The Six-Day War Made Personal

Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

It is the universal response to combat, a mix of dread and adrenaline, that combat novelist Steven Pressfield conveys with mastery.

The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War

Publisher: Sentinel HC
Length: 448 pages
Author: Steven Pressfield
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-05

In his deeply reported and compellingly told “hybrid history” of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, one of the many voices that combat novelist Steven Pressfield presents is that of Boaz Amitai, a reconnaissance platoon commander in the Israelis’ perilous push through the Sinai to the Suez Canal.

Tens of thousands of Egyptian soldiers — backed by hundreds of Russian-made tanks — are waiting in the Sinai, prepared for the war that Arab leaders have promised would destroy Israel.

Amitai tells Pressfield that as he drives “across ten kilometers of hell,” he feels the presence of the Angel of Death speaking to him.

“‘You,’ he says to one man, ‘I shall take you now.’

“To another: you wait. I will come for you later.

“It is a terrible feeling.”

The feeling comes from the opening night of the Six-Day War, but it is also the ominous feeling of other wars in other places and other times. It is a universal response to combat, a mix of dread and adrenaline, that Pressfield conveys with mastery.

His previous books — among them The Afghan Campaign about Alexander the Great, Killing Rommel about the World War II battle for North Africa, The Profession about a fictional rogue American general in the Middle East, and his classic Gates of Fire about the Greeks at Thermopylae — have shown his ability to write about a specific war in terms of all wars.

The Lion’s Gate: On the Front Lines of the Six Day War is not a comprehensive look at the 1967 war. Those books have been written, lots of them, as Pressfield notes in his introduction. Instead, The Lion’s Gate is the war seen by Israeli pilots who destroyed the Egyptian air force in a preemptive strike, soldiers (like Amitai) who fought in the Sinai, and paratroopers (including Ariel Sharon) who reclaimed the old city of Jerusalem from the Jordanians.

The Lion’s Gate is part reported history, part novel, what a generation ago was called the “new journalism”. Pressfield spent weeks interviewing Israelis about the war, and he presents their recollections in bursts of short chapters, with certain voices reappearing as the tension increases.

Pressfield presents the Israelis’ stories as if each of them were speaking in the first person. Taking the novelist’s privilege, the prose belongs to Pressfield, but the fear and exhilaration of the known and the unknown belongs to the individual warrior. Each short chapter presents the view of a specific soldier or aviator, from a general to a foot soldier.

To be sure, The Lion’s Gate is not, in conventional journalistic terms, a balanced account. The voices are Israeli. There are no Arabs.

Pressfield notes that as a secular American Jew, he felt the 1967 war was “his” war even though he had never visited Israel. For The Lion’s Gate, he spent nine weeks in Israel, interviewing 70-plus Israeli military personnel.

“We attack like wolves, meaning we know the pattern, we know the sequence,” says pilot Menahem Shmul. “... every beast in the pack knows what to do. The basic pattern is bomb, strafe, strafe, strafe.”

In the Sinai, the Egyptian forces have buried land mines. Through the account of recon platoon commander Lt. Eli Rikovitz, Pressfield describes a half-track hitting a mine: “The world becomes bright yellow: I go deaf. The floorboard kicks me upward like a diving board. The half-track rises straight up, hangs for a moment, then crashes straight down on its front wells. All seven of us are flung out onto the sand.”

The result of Pressfield’s unique approach is an account that builds in intensity from the anxious days before the airstrikes to the triumphant entry into the older part of the sacred city through the Lion’s Gate that leads to the Western Wall.

To re-create the voice of Moshe Dayan, who died in 1991, Pressfield consulted Dayan’s writings and conducted interviews with his relatives and soldiers who served with him.

The Dayan of The Lion’s Gate is confident, brash and skilled in the complexities of Israeli politics. Speaking of his Arab enemies, he summons not hatred but memories of his youth in a kibbutz: “I grew up with Bedouin herders and farmers. We have plowed together, and planted, and sat side by side in the furrows to take our noon meal. Who is the Arab? No man makes a better friend than he. None will stand his ground with greater courage.”

In the Sinai, Egyptian soldiers drop their weapons and flee.

“I feel sorry for the Egyptians,” says Cheetah Cohen, a helicopter commander. “The poor foot soldiers, most of whom are simple fellahin — peasants from the delta — have been abandoned by their officers ... God knows what they are suffering from thirst and heat, grief and shattered pride.”

Belief in their mission never wavers among the Israelis. “If we lose, what our enemies will do to us will make Auschwitz look like summer camp,” says Danny Matt, a paratroop commander under Sharon.

A former U.S. Marine, Pressfield knows war and he knows the men who fight wars. He admires the Israelis for their victory, but he does not discount the grim losses on both sides.

Rikovitz, as related by Pressfield, has a conclusion that was true in the Sinai as it would be true later in Sangin (Afghanistan) and Ramadi (Iraq) and dozens of other places where men are ordered to kill other men.

“We looked death in the eye, but death did not look away,” he says. “He took as many of us as he wanted.”


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller

18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr

17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr

16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.