History Friday: The 1973 Yom Kippur War…Plus 40 Years

There are few places in history where you see a stand unto death by western militaries that rivals that of the Spartans at Thermopylae. It takes a very special kind of “morale” and “moral” character for any military unit to fight effectively until killed. In 1973, on the Golan Heights, the IDF Armored Corps did just that.

In western military writings you hear a great deal about Avigdor Kahalani’s 77 Regiment of the 7th Armoured Brigade holding off the Syrians with fewer than 25 tanks and almost no ammunition at the end on the Golan Heights. What you don’t hear about is the 188th (Barak) Brigade, which held the southern Golan Heights and was wiped out, but did the following before it died, from this link:


Dead IDF Centurion Tank on the Golan Heights
Dead IDF Centurion Tank on the Golan Heights

The Syrian 1st Armored Division was advancing up the route toward the Golan HQ at Nafakh. Colonel Yitzhak Ben-Shoham, the Barak Brigade’s commander, realized his brigade was for all intents and purposes destroyed. He therefore organized and led a small group of surviving tanks in a holding action that slowed the Syrian advance on his HQ for several hours until he and the rest of the defenders were killed. With the brigade commander dead, no reserves in sight and two Syrian brigades advancing toward the Golan HQ–and with some units having bypassed the base on both flanks–the situation could only be described as grave. Lead elements of the Syrian brigades actually reached Nafakh and broke through the base’s southern perimeter. One Syrian T-55 crashed into General Eitan’s HQ, only to be knocked out by the last operational tank in Gringold’s platoon.
At that point, Eitan evacuated his headquarters to an improvised location farther to the north. Those left to defend the base manned two trackless Centurions from the camp repair depot and fired bazookas in a final stand that knocked out several Syrian tanks until those last Israeli tanks were destroyed.
The 188th Barak Brigade was no more

That was very much a “Thermopylae” any way you cut it. There is a reason the “Valley of Tears” happened in 1973 as it did.

The Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Moshe Dayan, initiated the practice of holding the swearing-in ceremony of soldiers who have completed their tironut (IDF basic training) on top of Masada. The ceremony ends with this declaration: “Masada shall not fall again.”

To quote Napoleon “The moral is to the physical as 10 is to one.”

The “moral” character and the “morale” of an army are very closely related for fighting militaries, if not two sides of the same coin.

You can have a military organization with high moral fortitude have very low morale and an immoral organization that has very high morale.

In the end, in protracted conflicts, defeats will shatter immoral/corrupt militaries and hone the fighting power of military organizations of high moral standards.

A moral organizations expects and promotes for competency and gets loyalty. It learns from its mistakes and the mistakes of others.

An immoral organization demands and promotes for “loyalty” and gets neither competence nor loyalty…and only sometimes learns from its own experience.

The moral military institution prevents the spread of corruption that hollows out the fighting power of a military.

An immoral one is a petri dish for corruption that hollows out its own fighting power and makes its troops atrocity-prone besides.

The competition between two such organizations in wartime is very Darwinian with the moral institution winning in the end, barring huge disparities in combat power. (See Finland versus the Soviet Union circa 1940.)

In 1973, the disparity in combat power was not that great, and the IDF Armored Corps kept the oath its officers swore.

Masada did not fall.

See this link for photos of the battlefield:


6 thoughts on “History Friday: The 1973 Yom Kippur War…Plus 40 Years”

  1. The Marines on Guadalcanal are the closest American equivalent. There is a myth that the Navy left Marines stranded but there were more Navy deaths than Marines by the end of the campaign. The story in in this book . In the first battle of Guadalcanal, the US ships fought Japanese battleships at a range of 400 yards.

  2. The morale of a fighting unit depends on the cohesion among its members. This cohesion is built on mutual trust and respect, both horizontal and vertical. Mutual trust is based on the earned, demonstrated competence of the members; shared commitment to the unit’s mission and the unit as an entity; and personal bonds between members that are in close association. It is fragile as any perceptions of self-serving or exploitative actions can significantly fracture the solidarity of the unit, especially under combat stress. One of the challenges of unit cohesion in the US military has been the individual replacement system. This was greatly exaggerated with the short individual tour rotation system used in Viet Nam. At least we have learned to rotate by units in our recent wars. The Israeli military have a much greater probability of developing deep unit cohesion and combat sustainability since they serve in units with long-term stabile membership and of course they know there is no plan B, no backup and no rotation “back to the world.”

    S. L. A. Marshall’s work Men Against Fire using WW II research is the standard for thinking on this matter. I would add that Martin Van Creveld’s work German Fighting Power including data from the German army of WW II and comparing it to US practices adds much depth with the contrasting philosophies of the two military systems as they existed then. Blood was paid by the US and Allied forces.




  3. The issue of a moral fighting force being more effective than an immoral one is understood in the bones. It is a theme of even “Star Wars.”

    This is why recent Obama Administration changes to our military personnel have been so worrisome. Reports of discrimination against devout Christians in the ranks and creeping political correctness are bad enough but one can only wonder about unit cohesion with lesbian officers over male fighting men (see Steve Sailor for observations on behavior differences for background.)

    There does seem to be a deliberate undermining of the effectiveness of the US military, directed from the top.

  4. It is probably deliberate in the sense it is predictable if one understands the basis of combat unit effectiveness. Most of the decision makers know even less about the military and war fighting than they do about economics, and care less. Those that do or should understand (such as Dempsey) are primarily fixated on the short-term political calculations and their own place in the power structure. “Being realists”, don’t you know. Ideologically, progressives view the cost of military effectiveness as a dead weight loss to be minimized in the overall scheme of things. At worst, they view the military as a dangerous temptation to use it. If it can serve as the perfect laboratory for progressive social engineering, it might have some social utility. With its hierarchical command structure, it is possible to force compliance with all sorts of hair brained rules and promote those who most vociferously support the latest “great idea” while incentivizing the departure of those who do not. The resulting decrease in fighting effectiveness is only demonstrated in sustained combat and can then be explained by all sorts of creative rationale. Once “peace” breaks out, the experiments can bloom again. With information (communications and observational) technology advances, top down control is enhanced and norm compliance is better monitored. As during and after the Viet Nam war, the drain in talent at all ranks has and will be significant.


  5. I don’t disagree with the heroism shown by both Marines and the Navy at Guadalcanal. However, I think a better representation of Thermopylae in the Pacific battle was chronicled in The Last Stand of the Tin Can Navy.

    Commanders turned their ships to face a much greater foe, knowing full well they were going to die.

  6. it’s not a bad summary, but if you want a desperate last stand for tactical reasons against the enemy,
    look at the 1947 battle for Kashmir, the 1st Sikh Battalion stood for one night against 30,000 Pathan tribesmen and
    with nothing but bayonets held the last defense line till dawn.

    They died to the man

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