The Magazine

An Old-Fashioned War

Michael Oren's authoritative account of the Six Day War--and its legacy.

Jun 10, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 38 • By AMITAI ETZIONI
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Six Days of War
June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East
by Michael B. Oren
Oxford University Press, 446 pp., $30

IN "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East," Michael B. Oren gives a meticulous, blow-by-blow history of what is, unfortunately, an old-fashioned kind of war.

Just before the short but decisive conflict, Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran and demanded the removal of the United Nations forces that were serving as buffers in Sinai and the Gaza Strip. As the Egyptian army marshaled on the southern border of Israel, an Israeli morning raid eliminated the Egyptian air force, catching most planes on the ground, concentrated in small areas. Egypt proceeded to attack, but its forces--without air cover--were quickly defeated, retreating in disarray. Further fighting with Syria led to the Israelis' capture of the Golan Heights. Jordan entered the battle late (and reluctantly) and was quickly defeated, which resulted in the capture of the West Bank by Israel and the integration of the eastern parts of Jerusalem into the Israeli capital.

Michael Oren has impressive credentials to tell this story. A military historian trained at Princeton University, he has written the well-received "Origins of the Second Arab-Israeli War" and served in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In "Six Days of War" he lines up facts, more facts, and still more facts, with little editorializing. He has dug up carloads of documents, many previously secret or inaccessible, in Russian and Arabic, to advance his fine-grained documentation. Oren's writing is clear and unadorned, allowing the swift development of events to provide the drama, and he closes "Six Days of War" with seventy-three pages of endnotes and an extensive bibliography. It is altogether a serious and important work.

IN A VERY USEFUL opening chapter, Oren provides the historical context for the Six Day War--the conflict that, in turn, established the framework for many of the geopolitical issues with which the Middle East is still contending. It is a familiar story of the Jews of the Diaspora settling in what they believed to be a land with few people. In 1947 the United Nations "General Assembly Resolution 181" created two states, Arab and Jewish, with Jerusalem under an international regime. But both the local Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states refused to accept the arrangement, choosing instead to fight Israel from the day it was born. (I served as an Israeli commando in the Palmach at the time and can testify to Oren's accuracy.)

"Six Days of War" also shows how the Israeli-Arab conflict was quickly caught up in the Cold War, with the Soviet Union actively supporting certain states (especially Syria and, more indirectly, the Palestinians) and the United States supporting others (Israel and Iran). This discussion is particularly useful, for it highlights how much the world has changed since 1990. Soviet-style socialism never really had much force in the Arab world. Nationalism did provide some motivation, but not enough to fill the rank and file of the Arab armies with a strong desire to fight. Instead, the kind of ideological fervor that leads to suicide bombers and people willing to spend years preparing terrorist attacks on civilians has come, since the collapse of Soviet communism and the fading of the Cold War, from a new force: Islamic fundamentalism.

Recently there was a fight among the hundreds of volunteers for a suicide bombing mission in Gaza--because one of the candidates jumped the queue, taking the place another considered his. And many millions of Muslims across numerous countries, egged on by Arabic TV, have made eliminating Israel (the little Satan) and the United States (the big Satan) a tenet of their faith.

And the problem we face, the problem that Michael Oren points us to in "Six Days of War," is that simple, decisive, six-day wars are no longer possible. The campaign against terrorism by Israel and the United States will be a prolonged struggle. Its proper metaphor is not--sadly--the Six Day War, but the Cold War. We are engaged in a long, tedious, and brutal war with virulent forms of Islam, during which will have to be a fight over the hearts and minds of those we face. We shall have to help them to see the virtue of free governments and open societies over the dogmatic life under theocratic regimes that now not only terrorize, but also ideologically mobilize them by playing on religious symbols.