Last of the Old Lions: Scenes From a Life -- and Death

Posted: Jan 14, 2014 12:01 AM
Last of the Old Lions: Scenes From a Life -- and Death

The life of Ariel Sharon, better known in Israel as Arik, has ended at long, long last after eight comatose years lost to everyone but himself. It was a life almost co-extensive with that of the State of Israel, or at least its army. And some would argue he was just as vital a factor in Israel's survival.

How sum up such a life? The handiest way might be to describe Sharon as Israel's own Patton, always veering between being insubordinate and indispensable. He would be sidelined again and again for some reckless act, but then, when all was falling apart, be called back to save the day. The way Ike, who tried to keep his best or at least most aggressive general on a tight leash, would call on George S. Patton to turn his Third Army around on a dime -- on a sliver of a dime, really -- and rush to the rescue when the Battle of the Bulge erupted. The enemy had broken through in a surprise offensive and panzers were everywhere. Patton arrived like the U.S. Cavalry, literally. And snatched victory from the jaws of panic. What others call desperation, a Patton -- or Sharon -- seized as opportunity.

It won't surprise to learn that Ariel Sharon came by his stubborn streak honestly. His father and mother, Sam and Dvora Sheinerman, had fled Georgia -- the one in Russia -- as the Bolsheviks advanced and the fleeing was good. (Not that there is ever a bad time to flee Russia.) They would join the still nascent Zionist experiment in what was than Palestine under the British mandate. Soon enough, at 14, their boy would be going on night patrols with Gadna, a paramilitary youth movement whose existence, or at least nocturnal activities, were strictly illegal under the Mandate.

There was scarcely a battle in Israel's war of independence that young Arik missed. He would live to recall that whole war as one extended battle. Somewhere in its midst, young Sheinerman was renamed Sharon by David ben Gurion himself, who may have been the first Israeli leader to note his battlefield prowess for future reference. It would have been hard to miss. Shot up again and again, the young man always came back to fight another day. Or rather night, his preferred time for combat.

The most enduring lesson young Sharon brought out of that uneven conflict -- seven Arab armies or more against one fledgling Jewish one -- was the one he learned at a bend in the road called Latrun, scene of a desperate and losing battle to open the twisting old two-lane to besieged Jerusalem. He saw desperate, untrained European refugees, the leavings of Hitler's concentration and extermination camps, rushed off the boats, handed rusty old Enfields, if that, and sent to their sure deaths in a hopeless attempt to open the road to Jerusalem. For they were up against John Glubb Pasha's well-trained, British- officered Arab Legion in Jordan, which was then Trans-Jordan. And from then on, relentless training and preparation became another, essential requirement of any force Arik Sharon would lead.

Only a year later, the Jordanians were sending teams of terrorists across the cease-fire lines to attack one Jewish settlement after another. David ben Gurion, that old lion, would call on this new one to head Unit 101, a nice name for an outfit specifically charged with staging reprisal raids. Not for the first time, Arik Sharon would wind up being hauled before a military court for his actions, and was about to be drummed out of the still new Israeli army when....

He was needed again. This time he would command a brigade of paratroops in the Suez War of 1956, which turned out to be a guerrilla raid on a larger scale. Once again, he ignored orders, and cleared out the strategic Mitla Pass in the Sinai instead of going around it. Israeli casualties were heavy. After that incident, his military career was stalled for years--till war clouds gathered again.

The very survival of the Jewish state was threatened in 1967 when the charismatic Gamal Abdul Nasser promised to drive the Jews into the sea and mobilized armies to do it -- not just in the Sinai but Syria, with Jordan joining the pack at the last minute for the kill.

Rather than wait to be destroyed, the Israelis struck back in a Six Day War that changed the map of the Middle East. Before it was over, Gen. Sharon had conducted a breakthrough at Abu-Ageila in Sinai -- a strategic innovation in combined arms (infantry, armor, artillery) so lightning effective the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, long accustomed to studying Civil War battles like Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, added Abu-Ageila to its curriculum.

But the cocksure general who masterminded that battle proved as unpopular as ever with his more conventional peers, and was denied any further promotion till his retirement. A retirement that ended suddenly on Yom Kippur of 1973, when the Israelis were caught flat-footed by a two-front surprise attack out of Egypt and Syria. And sent reeling back all along the line -- from Sinai to the Golan Heights on the Syrian border. More experienced generals, like the legendary Moshe Dayan, were counseling retreat, retreat, retreat!

"How are we going to get out of this?" the commander of Israel's hastily mobilized reserves asked Arik down on his farm. "Don't you know?" Sharon replied. "We'll cross the Suez Canal and end the war over there." It took a couple of anxious weeks, but that was just what happened in the end as Arik Sharon led his tanks across the canal between two Egyptian armies, cutting off one and surrounding the other. The enemy could never tell where this night phantom would strike next, though one morning his armor was reported within 100 kilometers of Cairo. It was clearly time to make peace, which the Egyptians hurriedly did.

It was Sharon's last war and the beginning of a political career marked by equally daring and mercurial turns, first planting Jewish settlements everywhere and then uprooting them in the vain hope of making peace.

It was in his last war -- in those opening, disastrous days of the Yom Kippur War -- that Israel's worst moment became Arik Sharon's finest, and without his issuing a single order. When the Egyptians crossed the Canal in overwhelming force, surrounding the scattered troops the Israelis had left there, other generals were eager to relieve the remnants. It wouldn't work, Sharon told them. It was too soon for a counter-offensive. The object shouldn't be to rescue a few doomed soldiers but to win the damned war. As usual, his advice was ignored. At first. After the full-scale assault failed with predictably disastrous results, and a staff meeting was called to evaluate what was left of the Israeli army, Sharon didn't say a word, let alone "I told you so." He didn't have to. From then on, his strategy was adopted.

Think of Grant and Sherman meeting after that first, disastrous day for the Union at Shiloh. "We've had the devil's own day," Sherman sighed, And all Grant said was, "We'll hit 'em a lick tomorrow." And they did. So did Arik Sharon as his supposedly surrounded and defeated divisions materialized in the heart of the enemy, wreaking havoc. Not just the battle but the war was over.

In the end, the old lion who never lost a war was done in by modern medical science, which reduced him to a years-long coma after he suffered a stroke. Medicine had long since discarded older and wiser counsel: Thou shalt not kill/ but needst not strive/ officiously to keep alive. What battles the old general fought and refought in his twilight state, what political deals he made or broke, what old scores he settled or forgave ... all that only he could know in his drugged sleep of years. Till the Angel of Death finally arrived to awaken him. Now the rest of us can only speculate about where he is headed now to astound us all once again.