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Chalav U'Dvash

Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought
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Volume 0, Number 0

How to Win a War in Six Days
The Art of the Six Day War

By Elliot Flah

Sun Tzu, of the Wu province of China, is generally recognized as being one of the most brilliant military strategists in history. Throughout the centuries, many generals and rulers have, knowingly or unknowingly, used the principles outlined in his famous work The Art of War (written circa 500 BCE) in order to triumph over their adversaries on battlefields. Yet, despite the exclusive tone inherent in its title, the principles of The Art of War are not limited to use on the battlefield, but instead are applicable to many different fields. The work has been studied and applied with great success by many, including Napoleon Bonaparte.a It is now applied even by diplomats, businessmen and sports coaches.

Warfare is the way of deception. Thus, although [you are] capable, display incapability to them. When committed to employing your forces, feign inactivity. When [your objective] is nearby, make it appear as if distant; when far away, create the illusion of being nearby.b

The reason that Sun Tzu emphasizes deception is that when warring, no matter how capable and prepared your foe may be, he cannot defeat a force whom he cannot engage properly. Sun Tzu is telling the reader that warfare and deception are intimately linked, and that without fooling the enemy, one cannot be victorious. The dawn of the Six Day War was illustrative of this principle. As tensions ran high in early June 1967, Egypt expected a dawn attack, which it prepared itself to fend off with "several flights of MiG-21s waiting at the end of the runway on five-minute alert at dawn every morning."c Every day these dawn patrols would await an Israeli attack, which would never materialize. Thus, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) feigned inactivity, leading the Egyptians to believe that the attack would not come for another day. However, on June 5, when the air assault did come, it was not at dawn. The attack came at 8:45AM Cairo time, several hours after dawn, at the moment of peak Egyptian weakness.

The IDF also deceived the Egyptian military planners by creating a dummy force of what appeared to be two or three divisions opposite the Egyptian town of Kuntilla, when there really was only one present. This caused the Egyptians to shift their ground forces away from where the battles were truly going to be fought, creating a huge advantage for the IDF. By feigning inactivity, displaying incapability, and creating illusory military installations, Israel made sure that the Egyptian military was deceived enough that any attack would be devastating. June 5 was a textbook execution of the deception strategies called for by Sun Tzu.

In military campaigns, I have heard of awkward speed, but I have never seen any skill in lengthy campaigns. No country ever profited from protracted warfare.d

This claim, as obvious as it may seem, is a necessary warning to any that wish to go to war. Many a time has it occurred that a nation will go to war without clearly outlining what is necessary for victory. She will fall into a quagmire, an endless pit into which money, men, and morale will drain. Egypt made this error in the war in which it was entangled with Yemen throughout the late 1960s. While Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt's President from 1954 through his death in 1970) and ‘Abd al-Hakim ‘Amer (Egypt's military chief) were planning the expulsion of United Nations Expeditionary Forces (UNEF) from peacekeeping in the Sinai, Egypt had over 50,000 troops engaged in Yemen. This conflict wore greatly on the officer corps, driving many to the brink of revolt. It is difficult to believe that an army already stretched this thin could expect to defeat a stronger opponent, or even hold them to a draw until international forces stepped in to end the fighting.e

By clearly defining its goals and executing them with great speed, Israel was able to avoid a protracted conflict. She followed Sun Tzu's advice on this matter to the letter: "In three days, [the IDF] had smashed King Hussein's Arab Legion ... and captured the sacred city, Jerusalem."f On the fourth day, Israel reached the banks of the Suez Canal. Fighting broke out with Syrian forces on the fifth day, and on the sixth day the IDF defeated them. By quickly accomplishing its goals, Israel was able to avoid the interference of outside arbitrators who would damage her long-term interests.

The General is the supporting pillar of state. If his talents are all-encompassing, the state will invariably be strong. If the supporting pillar is marked by fissures, the state will invariably grow weak.g

The Egyptian officer corps was notoriously weak. This is an affront to the spirit of Sun Tzu, who insists that the general must be a strong example for his troops. When Brigadier Ahmed Abd El-Naby of the Egyptian 125th Brigade was ordered to retreat during the Battle of Mitla Pass on the third day of the war, he retreated through a circuitous route that resulted in the capture of his battalion. When asked why he did not retreat through a more direct route, he said he was avoiding an ambush that had attacked his lead troops with light machine guns and a .50 caliber heavy machine gun. When the Israeli captain who captured him heard this, he was aghast at his enemy's cowardice, shouting, "You had a whole battalion and we held the roadblock with light forces?" El-Naby stated that per orders, "I [had] left the tanks behind."h After meeting with El-Naby and other captured officers, Israeli General Ariel Sharon was quoted as saying "I think the Egyptian soldiers are very good... [but] the officers are [expletive]." Sharon continued by telling how, after the Battle of Kusseima, the Egyptian officers issued an order of "every man for himself" and then took off towards Cairo. This was in contrast to the Israeli officers, who, according to Sharon, "don't ever use the word ‘forward'—it is always ‘follow me.'"i

This difference between sending the enlisted soldiers first, and having soldiers follow their officers into battle, is that the latter offers an unmatched boost in morale to the troops. While this brave approach results in higher officer casualties, it does keep the troops in line with the officers, and more importantly, confident in their leadership and prospects for victory. Since the foot soldier does not feel that he is being ordered into certain death while his commander is sitting back, comfortably watching it all unfold, the psychological boost proffered is nearly invaluable.j The feeling that everyone—officer and enlistee alike—is in the fray together bonds them and leads to the cohesive fighting unit required by Sun Tzu.

Another example of the courage of the IDF officer corps is that no matter how heavy fighting grew, and no matter the danger to themselves, Israeli tank commanders would always fight with the turret open so that they could have a clear view of the battle and issue the proper orders that could bring about victory. In the Battle of Mitla Pass, officers were able to direct shots with great precision by keeping their heads exposed and gaining a clear view of the battlefield.

[T]here are ... ways by which an army is put into difficulty by a ruler: He does not know that [his] armies should not advance but orders them to advance or does not know that the three armies should not withdraw but orders a retreat.k

Sun Tzu warns here that the improper involvement of a ruler in the tactical and strategic matters of the military can be a recipe for disaster. Whenever large-scale troop movements occur, there is much planning that must take place in order for it to be a success. Supply lines must be maintained, front and rearguard must be created and given proper orders, and possible enemy reaction must be judged prior to any successful movement of this kind. This clearly did not happen in the Sinai when ‘Amer (with possible approval from Nasser) ordered the complete and total retreat from the battlefield after only two days of fighting, even though the majority of the Egyptian military was still intact.l

Despite ‘Amer's pessimism and desire for total retreat, some Egyptian generals still believed that the three-tiered defense system that Egypt had implemented in the Sinai was still workable. This plan, dubbed Conqueror, called for Israel to bloody itself on the first line of defense, and then break through to the second, which would surround and destroy the invasion force.  Meanwhile, a third line waited at the protected passes to act as a final line of defense against an Israeli attack on the Suez Canal. However, seeing the failure of the military both believed invulnerable, the low morale of ‘Amer and Nasser caused them to retreat. When General Muhammad Fawzi, one of ‘Amer's subordinates, tried to implement a three-step withdrawal so that order could be maintained, ‘Amer rejected the plan, fearing that a slow withdrawal would lead to more casualties. "I gave you an order to withdraw! Period!" he commanded Fawzi.m When those out of contact with the reality of the situation take control of the dynamics of the battlefield, it leads to nothing but disaster, as it did in this instance. The 100,000 troops that had been assembled over the period of a month were now ordered to withdraw in a single day, and as a result, there were thousands of unnecessary casualties.n

[A negative is when the leader] does not understand [his] armies' military affairs but directs [them] in the same way as his [civil] administration.o

‘Amer's interaction with Nasser, and the manner in which he ran the Egyptan army, clearly demonstrates his ignorance as to the proper manner in which to run an army, causing tragedy for the country. In his characterization of the man, Michael Oren writes that "‘Amer was a deeply flawed human being, one who kept secret wives, had several nervous breakdowns, and used the military not as a tool of the state, but as a ‘personal fiefdom.'"p The tumultuous relationship between the two leaders of Egypt was played out in all aspects of society, including the military. ‘Amer promoted officers based on their personal loyalty to him, and not based on skill or intelligence.q This conflict first came to a head in Yemen in 1962, when officers appointed by ‘Amer threatened to revolt if Nasser tried to limit ‘Amer's power.r This continued throughout the rest of the decade, causing a total break in the chain of command during the Six Day War. Only the officers who were appointed by ‘Amer were alerted of the orders to withdraw immediately, as ‘Amer ordered the lines of communication to Nasser-loyalist officers be cut even prior to the start of the battle.s

Sun Tzu said that the actions of the leader reflect on the actions of the state, and where one goes, the other follows. When a leader sets up the embarrassment and dishonor of members of an opposing political party, it is considered clever administration of the civil government. But when that leader abandons soldiers in the field, it leads to discord. A leadership in discord cannot lead a successful army, and an army in discord cannot win a war.

One who is free from errors directs his measures toward [certain] victory, conquering those who are already defeated.t

This is another of Sun Tzu's statements that seems obvious today. When an army can conduct itself in a way that is free from mistakes, it can overcome a force that is much larger and more powerful than it otherwise could. When two powers are evenly matched, the one that makes the fewest mistakes is the one that will be victorious, as was seen in the battles of the Six Day War. The initial assault by the Israeli Air Force (IAF), even though it was one of the most complex assaults in the history of modern warfare, was flawlessly executed. Israel's attack used all but twelve of its 400-plane Air Force in an all-or-nothing shot at eliminating the collective air forces of the Arab militaries in one fell swoop—Egypt being the first target, since its air force was much more powerful than that of any other Arab nation.u The attack was to land simultaneously on ten different airfields throughout the Sinai and northeastern Egypt.v The IAF flew in a west-to-east curve to swoop in from the Mediterranean, never rising above five hundred feet in altitude prior to dropping the first wave of ordinance. Complete radio silence was held strictly, to the point that a pilot crashed into the sea since he was not allowed to radio for help when his Mirage airplane malfunctioned.w The first wave caught the Egyptians off guard and helpless, and the planes were to make as many passes as possible in under eight minutes.x

This attack was successful beyond any expectations of Israel's Defense Council. Through a coincidence, ‘Amer and Nasser happened to be flying back from an inspection of an air base and had ordered that the anti-aircraft guns not fire under any circumstances until given explicit orders. They were worried that an overanxious gunner would accidentally shoot them out of the sky. This once again shows the weakness of the officers, as frowned upon previously by Sun Tzu. This resulted in the near total destruction of the Egyptian Air Force: three hundred of the 340 Egyptian planes were destroyed in the first day of the war.y

It was not only the Egyptians who were victimized by the onslaught of the IAF. The Jordanian Air Force was wiped out in its entirety in the first few hours of the war. Israel struck the sole operational Jordanian air base, destroying it and its accompanying fleet of American Hunter-Hawker fighters by 2:30PM that day.z The same situation was being acted out throughout the entire theatre as the IAF destroyed, with little opposition, the combined air forces of all those nations that had entered the war on behalf of the Arab front. When delivering the results of the first day's conflict to President Lyndon Johnson of the United States, Walt Rostow, one of Johnson's senior advisors, said "Herewith the account ... of the first day's turkey shoot." And a turkey shoot it was: the combined air forces of the Arab nations lost four hundred planes that first day, compared to only nineteen Israeli losses.aa

The army's disposition of force is like water. Water's configuration avoids heights and races downward. The army's disposition of force avoids the substantial and strikes the vacuous. Water configures its flow in accord with terrain, the army accords its flow with the enemy ... One who is able to change and transform in accord with the enemy and wrest victory is termed spiritual.ab

Here, Sun Tzu states that the best military minds will change their plans and organization in a constant adaptation to the enemy's positioning. A proper army will never be static, but will change its form in order to remain set to pounce on the enemy's weaknesses. Thus, the successful army will be essentially formless.ac This instruction of Sun Tzu was completed to such a degree by Israel that in its book on the Six Day War, the Associated Press describes the Israeli advance through the Sinai as an amorphous force that used speed and encirclement as its keys to victory.ad Israel's General Avraham Yoffe and his four brigades on the Egyptian front avoided any areas of heavy enemy concentration and rushed to the passes; in fact, he traversed terrain that was unguarded because the Egyptians believed that tanks could not cross over dunes.ae Then, General Israel Tal's elite tank division and General Sharon would follow behind, forcing the Egyptians back into a deathtrap that was guaranteed to wipe out the third of their army that resided in the
Sinai.af The basis of the plan was for Yoffe to attack the Egyptians from the flank, and drive them to retreat into the Mitla Pass, where Sharon and Tal would wipe them out. As was seen through the first four days of the war, when Israel and Egypt were locked in combat, this plan succeeded beyond expectations, forcing the Egyptian retreat.

To cross mountains, follow the valleys, search out tenable ground and occupy the heights. If the enemy holds the heights, do not climb up to engage them in battle.ag

The necessity of holding the high ground in a conflict is significant. When one occupies the heights, especially when those heights are above a chokepoint, great disaster can be rained down upon those below. At the Battle of Mitla Pass (in the Sinai), a small group of Israeli tanks occupied the heights beside a pass through which the Egyptians needed to pass. General Yoffe ordered the last remaining tanks of one of his battalions to occupy the Mitla Heights. These fourteen tanks, seven of which had run out of fuel and were being towed by the seven functional tanks, lumbered into the pass and turned it into what was termed a "Valley of Death."ah These tanks had blocked off the last remaining route of retreat for thousands of Egyptian soldiers and the last scores of Egyptian tanks.

The blockade forced the Egyptian Army to do exactly what Sun Tzu had warned against: climbing the heights to try to engage the enemy. The Egyptians needed to escape the pincer attack of General Sharon's advance, and they needed to reach the high ground to do so.ai The attempt at escape was disastrously unsuccessful. The support of the IAF enabled these fourteen tanks to destroy over three hundred Egyptian tanks, armored personnel carriers, and supply trucks, as well as to inflict well over one thousand casualties on the army itself.aj This was the death blow to the Egyptian Army; after this battle, the soldiers began abandoning their few remaining commanders and fleeing into the desert, attempting to bypass the mountains and run across the dunes where the Israeli tanks could not follow. An estimated twenty thousand Egyptian soldiers perished in the sands of the Sinai, and the 100,000-man strong army that had been stationed in the Sinai only five days before was now completely and totally destroyed.ak

Many tomes have been written in an attempt to understand how the Israelis, without aid from any world power, could have defeated such a strong conglomeration of opponents. While explanations include the superiority of Israeli forces and training (as King Hussein said in an interviewal), and that the United States and England really did aid in the air assault (as Nasser wished the world to believeam), there are, in reality, an innumerable number of factors that contributed to Israel's success, including plain and simple luck. Even so, great luck is often created by great skill. The IDF implemented, with great cunning, many of the directives outlined in The Art of War, from the overall planning for the war to the use of spies to collect information.an Sun Tzu's instructions on how to wage a successful war have carried throughout the ages, from its initial writing some 2500 years ago all the way to modern battles fought with fighter jets and tanks. The complete realization of this strategy, coupled with the disastrous showing on the part of the Arab nations involved in the conflict, specifically Egypt, clearly show that by analyzing the proper implementation of Sun Tzu's stratagems, the outcome of the Six Day War could be foreseen.

Works Cited

Associated Press. Lightning Out of Israel: The Six Day War in the Middle East. N.P.: Weston Printing and Lithographing Company, 1967.

Black, Ian, and Benny Morris. Israel's Secret Wars: A History of Israel's Intelligence Services. 1991. London: Warner Books, 1995.

Churchill, Winston S., and Randolph S. Churchill. The Six Day War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1967.

"The Quickest War." Official Site of the Democratic Party of the 16th and 17th Districts. 7 Sept. 2003. <http://www.dems17.org/articles_quickest_war.htm>. Accessed 13 Mar. 2006.

Mursi, Mohammed. "Movie Stirs Up Passions On and Off Celluloid." Middle East Times. 7 Sept. 2003. <http://www.metimes.com/issue98‑29/eg/movie_stirs_up.htm>.

Oren, Michael B. Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2002.

"Pat Riley and Sun Tzu's Art of War." VikingPhoenix.com. 7 Sept. 2003 <http://vikingphoenix.com/public/SunTzu/riley.htm>. Accessed 9 Mar. 2006.

Sun, Tzu. Art of War. Trans. Ralph D. Sawyer. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994.

Vance, Vick, and Pierre Lauer. Hussein of Jordan: My "War" With Israel. Trans. June P. Wilson and Walter B. Michaels. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1969.



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Chalav U'Dvash: Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought (Print ISSN 1559-1069, Online ISSN 1559-1077) is an independent forum for discussion relating to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish People and is a recognized club by the Brandeis Student Union. We publish a journal twice per semester, and copies are available free-of-charge to Brandeis students. Contact us to request copies.

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