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A Yom Kippur battle through the lens of the US Civil War

In new book ‘From Gettysburg to Golan,’ a former IDF officer finds the parallels between Israeli and Union tactics in the 1973 war and the American conflict

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Photo collage. Left, tank battle from the Yom Kippur War (US Government/Wikimedia Commons). Right, dead Federal soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg (Timothy O'Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons). (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Photo collage. Left, tank battle from the Yom Kippur War (US Government/Wikimedia Commons). Right, dead Federal soldiers from the Battle of Gettysburg (Timothy O'Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons). (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

As they faced down hundreds of Syrian tanks barreling toward the Golan Heights, the similarities between their fight and the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War was probably the last thing IDF soldiers had on their minds during the Yom Kippur War. Yet the parallels exist.

The differences between the two battles are obvious: the time period, the location, the scale of the fighting, the weapons used. One was an internal struggle for control, while the other was an invasion attempt by foreign countries.

The Battle of Gettysburg had close to 45,000 Rebel and Union casualties, while just a tiny fraction of that number perished on the Golan Heights in 1973. Though Israeli casualties were well documented, Syria does not have exact figures for the battle, but most experts put the figure in the hundreds to low thousands.

The Civil War lasted just over four years; the Yom Kippur War was over in less than three weeks. But the connection is there, for those who wish to find it.

Barry Spielman, a retired IDF lieutenant colonel and Civil War buff, lays out the similarities between these two famous battles in his book, “From Gettysburg to Golan,” published earlier this month.

Spielman’s 95-page book is technically a Kindle Single, a newly christened digital format that occupies a niche somewhere between a full-length book and an article, and is available for download through Amazon.

Cover of 'From Gettysburg to Golan.' (Courtesy of Barry Spielman)
Cover of ‘From Gettysburg to Golan.’ (Courtesy of Barry Spielman)

The book jumps back and forth between the two battles as they progress, with Spielman peppering dry, tactical information on the battles with first-hand accounts.

In both cases, Spielman explains, there was a defending army in a superior position on higher ground, surprised by an overwhelming attack from below.

In Gettysburg and on the Golan, the defending army knew that if they were overrun, the consequences could be dire.

For the South, a victory in Gettysburg would pave the way for an invasion of the North. For Syria, a victory on the Golan would be both a victory in itself, as it would reclaim land it had lost in the 1967 Six Day War, and would provide the Syrian Army an ingress with which they could effectively cut Israel in two.

Bayonets in Gettysburg, tanks on the Golan

On July 2, 1863, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade discovered that a Confederate attack was imminent.

Meanwhile, another general, Dan Sickles, had either disobeyed or deliberately misunderstood Meade’s orders and abandoned his position on Little Round Top, two rocky hills south of the city of Gettysburg, and moved to an indefensible position in a peach orchard nearby.

Scrambling as the Southern offensive began, Meade called for reinforcements to hold Little Round Top and the high ground, which, according to Spielman, would be the deciding factor in the battle — and ultimately the war.

Map of the Battle of Gettysburg in 'From Gettysburg to Golan.' (Courtesy of Barry Spielman)
Map of the Battle of Gettysburg in ‘From Gettysburg to Golan.’ (Courtesy of Barry Spielman)

The battle was fought with bayonets, rifles and artillery, and though Rebel troops managed to overcome the Northern army in some skirmishes, by the end of the day the Union was able to effectively move troops into the areas where the South had previously broken through, and the line held.

October 6, 1973, was the Yom Kippur holiday, the holiest day in the Jewish year. That afternoon, Syria and Egypt launched a surprise assault on Israel to reclaim the land both had lost in the Six Day War and potentially take over Israel entirely.

Israel had been maintaining permanent defense positions in the Golan Heights, a mountainous region in northern Israel, and had created a 20-mile (30-kilometer) anti-tank trench. Against the Syrian Army’s full-scale assault, however, these positions were inadequate and reinforcements would be needed in order for Israel to maintain its control over the Golan Heights. It was a race against the clock, Spielman explained.

Map of the Golan Heights campaign in the Yom Kippur War in 'From Gettysburg to Golan.' (Courtesy of Barry Spielman)
Map of the Golan Heights campaign in the Yom Kippur War in ‘From Gettysburg to Golan.’ (Courtesy of Barry Spielman)

Avigdor Kahalani, a lieutenant colonel in charge of the 77th tank battalion, is considered the hero of the Golan Heights campaign — leading charge after charge against the advancing army and directing tanks to replace those destroyed by the Syrians in order to hold the Golan Heights.

Despite great uncertainty at the outbreak of the war as to whether Israel would be able to hold off the Syrian Army, by the end of October 9, just a few dozen Israeli tanks had been lost, while Kahalani’s force and the rest of the mechanized 7th Brigade managed to destroy hundreds of Syrian tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The location of these tank battles on the Golan Heights is known now in Hebrew as Emek HaBacha — the Valley of Tears — for the viciousness of the fighting that took place there during the Yom Kippur War.

In their respective battles, Spielman wrote, and despite rocky starts, the North and the Israelis were victorious through their use of so-called interior lines, a strategic concept that says the more concentrated a force, the easier it is to move resources.

Clustered on hilltops, the Israeli and Union troops were able to quickly fill in the holes in their fighting lines, preventing their enemies from breaking through.

It all started with a blog

Although the book was written only this year, the inspiration for it came from Spielman’s time in the army in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he served as a member of the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, in the department that handles the army’s relationship with the public directly, as opposed to through the media.

“I was in charge of all visits by civilians to army bases and installations,” Spielman told The Times of Israel. “I used to take folks up, a lot, to the Golan Heights, to the Valley of Tears.

“From the beginning, from the first time that I was there, I was always struck by the connection,” he said.

But perhaps the inspiration for the book came even before that. Since his childhood in New York, Spielman has been enthralled by the American Civil War, and Gettysburg in particular.

‘What if we compare Gettysburg to the battle in the Golan Heights?’

Spielman “can’t even count” the number of times he has visited the battle site, he said with a laugh. And to conduct his research for the book, he rarely had to venture outside his front door.

“More than 90 percent of the books I used were from my library, my personal library,” he explained.

One of Spielman’s friends in Australia had recently started a publishing company for history books, and Spielman — an amateur Civil War historian with a master’s degree in national security studies from George Washington University — desperately wanted to write something about Gettysburg.

The topic, however, was not a new one: thousands of books have been written on the three-day battle.

So Spielman thought back to his days in the army and to a 2013 blog post he had written on The Times of Israel website.

“Sort of in desperation, I said to [my publisher], ‘What if we compare Gettysburg to the battle in the Golan Heights?’” he said.

“He said, ‘Well that’s interesting. Nobody’s ever written anything about that before,’ Spielman said.

“It’s a little bit of a stretch,” he admitted, “A hundred years between them. One is tanks, one is infantry.”

But Amazon “loved the idea,” his publisher told Spielman.

Writing about the Civil War and military history is today just a hobby for Spielman, who works full time as director of marketing operations for AudioCodes, an Israeli start-up.

Beginning in December 2014, it took Spielman approximately six months to write the book in his spare time and then another two or three to edit and create the book’s maps and cover.

“The coolest part for me was being able to interview these veterans from the Yom Kippur War,” he said. “The book was just icing on the cake.”

Author Barry Spielman meets with Avigdor Kahalani, former 77th Battalion commander, and Eitan Kauli, deputy commander of the 77th Battalion. (Courtesy of Barry Spielman)
Author Barry Spielman (center) meets with Avigdor Kahalani (left), former 77th Battalion commander, and Eitan Kauli, deputy commander of the 77th Battalion. (Courtesy of Barry Spielman)

By the end of the day, Spielman said, “I had talked to ten people who had fought in the Golan, serious people.”

These “serious people” included Avigdor Kahalani, the hero of the battle who won a medal of valor for his effort, and Kahalani’s deputy, Eitan Kauli.

Spielman also managed to speak with Aviram Barkai, the author of the Hebrew book “Al Blima ” (in English, “On Containment”) which is the term used for the Israeli strategy during the fight in the Golan. “Al Blima,” a dense, 550-page account of the battle, is one of the most well-regarded and well-written books on the Golan campaign and is frequently distributed by the IDF to officers.

‘Some things don’t change’

The strategic similarities between the Golan Heights tank battle in the Yom Kippur War and the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War are likely also shared with dozens or hundreds of other skirmishes throughout humanity’s millennia of conflict. It is not a unique occurrence for someone to find a parallel between two historic events.

So what is the takeaway from Spielman’s book? What does it matter that Avigdor Kahalani and George Meade fought tactically similar wars?

For Spielman, the similarities forge a connection between the two countries’ histories.

“In an abstract way,” he said, “it connects US history to Israeli history.”

Spielman grew up in America, but has lived in Israel “off and on” since 1981.

During his service in the IDF, Spielman brought Americans to the Israeli Golan Heights and now, working with a large Israeli company, he has been able to bring his Israeli bosses to Gettysburg.

Though he left the army in 1995, Spielman still serves in the reserves and is regularly “involved in joint exercises with the IDF and the US Army.”

So the connection between the Golan and Gettysburg is more than just an academic interest, it is one close to Spielman’s heart.

‘Even though battles change, tactics change, certain things don’t change’

His book also reinforces the age-old lesson that there is nothing new under the sun.

“Even though battles change, tactics change,” Spielman explained, “certain things don’t change.”

Despite the wildly different technologies at play in the two wars, he said, the higher ground was still crucial and remains so even today.

“Holding on to certain land that has a strategic value is still important,” he said.

Though earlier this summer we commemorated the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and on Wednesday Israel will commemorate 42 years since the Yom Kippur War, both events are still equally relevant, Spielman said.

“In Israel we live with Yom Kippur every day,” he said.

And even though more than a century and a half has passed since Gettysburg, the politics of the event still influenced Spielman’s book.

Around the time he was finishing his book, 21-year-old Dylann Roof charged into a black church in South Carolina and murdered nine people. The shooting renewed a debate over the use of the Confederate flag in the southern United States.

Out of sensitivity and to avoid appearing sympathetic to the Confederacy, Spielman altered a sentence that spoke of the bravery that both sides portrayed in the battle.

“It’s still so charged,” he said. “It’s still happening, it’s not over.”

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