The Marshal’s Myth and the Scout’s Observations

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May 2, 2011
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Gideon Remez

About ten years ago, I was asked to make a short presentation at our Jerusalem congregation’s Independence Day celebration. Together with my partner in both family and research, Isabella Ginor, I had become immersed in investigating the Soviet involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. We had just arrived at some unconventional conclusions in respect to the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition (1968-1970), and the 30th anniversary of its end was approaching. So I spoke about it at about the same length as I’m writing here — that is, at risk of oversimplification.

Israeli literature, at that time, described the ceasefire of August 1970 as an Israeli victory not only over Egyptian forces but also over the military might of the USSR. Our research indicated that the ceasefire was imposed on Israel by an unsustainable loss rate of aircraft and pilots to Soviet-manned SAMs west of the Suez Canal — to such a degree that when the Soviets immediately violated the ceasefire terms by advancing the missile batteries up to the canal bank, Israel could do nothing about it and Moscow literally laughed off American objections. The resulting no-fly zone east of the canal enabled the Egyptian, Soviet-supported cross-canal offensive on Yom Kippur in 1973.

Shortly after my presentation, I received a letter from a member of the congregation who had a doctorate in history; he politely protested my debunking a myth of the kind that is essential for maintaining national pride and morale. Never mind that I had pointed out this myth’s pernicious effect: It became a central component of the notorious “concept” that led to Israel’s disastrous unpreparedness three years later. It was only last fall, in a pamphlet issued by the Air Force Association to mark the ceasefire’s 40th anniversary, that I first saw an explicit admission that Israel had actually lost the War of Attrition.

Historical processes — especially wars — are composites of countless discrete events. Tracing their causality and evaluating their results — assigning responsibility, adjudicating victory or defeat — is therefore debatable. But unlike quantum physics particles, factual accounts of these elemental building blocks cannot be true and false at the same time. At this level, there can be no competing but equally valid narratives; the event in question occurred in only one way, no matter how difficult or perhaps impossible it may be to establish it.

The field marshal among historians must be sorely frustrated that demolishing such a laboriously assembled general theory can be so much easier than its construction. Even foot soldiers like us — who limit ourselves to the certainty of forensic dissection — can return from a patrol with a single observation that simply cannot be reconciled with the marshal’s grand scheme of things. Faced with a multiplicity of such clues, a great marshal will painfully admit that his cherished theory was, in whole or in part, myth. He then will go on to adapt his outlook. Lesser minds will reject the new evidence as logically fallacious because it contradicts what for them, after years of study and thought, has become axiomatic. They proceed at their own risk.

It is at this point — drawing overarching conclusions from the elemental facts and shaping an interpretation that takes on moral value as part of a collective heritage — that legitimate myths are created, along with competing narratives. Such myths may exaggerate our side’s performance and motivation into heroism and sainthood, but so long as they can be reconciled with the facts as they are discovered, the myths will not become dangerous or offensive, and they will eventually coexist with rival mythologies if both are built on solid ground. However, overzealousness in fostering or perpetuating a myth may lead to a reverse process: inventing fictitious versions of events to conform to cherished but unsubstantiated legends. This is where danger lurks, and where conflict with the adversary’s myth becomes inexorable.

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Gideon Remez, formerly head of foreign news at Israel Radio, is a research fellow at the Hebrew University’s Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. He is co-author, with Isabella Ginor, of Foxbats Over Dimona: The Soviets’ Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War (Yale University Press, 2007). The volume demonstrates Soviet instigation of the 1967 Six-Day War, negating the long-recurring, and immensely damaging, canard that Israel initiated the war for expansionist purposes.

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