With Corporal Daphna in the Golan
As of this writing, the guns have not begun to roar, so I’ll lighten up a bit and tell you about the last time the jet-set was in the Golan Heights, during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Back then, I was employed by the oldest morning newspaper in Greece, the Acropolis. In fact, I was the numero uno correspondent of Acropolis, probably because I was the only Greek journalist who could write in another language.
On the first Sunday of October, I had gone to the Athens Tennis Club for a hit when I was called to the telephone and told to go down to the newspaper. My boss at the time was owner and publisher Nassos Botsis, a tall, elegant 75-year-old lecher who made most rock stars seem celibate by comparison. Botsis was rich but always in debt because of his gambling, and he loved women, nightclubs, and the dissolute life. Needless to say, despite the age difference, we were fast friends. That morning, when I arrived at the paper, the editor handed me a Telex card and asked me if I was ready to fly to Egypt.
The day before, Egyptian troops had thrown pontoon bridges over the Suez Canal and had crossed into the Israeli-occupied Sinai. Simultaneously, Syria had attacked the Golan Heights. Israel was fighting on two fronts, and things looked bad. The Arabs, I figured, had closed their airports, and, in any case, covering a war from the Arab side is a losing proposition. (You’re locked into a basement and allowed out only to be given Arab communiqués announcing victories.) On the other hand, Israel was waiting for all the reservists who were outside Israel proper to fly home. So I told the editor that it would be smarter to fly to Israel instead of Egypt. He agreed. Botsis was against it, but once I told him that Israeli women soldiers were very sexy in their uniforms and that if Israel survived I would set things up with couple of lieutenants and he could fly down and join me, he agreed with alacrity. His last words to me were, “Make sure they’re young and that they wear uniforms.”
I managed to get on an El Al flight that was full of reservists and took an old karate buddy of mine, Jeff Jansz, along as a photographer. Once in Tel Aviv, I contacted my friend Joe Fried, then writing for the New York Times, whom I had met in Vietnam and who had shown me the ropes around Saigon and Da Nang. Joe told me to go to Beit Sokolov, the press center, to establish my credentials and to rent a car. Having done all that, I checked into the Hilton and went to the bar ready for a good night’s fun before the expected bang-bang of the morrow.
That is when I saw the strangest of sights. It was from a Hollywood movie, or better yet, a Hemingway story filmed by Hollywood. There was Alix Chevassus, all suntanned and soigné in a khaki uniform last worn by a Bengal Lancer, or perhaps by Stewart Granger in “King Solomon’s Mines.” His desert boots were Gucci. (For any of you who have never heard of him, Alix was a famous playboy back then. He has since retired and lives quietly in Paris.) Next to Alix stood a man in a Lacoste shirt whose face looked awfully familiar, and next to him was one of my oldest and closest friends, Jean-Claude Sauer, a war photographer for Paris Match (now also retired) who may or may not have committed adultery with the beautiful wife of a South Vietnamese air marshal and vice president. All three were cheerfully celebrating.
After the initial greetings, Jean-Claude introduced me to the man in the tennis shirt, who turned out to be Group Captain Peter Townsend, the Battle of Britain hero and the man whom Princess Margaret fell rather hard for after the war. Townsend was there to report for Paris Match, while Alix had decided to fly down with Jean-Claude after a heavy night of drinking at Regine’s in Paris. Jean-Claude got the call from the magazine in the club and dared Alix to come along. That one of the greatest tank battles in history was taking place never seemed to have entered their minds. I found it odd but agreed to take them with me the next day.
Early the next morning we drove towards the Golan. After Tiberias, the Golan rises forbiddingly. We could hear heavy artillery pounding the junction town of El-Kuneitra. It was the fourth day of the war, and the Israelis were stemming the Syrian tide and beginning to counterattack. Jean-Claude, who had raced at Le Mans, was doing the driving and going much too fast. Ambulances and trucks carrying knocked-out tanks were roaring in the opposite direction, so I warned JC, as only I call him, that most reporters killed in wartime die in car accidents. As we started to climb towards El-Kuneitra, we saw the first destroyed Syrian tanks still smoldering; bodies of supporting infantry were strewn all around. Peter Townsend wanted to get out and inspect the bodies, as he had never seen a dead man before despite having eleven kills of German airplanes. I kept warning JC to slow down and keep going. That is when Alix turned to me and rather arrogantly asked, “Are you afraid?” My answer is not printable in this particular magazine, but then something happened. Boom, boom, we were suddenly caught in heavy artillery fire. We screeched to a halt and ran for cover, but there was none to be had, so we lay flat on the ground trying to look as cool as possible. Alix, however, froze and would not get out of the car. Worse, Jean-Claude had left the engine on and the Syrians (we were told) were firing heat-seeking missiles. “Go and get him,” shouted Jean-Claude to me, “It’s your car.” “F—- you,” was my answer, “you brought him along, he’s your responsibility.” “I better go,” said JC, “If something happens to him, Regine will never let me back in …” or words to that effect.
When the shelling stopped, Sauer, Townsend, and I left Alix behind (He kept repeating, “Je ne veux pas mourir” —“I don’t want to die”—as if in a trance.) and pressed on. The Israelis had taken Kuneitra, and we followed their tanks while they pursued the Syrians. On the way back, we picked up Alix—now wiser to the ways of war and much less arrogant—and reached Tel Aviv in time for me to file a blood and guts story that had the boys back in Athens reaching for their pith helmets.
The following week, Joe Fried, Jean-Claude, Jeff, Townsend, and I switched to the Sinai where we witnessed then unknown Geraldo Rivera describing a firefight that wasn’t exactly taking place. (Plus ça change.) Alix flew back to Paris, embellished our adventures, and he’s been dining out on the story ever since. (Why not?)
On the last day of the war, after Sharon had surrounded the Egyptian Third Army, I found what Botsis wanted all along. Her name was Daphna, and she was only a corporal. After two weeks of dodging shells, a day in the company of jet-setters (far more dangerous), and filing two stories a day, I heard only one thing from Botsis when I returned: “Why didn’t you bring Daphna back with you?”
So, there it is. We were young back then, and we had fun. War was different, at least covering it was. Still, people died, people suffered, and war was as horrible as it always is. When Charles de Gaulle warned a young Jack Kennedy that B-52s would not be able to do anything against Vietnamese nationalism, some American policy-makers, starting with McNamara, laughed out loud. Devastating a country is not the same thing as winning hearts and minds. I am now, needless to say, on the side of our boys, but heaven help the neocons if after the demise of Saddam the you-know-what hits the fan. I will personally lead the fight to have them neutered for the duration.