And I dreamed I saw the bombers
Riding shotgun in the sky,
And they were turning into butterflies
Above our nation.
Thus sang Joni Mitchell in “Woodstock,” a song of haunting beauty that she wrote in 1969 at the height of Vietnam War protest. Like all peaceniks, she assumes that “our nation” (technically, she was Canadian) is responsible for the hostilities, and if its bombers would just turn into butterflies, peace would reign.
In many places in Israel — a small, cramped country — you can hear the bombers in the sky on training flights. It most piques your interest when you hear them at night. Usually they’re just practicing night flying, but it could mean there’s been—or is going to be—an incident somewhere.
Or — in rare cases — you might hear just one bomber in the sky very late at night, in the wee hours. It can be scary: what if it’s not one of ours? Or, assuming that it is — why now, when they know it’s going to wake up and annoy (and scare) thousands of people?
Sometimes — after a bombing incident in, say, Syria or Lebanon — you’ll read a thousand speculations in the media on whether Israel was behind it, while Israeli officials remain tight-lipped and ambiguous. It may be, though, that everyone in a certain area of Israel actually knows pretty much what happened — because they heard the bombers take off from the airbase at a certain time and can see from the reports that the incident occurred shortly afterward.
There is probably no one in Israel, no matter how far to the left, who really wishes in his or her heart that the bombers weren’t there or would turn into harmless, fluttery entities.
No exaggeration: the Israeli air force = survival.
On May 14, 1948, Israel declared independence. Its War of Independence began that same night as Egyptian, Syria, Jordanian, and Iraqi forces started moving toward its territory. The new prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, gave Israel a 50-50 chance of surviving the war.
At that time the Israeli air force was a ragtag assemblage, almost all the airmen foreign volunteers. But it succeeded in holding off early Egyptian ground and air advances, and ended up playing a key role in Israel’s victory and survival.
The next threat to survival came in May and June 1967 as Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, and eventually also Jordanian forces massed for what they were sure would be a final, decisive attack on the young Jewish state. Among many other such statements by Arab leaders at the time, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser said, “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel.”
The Six Day War opened on the morning of June 5 with a preemptive attack by the Israeli air force that destroyed the Egyptian air force. Later in the morning Israeli planes — fortunately not butterflies — took out the Jordanian and Syrian air forces as well. The path was cleared to a lightning Israeli victory over Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq.
The 1973 Yom Kippur War was the only one where it appeared for a while that Israel could lose and sink into oblivion. This time, on the morning of October 6 (it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year), the Israeli leadership decided not to use the air force in a preemptive raid on Egyptian and Syrian forces — for fear of jeopardizing U.S. support.
The result was that the war went much worse than the 1967 war. Although Israel eventually turned the tide and won, it lost about 2700 soldiers — compared to about 700 in 1967 when it had taken the initiative and ordered a quick air strike.
The Israeli air force’s legendary exploits since then include the 1976 Entebbe raid and the 1981 Osirak raid on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, which delivered Israel from a threat of nuclear annihilation.
Last November, after Gaza terror groups had resumed firing hundreds of rockets at Israel, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense. It lasted eight days and — so far — has almost put a stop to the rocket fire. It was fought primarily from the air. The Israeli air force is by now, of course, super-sophisticated, at the cutting edge of drone technology among much else.
At present, Iran — whose various religious and political leaders have often threatened to wipe Israel off the map — is moving full-speed ahead toward nuclear weapons. Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has vowed that they’re not going to reach that point.
We hear the bombers up there riding shotgun in the sky.
Maybe, but it didn’t seem to spread and lead to world peace. In those days I even had a flirtation with that point of view — if we would just shout loud enough against the Pentagon, against Nixon, if we’d sing and dance about it…
From there it was a long journey to the people that dwells alone, for whom the bombers are background noise. The Woodstockers didn’t know that in this world nothing of any real value — like a restored homeland — comes easy. That you may have to guard it 24/7 and make sacrifices — not for peace, but to survive at all.
Israel dwells alone in having almost no margin to indulge dreams and fantasies. Yes, it too has indulged some —and always paid quickly for it. Meanwhile we hear the din and chatter out there about peace and solutions — not far removed, in its grasp of reality, from the Woodstockers.
“The Zionist regime is a wound that…needs to be removed.” We hear that kind of noise, too. It makes the nighttime training flights sound good to us.