the participants’ memories of this significant war have begun to fade away. Eventually, there will be no first-hand witnesses to these cataclysmic events that were so important to Israel’s survival. It was also a war that reverberated far beyond the immediate participants in the Middle East.
A wider East/West conflict was narrowly averted, and the petrol crisis that followed caused major and lasting changes in the petrochemical and motor vehicle industries and negatively affected the worldwide economy for years afterwards. However, a positive outcome of the war was the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, in which full diplomatic ties were established between two former implacable foes. Perhaps with the passage of time, it’s possible to assess the Yom Kippur War with less emotion and more critical vigour, and apply a balanced approach to the lessons learned on all sides of the conflict.
How is it possible that both sides, even today, claim victory in the Yom Kippur War?
Warfare must be examined on three levels – tactical, operational, and strategic – to analyse the events and outcomes surrounding a specific battle properly. The tactical level is where the actual combat takes place (the event). The operational level describes the process behind the event. The overall plan is formulated at the strategic level, giving rise to operational planning. It’s likely that those who take part in conflict at the tactical level – the ordinary combat soldier – may feel, validly, that they have won the battle, for they view events on the battlefield through a keyhole. Many American veterans will tell you that the United States never lost a battle in Vietnam, yet they lost the war. The same can be said for South African veterans who took part in Cuito Cuanavale and feel they bested the Cubans and FAPLA (People’s Armed Forces of Liberation of Angola). The nature of warfare is such that one army can lose many battles, but still emerge as the victor at the strategic levels of war or vice versa.
From the Egyptian point of view, notwithstanding the fact that the Israelis were able to surround the Third Army in their daring invasion of Egypt in Africa, they, with some justification, feel that they won the war at the strategic level. The war’s outcome restored Egyptian national pride and the prestige of its army after its humiliating defeat at the hands of the Israelis in June 1967. Their meticulous planning and preparation caught the Israelis off guard, and their crossing of the Suez Canal rates as one of the more remarkable water crossings in military history. The ordinary Egyptian soldier emerged as a worthy opponent, who, unlike in 1967, proved resourceful on attack and bravely defiant in defence. Their improved conduct at tactical and operational level allowed them to sit down as equal partners with the Israelis during ceasefire negotiations.
The Israelis emerged from the Yom Kippur War with a sober and realistic impression of Egyptian military capabilities. Gone was the hubris and underestimation of Israel’s enemies emanating from the miraculous victories enjoyed in the Six-Day War. The Egyptians had exposed some glaring shortcomings in Israeli military doctrine, and the much-vaunted Israeli intelligence. There was much soul-searching and finger-pointing in Israeli military and civilian communities. But, although hard-pressed and tested to their limit, the Israelis were able to lift themselves off the canvas, inflict a decisive blow against the Syrians, and restore their position against the Egyptians, albeit at enormous human cost.
Undoubtedly, the eventual Egyptian-Israeli peace deal initiated with Sadat’s incredible address to the Israeli Knesset in 1977 was facilitated by the restoration of Egyptian pride on the one hand and Israel’s determination to survive against incredible odds on the other. The military stalemate of the Yom Kippur War eventually persuaded the two former enemies to exchange diplomats in an atmosphere of mutual respect, and thereby gain a lasting peace. It matters little today who won the Yom Kippur War, with both sides, more importantly, eventually winning the peace.
- Dr David Brock Katz is a research fellow at Stellenbosch University in the faculty of military science. He has published three books and numerous academic articles dealing with aspects of South African military history and military doctrine.