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In the Sands of Sinai: A Physician's Account of the Yom Kippur War Paperback – December 2, 2011
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About the Author
Itzhak Brook, MD, MSc, is a Professor of Pediatrics at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington DC. He was born and raised in Haifa, Israel and graduated from the Hareali Haivri High School, earning his medical degree from Hebrew University, Hadassah School of Medicine, in Jerusalem. Dr Brook completed a residency in pediatrics at Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot, Israel. He served in the Israeli army as a battalion physician during the Yom Kippur war in 1973. Subsequently, he completed a fellowship in adult and pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Medicine. Dr. Brook served in the Medical Corp of the US Navy for 27 years. He has authored several hundred publications in scientific journals and ten textbooks. Dr. Brook also authored the book: “My voice - a physician’s personal experience with throat cancer.”
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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 has 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 baud 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 by Egypt or Syria but by their own government. The U.S ought to relate to Israel’s predicament because it did almost the same thing in Korea with the same results. Yet, it appears, the U.S. has lost the lesson again and, once more, high on its own assumed superiority is underestimating an enemy. The arrogance of governments is paid with the blood of its citizens.
I use it for a project in an Army school, and its information concerning the effects of war in the psychic of Israelis is extremely insightful.
Brook's book is intensely personal. He invites you to share his thoughts rather than describe battles. He starts with a wonderful description of his family's relationship with Yom Kippur, and the thoughts that go through his head as he hears the jet planes roaring above and gets called up for reserve duty. As he prepares himself and his unit to treat wounded soldiers on the battlefield, he describes the medical equipment they will be carrying, as well as his personal "Uzi" gun, which will keep him safe in the war, and the terrible irony of possibly having to fight and kill in order to save lives. He candidly discusses his feelings about going to war as a new father: this time it's not just about him anymore.
Another highlight for me as the chapter about "religion in war", in which he conveys his thoughts about two religious men who were in his unit. Without an ounce of condescension or cynicism, he describes how they gain strength and resolve from their prayers, and struggles with his own views on the role of religion throughout Jewish history and in the modern state of Israel. He also deals very candidly with many medical and ethical questions that are unique to war, for example, he tells the story of a supply driver who asks for valium to control his fear and nerves while driving supplies to the front lines. Should be give him the medicine to allow him to carry on with his duty even though it may impair his driving and put him in danger?
In the last chapter, after recovering from his wounds and moving to the USA, Dr. Brook tells of the difficulties of integrating into American society where people did not really want to hear his war stories, and were not necessarily as understanding as he expected of Israel's need to defend itself. Dr. Brook has obviously had an illustrious career as a physician and professor, but he still carries the toll of that war with him in his mind, and now, 40 years later, he has found a way to let us share in his most private thoughts and traumas.
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I always wondered how people just my age managed during the Yom KippUr War.Read more