This week marks the forty-fourth anniversary of the beginning of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Known as the Yom Kippur War in Israel and the Ramadan or October War in Egypt and Syria, the dramatic events of October 1973 profoundly altered the course of Middle East politics, eventually leading to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and Cairo’s realignment away from the Soviet Union and toward the United States. Indeed, the 1973 war serves as a textbook case study in the use of military means for political ends, and provides still other lessons for modern warfare that remain as fundamental today as they were forty-four years ago. The occasion of this anniversary provides an opportunity to highlight some of these enduring lessons, as well as to apply them to America’s present national security challenges.
Historical Context: Crossing the Suez
On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria successfully launched coordinated surprise attacks against Israeli forces in the Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights, respectively. The attacks were a direct reaction to Israel’s dramatic victory in June 1967, when in six days the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) executed a preemptive military campaign that resulted in the capture of the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan. The 1973 war was an attempt to reverse that humiliation and regain lost territory, and no moment would come to symbolize the post-1967 redemption of Arab national honor more than the Egyptian military’s daring and ingenious crossing of the Suez Canal.
At approximately 1405 hours on Saturday, October 6, just after Syrian MiGs began dropping bombs in the Golan, thousands of Egyptian forces in rubber dinghies crossed the Suez Canal under cover of air and artillery fire. Sophisticated new air defense systems neutralized Israel’s air force. Along the eastern bank of the canal stood Israel’s vaunted Bar-Lev Line, a sixty-foot high sand barrier defended by some sixteen outposts. The IDF calculated it would take the Egyptians at least twenty-four hours to blast breaches in the sand using explosives; the Egyptians sliced their way through using high-pressure water cannons in less than five. In the meantime, engineer battalions assembled pontoon bridges to transport heavy equipment over the water, while commandos equipped with cutting-edge, Soviet anti-tank weapons streamed into the desert to blunt Israel’s armored counterattack.
By October 7, Egypt had thrown over 100,000 troops and 1,000 tanks across the canal. Regardless of what happened next, the epic crossing of the Suez had restored Arab dignity and, as Sadat later wrote, “exploded forever the myth of an invincible Israel.”
How did this early battle lead to the transformation of the regional and even global balance of power? What can we learn from the war that ensued? Below I highlight three takeaways relevant for today’s national security practitioner.
Lesson 1: Begin with the Political End in Mind
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat played his hand almost perfectly. He had held a tenuous grip on power since succeeding the populist Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1970, and was especially vulnerable to popular frustration over his country’s “no-war, no-peace” stalemate with Israel over the Sinai Peninsula: the Egyptian military was not strong enough to retake it by force, but neither Israel nor the superpowers seemed in a hurry to negotiate a resolution.
Sadat concluded that his only option was a limited war that forced his adversaries into a political process. In the event, the successful opening attack earned him the domestic political capital to negotiate with Israel, while it also confronted Israel and the United States with the dangers of ignoring Egyptian interests. On the war’s first day National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the White House chief of staff, “There is no longer an excuse for a delay. After we get the fighting stopped we should use this as a vehicle to get the diplomacy started.”
In the meantime Sadat needed to convince his opponents that he could be a credible negotiation partner. He did this by aligning operational posture and diplomatic messaging to signal his limited military objectives. After devastating Israel’s armored counterattack, for example, the Egyptians could have made a run at the strategic Mitla and Giddi passes 40-50 kilometers inland. Instead, with the wind at their back and the enemy reeling on two fronts, the Egyptians established defensive positions only ten kilometers east of the canal. Sadat paired this decision with a message to Kissinger that Egypt did “not intend to deepen the engagements or widen the confrontation.” Sadat’s early actions thus had the unusual effect of decreasing pressure on the enemy during the heat of battle.
Israel’s leaders also understood the politics of warfare. After learning of the attack only ten hours in advance, Prime Minister Golda Meir was presented with the option to order a preemptive strike. Meir declined, however, telling IDF Chief of Staff Gen. David Elazar that “there is always the possibility that we will need help, and if we strike first we will get nothing from anyone.” American military and diplomatic support later proved critical to Israel’s eventual victory.
Lesson 2: Guard against Cognitive Biases in Analysis
Egypt and Syria deserve credit for successfully surprising their enemy, but deception operations do not alone account for Israel’s unpreparedness. Israeli leaders’ propensity to misinterpret or altogether dismiss information pointing toward a coming war proved equally decisive.
How could this happen? Israel’s official post-war inquiry, the Agranat Commission, laid blame on Israel’s military leadership for its “obdurate adherence to what was known as ‘the conception,’ according to which a) Egypt would not launch war against Israel before she had first ensured sufficient air power to attack Israel in depth . . . and b) that Syria would only launch an all-out attack on Israel simultaneously with Egypt.” The commission’s criticisms may be true, but they do not shed light on the underlying question of why Israel’s military leaders refused to be swayed.
One compelling set of explanations can be found in the Nobel Prize-winning research of two psychologists who identify ways in which the human brain is hard-wired to systematically err by relying on mental shortcuts over “rational,” probabilistic judgment under certain conditions. (Incidentally, the psychologists, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, were Israelis who left their academic posts in America to serve in the 1973 war.)
Confirmation bias, for example, refers to the human tendency to seek, favor, or interpret information in a way that is compatible with ones preexisting beliefs. In 1973, Israel’s military intelligence leaders clung to interpretations of intelligence that validated their “conception” while dismissing alternative views. Take for example military intelligence chief Gen. Eli Zeira’s wholesale acceptance of Egyptian disinformation that its military was conducting a routine exercise during the first week of October.
Throughout that period the Israelis observed activities unusual for an exercise, including canceled leave for officers, the preparation of boat launches on the canal, and stockpiling of emergency ammunition and supplies. But when suspecting officers put forward alternative interpretations their assessments were rejected. “The situations you see are not the ones I see,” Gen. Zeira reprimanded one of his officers who raised an October 1 early morning alarm. Another officer in the field wrote a memo questioning the exercise thesis that his superiors refused to send up the chain. Meanwhile, conflicting data was explained away: when Israel learned that the Soviet Union was evacuating its citizens in Egypt and Syria on October 5, the IDF chief of staff speculated it was due to a Soviet-Arab dispute; Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan chalked it up to misplaced fears of an Israeli attack.
An overconfidence effect also played a role. Research shows that feelings of confidence do not necessarily correlate with accurate judgments. “Organizations that take the word of overconfident experts can expect costly consequences,” writes Kahneman, adding, “An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality—but it is not what people and organizations want.” Unfortunately for Israel, Gen. Zeira was uninterested in uncertainty. As he himself testified after the war, “The best support that the head of [military intelligence] can give the chief of staff is to provide a clear and unambiguous assessment . . . the clearer and sharper the estimate, the clearer and sharper the mistake—but this is a professional hazard.”
The Blunder, as it came to be known in Israel, was not merely an intelligence failure, but also a failure of preparation. The Israelis were wildly outnumbered on both the Sinai and Golan, and not entirely for lack of resources. Rather, Israel’s stunning victories against Arab forces in 1948, 1956, and 1967 had produced among its leaders an impression of Israeli military superiority and of Arabs as poor fighters. Chief of Staff Gen. Elazar summed up this dynamic when he told his staff, “We’ll have one hundred tanks against [Syria’s] eight hundred. That ought to be enough.”
Lastly, the Israelis also suffered from what is known as a peak-end effect. Once again, Kahneman: “Our memory . . . has evolved to represent the most intense moment of an episode of pain or pleasure (the peak) and the feelings when the episode was at its end.” IDF leaders’ recollection of past Arab-Israeli wars came to be dominated by memories of dramatic operational successes and victorious end-states, yet the Israelis possessed plenty of data that belied this confidence. According to the historian Abraham Rabinovich, the Egyptians fought reasonably well in 1948, and the blowout in 1967 was hastened by a premature Egyptian fallback that, while perhaps a poor decision, was not necessarily indicative of capability. What’s more, the Egyptian military inflicted significant losses upon the IDF during the 1969–1970 War of Attrition.
Indeed, after 1967 both Cairo and Damascus acquired from their Soviet patron sophisticated new weapons that narrowed their capability gap with the Israelis. In the summer of 1973 the Israeli Air Force commander briefed Elazar and Dayan on his assessment that Egypt’s formidable SAM-6 air defense system severely restricted his freedom of maneuver. Egypt and Syria also acquired revolutionary new anti-tank systems that Israel was ill-equipped to counter and developed an advantage in armored night-fighting capability.
All told, Israeli defenses in 1973 relied on presumptive superiority in intelligence and aerial and armored combat capabilities. Despite the information available beforehand, they would not learn of the deficiencies in each of these layers until it was too late.
Lesson 3: Consider Your Enemy’s “Out”
The wise statesman knows never to let a crisis go to waste, and so in this case did Henry Kissinger expertly manage hostilities in order to preserve the opportunity for postwar diplomacy.
Kissinger’s wartime strategy was twofold: first, demonstrate the futility of Soviet-supported Arab militarism by preventing the defeat of a US ally; and second, maintain contact with the warring parties in order to shape events. If managed well, the United States could initiate postwar diplomacy with credit in the bank with both parties—with Israel for having stood by its defense and with the Arabs for restraining Israel’s anticipated advance after mobilizing reserve units.
Regarding the first strategy, Kissinger, among other things, orchestrated a massive US military resupply airlift that helped Israel turn the tide of the war. As for the second strategy, Kissinger spoke to his Egyptian counterparts nearly every day of the conflict, assuring Cairo that the United States would commit to a political process after the war. Words turned to action when he came to the rescue of Egypt’s 22,000-strong Third Army, which Israel had surrounded on the west bank of the canal during the war’s waning days.
The destruction of the Third Army would have led to a cascade of disasters: a serious risk of superpower conflict, Egypt’s loss of the national dignity regained from crossing the canal, and the destruction of any chance for further postwar diplomacy. Thus Kissinger intervened, threatening US support to Israel: “There is a limit beyond which you cannot push [President Nixon]. . . . You play your game and you will see what happens,” he told Israel’s ambassador to the United States. When the Israeli ambassador protested, highlighting the danger that the surviving Egyptian army could pose in the future, Kissinger replied, “I have to say again your course is suicidal. You will not be permitted to destroy this army. You are destroying the possibility for negotiations, which you want.”
Israel would eventually relent, and on October 25 both warring parties finally agreed to a ceasefire. The Egyptians had been allowed to survive the war with honor intact and faith in the United States, paving the way for postwar diplomacy.
Lessons for Today
These lessons from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War—linking military action to political goals, guarding against cognitive biases and, when appropriate, recognizing opportunities to improve one’s own lot by acknowledging the interests of an adversary—are fundamental to the successful conduct of war and peace in any time and place.
President Donald Trump recently acknowledged the importance of this first lesson, for example, when he announced on August 20 that the threshold for US military withdrawal from Afghanistan would henceforth be conditions- rather than time-based. This is sensible, though a reluctance to outline these conditions and an emphasis on applying military over diplomatic tools to this problem set raise questions about the present alignment between resources and goals. Elsewhere, the Department of Defense has confirmed that it is considering providing Ukraine with lethal “defensive weapons” for its fight against Russian-backed separatists, even as the head of US Army forces in Europe is on record saying that such weapons would “not change the situation strategically in a positive way.” Washington must remain disciplined in aligning its military efforts with realistic political goals.
Guarding against cognitive biases requires less foreign policy prescription than organizational measures to systematically mitigate the foibles of human intuition. Such mechanisms have permeated many areas of life, from private business and medicine to movies and sports, and the CIA website makes clear that the intelligence community is no exception. It is less clear whether US policymaking institutions are equally equipped. Confirmation bias notoriously contributed to the Bush administration’s hunt for evidence that Iraq possessed WMD, and recent reports that the Trump administration is fishing for information to support preconceived notions of Iranian non-compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action are just as dangerous.
In fact, the Iran deal is significant precisely because it gives Tehran a face-saving path to curb its nuclear activities. There are times to annihilate an implacable enemy, to be sure, but frequently the national security interest dictates the grudging acceptance that one’s own security is intertwined with that of an adversary. The current administration would be wise to study this lesson as it develops its approach to North Korean intransigence. If it is the case that North Korea’s nuclear activities are motivated primarily by factors of regime security, then history teaches us that Washington’s best way forward is to scale back the fiery rhetoric and provide Pyongyang with an off-ramp from the current trajectory of mutual escalation.
These are just a few of the takeaways from the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, a conflict rich in tactical, operational, and strategic achievement. This week, as the parties to that conflict celebrate their victories and commemorate their losses, students of modern warfare have the opportunity to revisit this pivotal moment in history and examine its enduring lessons for any future battlespace.