Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East is a detailed narrative of the Six Day War fought in 1967 between Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Israel by Michael Oren. The 1967 war is generally considered the third Arab Israeli war and is by far one of the most interesting wars ever fought because of both it’s brevity and the far-reaching consequences of it’s outcome for the modern Middle East.
I first became aware of the Six Day war from my Dad, back as a kid during one of the conversations we would have about history while working on an outdoor project. I was just getting into wargaming and military history at the time (largely because of my Dad’s influence) and studying long-running wars such as WWII and the Civil War, so the concept of a war lasting only six days was fascinating to me.
I picked up Six Days of War from a Goodwill for only a couple bucks a few months ago and after taking the time to read through it I’m pretty happy with my find. The book is not truly a military history of the conflict; in fact, the accounts of the actual fighting are relatively few and far between, and are there more for flavor than as a proper military history. Relatively information is present regarding equipment, orders of battle, and other details that military historians normally look for though the key military events are all discussed.
Instead, the author’s focus is on the war as a political event, and his dizzying cast of characters is the complex web of politicians and generals that were pulling the strings in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel, the Soviet Union, and the United States at the time. After a very brief history of Israel’s previous conflicts with the Arabs the book’s narrative closely covers the months, then weeks, then days of time period leading up to the war. The steps to war are carefully explained, from Nasser’s eviction of UNEF, to the closure of the straits of Tiran, to the Israeli decision to launch a preemptive strike. The actual war itself is covered with a chapter per day, again primarily focusing on the political events and decisions more so than the military ones.
Where the book truly excels is in it’s careful explanation of why the Arabs lost the war so quickly and suddenly, a war that they had been fully anticipating and planning for years and which had been the point of a massive Arab military build-up facilitated by the Soviet Union. The complex rivalries and inter-actions between the Arab governments and the chain of decisions that led to the provoking of Israel without actually attacking it are fascinating to try to understand and Oren does a commendable job taking the reader through the narrative.
Per Oren’s account, Egypt was riddled by political infighting between Nasser and his chief general who was a significant political rival, leading to factions and appointments of unqualified officers that significantly weakened the actual fighting power of the Egyptian army. Shortly after the war began with the disastrous defeat of the Egyptian Air Force, the Egyptian high command basically collapsed and ordered the army into a full-scale retreat that turned into a ruinous rout before the army had even been fully engaged. The Egyptian army would gain some measure of revenge in 1973, but many consider the 1967 war as the point when Egypt realized Israel couldn’t be militarily defeated and thus became the root of the eventual peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.
The Syrian regime was even precarious, and thus even more paranoid of any challenges to their political control of the country. The Syrian reliance on the USSR was the most pronounced, and in some ways made them the most over-confident of the Arab states. Once it began Syria declined to move strongly against Israel, choosing limit themselves to shelling nearby Israeli settlements and putting out propaganda. Syria would suffer tremendously when Israel turned it’s attention north in the last couple days and overran the strategic Golan Heights in the most controversial campaign of the war.
Jordan’s King Hussein was in a most unfortunate position, trying to maintain positive ties with the West while also maintaining a degree of solidarity with the Arab cause in order to appease his large dissident Palestinian population. His last minute decision to support the Arab war cause cost him substantial losses in territory (the West Bank and East Jerusalem) and nearly cost him his crown; Jordanian troops fought hard for a couple days but were over-matched.
Israel on the other hand has all the strengths and weaknesses of a democracy at war, albeit a democracy who’s very survival is at stake. The Israeli government had it’s own share of factions but was supported by a much stronger and more unified military than any of it’s Arab enemies and had the initiative in the conflict from it’s first moments. For Israel the war quickly turned from one of “how will we survive this” to one of “how much land can we take”. While there is no doubt peace was always the Israeli long-term goal, the method by which to achieve peace with their hostile neighbors is one which the Israeli government is still fighting over to this day. In 1967 the hawks were clearly in charge, however, leading to the seizure of significant regions in the hopes that they could be one-day traded for peace.
For the United States and Soviet Union, locked into the Cold War and facing each other indirectly in Vietnam, the 1967 war was an unwelcome distraction that both superpowers would have rather prevented. However neither had much control over their supposed client states and the embarrassment for the Soviet Union was doubled as the tanks and aircraft they had supplied to the Arabs put up such a poor showing. The superpowers avoided any escalation of the conflict and were instrumental in bringing the war to an end, but if anything the 1967 war demonstrated the weakness and limits of the US and USSR influence more than their strengths.
The book ends rather suddenly at the war’s conclusion, with a few after-thoughts but little discussion of the following War of Attrition or Yom Kippur war. However, there is little doubt that as a detailed narrative of the 1967 war you can’t do much better than Oren’s impeccably researched and notably objective account. It’s been called by many reviewers the most comprehensive book on the war available for good reason and is easy to recommend to anyone looking to dig deep into the history of a conflict that essentially shaped the modern Middle East and created the West Bank dilemma that still stands as a substantial block to Middle Eastern peace today.
One nice touch is a personal interview with the author at the very end of the book, where he discusses his personal memories of the war (he was in America and 12 years old at the time) and the evolution of his personal views during his study of it, especially his efforts as a Jewish author to view the war objectively and how his views changed as he studied the Arab side of the war.
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