September 16, 2019

‘The Lion’s Gate’: Firsthand accounts of the Six Day War

From a distance of a half-century, the Six Day War looks very different indeed from what is happening today on the Gaza border, but “The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War” by Steven Pressfield (Sentinel) is a kind of companion reader for those of us who are following the news hour by hour. Consider, for example, the words that Moshe Dayan and his daughter, Yael, exchanged during the anxious days leading up to the outbreak of war, as described in the book.  

“We are being bullied, my father said, and the only way to handle a bully is to punch him in the face.”

“ ‘What would you do?’ I asked.”

“Strike now. As soon as possible. Meet the enemy straight-up and destroy him.  There is no other way.”

Pressfield is a self-described secular Jew, a Marine Corps veteran and the author of a dozen books, including the best-selling novels “Gates of Fire” and “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”  But “The Lion’s Gate” is what the author frankly calls “hybrid history,” a collection of firsthand reminiscences by active participants in and eye witnesses to the Six Day War that has been assembled from interviews and from published articles, histories and biographies, and then given a high polish for the pleasure of the reader.

The author is careful to point out, by way of example, that he did not interview Dayan and relied instead on Dayan’s memoirs and interviews with men and women who knew him well, including his daughter. “That being said,” Pressfield concedes, “the reader should bear in mind while reading the Dayan chapters that I have at some points crossed the line into pure speculation.”

So we must put “The Lion’s Gate” on a different shelf than the one where we find history and biography, even if it is not, strictly speaking, a work of fiction. As a result, we are treated to a much more colorful and thrilling account of the actual fighting than we find in, by contrast, Michael Oren’s authoritative work of history, “Six Days of War.”  

Quite the most remarkable achievement of Pressfield’s book, in fact, is the fine detail and visceral kickback of the actual fighting. Fighter pilot Giora Romm, the only “ace” of the Six Day War, recalls how every second counted in both training and combat: “If you wanted to be credited with a kill,” explains Romm, “you had to produce the death burst,” that is, 16 consecutive frames of the gun camera with the enemy plane in the bull’s-eye. Those 16 frames were equal to only one second of flight time, but it was an eternity from where the pilot sat. When Romm took to the skies in a Mirage fighter to engage the enemy MiGs, he did it five times.

Pressfield also introduces us to earlier generations of Jewish fighters. Lou Lenart, the man to whom the book is dedicated, served as a Marine fighter pilot in World War II, and he was quick to volunteer for service in the War of Independence. He was assigned to fly a plane that had been cobbled together from bits and pieces of various items of German war surplus — “the worst piece of crap I have ever flown.” But Lenart’s experience helps to explain the mind-set of the generation of soldiers, sailors and pilots who went to war in 1967: “There’s a phrase in Hebrew, en brera – ‘no alternative,’ ” Lenart explains. “That was us and that was Israel.”

Above all, Pressfield reminds us that victory was hardly a foregone conclusion when the Jewish state went to war against the Arab world for the third time. Zeev Barkai, for example, was a 23-year-old paratrooper in 1967. He recalls listening to a song by The Doors (“The End”) during the weeks leading up to his first combat mission. At one point during the war, he was able to see nearly 200 new American tanks that Jordan’s King Hussein had deployed on the border: “[T]hey could reach my kibbutz in under an hour,” Barkai recalls. “Where I stood was only a few kilometers past the ruins of ancient Megiddo — Armageddon of the Bible. I tried not to think of it, but that song by the Doors kept playing in my head.”

Of course, the stirring victory of Israel in the Six Day War was only the beginning of a new and even more treacherous era in the history of the Jewish state, a fact that the author has acknowledged: “By June 10, everything had changed,” he has commented. “The Israeli-Palestinian problem had been born.”  In that sense, the headlines out of Israel today are echoes of the saga that Pressfield has told so well in the pages of “The Lion’s Gate.”