Crossing Mandelbaum Gate and Con Thien – The Hill of Angels

            Pulitzer Prize winning author Kai Bird has written an autobiography called Crossing Mandelbaum Gate: Coming of Age Between the Arabs and Israelis, 1956 – 1978.  Bird is the son of an American diplomat who moved to the Jordanian side of Jerusalem just before the 1956 Suez War. As the son of an American diplomat, he was one of the few people who could freely move between the Israeli and Jordanian sectors of Jerusalem, so he has an almost unique perspective on the roots of the conflict.  As a six year old child, he had friends on both sides and viewed events with the innocence and superficiality of a young American without a horse in the race. 

In subsequent years, he lived in Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the run up to the Six Day War in 1967.  When Bird lived in Egypt he lived in the same Cairo suburb of Maadi, as did Aymad Al-Zawahiri, who was his age, although not an acquaintance.  If one were allowed to read only one book on the Israeli – Palestinian conflict, Crossing Mandelbaum Gate is the one to read.  It is unique and rigorously accurate with respect to facts.

Con Thien – The Hill of Angels by James P. Coan is the story of the United States Marine – North Vietnamese Army battles for control of the Con Thien area south of the demilitarized zone over a seventeen month period in 1966 – 1967.  This is the best book about the sacrifice, tactics and strategy of the conflict in the northernmost reaches of South Vietnam.  Coan was a tank Lieutenant in the theater at that time.  Well beyond the normal competition between the Marines and Army, this book praises the perspicacity of Marine commanders like Lew Walt, and lambasts William Westmoreland’s obtuse idiocy.  If the Vietnam War was lost, William Westmoreland was a big reason why.

The Marines understood the fight was for the hearts and minds of the population, so they put small units into the villes to serve alongside the Popular Forces and police. These were Combined Action Platoons where the volunteer soldiers actually got to know the South Vietnamese and the casualties were horrendous.  According to Coan, North Vietnam sent its army across the DMZ to draw the Marines away from the population centers and Westmoreland walked right into their trap. 

Westy always thought the North Vietnamese were trying to stage a repeat of French defeat at Dien Bien Phu either at Con Thien or Khe Sanh or both.  Coan says it was merely to draw American forces away from the population centers in preparation for the Tet offensive.  This book is brilliantly written, rigorously researched and emotionally overwhelming.

One reason for combining these two books is that Bird makes it abundantly clear that one reason Johnson encouraged Israel to attack Egypt in 1967 was because of his frustration with the deteriorating situation in Vietnam and his desire to take down Nasser.  Without America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, Israel would never have been able to attack Egypt in 1967.  The temptation for a western backed client to take down nations sponsored by the Soviets was too much of a temptation for LBJ to resist. 

So, there is a direct line from Vietnam to the current ongoing crisis in the Middle East.  Most Americans, even today, think that Egypt started they Six Day War.  Actually, Israel struck first and wiped out Egypt’s Air Force on the ground. In the fifth century B.C. the Greek philosopher Aeschylus wrote: “In war, truth is the first casualty.”  What he meant is that it is incorrect or irreconcilable ideas that constitute the basis for conflict.  It is important to understand the true motivations and goals of an opponent or enemy.  The United States has a tendency to superimpose its values on its opponents, and therefore misunderstands what the conflict is about.

Just as the United States underestimated the amount of sacrifice the North Vietnamese were willing to endure to expel the Americans from their country, the United States currently pretends that the hostility of the Muslim world is based on everything or anything except America’s uncritical support for Israeli expansion.

This is best illustrated by an example from the most important book about foreign policy of the twentieth century, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s War Memoirs (six volumes, 3,400 pages) published in 1934.  The current conflicts in the Middle East and the Communist revolution in Russia are a direct result of World War I, so in a sense, it is a mistake to think of World War I and World War II as separate conflicts.  Basically, the world has been at war for the past century with intermittent truces.  Unfortunately, since 1945 and the invention of atomic weapons, the consequences of another no holds barred battle will be the end of the human race.  As Victor Frankl says at the end of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, “Since Auschwitz we know what mankind is capable of, and since Hiroshima we know the stakes.”

Here is what David Lloyd-George has to say about the French: “The Cambons – Jules and Paul – were exceptionally able diplomats.  They were intensely patriotic.  France was their faith – their shrine – their worship – their deity.  The first commandment of the true French patriot is: ‘Thou shalt have no other gods but France.’ It is a type or quality of patriotism which springs more naturally from the soil of France than that of any other land.  Are Englishmen also not patriots? Yes, they are, but with them patriotism is a duty, with Frenchmen it is a fanaticism.  Great leaders of men prove their gift of leadership by the appeals they address to those who under their command are called upon to fight against odds.  Nelson’s call to the English sailors was to respond to England’s expectation that they should do their duty. Napoleon’s appeal was to the glories of France. It was a love of country planted and raised during the torrid summer of the great Revolution, when the integrity and independence of France were threatened by all the monarchs of Europe, and matured whilst the French legions under Napoleon were tramping through the streets of every capital (except one) where these monarchs reigned. They were beaten in the end by a combined Europe. But national greatness does not depend as much on victory, as on the grandeur of the struggle put up by a people.  No other country possesses the experiences of France, and one has always to remember, in dealing with French statesmen, that this great era of their national glory is at the roots of their policy.  In negotiating with them it is a complex which interferes seriously with any attempt to secure a reasonable accommodation which takes the interests of other nations into account. It is always obtruding itself at inconvenient moments.”

Charles Lindholm, a professor of Anthropology at Boston University who lived in the Swat Valley of Pakistan in the late 1970’s, said the idea of national greatness depending less on victory than on the grandeur of the struggle put up by a people is similar to the one the Moslems have of war.  That is why Israel’s superiority in weapons, military might and decision to make disproportionate response the bedrock doctrine of its security doctrine, has failed to achieve peace with its poorer, weaker neighbors over the past sixty years.  Without justice for the land and water Israel has stolen from the Palestinians, Israel can never be secure.

Nuclear arms have changed the nature of nationalism. No nation or individual has the right to act autonomously and destroy the human race.  That is why leaders like George W. Bush, the Israelis, or the Mullahs who act on their gut feelings rather than seek compromise based on reasoned doctrine supported by scientific fact and law, are dangerous.  No reformed alcoholic is smarter than the 100 million voters who rejected his candidacy in 2000.  The 9/11 attacks and worldwide economic collapse are logical consequences of the stolen election of the world’s greatest democracy and last remaining superpower.  The United States is becoming just another third world country because its economic and foreign policies are based on politically correct lies imposed by a corrupt electoral system fashioned by the religious fanatic majority on the Supreme Court. Lisa Murkowski’s write-in victory in Alaska would not have been allowed in Hawaii, where voters, thanks to the Supreme Court, are not allowed to vote for the candidate of their choice.  Write-ins are prohibited in Hawaii. 

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Contact: Joshua Leinsdorf