A Serving Elite
[“The Book I’ve Been Avoiding Writing” (a.k.a. “Three Years of Writing and 40+ Years of Thinking About The Lion’s Gate“) is a mini-series about the writing of my new book, The Lion’s Gate. Thanks for tuning in as it runs Mondays and Fridays over the next few weeks.]
Giora Romm was the Israel Air Force’s first fighter ace. He shot down five Egyptian MiGs in three days during the Six Day War. I have been hearing about Giora from every other pilot Danny and I have talked to. I’m a little nervous, now, meeting him for the first time. But from the minute he opens the door and invites us in, I feel completely at ease.
Giora is my size, my age, my build. Even his manner feels familiar. He could be my brother.
Giora, on the other hand, is uneasy. “So,” he says in excellent, slightly accented English as we settle into his living room in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ganey Yehuda. “What exactly do you want to talk about?”
Giora cites a magazine interview he did just two days earlier. (He is, today, a retired two-star general and director of Israel’s Civil Aviation Authority.) “It was for the military monthly of the IDF. One of those articles where they get old guys to tell: ‘What I Have Learned in Life.'”
“That’s a great place to start,” I say. “What was your answer?”
We begin by talking about Giora’s days in school.
When I was fifteen, I applied for and was accepted into a new military boarding school associated with the Reali School in Haifa. The Reali School was the elite high school in Israel. The military school was a secondary-school version of West Point. We attended classes at Reali in the morning and underwent our military training in the afternoon.
Giora was born in Tel Aviv in 1945, three years before the founding of the nation.
I don’t believe there is an institution in Israel today that can measure up to the standards of that school. Why did I want to go there? I wanted to test myself. At that time in Israel the ideal to which an individual aspired was inclusion as part of a “serving elite.”
The best of the best were not motivated by money or fame. Their aim was to serve the nation, to sacrifice their lives if necessary. At the military boarding school, it was assumed that every graduate would volunteer for a fighting unit, the more elite the better. We studied, we played sports, we trekked. We hiked all over Israel. We were unbelievably strong physically. But what was even more powerful were the principles that the school hammered into our skulls.
First: Complete the mission.
The phrase in Hebrew is Dvekut baMesima.
Mesima is “mission”; dvekut means “glued to.” The mission is everything. At all costs, it must be carried through to completion. I remember running up the Snake Trail at Masada one summer at 110 degrees Fahrenheit with two of my classmates. Each of us would sooner have died than be the first to call, “Hey, slow down!”
Second: Whatever you do, do it to your utmost. The way you tie your shoes. The way you navigate at night. Nothing is academic.
Third: En brera. “No alternative.”
We are Jews; we are surrounded by enemies who seek our destruction and the extermination of our people. There is no alternative to victory.
After an hour or so, we begin talking about the war, specifically the training of the fighter pilots. Giora flew in one of Israel’s three elite squadrons, under Major Ran Ronen, a legend in the air force.
In Squadron 119, Ran led us according to the same principles I had been taught at the military boarding school. Complete the mission. Perform every action to perfection. Follow through at any cost.
I ask Giora to explain what form Dvekut baMesima, “adherence to the mission,” takes in the experience of a fighter pilot. Here is his answer:
In the Six Day War our squadrons, in formations of four, attacked Egyptian air bases. The pattern was bomb, strafe, strafe, strafe. Each four-ship formation would make one bombing run aimed at knocking out the runways, then three strafing passes seeking to destroy enemy planes on the ground.
The system employed by Egyptian triple-A—anti-aircraft artillery—defending these fields was not to aim at the planes as they flew. Instead the gunners erected a “curtain” of anti-aircraft fire, through which you had to fly.
You can see triple-A. It looks like a lid, an angry reddish-gray lid over the runway. Believe me, to see that lid will make your heart beat and your palms sweat. You look down at it and you can’t believe anyone or anything can fly through that and survive.
But you do.
To do anything else is unthinkable.
That is devkut baMesima.