Michael B. Oren Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

War in History and in Fiction: Conversation with Michael B. Oren, Historian and Writer; Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center, Jerusalem; November 8, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Writing about War

You write: "The vagaries and momentum of war, far more than rational decision making, had shaped the fighting's results."

Can you see the influence of being a simple soldier on that? [laughs]

Yeah, yeah. [laughs]

On that line? Can you see? Because I think that's true -- it's true on the macro level and it's true on the micro level.

You raise an interesting point which I was going to ask you. As a soldier, did anything come out of this study that surprised you or confirmed the beliefs that you had about the way the world works in war?

Well, on one level, again, it relates to my experience with my father. What would I have done if I had been on the road outside St. Vith, Belgium, in December of 1944 with the entire German army charging up the road? Would I have sat there with a bazooka and fired at the lead tank? This is what he did. And in 1967, again, there were acts of such profound bravery on Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem in this warren of Jordanian bunkers and alleyways. Israeli soldiers had to get up above the trenches because the trenches were so narrow, and every Israeli who went up to the trench to lead the [troops] knew he was going to be shot and killed, and this is precisely what happened, thirty-five of them were shot and killed, and yet they kept on going up. So, again, I was presented with the situation of what would I do in a situation like that? What was my number to get up on the top of that trench and start leading, knowing that I had about three seconds to live? And same is true for the Jordanian soldiers who were up on Ammunition Hill, who knew basically that they were going to die but didn't run away, they exhibited extraordinary courage. So, courage in battle remains a certain fascination for me.

As a soldier I'm curious about your reaction to the kinds of discoveries made in this book. Did it change your thoughts and feelings about war or your service as a soldier?

No, but it helped me in my analysis of very complex events in the '67 war. One of the most controversial events, if not the most controversial event in the '67 war is the Israel attack on the U.S. spy ship, the U.S. Liberty. There's an entire literature out there. If you click on U.S. Liberty on your internet browser you get hundreds of sites. Most of them allege that Israel attacked this ship deliberately with a premeditated attack that had all sorts of goals, and among the thousands of documents that I looked at for this book were several hundred relating to the Liberty incident. Most of the documents related to the Liberty incident have, in fact, been declassified. And one of the issues you have to deal with is how does this army, this air force in particular, that has succeeded in destroying the entire Egyptian air force and most other Arab air forces within a matter of hours -- how does it make such an egregious mistake of attacking a clearly marked American vessel off the coast of Sinai on the morning of June 8, wounding 171 American servicemen and killing 34? How does the Israeli navy make that type of mistake?

When you put together all the pieces of the Liberty incident one of the things you learn is that this was done by soldiers who were exhausted, who were confused, that there was a breakdown of communication on the Israeli side, there was a breakdown of communication on the American side, and there was a breakdown of communication between the Israeli and the American sides as well. All these factors came together in almost a domino effect, a concatenation of events, that produced the Liberty accident. Now this I understood very well as a soldier because this happens on a daily basis in warfare. The Liberty incident was a classic case of friendly fire. In 1967 alone, 5000 Americans were casualties of friendly fire in Vietnam and I can only tell you that as an Israeli soldier I think I have been fired at more often and with greater accuracy by Israeli forces than by Arab forces. It happens all the time. So, my soldier's influence very much colored my interpretation of the Liberty incident.

Let me ask you about something else, because you do these extraordinary portraits of the individuals, whether Nasser and his relationship to his general, Amir, whether the ambivalent relation of Rabin to the Israeli prime minister, Eshkol, and so on. Talk a little bit about that complexity. In a conversation between Michael Oren the historian and Michael Oren the novelist, what would the historian say to the novelist about these portraits that emerged? Does this tell us that the human element is really important in war also?

It's important in war. It's important in diplomacy. It's important in decision making. Character is very much destiny here, not just personal destiny but national destiny. The novelist would say to the historian, get into these people's heads, see the world the way they see it. Levi Eshkol, born in the Ukraine under the Tsarist government, had experienced pogroms firsthand. What way does Levi Eshkol, with that type of background, look at the Soviet Union in 1967? Can he look at Russia other than through the eyes of a Jewish villager who has seen Cossacks descending on his house? [That had a] big impact.

Yes. And he was very concerned about their intervention.

Or Nasser. What does a Nasser who's looking at an Israel, who he believes is an extension of European imperialism, Nasser who's had to fight European imperialism all his life -- how does he see the Israelis?

Dayan, that portrait there, was very complex. He was a very complex person and not necessarily the decisive leader that he appeared to be.

In one way or another, I've been writing about Moshe Dayan for twenty or twenty-five years, and for the life of me, I cannot get inside of his head. Neither can anyone else. He's the ultimate challenge for an historian. Very sphinx-like, a person capable of changing his mind literally in a moment's notice. He opposed conquering the Golan Heights, then decided by himself to conquer the Golan Heights, to give the order to conquer the Golan Heights. Impenetrable, inscrutable, brilliant, and at the end of the day, I can only conclude -- and this is a conclusion that I reach guardedly and with reluctance -- that the real motivating factor behind Moshe Dayan was his ego. He was going to decide who was going to take the Golan Heights, not the Israeli government. He was going to decide whether Israeli forces would enter into the Old City, and not the Israeli government. It was really about being Moshe Dayan.

And Nasser -- he comes out as a really tragic figure in your portrayal ...

Terribly.

... somebody who was often more pragmatic than what appeared from his ideology but then had this love/hate relationship with his top general or commander of his defense force which led to his downfall.

Yes, it did. And it's a great human story and a human tragedy. My colleague, Fouad Ajami at Johns Hopkins, once said to me that growing up in the Arab world in the 1950s and '60s, that Nasser was such a colossal, superhuman figure that to this day he cannot look at a portrait of Nasser and not be on the verge of tears. It's hard for us to imagine in the West what Nasser meant to the Arab world and what kind of human being this was. And yet, he was a man, and a man who had deep foibles and flaws and passions. After studying him for twenty or twenty-five years, I conclude that his love for his country, for his people, was genuine. He was a person who showed a tremendous amount of promise but a person who was just beaten down by inter-Arab politics, by the Cold War, by just the onerous burdens of ruling a country like Egypt. By the mid-sixties he's really a ruined man. And then he had this relationship. You can say the one great love relationship of his life was with the commander of the Egyptian forces, Abdul Hakim Amir. It wasn't a romantic relationship but it was this great platonic brotherly love. They did everything together. They went on vacations together, they lived next-door to one another, their kids married one another. And Amir, with his weaknesses, his desire to prove himself on the battlefield, eventually did much to implicate Nasser in the Six Day War and to bring about Nasser's downfall. It's a true Greek tragedy there.

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