The men came alone. They didn’t bring flowers or lay pebbles on the smooth grave marker. Many wore black Armored Corps baseball hats and, when the army cantor began chanting from Psalms, hugging himself in a circular sway, none followed along in the book.
Most of the mere two dozen mourners on Thursday stared at the low grave. It was hard to tell if their thoughts were being pulled toward the wars they fought alongside Maj. Gen. Shmuel Gonen, who died 23 years ago this week, or the way Gonen’s last war, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, ate away at his soul and slowly ended his life.
Gonen, known in Israel as Gorodish, the name that he was born with in Vilnius in 1930, was brought up in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem. He was raised religious and in poverty and by the time he was awarded general’s rank, at the age of 39, he was considered a rising star.
That was in 1969. Four years later, on July 15, 1973, he inherited the IDF Southern Command from Arik Sharon, who was pushed into retirement. “Moshe,” Sharon told Defense Minister Moshe Dayan several hours before the ceremony, “I believe you are making a grave mistake. If we have a war here, and we might have one, Gonen does not have the experience to handle it.”
Less than three months later, on October 6, Israel was plunged into all-out war. Gonen, who had been awarded a citation for bravery as a captain and who led the Seventh Brigade’s triumphant charge through the Sinai desert in the Six Day War, was massively outnumbered. The Egyptians had deployed five infantry divisions, three mechanized divisions, and two armored divisions to the front. Their force included 1,400 tanks. Israel had one division in the front, totaling 294 tanks. Making matters worse, the cavalry, IDF armored divisions 143 and 162, were headed by reserves generals Sharon and Avraham Adan, men who, even on good days, were hard to control.
On the second day of the war, Gonen, a learned disciplinarian, shouted at a recalcitrant Sharon “I will dismiss you right now!” when Sharon told him that his attack orders were mistaken and would be “a disastrous mistake.”
On October 10, a minister in government and former chief of the IDF General Staff, Chaim Bar-Lev, was effectively put in control of the southern front instead of Gonen. In 1974, after the war, the Agranat Commission found that he had not “rightly fulfilled his duty” and recommended that he not be given command of a fighting force larger than a division.
Gonen, whom General Rehavam Ze’evi termed “the scapegoat” for more senior failures, departed for the Central African Republic and did not return. He died in 1991.
“He didn’t leave,” said his younger brother Yoel at the Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery in Tel Aviv, “he fled in shame.”
Yoel later pulled two folded sheets of paper from his shirt pocket and began to read from a speech entitled: In Memory of My Brother Shmulik. “I stand here today at the foot of your grave,” he began, and then snapped his hand down and shook his head. “Never mind,” he said, putting away the papers.
General Haim Erez, the commander of the first brigade to cross the Suez Canal, spoke of Gonen. “A part of him is imprinted on us,” he told the small gathering of veterans and family members. “Those who knew him well, knew how to peel away the occasional exaggeration and get to the real Shmulik. He was sensitive… and forgiving.”
Erez, who later told me he thought that Gonen “to a certain extent was wronged,” called him “an army man in every fiber of his being, a professional.”
Ilan Maoz, who served under Gonen in the 50s and 60s, said he was “a man of steel” and recalled how he used to love to crawl under the tanks and check the bolts while his deputy would talk to the soldiers. He said Gonen, who wanted his men to remain alert and to drive more cautiously during training maneuvers, dragged his soldiers to the morgue one day and made them look at dead bodies in order to scare them straight.
Efrat Fussman, his niece, remembered a smart man who commanded the room as soon as he spoke. “After the war, though,” she said, “he was broken.”
Yoel Gonen, standing in a cluster with a few of the old warriors, agreed to step aside and show me the speech he had prepared. “I stand here today at the foot of your grave,” it read, “in order to update you: There are no changes in the ways of our friends, in quotation marks, the Jews. We don’t need haters; the destruction we know how to take care of without the help of the goyim.”
“…I stand here at your feet, your little brother, whose advice you would not take, to plug up the rat holes with cement and glass shards, to prevent them from burying you,” he read softly, “while you are still alive.”
Shmulik, he said, was too proud to come home to a country that seemed still to blame him for the loss of life. “He died of a heart attack,” he said.
Then he corrected himself. “He died of a broken heart.”