Monday, August 25, 2008

Lies and the Six Day War

The Judeo-Christian injunction that is often said to be, “thou shalt not lie,” is actually, “thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” We all lie, but if you tell your maiden aunt that her ghastly blue hairdo looks lovely, are you bearing false witness against her? I don’t think so and yet you are not telling her the truth. This has given rise to the expression “white lies,” lies that really do good. You made her day by telling her her hairdo looked lovely. You did good with that lie.

I’ve been reading Six Days of War, June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael B. Oren, 2001. The Atlantic Monthly says, “With a remarkably assured style, Oren elucidates nearly every aspect of the conflict . . . . Oren’s [book] will remain the authoritative chronicle of the war. . . .” There was an awful lot of lying going on during that war. Since I’ve read a lot of history I’m used to learning about certain sorts of lies. For example, the Israelis had given up getting help from Britain or the US. Since it had the Egyptian Army camped on its doorstep it decided since it had to go it alone, it ought to strike the first blow. However, Johnson had told Eban and Eshkol not to strike the first blow otherwise Israel would be alone; so they lied and said the Egyptian troops shot at them first. I can understand that sort of lie. I can even understand the rationalizations. Egypt, Syria, Jordan and the entire Arab World had decided that it was time to destroy Israel so the Arabs marshaled all their forces and moved them into place. They wanted to fight but were looking for the right moment. Egypt too was told by the USSR not to strike the first blow but they, Amer and Nassar, wanted to fight. Even though Israel didn’t, striking the first blow was the prudent thing to do. Why should they wait and hamper themselves any more than was necessary?

But what I don’t understand is the lying that Egypt engaged in. Israel caught virtually their entire air force on the ground and severely damaged their air fields and destroyed half of their planes and a great number of their pilots. Egypt lied about this and said that they had destroyed half of the Israeli Air Force and suffered few casualties themselves. I don’t understand that. Egypt suffered a devastating defeat but announced a stunning victory. Egyptians were dancing deliriously in the streets. Even Nassar wasn’t told of the defeat until quite a bit later. The Israelis kept winning and the Egyptians kept claiming victory. King Hussein had his troops ready but being cautious wasn’t going to enter the war unless Egypt was doing well against Israel. Since the reports were all favorable, he launched his divisions, and while his troops fought valiantly he ended up being defeated as well. He too lied about how well his troops were doing against the Israelis.

And then Amer made a dreadful mistake and told his troops to pull back without planning an organized retreat and this became a rout. At which point Nassar and Amer engaged in another lie. They claimed that it wasn’t really Israel that defeated them; it was the U.S. and Britain. Shortly thereafter US and British Embassies were attacked. Now I can understand that lie. They botched their war against Israel so badly that they probably feared for the survival of their administration. They thought it would be political suicide to admit that Israel defeated them all by themselves. But no one would expect them to withstand the combined might of the U.S. and Britain.

In battle there is a tendency to exaggerate the nature of your victory. Everyone does it. Maybe there were only 5,000 against you but you think it was probably 50,000 and say so. But what Egypt and Jordan did wasn’t in that category. They suffered defeats and claimed victories. When the Jordanians believed the Egyptian report to be accurate, they engaged in a battle they would otherwise have avoided. But Hussein could hardly reproach Amer because he did the same thing when he suffered defeat. What is the benefit? A few days later the whole world learned the truth.

Dayan told his troops that they would have just 48 hours before the USSR demanded a cease fire, 72 hours at the very outside. And had the Egyptians not been lying and then believing their own lies that might have been the case, but the Egyptians negotiating with the Soviets believed the Egyptian lies. They thought they were winning the war and didn’t want the USSR to call for a cease fire. That’s why it became the “Six Day War” rather than a 48-hour war.

The Arabs still lie and still believe their own lies. I listened to a fellow on C-Span a while back blaming Bush for the Arabs hating the U.S.. Gosh, if we had done all the things reported in the Arab press, I’d hate us too. What they report is appallingly and blatantly untrue, but beyond that, it is self-defeating. They will one day learn the truth. The rest of the world knows it already.

It would be amusing if it weren’t for all those explosives and all that dying.

Lawrence Helm

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