The Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur, began last night at sundown. The most important and solemn holiday in Judaism, Yom Kippur marks the end of Rosh Hashannah or the Ten Days of Repentance requiring amendment of man's ways toward God and his fellow man. Thirty-five years ago, as the nation of Israel paused to observe Yom Kippur, Egypt and Syria launched loosely coordinated offensives across the Suez Canal and against the Golan Heights, respectively.
Six years previously, Israel had launched pre-emptive attacks on Egypt and Syria, convinced by intelligence that those nations were preparing to go to war against the Jewish nation. When Jordan joined the fray, Israeli forces quickly overran the West Bank and seized the entire city of Jerusalem. Combat operations lasted 6 days and resulted in one of the most dramatic, decisive, and lop-sided victories in the history of man's war on his fellow man. When the dust settled in June of 1967, Israel's territorial boundaries were nearly tripled and its Arab neighbors were embarrassed.
During the years between the end of the Six Day War and the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, the Soviet Union resupplied both Syria and Egypt and egged on Egypt's continued low-intensity combat operations against Israel along and above the Suez Canal. Soviet pilots even flew Egyptian-marked aircraft in combat against the Israeli Air Force (just as they had in Korea and Vietnam against the American Air Force). The Soviets helped Egypt's President Sadat plan the 1973 offensive with the aim to regain Egypt's Sinai territory and Egyptian pride; and, if fully successful, completely destroy the Jewish state. A combination of a brilliant Egyptian strategic deception plan, timing to coincide with the complete shut-down of the Jewish state to observe Yom Kippur, and faulty Israeli intelligence assumptions led to nearly complete strategic and operational surprise for the Egyptian and Syrian offensives.
The Egyptian assault across the Suez Canal, and the accompanying Syrian attack against the Golan Heights caught Israel almost completely unprepared. Egyptian forces crossed the Suez waterway and breached the Israeli fortifications along the eastern bank of the canal with relative ease--it was a well-planned and well-executed operation that once again proved the futility of static defenses such as had been disastrously depended upon by the French in 1940, the Germans in 1944, the Iraqis in 1991...(the list could go on and on). Israel countered the Egyptian offensive with pure armor formations that were decimated by heavy concentrations of Soviet-made infantry-wielded anti-armor weapons. Every third Egyptian soldier crossing the Suez Canal carried an anti-armor weapon. Israel's vaunted air force was likewise prevented from interdicting Egyptian cross-canal movement by large numbers of well-placed and coordinated Egyptian anti-aircraft batteries. In just the first couple of days of fighting in the Sinai, Israeli losses totaled 49 aircraft and 500 tanks--a stunning Egyptian tactical victory.
However, the Egyptian success in the Sinai soon turned to failure as the well-rehearsed and well-executed initial thrust across the Suez ground to a halt against stiffening Israeli resistance. The Soviet-trained Egyptian army now displayed what we had always believed would be the Achilles Heel of the Soviets if they attacked Western Europe--they had not trained their subordinate commanders for independent action to take advantage of battlefield opportunities. Instead of employing maneuver around Israeli army strongpoints, the Egyptians attacked them head on and began to suffer the same fate the Israeli armor counterattacks had earlier. When the Egyptians fell back on their previous positions, Israel counterattacked--this time with infantry infiltration of the Egyptian anti-armor and anti-aircraft positions, clearing the way for an Israeli Air Force supported armor thrust across the Suez Canal to the north of the initial Egyptian crossing. The Israeli forces quickly surrounded the predominance of the Egyptian army and advanced to within 65 miles of Cairo.
On the Syrian front at the Golan Heights, greatly out-numbered Israeli tank units miraculously fought back numerous Syrian armored assaults. At the start of fighting Syria possessed a 9 to 1 numerical advantage in tanks over the holiday-depleted Israeli defenders of the Golan strongpoint. Again demonstrating the weakness of Soviet battle doctrine, Soviet-trained Syrian commanders refused to deviate from their plan of attack and failed to take advantage of a huge battlefield opportunity provided by the unexpected success of one of their armored attacks. The battles in the Golan Heights provided Israel with some of their most celebrated national heroes. As Israeli reservists and active soldiers returning from holiday made their way to the Golan front, they manned tanks staged in rear area storage facilities and headed to the battle lines--often in single tank formations. Often, Israeli tank commanders found themselves alone, holding a critical Syrian objective or attacking the flank of a Syrian armored thrust.
When the Syrian assault ground to a halt, the Israeli army counterattacked into Syrian territory and advanced to within 25 miles of the Syrian capital, Damascus. Yet another operational surprise awaited the Israelis as an Iraqi force of several armored divisions entered the fray, attacking the right flank of the Israeli advance into Syria and prompting an Israeli retrograde to more easily defended positions back on the Golan Heights.
When it became clear to the United States that its ally Israel would not repeat the quick 1967 Six Day War victory over its Arab antagonists, the US began a massive airlift of war supplies and material to Israel. When it later became clear to the Soviets that its Arab clients might eventually suffer an even greater defeat than they had in 1967, the Kremlin put all of its expeditionary (airborne and amphibious) forces on alert and indicated to the United States that if a cease-fire was not brokered quickly Russian forces would enter the fight against Israel. President Nixon, embroiled and discombobulated by the Watergate scandal, in effect abrogated his commander-in-chief responsibilities to Henry Kissinger, James Schlesinger, William Colby, and Alexander Haig; his Secretaries of State and Defense, Director of Central Intelligence, and White House Chief of Staff, respectively. In a flurry of midnight activity, while Nixon slept the evening of 23-24 October, those four made incredibly sensitive decisions on the unknown behalf of the President--they raised our nuclear defense condition, DEFCON, from 4 to 3, and sent a message to Sadat, in Nixon's name, pledging future support if Egypt would rescind its request for Soviet aid. The Soviets were very surprised at our placing our nuclear forces on alert and wisely displayed the cooler heads in the whole lashup, standing down their forces and accepting yet another Arab defeat, rather than risk World War Three. One wonders what different tack this whole conflict might have taken had Kissinger and Haig woke Nixon to his commander-in-chief responsibilities that night. My bet is Nixon would not have acted as decisively as the Kissinger-Schlesinger-Colby-Haig cabal and the Soviets might very well have been emboldened to dispatch forces to help defend Egypt and Syria against the Israeli counterattacks. That action would surely have provoked an armed response from the US in defense of Israel.
There is a critical lesson in this for us. The same fault lines run though the Middle East today. A resurgent Russia, flush with oil cash and feeling cocky after "teaching Georgia a lesson" without incurring an effective American response, might very well be emboldened to take a more active role in the region, increasing the tectonic pressure to the point of rupture. A continued weak response, from the current US administration and the next, will be a green light to Putin's plans for a reinvigorated Russian Empire. The one, the only, thing power-crazy punks like Putin respect is strength--not "please and thank you" diplomacy, but a bare-knuckled posture with force to back it up.
Who do you want calling the shots come January?