For those of us unfamiliar with the Six Day War—meaning almost any Gentile or non-history major who was born in America after 1960—the hybrid nonfiction/fiction book, “The Lion’s Gate” provides a window into the events as they happened, told with the raw emotions of participants who faced incredible odds.
Steven Pressfield, author of the novel “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” and several historical novels and narratives, says in the preface that he decided to write about the Six Day War, though he’d collected 107 books on the event, because he learned of many unsung heroes still living who had never been given the opportunity to tell their stories. Their narratives are riveting, especially if, like me, you didn’t know the story or had only a passing familiarity with it.
The interviews, presented in short chapters, are supplemented with summaries as first-person accounts from interviews of key players who have since died, such as Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan. “The Lion’s Gate: On The Front Lines of the Six Day War” has a similar feel to a Studs Terkel book in that it captures the voice of each narrator. The twist is that it relates how events unfold in the context of the moment, and what each person involved felt about what did or didn’t happen at the time. It’s a gripping way of presenting the material in a timeline, and really drives home how tenuous the future of what was then called “Palestine” actually was as the homeland for Jewish people.
While some of those interviewed contradict each other’s accounts, Pressfield said that because memory is unreliable, it only shows that history is always a version of facts that doesn’t always conform with reality—and history is always told by the winners or those in power.
Among the accounts include several from the days before the war when the impending British withdrawal emboldened Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser to plan an attack, while engaging several other Arab countries to join him. France had cut off weapons shipments, the United States had barred any military support from Americans and Great Britain and the U.S.S.R. were set on staying neutral. Since I didn’t know about the ineffective Prime Minister, Levi Eshkol, and his inability to get any Superpower behind Israel at the time, I was left hanging for several short chapters wondering what would occur as he fiddled while Israel waited to burn.
The appointment of Moshe Dayan as Minister of Defense began the glimmer of hope for the country. A general in two previous Israeli wars, Dayan was decisive in his push to strike Egypt first, also relying the creative leadership of Ariel Sharon, a general who gave soldiers clear goals with the ability to improvise in how they executed them. The two military leaders managed a defeat of much greater forces by destroying Egyptian airfields and planes.
The accounts are vivid, like one from a young soldier at the time, 19-year-old Zvi Kanor, the youngest pilot in the Israeli Air Force. He describes how he took off in a plane that wasn’t meant for combat with no bombs and a machine gun he described as a “peashooter 5.62 millimeter” that was used to shoot Jordanian tanks without a targeting system. Kanor said he had to fly to so, he could see “the welds on the turrets” of the tanks. Somehow, miraculously, he hit them and they exploded “like cases of dynamite.”
Numerous other accounts of soldiers fighting and winning against superior armed forces on the ground, as well as pilots out-flying the enemy in aerial dogfights make for engrossing reading. Accounts of bloody battles that left 800 Israelis dead show just how precarious the country’s position was.
Pressfield spent nine weeks in Israel as he interviewed more than 70 people who fought in the war for “The Lion’s Gate.” While not all of their accounts are included, the ones that are tell the story in dramatic fashion of their determination in the face of what seemed more like suicide missions than realistic battles. Though they faced death on a daily basis, the soldiers kept the course even as their friends died around them. Once the Israeli soldiers captured Old Jerusalem, they finally began to believe they had won.
Pressfield, who has written three nonfiction books to encourage writers in heir craft—“The War of Art,” “Turning Pro,” and “Do the Work,” is using an unusual marketing approach for the paperback version of “The Lion’s Gate.” He is giving away the book to writers whom he believes will give back by talking about the book to other booklovers or writing about the book. At least in this case, his gamble paid off because I started reading it and enjoying it and wanted to share it on Atarlife.
Pressfield’s other military themed books include “Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae,” “The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great,” and “The Afghan Campaign.