Lessons learned from the Six-Day War

Establishing an Arab democracy: lessons learned from the Six-Day War

Daniel Ganci

On 1 May 2003, President George W. Bush declared the end to major combat operations in Iraq. Since then, the United States and its allies have engaged in a costly fight with a growing insurgent force. Today’s political and military situation in the Middle East represents the latest rendition of an old and sadly familiar story. On 10 June 1967, Israel’s Prime Minister announced the end of what would be known as the Six-Day War only to begin a war against insurgents that is still fought today.

The Six-Day War in June of 1967 shaped, and continues to influence, politics in the Middle East. The war pitted the young nation of Israel against the Arab armies of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, as well as other Arab countries. The conduct of the war provides insight into Israeli and Arab cultures and the political effects of ongoing insurgent and terrorist acts, resulting in global implications. The war legitimized Israel as a nation and regional power. It highlighted the difficulties that existed between the Arab States of the Middle East and demonstrated the advantages of democracy over monarchy.

The effects of the Six-Day War also influence and, in some ways, mirror the United States’ current involvement in Iraq. In both cases, a democratic or western nation dominates the Arabs militarily and then undertakes an ongoing period of unconventional fighting. There are also similarities on the operational and tactical levels between the Six-Day War and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

This article provides insight on the current situation in Iraq and its future. This article analyzes the Six-Day War using the nine principles of war and assesses whether the Israelis won the war or the Arabs lost it.

Nine Principles of War

Before an effective analysis of the Six-Day War can be conducted, the criteria must be defined. The nine principles of war provide general guidance for conducting war at all levels. They are not a checklist and do not apply the same in every situation. However, they summarize the characteristics of successful operations and serve as a powerful analytical tool. (1) The principles are: objective, offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise and simplicity.

Objective. The objective principle of war is important at all levels of war and should drive military activity. Commanders need a clear understanding of the expected outcome and impact of every mission. (2) When developing objectives at the strategic level, political considerations and even global opinion need to be considered. The Arab coalition of Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, and the Israelis had clear strategic objectives. The Arabs wanted the total destruction of Israel as a nation, while Israel wanted to create a secure nation-state. Both of these objectives could only be achieved through a mix of political and military actions.

The Arab coalition wanted Israel to strike first, appearing as the aggressor in the eyes of the world and justifying an overwhelming military response. They attempted to achieve this in May 1967 by massing forces in the Sinai and on the Jordanian and Syrian borders; they also closed the Straits of Tiran, effectively cutting off a major supply line for Israel. These actions created an untenable situation, both politically and militarily, for Israel without firing a shot. The Israelis, aware of the danger, but not wanting to win the military war only to lose the peace politically, exercised restraint while desperately trying to get the United Nations/ United States to peacefully intervene. In the end, Israel demonstrated to the United States and the world that their nation was under attack and needed to act to survive in support of their strategic objectives.

Israel wanted to create a secure state, one that the Arab world officially recognized. They achieved this mission by demonstrating to the world that their national security was at risk and action was needed. Israel also understood that “their success would be judged not on the number of tanks destroyed, but on the size of territory seized.” (3) Israel’s plan was to not only cripple the Arab armies, but also gain valuable land. The land allowed for defense in depth and could also serve as a bargaining tool for peace treaties when the fighting stopped.

The differences in these supporting objectives help us begin to understand how a nation outnumbered almost three to one was able to achieve a decisive victory so quickly. Arab political leaders never established military objectives for their armies. Egypt’s plan was to wait in the Sinai for Israel to attack and then destroy them with a counterattack. However, even this broad objective was never clearly established. Lieutenant General Anwar alQadi, chief of operations on the Egyptian general staff, testified that their headquarters knew nothing about any planning or strategic objectives. (4) Another Egyptian general stated that even as forces were moving out of Cairo into the Sinai (to unfinished defensive positions) the highest army leaders were asking, “What is our mission?” (5) Even the Egyptian foreign ministry was forced to operate without any briefings or appraisals. (6) This lack of locus plagued all levels of the Arab coalition, as well as provides a great deal of insight into the reasons for their failure.

The Arabs may not have had supporting objectives, but Israel was forced to come up with new ones throughout the war as they quickly achieved the original ones. When the war started, Israel focused on destroying the Arab air force by gaining air superiority and quickly knocking Egypt out of the war, forcing the other Arab states to reconsider attacking. The first objective was achieved in the opening hours of the war. It is estimated that 400 Arab planes were destroyed with minimal losses to Israel. The second objective was essentially achieved by the end of the second day when “Egyptian leaders ordered a wholesale and disorganized retreat of the Sinai.” (7) Once Egypt was no longer a threat, Israel focused on seizing Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. When that objective was achieved, Israel turned its attention to the Golan Heights in Syria. Israel’s ability to establish clear and attainable objectives for its military helped focus their efforts and achieve victory.

Offensive. The offensive principle of war is key for achieving decisive results. (8) Offensive actions are taken to dictate the nature, scope, and tempo of operations. Offensive operations force the enemy to react. (9) The Arab coalition initially demonstrated offensive intentions in the months leading up to June 1967. In May, they moved forces into attack positions along Israel’s border and they closed the Straits of Tiran, isolating Israel from essential supplies. The highest Arab leaders publicly condemned the existence of Israel and talked about the coming day when the Arab world would drive the Jews into the sea. However, the Arab army lost the initiative when Israel attacked first and never stopped attacking. Israel planned to start their offensive “with a surprise attack against Egypt and then fight Syria and Jordan as necessary.” (10) The Israelis pressed the attack for six days; shitting forces around the battlefield to open new fronts, pushing their air force to fly sortie after sortie in support of ground attacks, constantly attacking and seizing ground. This intense pressure created havoc with the Arab’s attack plans and forced them to react to Israel’s every move. The Arab coalition was unable to conduct effective offensive operations once the war began.

Mass. The mass principle is achieved when a unit concentrates effects of combat power at a decisive place and time. (11) This is another principle of war that Israel performed better than the Arabs. Israel’s theater-level battle plans focused on isolating small sections of the Arabs’ large and complex defensive positions and then defeating the fixed enemy in detail. This plan of attack is clearly demonstrated by Arik Sharon’s attack on the Umm Qatef’s defenses. This was a small portion of a much larger defense in the Sinai. Sharon used field artillery and paratroopers to attack from the rear, cutting off reinforcements and isolating the outpost. He then attacked the isolated defense with infantry and armor from different axes. This pattern of attack allowed the Israeli army to bring numerous pieces of combat power to bear on isolated pockets of Arab units.

The Arabs, even with superior numbers, were unable to mass the effects of Israel’s combat power. This is not to say that their soldiers did not fight. The complex defenses on each of the fronts were well defended and exacted a heavy price from Israel’s soldiers. It appeared that Arab military leaders could not focus their efforts. The tempo of war was the biggest factor that prevented them from massing. The Arabs had anticipated a slow, drawn-out slugging match, not the lightning-quick modern war that Israel conducted. There are also examples of the Arabs ignoring the importance of massing forces before the war even started. When setting the defenses along the Jordanian-Israeli border, “nine of eleven brigades were spread out in villages and towns.” (12) This deployment was driven by politics rather than military considerations and cost the Jordanians dearly when Israel focused their attack on the West Bank and Holy City.

Economy of force. The fourth principle, economy of force, is the reciprocal of mass. The principle is achieved when commanders accept prudent risk on one area to achieve superiority in another more decisive area. (13) It appears that economy of force was never a consideration for the Arab coalition. They enjoyed almost a three-to-one ratio over Israel in terms of equipment and manpower. There were three separate armies (Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian) as well as external military support from numerous other Arab countries (Lebanon and Iraq) that combined to make up the larger Arab army.

The Arab’s plan called for supporting attacks in three different places for different objectives, with the different air forces supporting ground attacks. The Arab army’s main effort was with Egypt in the Sinai, but Egypt had the largest army and additional support from other allies was not needed or was unwanted. Israel, on the other hand, was forced to make difficult decisions on the commitment of military units. Israeli leaders decided that the Sinai was the decisive front and committed the majority of their forces (including ammunition) there, leaving the central and northern front practically defenseless. Israel defended the Tel Aviv area with only 50 Sherman tanks and 36 cannons against the entire Jordanian army. General Narkiss told an Israel Defense Force (IDF) review board that “the security of the central sector was based on miracles.” (14)

As the Sinai campaign developed far better than expected, units were shifted from the south to the central and then northern fronts. Israeli leaders were forced to make economy-of-force decisions. They took a tremendous gamble on the northern and central zones, but the gamble paid off when a quick victory in the south allowed military commanders the freedom to redirect units to other fronts as the war developed and the decisive point changed.

Maneuver. The maneuver principle involves placing the enemy at a disadvantage through flexible application of combat power. (15) Maneuver happens at all levels of war and is conducted by the lowest platoon to the highest army. The Arabs demonstrated their ability to conduct maneuver when Egypt remilitarized the Sinai. This action placed Israel in a very difficult position, because Egypt could now dictate the time and place of confrontation while simultaneously limiting Israel’s power of deterrence. (16) This was a brilliant political and military move by the Arabs.

To survive, Israel needed to strike first, regardless of political consequences, and the Arabs were now in an excellent position to counterattack. However, Israel outmaneuvered the Arabs. both politically and strategically, by portraying Egypt as the aggressor. They gained permission (though not open approval) from the UN and U.S. to attack in self-defense. Once the war started, Israel dominated the Arabs consistently, placing them at a disadvantage.

The tremendous success of the air campaign set the conditions for a successful ground campaign and placed the Arab armies at a distinct disadvantage. The ground campaign focused on seizing key locations in the rear areas of defensive positions while avoiding frontal assaults whenever possible. In the Sinai, there are numerous accounts of the Israeli army moving through terrain that the Arabs thought was impassable and attacking and isolating enemy positions. While in the central and northern zones, Israeli forces bypassed fortified areas and seized terrain that allowed them to dominate operations in the area by cutting off reinforcements and fixing the enemy in their initial defensive positions. (17) The Arabs “were ill prepared for Israel’s unconventional approach from the sea and through the sands.” (18) Once the war began, Israel seized the initiative, putting its strengths against the Arabs’ weaknesses and forcing the Arab coalition to deal with numerous unforeseen dilemmas.

Unity of command. The importance of the unity of command principle was clearly demonstrated during the Six-Day War. This principle is achieved when there is one clear commander for every objective. This is important because unity of command allows for unity of effort. (19) The Arabs made some effort to achieve this principle. Jordan and Egypt worked closely together before the war and Jordan allowed an Egyptian commander to lead its army; however, Syria refused to coordinate with Egypt. (20) This lack of coordination would handicap the Arab coalition throughout the war, but Syria was not the only country at fault.

Egypt’s military commander altered the command structure in the Sinai. This new structure essentially created six new levels of military bureaucracy through which orders and reports needed to filter. (21) The new structure was a result of a power struggle between Egypt’s political and military leaders. Israel, on the other hand, had a clearly defined chain of command from top to bottom. This streamlined hierarchy provided Israel with flexibility and speed of execution. The Arab system created mass confusion at all levels in its army (units would receive different and conflicting orders) and between allies (leaders were telling outrageous lies about their achievements for two days).

The lack of unity in the Arab army is not surprising when you look at the individual governments. Each Arab nation was a monarchy or dictatorship. In this form of government, a unified army, run by intelligent and independent people, represents a clear threat to the ruling party’s power. This situation was compounded by a general distrust between the Arab leaders. The Arab army lost its ability to unite long before the war started and the effects on the battlefield were devastating.

Security and surprise. The principles of security and surprise worked hand-in-hand for this war. Security is accomplished when commanders deny the enemy the ability to acquire an unexpected advantage. (22) Surprise is achieved when commanders strike the enemy in a time, place, or manner for which they are unprepared. (23) Both sides initially failed to achieve security. Israel took a tremendous (albeit necessary) risk by leaving the central and northern zones essentially defenseless to focus on the southern zone. The Israelis compensated for this security failure by attacking first and never relinquishing control of the war.

The Arabs sacrificed their security when they failed to acknowledge the threat of an Israeli surprise attack and take actions to protect themselves. This lack of preparation cost the Arabs their air force and the ability to control the war. The planes were left in range of Israel’s air force and parked on open runways, rather than in protective hangers. In fact, there was no effort to even hide the planes; Israel knew the exact location of the enemy air force, down to individual jets. (24) These blatant security failures are incredible, considering that the initial intent of the Arab army was to force Israel to strike first.

When Israel began its air campaign, the Arab air force was completely surprised and most of their planes were destroyed on the ground. Israel also achieved surprise during the ground campaign. Prior to the war, Israel conducted numerous deception operations, which caused confusion in the Arab ranks. When the war started, key Arab leaders and ground commanders were away from their posts, and there are several accounts from all fronts of Israeli armored columns attacking through terrain that the Arabs had considered impassable and therefore ignored. (25) Both sides took dangerous gambles with security, but only Israel took advantage of the situation by maximizing effects of surprise. Israel’s ability to continually surprise the Arab army on all fronts prevented them from taking advantage of Israel’s security shortfalls in the northern and central zones.

Simplicity. The ninth principle, simplicity, is achieved through clear, uncomplicated plans and concise orders that all units can understand. (26) Israel achieved simplicity because of its streamlined command structure and preplanned operations for each front. Even as the war progressed and objectives changed, the Israeli army reacted quickly because of training, good situational awareness, and an understanding of desired objectives at all levels.

The Arab coalition ignored the importance of simplicity from the very beginning. Arab political leaders had difficulty working together and even misled each other on numerous occasions about the military situation. The chain of command was complex and would have caused confusion under the best circumstances–units would receive conflicting orders, higher headquarters was unaware of developing situations, and there was little to no coordination across the different fronts. The apparent lack of clarity on all levels of the Arab army handicapped its ability to adapt to the fluid style of fighting that Israel used and that characterizes 20th-century mounted warfare.

The Outcome

Who won or lost the Six-Day War is a difficult fact to establish. At first glance, Israel appears the clear victor–the Israeli army seized key terrain on all fronts, providing the nation with security; it occupied ancient holy cities that were important to its people; and crashed the conventional armies of its Arab neighbors, establishing Israel as a legitimate power in the region. Israel inflicted a tremendous blow to the Arab world in terms of manpower and military equipment with far less self-damage than it had any right to expect. The victory was so astounding that the IDF ignored many of its shortcomings and credited itself with achievements that were more the result of Arab negligence, lack of coordination, and poor command. (27) Israel fought a good fight and demonstrated a better application of the principles of war than did the Arabs. However, things would have been very different if the Arabs had not overestimated their own strengths and underestimated Israel’s ability to defend itself. The Arabs learned from these mistakes and attempted to make changes. This is clearly seen in the opening phases of the 1973 War where the Arabs gain a quick advantage because Israel underestimated them. (28)

The Middle East Today

The world continues to feel the effects of the Six-Day War. This war legitimized Israel as a nation, but at the same time, spurred the rise of the Palestinian national movement in the form of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). (29) The PLO understood that it could not fight Israel conventionally, so it embarked on an unconventional/insurgent campaign that continues today. (30) The Six-Day War also redefined the Arab’s perception of the western world. Until this war, the Arabs considered the western world to be Europe, particularly Britain.

During the war, there was a tremendous amount of anti-U.S, sentiment, which was caused in part by a lie that Arab leaders spread throughout the region about U.S. aid to Israel; it did however, represent a new understanding of the United States’ growing power in the world). (31) Today, the United States is seen as the “Great Satan,” an exploiter and seducer of Arab life, and is forever linked in Arab minds to the abomination that Israel represents. (32) This perception creates an incredibly challenging political and military situation between the U.S. and the Middle East.

The war between the United States and Iraq and the resulting insurgent attacks have many similarities with the conduct and aftereffects of the Six-Day War. On an operational level, Israel’s attack on Umm Qatef and the United States’ attack on Baghdad, share many of the same characteristics. In both cases, you have a mobile army massing and maneuvering against static defensive positions. The Israelis attacked Egyptians relying on intensely fortified battle positions in the Sinai, and the United States attacked Iraqi Republican Guard units entrenched in an urban environment.

The IDF in 1967 and the U.S. coalition in 2003 countered these defenses by isolating the enemy and then massing effects of combat power from numerous directions. The IDF and U.S. forces used paratroopers to prevent enemy forces from repositioning and then used a combination of armor, infantry, and field artillery to close with and destroy respective enemies. There are also similarities in the Israeli and U.S. air campaign. Both sides established total air superiority early in the war. This air superiority allowed respective air forces to focus efforts on assisting the ground campaign. Total air superiority played a pivotal role in Israel’s success in 1967 and provided a combat multiplier to the U.S. coalition in Iraq in 2003.

There are many tactical lessons that can be learned from Israel’s conduct of the Six-Day War. However, today’s concern is focused on how to fight an unconventional enemy using conventional forces. Israel has fought an unconventional enemy for over 40 years and has learned many hard lessons. One of the more important lessons is using armor in an urban environment. The idea of bringing a tank into a city was taboo in the U.S. Army for years. It is true that a pure tank force in an urban environment faces some severe limitations. However, the Israelis have used armor in urban environments from the beginning of their war with insurgents. The Israelis even created a tank (Merkava) specifically designed for urban fighting.

The U.S. Army needs to learn that the advantages of survivability, shock effect, and firepower that come from using an armored force correctly in an urban environment far outweigh the dangers. Another tactical lesson that we can learn from Israel’s experience with insurgents is the close cooperation between infantry and armor units at the lowest levels.

Urban fighting is the most difficult type of fighting today. It is characterized by quick, violent, and close fights with long periods of intense stress. The urban fight is predominately an infantry fight; however, there are ways to increase the odds of survival for the infantry soldier. The Israelis have proven that infantry soldiers working closely with armor units stand the best chance for battlefield success in an urban environment. The infantry perform near security for the tank, protecting vulnerable areas, and providing greater situational awareness. The tank provides a shield for the infantry as well as increased firepower and shock effect. The U.S. military has demonstrated an understanding of this lesson–it fought with task forces (armor and infantry combinations) during OIF and is currently restructuring unit organizations so that units are arranged in task forces in garrison and on deployments.

The analysis of the Six-Day War using the nine principles of war provides a distorted picture of what happened. If taken at face value, it would appear that Israel clearly won the war. Israel’s actions reflect an understanding of the nine principles of war, which indicates Israel understood and applied these principles and won the Six-Day War. However, this view disregards the Arab coalition’s role in this conflict. The Arab’s inability to successfully apply most of the nine principles of war doomed them to failure. Had they applied one or more of the principles, especially the unity of command, the outcome of this war may have been tremendously different. The Arab coalition’s superior military power and positions should have easily overwhelmed the smaller Israeli army. The true picture of the Six-Day War is not that Israel won, but that the Arab coalition lost.

The similarities on an operational and tactical level between the Six-Day War and Operation Iraqi Freedom are also noteworthy. These similarities reinforce the importance of learning from military history and applying it to present day whenever possible. The U.S. coalition demonstrated that it learned lessons on conducting an urban fight from Israel’s experiences. However, the bigger lesson that the U.S. needs to learn comes from Israel’s 40 years of experience with fighting insurgents. Israel understands that this type of fighting is won by strength of will. (33) Israel had no choice but to learn this lesson–its very existence rests on continually and ceaselessly engaging its enemy.

Iraqi and Arab cultures generally view the western world as weak willed and hedonistic. They do not believe that the United States has the internal fortitude to support an expensive war (in lives and money) in the Middle East. Insurgents understand this and hope to erode public support for the current military occupation by fighting an unconventional war. However, if the United States and its allies are serious about establishing an Arab democracy, they will need to learn from Israel’s example. They will have to demonstrate the will necessary to defeat a long and difficult unconventional fight.


(1) U.S. Army Field Manual (FM) 3-0, Operations, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., June 2001, p. 4-33.

(2) Ibid., p. 4-35.

(3) Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, Presidio Press, 2002, p. 153.

(4) Ibid., p. 58.

(5) Ibid., p. 59.

(6) Ibid.

(7) Oren, p. 214.

(8) FM 3-0, p. 4-38.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Oren, p. 87.

(11) FM 3-0, p. 4-39.

(12) Oren, p. 161.

(13) FM 3-0, p. 4-42.

(14) Oren, p. 183.

(15) FM 3-0, p. 4-43.

(16) Oren, p. 88.

(17) Cham Herzog, The Arab Israeli Wars: War and Peace in the Middle East from the War for Independence to Lebanon, Vintage Books, 1984, p. 171.

(18) Oren, p. 180.

(19) FM 3-0, p. 4-44.

(20) Oren, p. 162.

(21) Ibid., p. 160.

(22) FM 3-0, p. 4-46.

(23) Ibid., p. 4-47.

(24) Oren, p. 171.

(25) Ibid., p. 166.

(26) FM 3-0, p. 4-48.

(27) Herzog, p. 189.

(28) Ibid., p. 190.

(29) Edward W. Said and Christopher Hitchens, Blaming The Victims, Verso, London, 2001, p. 7.

(30) Ibid., p. 102.

(31) Oren, p. 209.

(32) Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, Modern Library, New York, 2003, p. 81.

(33) Ralph Peters, Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War and Peace, Stackpole Books, 2003, p. 51.

Captain Daniel M. Ganci is currently the training/current operations officer, 1st Brigade Combat Team (BCT), 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, KY. He received a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy. His military education includes Armor Captains Career Course, Airborne School, Armor Officer Basic Course, and Infantry Mortar Leaders Course. He has served in various command and staff positions, including S1 and mortar platoon leader, 1st Battalion, 64th Armor, 2d BCT, 3d Infantry Division (31D), Fort Stewart, GA; and M1A1 tank platoon leader, A Company, 1st Battalion, 64th Armor, 2d BCT, 31D, Fort Stewart.

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