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October 9, 2023

Our minister began the service this morning this morning by leading the congregation in an emotional prayer for “the peace of Jerusalem,” exactly as Psalm 122 mandates. “May all who love this city prosper. O Jerusalem may there be peace within your walls.” Why talk about peace after the savage surprise attack by Hamas? With exquisite cruelty, the Hamas outrage began not only on Shabbat, the Israeli Sabbath, but also on the 50th anniversary of Yom Kippur.

Inevitably, I remembered another Yom Kippur, this one in 1973 when TV was black, white, grainy and often hours or days behind events. Back then, I was a young intelligence officer, deployed close to the heavily militarized border between east and west Germany. Guard towers, minefields, and razor-wire obstacles (supposedly vetted by East German Olympians) marked the death zones. But our greatest concerns were carefully concealed in wood-lines just east of the border region: multiple armored divisions and mobile artillery (lots of it) belonging to the Group of Soviet Forces, Germany. Although their normal wartime mission was to split NATO forces and make a run for the English Channel, in October 1973, they were watching closely to see how American forces would reinforce their Israeli allies.

On that other Yom Kippur, Israel had been badly surprised when they were attacked across the Suez Canal by Egyptian forces; meanwhile, heavily reinforced Syrian armies were attacking across the Golan Heights to threaten the Jewish state from south to north. Because both Arab armies had been armed and supplied by the Soviets, Israel experienced intense electronic warfare as well as the first wide-spread use of precision-guided munitions. These Soviet-based technological advances suddenly seemed capable of offsetting the traditional Israeli advantages in sophisticated battlefield equipment and innovative leadership. Worse yet, the new technologies created logistical nightmares as both sides learned new principles of war: “What can be seen can be hit; and what can be hit can be killed” (often on the first shot). With their client-states as aggressors, the Soviets watched gleefully: How would the US Army react to our first ‘real war’ since Vietnam?

After 50 years of hindsight, I am still astounded by how effective that reaction turned out to be. US logistics were turned upside down as critical equipment meant to deter the Russians was quickly stripped, packed and shipped to Israel. Armor and artillery went by sea from Bremerhaven while ammunition and spare parts flew on giant transports taking off from every US outpost. Although President Nixon had only begun to deal with the Watergate issues that would eventually drive him from office, his leadership under fire insured that Israel would never question the US security commitment. As Israeli forces were smoothly re-equipped, the tide of battle turned as well; daring Israeli counter-attacks in the Sinai and the Golan suddenly threw back Egyptian and Syrian armies. When those counter-attacks threatened Cairo and Damascus, the Russians mobilized their airborne forces to intervene directly; but that threat was countered when the US promptly took its forces to DEFCON 3. Before the crisis finally de-escalated, US and Soviet forces in several theaters stood muzzle-to-muzzle, another Cuban Missile Crisis though never acknowledged as such.  

What does this brief historical review suggest about the current Yom Kippur War? 

  • The same Chinese symbol stands for both “crisis and “opportunity” – highlighting the synergy of time and boldness in retaliating effectively. No matter how grievous earlier provocations, Israel has long and bitter experience having its freedom of action curtailed by diplomatic second-guessing. So strike now and strike hard!
  • For now, don’t waste precious time now worrying about intelligence failures. Leave all that to future punditry on MSNBC/CNN while taking advantage of the opportunities that any crisis brings. But do not repeat the American experience by failing to purge the intelligence bureaucracy.
  • The most important priority for Israel is not a cease-fire but striking hard body-blows, first at Hamas but even more importantly at Iran, the war’s architect and engineer. Above all, destroy the uninterrupted terrorist logistics of both Hamas (south) and Hezbollah (north) even if it means seizing and holding territory.
  • Finally, both the Biden White House and the alleged Republican leadership in Congress need to pull their socks up, using support for Israel to re-build bipartisanship. The current confusion can be glimpsed as American naval forces move closer to Israel. While that deployment may delight sailors anticipating future port-calls, if the Pentagon hopes to influence regional events, then promptly re-deploy those ships to locations that more directly threaten Iran.  Why else are they there?

COL (Ret.) Ken Allard is former draftee who became a West Point professor, Dean of the National War College and NBC News military analyst.


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