Ariel Sharon: whatever his faults he was a great soldier

The feat Sharon pulled off in the Yom Kippur War made him a heroic general and saviour of Israel

Column LAST UPDATED AT 15:19 ON Tue 7 Jan 2014

AS Ariel Sharon’s life draws to a close there are many different ways to examine his record. A controversial figure even to many Israelis, his obituaries will no doubt highlight his culpability in the 1982 massacres of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila camps in Lebanon for which as Minister of Defence at the time he was found to bear “personal responsibility” by an Israeli commission of inquiry. 

Many Arabs refer to him because of that episode as “the Butcher” and there will be rejoicing in the streets when, after eight years in a coma, his health reportedly deteriorating fast, he eventually dies.

But whatever his faults he was without question a great soldier and general – one of the founders of the Israeli warrior ethos.  He served in all of Israel’s major wars.  Wounded as a young platoon commander in 1948, he went on to command a division with distinction in the 1967 Six Day War.

But it was his actions in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that confirmed his military greatness.  Earlier that year he had retired as chief of staff of the IDF’s southern command, but was mobilised to command a reserve armoured division in the gravest crisis the state of Israel has faced to date.  

On 6 October 1973, after a highly sophisticated deception programme designed to confuse the Israeli mobilisation process, a much-improved Egyptian army attacked in force across the Suez Canal, the initial attacks breaking through thinly spread Israeli defences.  

Israeli reserves, mobilised late, struggled to contain the Egyptian advance. Close air support, previously a battle-winner for the Israelis, was in short supply as the IAF was forced to concentrate its efforts defending heavily outnumbered Israeli soldiers in the north of the country, where the Syrians had attacked on the Golan Heights. For a few days it looked as though Israel might be beaten.  

It was the classic military nightmare – a two-front war without enough men or materiel for both.  For Israel to survive, the Egyptians had to be beaten quickly in the south so the IDF could redeploy against the Syrians in the north, who seemed on the point of breaking into Galilee.  Just stopping the Egyptian advance wasn’t going to be enough – it had to be decisive.

Sharon bided his time but as soon as he had located what he thought was a gap between two Egyptian formations he attacked into it (Napoleon’s favourite tactic), crossed the Suez Canal and proceeded to wreak havoc on Egyptian lines of communication.  

The Egyptians had thought they were winning only to discover Sharon’s tanks behind them threatening Cairo.  It was brilliantly done and, as with many of history’s best commanders, Sharon had pretty much ignored the less imaginative orders coming from above. To many he was the man who saved Israel.

Sharon and others like Yitzhak Rabin and Moshe Dayan were the ultimate military ambition come true: not just generals but saviours of their nation, heroic leaders in the field fighting for the ultimate goal – national survival.   

There is no British equivalent. Not only were they crucial to the survival of Israel but also they had fought in all her crucial battles starting with the War of Independence in 1947.  To play the same part in British history an individual would have had to be present at Flodden, Naseby, Waterloo, Ypres and D-Day.

It is difficult for many to consider the military achievements of Israeli generals dispassionately: because the idea of Israeli military victory is difficult for many to handle – particularly overwhelming military victories as a result of superior generalship.  As we discovered while students at the British Army Staff College in 1992.

The Commandant at the time, General Sir Michael Rose, promised us a farewell address by a man who had been at Camberley in the 1950s – a star military turn.  We couldn’t work out whop it might be – the 1950s had hardly produced a vintage crop of British generals.  

It was only when fleets of black Mercedes limousines flying the Star of David came up the drive (at high speed) that we realized who it was.

Rabin, who had been Prime Minister of Israel since July of that year, was charming and civilized reminding us that when he was a student in the same place the British Army had four times as many tanks as the IDF, but that now the ratios were more than reversed. He was every inch the great commander.

At the end of his address he took questions.  We wanted to ask him what it was like to have led the armed forces of his country in the Six Day War. Unfortunately, some of the overseas students saw his presence as an opportunity to grandstand over the Palestinian question. Sadly, the directing staff were too politically correct to tell them to sit down and be quiet.   

As a general, Rabin’s protege Ariel Sharon had that extraordinary, almost alchemical quality that has fascinated students of the military art for hundreds of years – the ability to turn defeat into stunning victory.  Apparently he is not a religious man.  I am not sure anyway whether Judaism envisages a Valhalla but if it does he has surely earned a place at its top table. · 

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'his obituaries will no doubt highlight his culpability in the 1982 MASSACRES of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Chatila camps in Lebanon for which as Minister of Defence at the time he was found to bear “PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY” by an Israeli commission of inquiry.'

... 'But whatever his FAULTS he was without question a great soldier and general – one of the founders of the Israeli warrior ethos.'

Some fault huh? And yet still considered 'great'...the standards and qualifications required for 'greatness' must be pretty low to allow for the systematic MASSACRE of many innocent men, women and children. Just saying.

And how dare 'overseas' students 'grandstand' over the 'Palestinian question'...the bare faced cheek of bringing up such an important, probably personal question about the brutal condemnation of an entire people by the likes of Rabin. Pfft the nerve of some people!

sharon was held INDIRECTLY responsible by an ISRAELI commission of inquiry into a massacre carried out by ARABS killing ARABS.

of course there was no ARAB inquiry into the incident, since this is considered normal behaviour for ARAB/MOSLEMS

...for all his "greatness" (and it depends upon which side of the Israeli/Palestinian argument you sit), this was the man who cynically provoked a violent Palestinian intifada by walking about on the Temple Mount, with a huge entourage of Jewish dignitaries.

This man was of the same mould as many of the "great" generals, including Rommel - militarily very able but utterly ruthless. Is that how Israel wishes to be viewed by the wider world?

Ironic really.

irritating, simple minded, ill informed comments only reveal how easy it is to comment from outside with no responsibility.Rabin was seen as a traitor for seeking peace and dialogue and murdered by an extremist Jew. Sharon wasn't a philosopher he was a tough ruthless soldier respected by his enemies for his prowess and relied on by his state. If he hadn't broken through at Chinese Farm, Syrian and Egyptian soldiers(and then Jordanian)may well have destroyed Israel but, more likely, the nightmare US/Soviet war would have started. It was one of the the closest moments to nuclear Armageddon we have seen so far.

...I stand by my earlier comment - I have already described Sharon as "ruthless" - if you had bothered to read my post thoroughly. This man's personal history contains concrete facts, Shabrila being among them.

Sharon is revered by those who have a particular viewpoint - but a balance should be drawn - he was NOT everybody's "cup of tea" - and, I suspect, you understand that "simple" point, irritating as it might be to you.

The nightmare US/Soviet war, to which you allude, was brought closer by Israel's very existence - the Soviet Union's interests and client states in the Middle East, at that time were, very broadly, incensed at the very existence of Israel which, by virtue of historical accident and, yes, British incompetence at the end of the Second World War, had been allowed to gain a disproportionate foothold in Palestine.

Israel subsequently flouted the most basic principles of the 1917 Balfour Declaration and started to expropriate Palestinian land and property and the basic tenets of even-handedness which Balfour had demanded between Arab and Jew were cast aside.

I speak dispassionately about Sharon - yes, of course, he was a brilliant soldier and the man of the the moment for Israel, but he was no saint.

Eight years in a comma , That is punishment for his evil part. Still his heroic actions are to be admired.

"provoked" an intifada by "cynically" by walking in the temple mount that was a JEWISH temple 2000 years before ISLAM was even invented

here precisely we have what bothers mr sellers "israel's very existence'.

well sorry buddy, neither you, nor over a billion arabs/muslims are going to have the slightest impact on israel, the ancient and eternal home of the jews, who survived pharoah, hitler and will survive khamenei and his arab cohorts.

if evil is not lying back and allowing your people to be slaughtered, then maybe ariel was evil.

I agree 100% Peter. Sharon was the man for the moment for Israel - his "transgressions" do not detract from that fact, whether you like him or not.

"fatima" - I can hardly contain my indifference re "Israel's very existence". You will NOT have picked up any anti-Israel/pro-Arab sentiments in my blog - unless you were deliberately looking for such sentiments.

My input was objective and, I suspect, reflects the views of a great many individuals, be they pro or anti-Israel.

Facts are facts. One undeniable fact is that, from ancient times, history has been re-written too many times in the Middle East to be at all reliable.

It seems that you are a willing "victim" of such dissembling of the "facts".