BOOK REVIEW: In The Sands of Sinai
Dr. Itzhak Brook’s first person account of the 1973 Yom Kippur War is captivating in the tale he tells and in the lessons taught. In the Sands of the Sinai, A physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War, is a timely reminder that individuals make the difference.
Cast your mind to any holiday you find most pleasing. In the days leading up to that morning, you’ve worked yourself to exhaustion. Your sleep is deep as your unconscious mind is soothed by the familiar sounds, smells and feel of this day; the culmination of your year. Instead of the joy and relaxation you know you’ve earned, you rudely awaken to war and an imminent threat to your family and your life. Most U.S. citizens alive today can only come as close to that threat as the morning of September 11, 2001. Imagine if that horror were to happen nation-wide. That is the world that rudely grabbed Brook’s dreams in a bedroom in Rehovot, Israel and threatened his wife and two young children on the morning of Yom Kippur in 1973.
An eternally long fourteen days later Brook would return from that war forever changed.
Told with the skill inbred from a culture that values oral history as a complement to the written word, Brook takes his readers for a ride rather than a read. From the time Itzhak Brook lifts his foggy head from the pillow to wrap his mind around the reality of an all-out assault on Israel by Egypt and Syria to his return as a wounded war veteran; the reader lives his life in the trenches of the Sinai. Few realize how close Israel came to annihilation and how ill-prepared the country was to answer the surprise attack.
The growing realization of the failure of a government Brook had believed and trusted winds its way through the parable as the troops prepare to meet their fate head-on. Israel is a tiny country with an area of 8,026 square miles that would easily fit into Yavapai County in Arizona. By comparison the invaders, Egypt and Syria, encompass 386,700 square miles and 71,498 square miles respectively and are populated accordingly. To the Israeli military’s credit all men and women within the appointed age range are in the military reserves and exercise regularly. In my opinion, that fact probably saved Israel from being lost to its government’s arrogance.
Arriving at the muster, the good doctor discovers that his vehicle will be a bright blue private van, which his medical team converts to a makeshift ambulance. So as not to stick out like a sore thumb in the desert, the van is camouflaged by wetting it down and throwing sand on it. Short of supplies and appropriate defensive weapons, this hardy group innovates and makes-do as they rush to the fighting front in the Sinai.
There are few communications so the tank logistics group- fuel, water, supplies, medical support- uses the one bold approach. One body takes the orders and drives backward down the convoy verbally relaying the orders and other information. The medical team is bringing up the rear and is always the last to know. It is a rag-tag convoy of military vehicles interspersed with commandeered private vehicles and everyday heroes fighting for survival. It is hot and demanding work. During the first twenty-four hours, everyone is working with no energy until sundown as they respect the fast of Yom Kippur.
The Israeli leadership advised the troops that war would begin toward sunset. Shockingly, the attack was at 2:30 p.m., much earlier than projected and the logistics support group rushed forward to the front to take care of their tanks.
Dr. Brook was faced with fear, injuries and a built in reality that, if Israel lost this one, his family would be destroyed. The early going was not good and the tanks, the pride of Israel, took a beating from armor piercing missiles. It was an ugly new development.
To his great credit Brook never left his ability to learn and innovate behind. Leadership was far away and the burden fell on his shoulders to figure out how best to proceed. He integrated the Biblical battle lessons hard-learned thousands of years ago on this same desert and coupled his current knowledge to find solutions where none were apparent. He unraveled and found an in-theater treatment vehicle for Post-Traumatic Stress before he knew it had been labeled. Brook identified and labeled the characteristics of the everyday heroes on the battlefield. He steadfastly solved one problem after another and honed his character in the calculus.
Injured by an artillery shell, Brook was evacuated after fourteen days; a lifetime. Israel survived; they did not win.
When the tide finally turned, the Israeli military was at Damascus’ door but Henry Kissinger slammed it. The U.S. sent much-needed materials but denied Israel a buffer from the large countries, which surround Israel like a pack of hungry wolves filled with hate. Brook recounts his encounter with the injured enemy and the decision that tested his moral base. He saw the fear in the man’s eyes as he approached him and his own memories burned with the atrocities committed on his brothers and sisters at their hands. In that instant he decided to treat this injured man as he would all others. Perhaps they would remember and, one day, reciprocate.
Brook survived. He came to the U.S. to complete his specialty and joined the U.S. military where he served over twenty years. He brings Cold War (1947-1991) lessons into sharp relief. Israel came a micro-millimeter from losing its hard won sovereignty because the government was still high on the victory of the Six-Day War.
The Israeli government was not prepared or informed. Israel had underestimated its enemy. If Brook exemplifies the typical Israeli of that period, the citizens of Israel were betrayed not only by Egypt or Syria but by their own government and by the world.
Republished with permission by author.
For correspondence: Barbara Johnson