The 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War occurs this year. The war was launched in 1973 in a surprise attack by Syria and Egypt on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. This war posed the most serious threat to the existence of Israel in modern history. Even though Israel was eventually able to achieve a military victory, the country paid a steep price, both in lives lost and in the citizenry’s confidence in their leaders and themselves.
I was a battalion physician during the Yom Kippur War. Like thousands of Israelis, I joined my battalion which had been assigned to supply the armored corps’ General Adan’s (Bren) Division with ammunition, fuel, water and food. These soldiers risked their lives, replenishing tanks with fuel and ammunition under enemy fire. I watched them overcome countless difficulties and perform their mission, despite constant danger, many of them paying the ultimate price. It was a daily struggle for survival, requiring resourcefulness and performance despite the constant presence of fear and anxiety.
In addition to caring for my soldiers’ physical combat wounds, I unexpectedly found out that helping them cope with fear under fire was one of the most acute and difficult problems I faced. Not only did I have to counsel my fellow soldiers, but I had to deal with my own anxiety and fear.
I had faced these issues acutely as an Israeli medical officer during the Yom Kippur War. The war broke out suddenly and unexpectedly, and within hours my reserve supply regiment was thrown into battle open to direct fire and bombardment. The psychological strain was immense. We were not used to being passive and having to absorb the blows inflicted upon us. The realization that this war could have been avoided if we had been mobilized earlier made it even more difficult. Not everything we heard over the radio was true — as we experienced firsthand how desperate our situation was. The survival of the country was in jeopardy.
Soldiers under strain came to me for counseling. Some wanted medication, others wanted to talk and a few could not cope with the pressure. I felt ill-equipped to deal with these problems. As a reserve medical officer, I was never trained to deal with battle stress. Besides, in a “macho” society as Israel was at that time, it was heresy to admit that one is experiencing fear.
My instinct and, indeed, the way I dealt with those soldiers, was to deny them the right to admit fear. I used the model of John Wayne’s response to the Marines in movies I had seen. I told them to be tough and strong and to go back to their duties. It did not work, as I seemed to have failed to help them.
It gradually dawned on me that I actually shared the same feelings as these individuals. I was as frightened as they were. How could I not be? Shells were falling, airplanes were strafing us and missiles were flying in our direction. It is natural to be afraid. This was a new revelation for me to admit that, “Yes, I am afraid as well.”
Actually, fear can be your friend as long as you use it to be cautious and responsible. It also seemed to me that our adversaries were probably as afraid as we were. The outcome of this conflict between two frightened armies would be decided by who was going to perform their job despite fear.
Fear could send you running away, freeze you, or make you charge forward to eliminate the source of the fear.
I started changing my approach when I counseled my soldiers/patients. I shared with them the fact that I was also afraid as they were. “It is OK to be afraid,” I told them. I observed a relief in their faces when I admitted my own fear. I told them that they were not less manly by admitting fear. Then I explained the choices they had with how to cope with their fear and left it to them to decide how to deal with this. Most of the time a short talk was enough to relieve their burden and almost all felt able to go back to their duties. A few needed some anti-anxiety medication and a handful had to be evacuated.
I found out that not only was I able to help others by legitimizing their fear, but I was able to help myself each time I counseled a soldier. I found the method of coping with a soldiers’ fear the hard way, out of necessity. I hope that this approach can help other medical officers cope with their own and their patient/soldier anxiety and fear on the battlefield.
This war almost brought about the destruction of Israel, but for the bravery of those young and old soldiers who fought side by side. They compensated for the lack of manpower, equipment and supply with improvisation, resourcefulness, courage and determination. These ordinary people became unwilling heroes who saved Israel. This war articulated my personal definition of courage: the performance of one’s duty despite one’s fear. PJC
Dr. Itzhak Brook, MD, is a graduate of the Hebrew University School of Medicine (1968). He is a professor of pediatrics at Georgetown University and the author of the book “In the Sands of Sinai – A Physician’s Account of the Yom Kippur War.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This piece first appeared in the Washington Jewish Week.