In 1973 Israel faced the last real concentrated invasion by the armies of the Arab world. An attacking force spearheaded by Syrian and Egyptian tanks invaded on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. On "The Day of Atonement" the majority of Jewish people spend the day fasting and in Synagogue.
If there was one day of the year where the Arab armies had a chance of taking the Israeli forces by surprise and perhaps ending the war before it could even get started, this was it. What made it even more of a shock to the Israelis was that the Arabs chose to attack during Ramadan, the holiest days on the Muslim calendar. Devout Muslims will fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, then break their fast with a feast in honour of Allah.
In the first two days of the war it looked like the Arab armies might succeed, but after sustaining significant losses of tanks and men, the Israelis regrouped and by the end of the fifth day were able to start pushing the attacking forces back. In Adjusting Sights Haim Sabato plunges us directly into the middle of those opening days of confusion as seen through the eyes of a gunner and the gun sights of a tank.
Adjusting Sights is the author's recounting of his own experiences as a tank gunner in an Israeli armoured division during that period, so this is no fictional recreation of events. Instead the author writes with unflinching honesty about the confusion, chaos, fear, and fatigue he felt during the initial onslaught.
He and his closest friend, Dov, had been together since the early years of school, studied for their Bar Mitzvahs together, so it was only natural that when it came time to do their National Service in the army that they should serve and train together. On manoeuvres and throughout basic training they had been loader and gunner together in a tank.
Naturally, they assumed, when the call-up came for the war they would be assigned to the same tank, but it was not to be. When they arrived at the depot it was total chaos. They were standing with the rest of their crew when an officer came up and asked "who's a loader"? When Dov stepped forward the officer said, "Come with me, so and so needs a loader now". And Dov was gone to another tank, to another gunner; Dov was gone period.
Shortly after leaving the camp they headed out towards where they have been told the enemy might be. But that's impossible — how can they be so close already? — was everybody's thought, including the author. The ambush they drove into almost killed them all. Haim and the rest of his crew had to abandon their tank and try to walk back to camp through the middle of a pitched battle.
Between the four of them they had two Uzi submachine guns and one grenade, so when the helicopter full of Syrian commandos landed almost on top of them they were sure they were done for. Then out of nowhere an Israeli troop carrier pulls up and out pours a brigade of soldiers who open fire and take down the Syrians.
Things like that happen throughout the author's whole ordeal – the timing of events is such that the engine of his tank starts just in time to retreat before a shell hits. And at one point, walking back to the camp, they hid in a culvert for a few moments and then continued on. Another tank squad did the same thing a little later and a Syrian troop passing by tossed some grenades in and killed all but one, the one who told that story to Haim.
Adjusting Sights is not about patriots; it's not about glory; it is about survival. It's about individual soldiers trying to endure each moment they are under fire when they don't know where the enemy tanks are. How do you fire back when you can't see who's firing at you?
Only occasionally do they say to each other anything that sounds remotely patriotic, and it stems more from desperation than anything else. "We can't lose, because if we lose Israel loses" – that's not a speech guaranteed to make the blood boil with patriotic fervour. But it's what they felt as they fought to live so their country could live.
I've read a fair number of stories and a fair number of histories about various wars and battles, and this book has to have the most genuine feel to it of any when it comes to recounting the fighting. The confusion, the panic, the moments of frustration, and the relief when it's over are all communicated without any embellishment.
Nobody cheers when they blow up another tank, or when the enemy retreats. They just are grateful to survive. Another day they survive is another day that their country survives. But something about Sabato's matter-of-fact approach manages to convey the state of shock that most of the men are in. When he describes them watching two comrades rolling on the ground to put out the flames threatening to engulf them in the same manner as he describes trudging through the sand, it's not hard to understand their state of mind.
Haim Sabato is a man who takes his faith seriously, and therefore faith plays a large part in this book. But it's not the way that I'm accustomed to seeing religion or faith employed during a book about war. There is no group prayer where they gather to hear someone tell them that God is on their side and that should go out and kill in his name.
Instead, for the men who serve in the tanks their faith and their rituals are their tie to normality. Getting up every morning to recite the morning prayer, wrapping onto their forehead, arms and fingers the Tefillin (prayer boxes worn by orthodox Jewish men for the morning prayers signifying the covenant between them and God), and facing the east to greet the day are something you do all the time, not just during a war.
After the fighting has ended Haim and his troops are stationed on the Golan Heights and they keep the Sabbath ritual every week. It becomes almost even more important here than it would be at home. Their faith is as much a part of their lives as breathing for some of them, so maintaining the practices and rituals makes them feel alive.
After the author was finished running to escape the ambush where his tank had been immobilized, he and his fellow crewmembers were finally able to rest for a moment. As he was sitting there he remembered that he had been taught that no man may make a vow in the hopes of expecting assistance from heaven – except in moments of extreme distress.
He sits and wonders what it is he would vow and the only thing he is sure of is that the world will never be the same again. At the end of the book on the Golan Heights he remembers that vow, that the world will never be the same again. He thinks about how he lived and his friend Dov didn't, or how that one crewmember lived while the rest of his crew died from the grenade blast in the culvert.
That is a debt that needs to be repaid, but how do you change the world? You aim higher than you've aimed before; just as a gunner in a tank adjusts his sights to allow for the change in trajectory, so must we all adjust our sights and set higher goals if we want to change the world.
It is often said that soldiers are the ones who most opposed to war. They know on occasion that it becomes necessary to defend your homeland from invasion, but there should be no other reason for it. Haim Sabato is that type of soldier. Adjusting Sights is a book about war which tells us we need to adjust our sights away from fighting and lift them up to a more worthy goal.
Who holds in His hand the souls of all that live
And the spirit of each mortal man
The soul is Yours and the body is Your handiwork
Spare the work of Your hands
Lord of all souls, the soul is Yours
But the body is also Your handiwork
For this it was made, to sanctify Your name in this world
Master of all worlds, spare the work of Your hands.
–Hebrew Prayer of Penitence