The best histories illuminate the limits of the human condition. The record of the past is the best guide to humanity’s paradoxical capacity for both greatness and degradation. Some histories read as farce, others as tragedy. A few histories manage to do both. Michael Oren’s Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East possesses this elusive distinction. Oren’s book is a substantial achievement. Its scholarship is impeccable; its implicit commentary on the human face of the Middle Eastern crisis is sobering.
Six Days of War is many things. First and foremost it is a cautionary tale. The events of June, 1967, defied both sides’ expectations. The Arabs were betrayed by their hopes; the Israelis were driven by their fears. Arab posturing set off a chain of events that backed the Israelis into what they believed was a corner. In the end, the Israelis proved more resourceful in adapting to changing circumstances, and they launched an offensive that devastated the military forces of their enemies. Israel’s leaders hoped that their victory would make possible a final settlement with their Arab neighbors; instead, military triumph saddled Israel with a sullen and eventually rebellious subject population in the West Bank and Gaza. Thus, a war that was in many ways inadvertent begat more wars.
The protean character of the Six Day War underscores one of Oren’s major themes. He argues convincingly that those six days in June, 1967, were the crucible of the modern Middle East. The war changed the map in ways that made an already ugly conflict between the Arabs and Israelis even more intractable. It exposed the hard foundation of political and cultural difference that divides Arabs and Israelis. Finally, it aggravated the historical patterns of Israeli defensiveness and Arab humiliation which have done so much to embitter the struggle for the Holy Land.
Oren writes with authority. An American-born Israeli, he has grounded his history on an impressive body of research. He consulted available Arab resources and mined archives in Israel, the United States, Europe, and Russia. His is the most comprehensive account of the Six Day War available. It is also the best written. Oren’s history reads with the fluidity, pace, and suspense that one associates with a great work of fiction. His incisive and sympathetic portraits of the men caught up in the flow of events in 1967 give his narrative great dramatic power. Six Days of War is a masterful work of history.
Oren makes clear that this was a war that need not have been. This is a crucial element in the tragic dimension of these events. Leaders on both sides created a situation in which they felt themselves embroiled in forces beyond their control. Oren opens his book with the compelling image of a butterfly which, by flapping its wings, generates air currents that eventually explode into a storm. A fatal capriciousness runs through the events leading to war in 1967. Many flapping butterfly wings would come together to produce a major war.
Oren is careful to note, however, that no amount of butterfly wings flapping would have led to the Six Day War without the context of fierce enmity between Arabs and Israelis. The Arab states surrounding Israel had striven to smother it at birth in 1948. Unsuccessful in that attempt, they had subsequently refused to recognize Israel’s legitimacy. Right through to the outbreak of war in 1967, they sponsored cross-border raids by Palestinian guerrillas. They also broadcast a torrent of stridently anti-Israeli rhetoric in their mass media. Opposition to the existence of the state of Israel became a rallying point for Arabs in the years after World War II as powerful currents of anticolonialism and nationalism roiled the Middle East.
The man who best embodied these forces for change in the Arab world was Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had come to power in Egypt following a military coup in 1954. Nasser saw himself as a revolutionary and preached a heady brew of socialism and Arab nationalism. He dreamed of heading a pan-Arab state that encompassed most of the vanished caliphate. Nasser expended most of his energies and resources battling the more conservative Arab rulers in the region. On the eve of the Six Day War, much of his army was embroiled in a civil war in Yemen so brutal that his forces resorted to gassing recalcitrant villages. However, Nasser nursed a special grievance against Israel: He yearned to revenge the defeat inflicted on the Egyptian military in a 1956 war with Israel. Nasser recognized the real dangers of...
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